The first time I met Michele Carlo was at the Moth. We were in line at the Bitter End; I'd seen her perform and introduced myself as a newbie. "Storytellers are the best group of people," she told me. "Come out with us after the show." At that point, Michele had been telling stories in New York for more than a decade. She'd been a performer since college, where she was in with the Lower East Side's hip, arty crowd. She'd created a burlesque show around a character named Carmen Mofongo who would (in a very put-on Hispanic accent) say things like, "dis iss de kind of spanking dat people write sonnets about." I knew none of this at the time she invited me along, but recognized her kindness immediately. That gesture still speaks volumes about who Michele is and what she does onstage. She is fearless, willing to share all and try anything. Now she's brought all that to life in print with her new memoir, Fish Out of Agua: My Life on Neither Side of the (Subway) Tracks.
A native New Yorker, Michele's stories color a past long gone. Beginning with her parents' courtship, she zips through everything from playground bullies to dangerous years at Lehman High to pioneering the hinterlands of Brooklyn. Beyond the history however, Michele's personal journey is compelling. As a red-headed Puerto Rican growing up in the Bronx, she took a lot of crap, in and out of the house. To be the outcast in her family--full of the secrets and lies worthy of a novel--was quite a feat. And yet, throughout the book, as well as when I caught up with her recently, one thing stands out -- she never loses her sense of humor about it all.
Carlo began writing as the world she'd created as an adult fell apart--her marriage had fallen crumbled, her cats died and her work felt at a standstill.
"You can call it God or dog or El Senor, but the thought kept coming to me--if you want your life to change, you have to change your life," she said. Though it was a mantra she had to repeat for a while before she could act on it. First she enrolled in a writing class, then she quit smoking, and she was on her way. "We sold the book Ash Wednesday in 2009, and then I promptly quit drinking for the entire Lent. The great give back."
The book never comes across as therapy, but there's clearly a catharsis that comes from growing beyond her family. Her mother's mental illness in particular, an illness that forced her and her brother to live with their grandparents for a year. During that year she discovered her step-grandfather's incestuous ways, as well as the escape that art could provide, a place she drew into existence called Kittenworld. The family was eventually reunited, but her mother's absences continued. Physically she was present, but she often spent hours, if not days, shouting out the window, biblical verses, curses, what have you. Eventually Michele turned to drugs and delinquency. That she made it out alive and thrived is powerful; many of her friends and family members did not.
"I've laid the pits bare where the monsters were in my family...I grabbed that monster by the throat and I told it I'm not feeding it anymore," she says. "I was fully prepared to have them never talk to me again...but they're behind me 100 percent."
Check out the book trailer for Michele Carlo's Fish Out of Agua.
Or catch her tomorrow at 2pm at the Newark Public Library where she's doing a panel as part of Hispanic Heritage Month. Or see her website for upcoming shows and readings.