Living on Multiple Layers
A Conversation with Josh Denslow
by Meghan Phillipps
I am in awe of the impact Ivelisse Rodriguez’s short-story collection Love War Stories had on me as a reader. Ivelisse got me laughing and crying and spitting mad. She also had me wanting to study her text for clues, connections, and themes like it was a university seminar. The writer in me kept asking, how? How did she achieve this difficult balance of satisfying me emotionally while still energizing me intellectually? The closest answer I have is that her work operates well on so many different levels—from structure to plot to character to sentence. Her writing style is multi-layered, a style which permits a certain duality—a holding of opposing ideas together in the same space—that feels real and true. When I met Ivelisse at a Sunday Salon reading in New York City recently, it was no surprise that she is an energizing person; she exudes positivity, humor, warmth, and confidence. She also has some bad-ass floral fishnet stockings.
Maureen Langloss: Love War Stories strikes me as a political and feminist text, but your stories are not the least bit didactic. Can you talk about how you achieved that balance? Do you have any advice for our readers who would like to write fiction about gender, class, race, and power that isn’t heavy-handed and is still literary?
Ivelisse Rodriguez: I cringe when I read didactic stories—didacticism takes you out of the story. So I think ferreting out anything that sounds preachy in your stories is partly a craft issue. No one wants a lecture with her/his/their story. I am listening to a podcast now and the podcaster made a point to add social commentary to her tales of true crime. I want my murder without a lesson. So I achieve a balance by constantly asking myself if this is too didactic... And I whittle down the words until they are didactic no more. For anyone writing about the above issues, they need to know that good literary fiction should seamlessly weave in political stances. And if the need to lecture is greater than writing well, then fiction is not the best genre for them. Why not write non-fiction instead?
ML: Yes, I sometimes see stories in our queue that would work better as non-fiction. There is no shame in switching genres to address political subjects. The stories in your collection feel very interconnected, not just by their understated social commentary, but also because of their recurring themes and obsessions. Yet they were written at different times. Did you always see these stories as related? Was it a conscious choice to thread themes through them or was it something that just naturally happened?
IR: The stories were never individual to me but part of a collection. Nonetheless, the connecting themes are something that just happened naturally. I remember a student once reducing someone’s collection to the writer basically telling the same story—he was dissing this really great collection. But, in a positive sense, yes, I think that is what any writer is doing—circling around the same story, coming at it through different stories, different characters. I think our subconscious just keeps coming back to whatever our life obsession is until maybe we have figured it out.
What is subconsciously in the mind of a writer, I don’t think gets enough credit. I remember sitting in workshop and someone made some amazing connection about what I “did” in the story. And I was like, hmm, that sounds really good. I didn’t intend to do what my classmate pointed out. But I decided long ago to take credit for all these unconscious choices because, nonetheless, I made these choices. So my subconscious is also at work, tying these stories together.
ML: This is a good lesson for all writers: take credit for the magic things that our subconscious achieves! The most magical moment in your book for me—the most poignant—is when the male narrator in “Summer of Nene,” struggling with his desire for another man (Nene), says: “I think of her under me. I know who I’m supposed to be. With Nene though, I know who I am.” One of your recurring themes is how characters feel compelled to do what is expected of them as women and as men. There is this sense that generations are repeating the same story because they feel obligated to live up to preordained roles. Many of your characters try to bust out of those stories. What makes you keep coming back to this theme?
IR: Freedom is really important to me. I hate feeling trapped. And I think so much about life is about being trapped on these paths that have been laid out for us. People are taught they grow up, go to college, get a career, get married, have kids, retire, and die. And, well, this seems particularly oppressive to me. But in our society, there is such a push against anyone who deviates from this path and wants to do something else. I remember my friend’s husband telling me I was weird because I didn’t want to get married. The thing is that this path is put forth as the way to live, but many people are terribly unhappy following this route.
I think it is more important for people to take risks to be themselves, although the world isn’t really set up for those people. So I understand why not everyone is going to break out of who they are supposed to be, because it is terrifying. And while I appreciate freedom, I also appreciate safety. My characters mimic this reality—they desire to change, but the heaviness of long-standing societal roles presses down on them, and really, the need to feel safe-ish keeps them in place. So sometimes they are pushing up against boundaries, and sometimes the push leads to a whole new life or a moment of seepage, like with Veronica [the main character in “Holyoke, Mass.: An Ethnography”]. It is important that breaking out from the norm can occur even in one brief, fleeting moment, and these small moments still mean something. Change doesn’t always have to be a 180-degree shift.
ML: I love this about your stories: how they often hold two competing truths at once. People are stifled by societal roles, but also break free of them at the very same time. I see duality in how you handle love as well. Often your stories are about the harm men do to women; male characters in the book abuse, cheat on, and abandon women. Love is depicted as damaging. Yet you also show your abusive characters as human and deserving of empathy. Did you set out to create this complexity? When you write characters, are you thinking about their humanity?
IR: Part of this is related to craft. In the back of my mind, I know I can’t write characters who are flat. The other part of it is that, yes, people are more than the singular or multiple terrible things they do. In general, and in real life, I am very good at seeing multiplicity at once, though I understand that for your own safety you have to make an ultimate decision about who someone is. And after leaving that person, understanding why someone would do something terrible can offer you a sense of peace because that person’s actions are so outside of you. In my stories, David [the abusive boyfriend of the main character, Belinda, in “The Belindas”] is the biggest villain, but history has made him so. And, Belinda, in recalling this, recalling his humanity, obtains a modicum of soothing. I don’t think understanding leads to forgiveness or justification, but it breaks up this narrative of abuse or bad deeds, and in these gaps, you can remember that this person was once like you, that at one point bad things had been done to them too. And this moment of understanding alleviates something for a victim.
I’m not one to think that when people turn a certain age, they miraculously learn how to handle their long-standing issues. They don’t. And, honestly, people sometimes do the best they can. And the best is sometimes someone else’s worst.
ML: While we are talking nuance in people and in relationships, I’m also intrigued by the troubled and complicated relationships between women in the book. The female characters in your opening story alternate between supporting and undermining one another. In “Holyoke, Mass.: An Ethnography,” we see Veronica relying on women, yet feeling obligated to fight them physically at times. Can you talk about the female relationships in Love War Stories?
IR: In “Holyoke, Mass.: An Ethnography,” the omniscient narrator indicates that Veronica doesn’t understand how important other girls are to her life—that they will change her life the most, more than a boy. And I do think that, for heterosexual girls, it is those homosocial relationships that will endure and shape life the most, even if the relationships are negative. Adrienne Rich in “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” puts forth her idea about a lesbian continuum where strong female relationships fall along this lesbian continuum. Compulsory heterosexuality teaches women that their most important relationships are romantic ones. But, even though we live in a heterosexist society, it is also very homosocial, so women spend a lot of time with other women—best friends, sexual competition, mothers, aunts, role models, etc. We will spend most of our lives with each other, and I think these are the relationships that affect us the most; these are the actual “forever” relationships we will have.
ML: Let’s turn from these female relationships to “Summer of Nene,” which is about a male relationship. It’s my favorite story in the collection. I loved the complexity of your characters throughout the book, but especially here. Since you are not yourself a gay man, were you afraid to write from the perspective of a young boy who is attracted to another boy? What steps did you take to develop the wonderful authenticity of that voice?
IR: Hmm, no, I don’t think I actually was worried about writing from this perspective, only because the story came to me pretty whole. I wrote part of it in one sitting, and the second part in another sitting. Also, the voice came through so clearly. Honestly, it is like the story wrote itself. Or the universe deposited it on my doorstep and was like here you go. So the only real advice I can impart is if you hear that clear voice and story coming through, don’t ignore it; sit down and write that story.
In general, though, I do spend a lot of time going over dialogue to make sure the character has a consistent and authentic voice. I read the dialogue aloud to hear how it sounds, and then at the very end of my process, I start scrutinizing every word. I consult a thesaurus to ensure I used the best word I could.
ML: Why did you start “Summer of Nene” with a scene in which the boys smack girls’ asses in Central Park? Given that we soon discover that these boys are not straight, I found the opening act of violence against women fascinating and provocative.
IR: That is interesting because that opening scene shows how Jimmy and Nene perform their masculinity, and it is also normalized behavior that young boys would engage in as an exploration of their own sexuality. This is also behavior they would see as harmless, behavior they think they should be engaging in. This is a sort of “boys will be boys” behavior that becomes everyday, so much so that the violence is extricated out of this act—from their perspective. But this performance of masculinity is what leads to Nene’s fall, and then to his relationship with Jimmy. So for me, the beginning allows for the vulnerability that leads to their relationship. The smacking of the girls’ asses is something they have to wade through to come to a more authentic self.
ML: Ahhh, yes, I get it. That’s probably why this story was so poignant to me. It’s the vulnerability that you expose in these boys that builds emotional resonance. Now that we’ve talked about writing characters that have a different perspective from your own, I’d like to flip the question. Can you talk about the role autobiography plays in your stories? Your settings and details are so vivid that one gets the sense that you are often writing about your own experiences.
IR: The autobiographical nature of the stories, at least to me, is minimal. The vividness of the story comes from my stylistic preferences when reading. I don’t like realistic stories that don’t seem like they are likely to happen. It seems like an affectation. I can’t connect to stories like “Cathedral” or “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” because they seem like “stories”; they don’t really seem to be motivated by reality but by the artifice of telling a story. So I like stories about real people who are in realistic situations. I am not necessarily writing about my own experience, rather I am focused on creating the kind of fiction that I appreciate the most.
ML: In “La Hija de Changó,” two girls from Spanish Harlem attend a fancy, mostly-white private school where they experience prejudice. The school changes them so that they also have trouble fitting in at home. The main character is asked: “Why do you sound like a white girl?” This question really got to me. It shows the catch-22 of getting a fancy education. What are your thoughts about belonging/not belonging to two different communities as a result of education?
IR: Oh, I have a lot to say about this. I think there are a lot of losses that come with a fancy education. There is me, all these Prep for Prep kids, and the ABC kids, who at a very young age, thirteen for me, went to boarding schools, went to predominantly white schools, were taken out of our neighborhoods, and wholly entered other worlds—so it is almost like the plight of migrants or immigrants who end up on this hyphenated space between two cultures. These educational and economic crossings leave you in an imaginary space where you have to tenuously balance the before and after. So you no longer have steady footing in your old or new world.
But at the same time, this is a loss that brings great rewards. I was supremely well-educated at my boarding school, and I was able to go to Columbia, get an M.F.A., then a Ph.D. So I think these losses occur, but then you find other places to belong, like I found my tribe at Columbia—an exorbitant amount of educated Latinxs (many who had also gone to boarding schools and private schools), who understood life on that hyphen, and from there we got to create our own sense of “home” together.
ML: Almost all your stories layer multiple narratives. They also include references to the telenovela “El Qué Dirán,” the myth of Oshún, the life of Julia de Burgos, the music of Victor Manuelle, and the boogeywoman Carmencita. Many of these references allow you to weave the larger Puerto Rican story into your own stories (and vice versa). Any advice to other writers on how, when, and why to build narrative layers and allusions into their work?
IR: One of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received was from Junot Díaz. He said you as the writer have a story for your character, but your character also needs to have her own story outside of yours. So when I am stuck, I go back to this because I want to make sure that both stories are coming through—my story and the character’s story. So that is one way to build narrative layers.
Then I think that some of this layering occurs unconsciously. As I read one book, I’m going through a mental rolodex of all the other books I have read and automatically am making connections. So this mode of reading unconsciously makes its way through my writing. That’s the way I engage with the world. Then consciously, most of us make connections between things—a song gives us a credo, a story of an orisha gives some guidance to navigate the world, etc. I don’t think we are ever living on one layer, but on multiple ones at once. Thus, organically, this mode of living should also transfer onto the page.
ML: Oh, I love that! We are living on multiple layers! Of course! Just one last question: what’s up next for you? Are you working on something new? Some new layers?
IR: I have a novel-in-progress about ’70s era salsa musicians in Puerto Rico. The orquesta makes a song about Richie’s love affair with Lucy. The song is meant to embarrass Richie and Lucy and keep them apart. But the song has unintended consequences; it becomes the orquesta’s most popular song, so they are forever attached to it and the memory of Lucy. The song becomes one that they have to perform over and over again. This ends up damaging many of the characters in the novel. The novel also takes on some of the gendered and racialized aspects of salsa music.
Ivelisse Rodriguez’s debut short story collection is Love War Stories (Feminist Press, 2018). She is the founder and editor of an interview series focused on contemporary Puerto Rican writers. She earned 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. She currently lives in NC with her beloved Lhasa Apso, Chocolatte Rodriguez. To learn more about Ivelisse, visit www.ivelisserodriguez.com.
Maureen Langloss (@maureenlangloss) is a lawyer-turned-writer living in New York City. She serves as the Flash Fiction Editor at Split Lip Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Little Fiction, New Delta Review, Sonora Review, Wigleaf, and elsewhere. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for Best of the Net. Find her online at maureenlangloss.com.