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San Diego Writer Reflects On A (Sometimes Morbid) Childhood Abroad

The book cover for "When We Were Ghouls" by Amy Wallen.
University of Nebraska Press
The book cover for "When We Were Ghouls" by Amy Wallen.
San Diego Writer Reflects On A (Sometimes Morbid) Childhood Abroad
San Diego Writer Reflects On A (Sometimes Morbid) Childhood Abroad GUEST: Amy Wallen, author, "When We Were Ghouls"

>>> This is KPBS Midday Edition I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Have you ever compared childhood memories with memories of your family? You often hear so many conflicting stories about places and events and you begin to doubt the truth of your own recollections. The uncertainty of memory is the central theme of a new memoir by San Diego author and creative writing teacher Amy Wallin. And her family is rather unlikely globe trotting put in element of mystery into what really happened and why. Joining me is Amy Wallin author of when we were ghouls. A memoir of ghost stories. Welcome to the program, Amy. Tell us the story that launched this whole project for you. Your memory of your family at a graveyard in Peru. >> It was a childhood memory that my family used to talk about in that we have not talked about it for many years. I wanted to write the story because I'm a creative writer. As I started exploring, I realized there were a lot of elements I did not understand or remember well. For instance, how do we get to the site of where the grave was. That was puzzling to me. So I picked up the phone to call my parents and asked them to recollections or to fill in some of the blanks is what I thought I was trying to do. I thought it was going to be blanks but turned out to be other stories. >>> What brought your family to Peru? >> My father worked for an oil company. We went before the drilling began so he was already in Explorer to begin with. >>> It was not just Peru you went to? >> We went to Nigeria first. And then we went to Peru. And then Bolivia. >> When you began to fact check your memory, what did you learn? What kinds of things did you learn? >> The first thing I learned was the place that we were going to do the grave digging, we spent one day was the world's largest necropolis. That was surprising. I thought it was a weekend jaunt out to this picnic area. The more research that was something I found out online by researching where we were and calling my parents and asking the name of the place we gone. And then I also found out that the main part of the memory for me was actually my memory was wrong. I thought my brother was there. he wasn't even in the country at the time. That's what threw me into this tether about what really had happened. Because I did not know. My memory was false. >>> As you are examining your memories, and your whole vision of your childhood slightly morphs, what is it that you discovered in that? >> One was a combination of how people filter their own memories. It was sort of this overlaying of my mother's, my father's, and my memories. I wanted to find the truth. Again I was digging my own grave and trying to find the truth and that -- in that and what was the truth laying within those stories. >>> In your travels you relate your family to the old TV show the Beverly hillbillies. How does that work? >> We were definitely very blue-collar. Before we went overseas we lived in a dumpy house. We were eating beans and cornbread. We were not well off. And then we went to living overseas in a completely demographics of where we had very luxurious house and servants and living a completely different lifestyle. But we were still basically blue-collar. My parents are from Texas. I never lived in Texas. They were from Texas. We were rural people. Someone unsophisticated and thrown into this world of fancy parties and lots of jewelry. >>> The title when we were ghouls comes from something your mother told you. In the present day she says you were quote hideous people. Have you come to think of your family as grave robbers because of the things you did in these foreign countries that sort of transgress the roles of the culture that you were in? >> My parents were big adventures. My mom was very much into whatever culture we were in. She did not hang out with the Americans. She hung out with the locals. The part in the present day in the part of the book where she calls the schools, she is denying we were digging up the gray. Her memory as we did not dig up anybody. But then she comes to remember that. They were definitely, everywhere we lived, we went on little weekend excursions of some sort. Even up until they've only recently quit going on weekend drive so to speak and exploring. Whether it might be that they find a local band that is fun. They like to go out and dig up things. My father jokes about his digging up, he was always bringing rocks home to put in the garden from places he found these rocks. He's a geologist. Perhaps with a element comes from. >>> I am not referring to the time that you actually dug up a grave, but I am wondering in your excursions in different countries, do you have any artifacts that you brought back that you have kept through your life? >> We do. That was the hideous part for me when my mom called this hideous people. I am taking that to the next level of we do have artifacts or my parents did in their homes that they brought back that they had dug up. Not only from that pre-Inca grave but just other things that they explored along the way. Some are souvenirs, some are probably not quite a little more than souvenirs. That is where I was trying to explore worry just total looters or worry just sort of people walking across and stumbling along and finding things that were not really ours but we took home a souvenirs. >>> So much of this book when we were goals is narrated by your younger self. How did you try and hone that particular storytelling voice? >> I've been writing those elements when I first started becoming a writer. When I was seriously riding. I was writing in a little girl voice most of all. But I wanted to bring in elements of the adult voice. I think the girl voice was the tourist to begin with. It was in element that I discovered as I was writing it because the search is the little girl trying to get to her mother. I really want to get my mother's attention. I'm very afraid she is going to leave. Part of the story is she almost dies of malaria, leads me to Nigeria by myself, there is a long time without her. I definitely wanted to hone that and keep that little voice going. That was probably the truest element. >>> And did you learn you could or could not trust your memory? >> I could not. I knew in the stories everyone has a different perspective. I think this experience the present day of the books were I'm calling home and confirming aspects with my parents, that is when I was very clear with the fact that we all have very different memories. I had read about how memory does become more about you each time you remember it. It is a creative act. That was something estimated to me as a creative writer that memory is just rewriting itself because that is what we do anyway. I wanted to explore that even more. >>> I have been speaking with Amy Wolin the author of when we were ghouls a memoir of ghost stories. Amy, thank you so much. >> Thank you, Maureen.

San Diego writer Amy Wallen clearly remembered a trip her family had taken to a pre-Inca graveyard in Peru when she was eight. She and her older brother were playing among miles of sand dunes when he found a human skull. Soon after, her parents unearthed a gravesite with an intact body.

Wallen’s father was a geologist working for oil companies in the 1970s, and his work took them to Nigeria, Peru and Bolivia. But in trying to fill in the gaps of her memories by talking with her parents recently, she realized that much of what she recalled was wrong. Her brother was in another country at the time. Her mother does not remember a body at all. Wallen, who teaches creative writing at UC San Diego Extension, was hesitant to probe further.

“I am afraid of what I will find out, but I am caught in this tug-of-war: the family story and what now looks like a crime,” she wrote in her new memoir, “When We Were Ghouls.”

Wallen’s eventual research led her to re-examine her childhood abroad. She joins KPBS Midday Edition on Tuesday with more on the uncertainty of memory.