Monday, December 11, 2017

Interview of Ivelisse Rodriguez

Ivelisse Rodriguez

Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Ivelisse Rodriguez grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She earned a B.A. in English from Columbia University, an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College, and a Ph.D. in English-creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Her short story collection, Love War Stories, is forthcoming from The Feminist Press in summer 2018. Her fiction chapbook The Belindas was published in 2017. She has also published fiction in All about Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color, Obsidian, Label Me Latina/o, Kweli, the Boston Review, the Bilingual Review, Aster(ix), and other publications. She is the founder and editor of an interview series, published in Centro Voices, the e-magazine of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, focused on contemporary Puerto Rican writers in order to highlight the current status and the continuity of a Puerto Rican literary tradition from the continental US that spans over a century. She was a senior fiction editor at Kweli and is a Kimbilio fellow and a VONA/Voices alum. She is currently working on the novel ‘The Last Salsa Singer’ about 70s era salsa musicians in Puerto Rico.

1.    When did you start publishing? What impact did seeing your first publications have on you?

My first short story, “Summer of Nene,” was published in 2005 by Junot Diaz in the Boston Review. First, it was awesome that Junot Diaz, whose short story collection Drown I love, saw the potential in the story. That level of support from any writer whose work you admire becomes this tangible thing that you can always reach for and hold onto when you are in the throes of your writerly angst.

A handful of people may read what you wrote, but being able to hold your work in your hands, the externalization of it, it’s like it now exists independently and has a life apart from you. In short, publication makes your work feel real, so real that it now has a material form.

Publication is really the moment you have been waiting for—it is memorable; exciting; and life-altering, even in a small way, like so many other “firsts” that we wait for in life. You are no longer the person you were before this event in the sense that it is like a first kiss, a first love, etc. A small shift has occurred, and you may be the only one who feels it.  

2.    How have you matured as a writer?

Love War Stories, my forthcoming short story collection, was started twenty years ago, and writing that book really taught me to be a better writer and to have a greater respect for craft.

Impatient is the best way to describe my former writing practice. I declared stories complete when they were far from it because I thought the race was in racking up publications. It’s hard to disabuse yourself of this notion because so much of one’s starting and furthering a career depends upon that. You have to wrestle with this until knowing creating the best work that you can is your true objective. I can see the difference now in working on my novel. I am much more invested in the process, and while I would like to be done sometime this decade, I want to write the best novel I can more so than beating some hypothetical timeline.

Learning the trajectory of my writing process has guided me out of some demoralizing writing moments. Now I understand that I write several terrible drafts that are more exposition than story. Or that after those moments where I am convinced this story is just not going to come together, I usually have an essential epiphany shortly thereafter. Being able to call upon my understanding of my writing process allows me to rouse myself and keep going.

3.    What do you think your role is as a promoter of culture? Do you think that there is such a responsibility?

In the debate about whether or not someone should be labeled a Latinx writer, I think the moniker is important (though that should not be one’s only label) because the world needs evidence that Latinx writers exist. I was thirteen when I first read a text by a Puerto Rican—Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas—and I had always been an avid reader. The significance of seeing yourself in the world cannot be underestimated. Reading Thomas for the first time was a pivotal moment—someone was telling my story for once. And so without texts or writers who do not act as cultural ambassadors, then thirteen-year-old bookworms could read 100s of books and never see themselves.

I’m invested in adding new narratives to the oeuvre of Puerto Rican literature. Much of the literature focuses on migration, language issues, displacement and social unease, nostalgia for the lost homeland, but the post-migration generations are my focus. So part of my cultural responsibility is to further the literature.

That also entails being a champion for Puerto Rican literature. I am the founder and editor of an interview series with contemporary Puerto Rican writers, published by Centro Voices, the e-magazine for the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. There are texts from Puerto Ricans in the continental US that span over 100 years, and I am worried that it’s a history that can easily be forgotten. But this history is important as it chronicles the early life of Puerto Ricans in the US, and it is also a foundation for other Latinx literature by the mere fact that it existed. So I interview an author a month, and it has been great to see how these contemporary writers are in conversation with past Puerto Rican writers, while simultaneously forging ahead with new threads and new themes.

The Belindas, 2017

4.    What project are you working on now?

My current project, the novel ‘The Last Salsa Singer’, focuses on the world of salsa—music created in the dance halls of New York City by young Puerto Ricans. To save his greatest friend, Vicente, the salsa singer, splits his upcoming concert—one song to rescue Richie; one song to catapult Vicente. Counseled for years by Vicente and the band about his “in-between” relationship with Lucy, Richie, the saxophone player, is about to bind his life to Lucy’s, who is pregnant by someone else. As a joke, the orquesta members make the Palomita song deriding Richie’s love story with Lucy; as a last resort, they decide to perform it. The Palomita song swallows “La verdad” at the concert—Vicente’s legacy-making song, or so he had hoped. And by the time the Palomita song, which becomes their greatest hit, is done, everything Vicente has every wanted is consumed, leading to his suicide. For the next thirty years, Richie will be tied to Vicente, hoisting Vicente’s legacy, along with his own guilt for having brought Lucy into their lives. ‘The Last Salsa Singer’ is about different forms of love: friendship over romance and the love of one’s art.

5.    What advice do you have for other beginning writers?

After working (inconsistently) for twenty years, I finally finished my manuscript and am getting it published. But I can’t give you the answer that you just have to stick it out and it will happen to you. I think, all things being equal, some people are just luckier. Some people will have those urban legend stories where they publish a story and an agent comes calling, and then they get a book deal. Those stories are possible, but I think that you have to figure out what kind of luck you have to keep from going crazy. For some people, it will feel like you are climbing a mountain on your knees, and other people are just breezing up the mountain.   

As a writer, you are entering a career where all your work may be for naught which is a bewildering truth. Writing or any other artistic endeavor are realms full of chance. And many times you may wonder if you should keep going, and the only way that I could answer this for myself was that I didn’t know what else I would do with my life. What would I do with all those empty hours?

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