When Ivelisse Rodriguez was a little girl, she received a “dissonant” message from her elders: “that men are sucios and not to be trusted…coupled with a message that we needed to get married and have a man.”
In her forthcoming short story collection, Love War Stories, the Puerto Rican author and scholar explores how love serves as a source of both “hope” and “destruction” for women and girls. She also illuminates the humanity of those who are often overlooked.
CASSIUS caught up with Rodriguez ahead of the book’s July 10 release to discuss the inspiration behind the collection and its significance within the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. Read the conversation below.
CASSIUS: The back cover of Love War Stories reads: “Puerto Rican girls are brought up to want one thing: true love. Yet they are raised by women whose lives are marked by broken promises, grief, and betrayal.” Can you elaborate on this statement and how it informs the stories in the book?
Ivelisse Rodriguez: There is this dissonant message I remember receiving as a Puerto Rican girl—that men are sucios and not to be trusted, but that was coupled with a message that we needed to get married and have a man. As a child, I remember feeling sorry for any woman who had a man in her house because I assumed she was being beaten. Life always seemed better when there was not a man in the house. So there is this clear reality, but, somehow, it is overwhelmed or overridden by this fantasy that love is this panacea when in actuality it is making the wound. And everyone participates in this because it is not seen as a lie, but rather “bad luck.”
Nonetheless, I recognize that love is where the young live. Love for them is this bubble of optimism where anything can happen, where their lives can radically change. Love offers hope, but then love can also dish out destruction. So throughout my stories, you’ll see this push and pull that is often represented as a generational conflict.
C.: What went into making the decision to tell multiple stories in this book versus telling a central one? Have you always wanted to write a short story collection?
I.R.: I started this collection in graduate school, and, at that moment, there were several short story collections that were out and were making a big splash. The workshop is also just better suited for short stories, and that is what most of my classmates were submitting, so it seemed like a perfectly normal thing to be working on. But that was back in 1997. And then later, the short story collection became persona non grata. But I was already in it, and it was the project I had to finish. Right now, I am working on a novel. So I am ultimately focused on writing fiction in the form that my current project necessitates, more so than being attached to a particular form.
C.: Speaking of short story collections, do you have any favorites written by other authors?
I.R.: My favorite short story collection is Drown by Junot Díaz. I read it in graduate school when I was getting my MFA. Actually, I remember I had to do a report on it and present it to the class. Drown for me was the first fiction text that was literary, yet showcased the world I had grown up in. So as a reader, this was monumental for me. Beyond the significance the book has for me, it is a book that I have read several times, and it has always held up, deepening my love for it. There are some books that I have loved once, but not a second time. Drown endures. And it does what I think great fiction should do—deepen my understanding of humanity, haunt me as a text, and really touch my heart. It offers me the experience I am looking for as a reader, which I don’t find in most books.
C.: Were any of the stories in Love War Stories based on personal experiences?
I.R.: Yes and no. There may have been an impetus from real life, but by the time the story is complete, the story does not look like that bit of truth anymore. For example, my uncle one joked about how my great-aunt Nelba was still waiting for her husband. I asked my mom about his comment, and she told me how Nelba’s husband had left her to go to the U.S. My uncle’s laughing and what happened to Nelba is what sparked my story “El Que Dirán.” In real life, Nelba’s husband left Puerto Rico for the continental U.S. to live with his mistress, which is not what happens in my story. In any case, this small kernel led to a completely different and imagined story.
“Some Springs Girls Do Die” was inspired by my friend’s suicide. Her suicide was unexpected, so the protagonist in my story imagines the whys and what her friend’s last day of life was like.
“The Light in the Sky” has some elements of a trip I took with my mother to La Parguera—where she did think there was a UFO, there was a young couple we gossiped about, there was a speedboat, and the UFO turned out to be a blimp from the Coast Guard. There were other true elements in the story I had to take out because the truth is the enemy of fiction. And the story was a hot mess because it initially was a retelling of this vacation, with some fictional elements, but there was no plot. So I had to go back and strip all the true elements that were weighing down the story. You can incorporate real-life elements into your fiction, but often, the truth impedes your narrative. And you have to work in service of your story, not the truth. I added more fictional elements, and the story is much better than it initially was.
C.: The experiences of the women in your book speak to those of the women propelling the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. How does it feel to be releasing this book during this time?
I.R.: That’s interesting as I never even thought about that, especially since I started this book twenty years ago. So I have spent almost half my life with these stories, which were true and pertinent then as they are now. But since you asked, I wonder if today’s current movements will change how the book is read, how the readers experience it.
C.: In regards to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, do you think we’re progressing? Is there still more work to be done?
I.R.: I think the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements are on a continuum with previous feminist movements, and just like with those movements, there will be more work. Partly, because society keeps changing and activities that have been normalized or were seen as the norm in the past are now being challenged. Looking at the Aziz Ansari case, what I take from it is not the actions of an individual, but rather a normalized aspect of dating culture. And here is a moment to call out this behavior and discuss why it is problematic and to start shifting what is the norm.
To further feminism or any movement that is invested in equality and uprooting current power structures, I think we also need to become comfortable with discomfort and imperfection. Since the election and all this talk about Hillary Clinton being imperfect, I have been disturbed by this need for perfection and the requirement for our heroes and allies to not be problematic on any level, at any point in their lives. That’s just not reality. People are just going to disappoint you in one aspect or another or one time or another. And if we pursue perfection at all costs, then there will be no allies or any members of the left still standing.
As an academic, I love theory and imagining all the possibilities of what we could strive for and how we can become a better society, but I am also a committed realist. There are plenty of ideas we can subscribe to, but I think we need to understand that shift from theory to practice is going to unearth problems we never imagined when we were just ruminating about something. Ideas don’t easily translate to life because ideas are pure and people are complex.
Also, sometimes we find that we have differing sets of beliefs that are at play at the same time and are in competition. For whatever reason, you can’t incorporate both these ideas in a successful way, so which one will be chosen? Which one is more important in this moment? So people committed to X beliefs may not always be able to uphold them in a way that is currently perceived as being on the right side of the issue. So, I think any radical movement needs to be more realistic about these complexities in order to keep growing.
C.: What do you want readers to take away from Love War Stories?
I.R.: I want readers to hear the stories of these young Puerto Rican girls and for the stories to matter. I want readers to see how detrimental being a woman or chasing love is. I want people to see the humanity in people who may not look like them. I want these stories to grab the reader by the heart.
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