Please welcome Ivelisse Rodriguez to the Ball this week! Ivelisse’s debut short story collection, Love War Stories, came out this July to much acclaim, and was named one of the most anticipated books of 2018 by Cosmopolitan, The Root, and Bitch Media. Bustle called it an “exceptional debut” and as soon as I read the description of the book (and saw it was published by Feminist Press, one of my favorite small presses!), I was completely intrigued:
Puerto Rican girls are raised to want one thing: true love. Yet they are brought up by women whose lives are marked by grief and betrayal. While some believe they’ll be the ones to finally make it work, others swear not to repeat cycles of violence. This collection documents how these “love wars” break out across generations as individuals find themselves caught in the crosshairs of romance, expectations, and community.
Stephanie Jimenez (SJ): LOVE WAR STORIES is a collection of stories, and I always hear people talk about whether short stories or novels are easier to write, and the merits of debuting with one or the other. For now, let’s focus on the particular joys of the short story. What do you think short stories achieve that novels cannot?
Ivelisse Rodriguez (IR): I am working on a novel now, so I am still feeling my way through the differences. This may seem odd, but short stories sound different. They seem to have their own music. I am reading a short story collection right now that was dressed up and called a novel (IT IS NOT A NOVEL!). And even in reading the “chapters,” they have a short story sound. So this is one thing short stories achieve—their own voice.
From a writer’s perspective, these are the things that a short story collection can achieve (I guess I don’t think of short stories in isolation, but always as part of a collection): it allows the writer to engage in multiple world-building, to bring together dissonant voices that don’t belong in the same world, and to experiment with different characters that again don’t belong together. There is more latitude in terms of what you can create in a collection.
Also, as a writer, you have a continual sense of completion when you write stories, even though you have to write several, several stories to finish a collection. This constant completion is a motivator—you know that you have done it once, so you can do this again. You also get to learn a lot about your process by writing short stories because you are always going through the process—beginning, middle, and struggling to the end.
SJ: Many authors have MFAs, and you have both an MFA and PhD. I’m curious about your scholarship and how the process of attaining your PhD contributed to your creative writing. Would you recommend aspiring authors to look into a doctoral program?
IR: My doctoral program allowed me to strengthen my writing as my PhD is in English and creative writing. So I got to take more writing workshops, and I wrote a creative dissertation. Studying for my preliminary exams allowed me to become an expert in certain areas of literature, like Latinx literature and Puerto Rican literature. Another area of expertise that I gained by studying for my preliminary exams is on blackness and how it has come to be constructed in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the US, and Brazil. I chose this topic because of a novel I had been mulling over in my head.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend a PhD program to anyone who does not want to be a professor. If an MFAer does want more job opportunities or wants to be better informed in literature, then I would highly recommend a PhD. I found it enormously helpful, but it definitely is not for everyone. The job market is over-saturated with PhDs, and there are not enough jobs. So you have to do a PhD knowing that you may never get a tenure-track job. So it is a degree with no guarantees.
SJ: You were formerly an editor at Kweli, a fantastic journal dedicated to work by writers of color. How do you know when you want to publish a story? What speaks to you?
IR: I am still very connected to Kweli. I have watched it grow over the years, and the founding editor, Laura Pegram, pulls off some amazing things through sheer will. It is quite amazing to see. Something that is unique about Kweli is that I could say yes to a story even if it wasn’t quite ready, and Laura would work with the writer to get the story ready for publication.
Someone (an editor) somewhere a long time ago, said that he could tell if he liked a story for publication within the first paragraph. And when I heard that, I thought that seemed a bit too quick to make a decision. But when I started reading for Kweli and for writing contests, I found that to be true. Someone’s skill, the voice of the story, and even the character’s pizazz can be to discerned in a paragraph. What speaks to me are beautiful words and lines, a strong and compelling character voice, and a story that offers a unique angle. That is the rational explanation, but before that explanation comes, I get a feeling in my chest. It’s excitement, it’s joy that I am reading something that I am going to gladly follow through to the end.
SJ: I read a recent interview in which you discussed the Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos and how she, like many of the Puerto Rican women and girls that you write about, is “hopeful to a detriment about love.” It made me think of Frida’s diary, which is replete with numerous pages despairing about her relationship with Diego Rivera. Both de Burgos and Frida were extraordinary artists, yet their prioritization of romantic love feels so familiar, and in my own debut novel, my teenage, Latina protagonist is lovesick to a fault. I want to ask what a new narrative of romantic heterosexual love might look like, and if you think it’s up to us, as Latina writers writing Latina characters, to try to create them.
IR: Absolutely! One of the objectives of my writing is to offer something new. I think literary fiction in particular should offer distinct approaches to whatever problem the writer is wrestling with. I think in our fiction we need to explore other possibilities. When I read literary fiction, I am hoping to find some unique musing about life, some new idea to mull over, or confirmation of my deepest feelings. So, I think to offer something of value, a writer should strive to achieve the above.
A new narrative of heterosexual romantic love would have to start with the re-socialization of heterosexual men and women. Current socialization of both groups is predicated on heterosexual men pulling away from women, holding them at a distance, and taking their love for granted, while heterosexual women dream about men, stake their whole lives on them, stake their whole lives on people who have been socialized in radically different ways. So, I think the socialization of heterosexual women and men should follow a more parallel trajectory; one where the aim is for them to come together. Or we could also socialize people in general that their lives are not predicated on finding love from someone else. That, you know, perhaps, Aristophanes was wrong, and we are not separated selves, but whole selves.
SJ: Let’s end with a fun question. You were born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. What is one of your fondest memories of Arecibo? Alternatively, what do you love most about that particular place?
IR: I was born Puerto Rico, but I lived there until I was two. So my memories are from going back to visit my paternal grandparents or doing road trips with my mom. I remember watching my grandfather who is blind hauling bricks up to the second level of the house he was building. I remember stuffing my face with sugar donuts, pastelillos, and pan de agua (yum, yum, yum). I remember my great-aunt telling me I looked like my mother but that I was more ordinary looking, which was amusing and confirmed for me that there is some special form of Puerto Rican family dissing. I remember when my maternal grandmother who was dying from cancer made coconut limbers for me and my mother, which entailed her grinding the coconut–not easy work for someone who was weak from cancer. I remember doing two trails in El Yunque on the same day, and then my body hurting in places I didn’t know could hurt. And I remember going to La Parguera, the bioluminescent bay in the south, with my mother and her thinking there was a UFO in the sky (as partially relayed in my story “The Light in the Sky”).
I don’t just love Arecibo, I love Puerto Rico. And I don’t think it is in a biased way. But it is a place that feels like home, and not just because it is. I mean it is a place that I would recommend people go to because that tiny island contains so much. Puerto Rico is a great place, and as Pedro Pietri wrote, “PUERTO RICO IS A BEAUTIFUL PLACE / PUERTORRIQUENOS ARE A BEAUTIFUL RACE.”
GIVEAWAY TIME! Follow The Debutante Ball on Facebook and Twitter and SHARE the interview for a chance to win LOVE WAR STORIES! For extra entries, comment on this post by Friday, October 20th. We’ll choose and contact the winner shortly afterwards.
This week, @IvelisseWrites talks about Latinx literature & writing new models of love. Follow us + RT for a chance to win LOVE WAR STORIES – the story collection that Bustle called an "exceptional debut"! https://t.co/2MEWPld0En
— The Debutante Ball (@DebutanteBall) October 13, 2018
About Ivelisse Rodriguez:
Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Ivelisse earned a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago and an MFA from Emerson College. She has been published in the Boston Review, Kweli, Obsidian, Aster(ix), and others. She currently resides in Greensboro, NC. To learn more about her and her work, follow her on Twitter (@IvelisseWrites).