“Know what stories are being told, how these stories are being told, and what you can add.”
Love War Stories (Feminist Press, 2018)
In the title story, “Love War Stories,” you write, “People make too much of love. Everybody thinks it’s all you need, but love is a starting point. There is so much that comes after love, so much that you can’t even imagine” (154). Since this is in the title story and also the final story, is this the ultimate message of the collection? Could you tell us more about this?
This is the ultimate message of the collection. In reflecting on many of the romantic relationships I have seen in real life and on TV, in books, etc., I have seen how people worship at the altar of love and how love is considered the most important emotional feeling in a relationship. But I would venture that there are other emotions that are much more important than love, like respect, consideration, kindness, etc. So what happens when people think that love is the most important thing in a relationship is that as long as they “love” someone, they will accept a lot of atrocious, inconsiderate, and unkind behavior. But you need more than love to have a good relationship—you need all the other factors I noted above. So I do hope that those who read the book will at least reflect on this message.
The story “The Simple Truth” honors Julia de Burgos’ life in a really beautiful way, revolving around a family who has had Julia in the center of their lives for most of their lives. At the end, Maricarmen notes that even if it’s history, the story can change if she tells it, her mother tells it, her father tells it, and so on. Is this why you chose to title the story “The Simple Truth”? Is the simple truth simply that it’s hard to find the truth because stories change no matter who is telling them?
Yes, I chose the title for two reasons. The first is that the translated complete works of Julia de Burgos by Jack Agüeros is called the Song of the Simple Truth. But really, as I revised the story and came to better understand what the story was about, I saw that it was about the lack of simplicity of the truth. There are several truths that come from different angles and that two or more contradictory truths can hold the same space and exist at the same time. For example, Maricarmen’s father cheats on her mother but also still loves her. Those two things can be true at once. And I was also thinking about how we worship our heroes—which parts of their stories we repeat and uphold and which parts of their stories do we equivocate on and don’t readily acknowledge as it doesn’t fit with this uniform and simplistic identity we have crafted for them.
In life, it is useful to think about these multiple truths that occur at once as it then allows you to understand other people’s perspectives. You don’t have to agree with their perspective or actions, but the understanding allows you to mitigate some of the hurt this other person may have caused.
In “Some Springs Girls Do Die,” you portray death with love in such a beautiful, surreal way. What process led you to the images within the piece, such as “enter him and touch the skin beneath the skin”? How do these images relate to the girl who died?
In this story, I wanted to capture the intense feelings of a girl obsessed with the guy she is seeing, to depict the longing, the desire to penetrate him in a way, so she can get closer to him because all she can have in life are only surface-level interactions as he is emotionally impenetrable. That image in particular is also about the desire for porous boundaries—a way for them to meld together. But that is never going to happen as he is always going to keep her at a distance.
I thought about this intensity of feelings, which are generally unreciprocated as another way that women experience death. She is suffering a slow death via humiliation and loss of self-respect. Her boundaries are being eroded, and she is allowing transgressions to occur which are trampling over her sense of self. I wanted to show this as a living death, as a way women in particular “die” through the loss of self just to have someone love them.
Many of the protagonists in this collection are young, not even out of high school. What led you to explore the subject of love through young narrators who some would argue have not fully experienced love?
That’s a great question! There is the popular notion of love that our culture portrays—it is sweet, obsessive, it is all-consuming, etc. I would associate this kind of love with teenagers and people you see in movies. I think about the middle-aged women who were swooning over Twilight, and I read the book, and I could see why they were swooning because young love has such a sweetness to it. I love The Vampire Diaries (love!) and part of it is because of that idealistic teenage love—which I appreciate on the screen but not in real life. So with my young characters, they have those sweet notions of love, which I want to smash. Most of my stories show that sweetness upturned. With teenage love, we tend to focus on the emotional aspects of it, and see all those feelings as positive, when in reality, they are very destructive. Adolescent love becomes idealized as you get older and are more guarded with your feelings and feel less and less excitement, hope, etc. As you get older, it is harder to conjure up the same kind of wonder and excitement about a relationship as when you were young. Culturally, adolescent love is the way we are taught to love, and I don’t think there are any useful guides or models to teach adults how to love in a realistic and unidealized way.
In my stories, I speak to both the teenager and the adult. The teenagers are obsessive, boundaryless, way too forgiving, etc., but they come to realize that these notions of love actually don’t serve them, and they have to claw their way out of these falsehoods to save themselves. Otherwise, this love we have been taught can kill you.
“The Light in the Sky” centers around the disconnection of human beings. The speaker feels disconnected from both the baby she is carrying and her mother, who is talking about UFO conspiracies. It almost seems as if there is no redemption in this story, no embodiment of love at all. What prompted you to write this story and include it in this collection?
I read the story differently (which doesn’t mean it is right or the only way to read the story)—I read it as a story about a young woman who is incapable of making a decision. And she hopes that some magical, spiritual, otherworldly solution will arrive to save her. But she realizes that she has to save herself. So this story for me is about agency, and also about how women are told they need to follow X trajectory—marry and have kids. And women perpetuate this to each other even though these women experience such unhappiness in these situations. So there are these cultural narratives where there is a truth that no one seems to proclaim, instead they just follow the party line.
But I want to address the lack of love you note, which I think is really interesting. I see what you are saying, and I have never thought about the story in this way. Maybe the only love that takes place is the love of self when the narrator decides to pursue her own agency, which might be the most important love one can have.
In a previous interview at Centro Voices, you said “I think it is important as a writer to really have an understanding of the type of literature you are embarking on; otherwise, you may not be moving the literature forward in any way.” Do you have advice for aspiring writers on how they can move forward the genre they are writing?
Yes, read in that genre. I think you really have to study what has come before you. A lot of people seem to start writing by writing poems, but they write terrible poems, and part of this is not having enough awareness of craft and the history of poetry. So you need to know what stories are being told, how are these stories being told, and what you can add. For example, I am a scholarly expert in Puerto Rican literature from the continental U.S. and this came about through my PhD program, and so I can speak with authority and have a thorough understanding of Puerto Rican literature. Thus, when I set out to write, I knew what narratives were repeatedly told and what narratives were not being told. For example, reading Puerto Rican literature from the continental US reiterated a Nuyorican narrative, but there are a whole bunch of other Puerto Rican enclaves that I never read about. So it was important for me to write about the Western Massachusetts Puerto Rican enclave as a way to record and tell their stories and add these narratives to the oeuvre of Puerto Rican literature from the continental U.S. If I hadn’t studied this literature, then I wouldn’t have really been adding something new to the body of work. So my advice is to know what you are adding to the type of work you are entering.
How did the idea for this collection come to you? Did the stories slowly unfold over time or did you go into writing the collection with an outline of the stories already in your mind?
The collection did slowly unfold over time. I was writing stories, but I always thought about them as a collection as I was working toward my thesis and/or dissertation. When I write a new story, I start off with a very, very broad idea. For example, with “La Hija de Changó” my only idea was: I’m going to write about a girl who goes to the botánica for her love problems. And from there, I essentially write whatever comes to mind. So I spend weeks just typing aimlessly. Then in the middle of that mess, I start looking for any good ideas or great lines. I pull those out, and keep making a mess for a while. Then when I finally have an understanding of the story, I will outline, and then keep revising from there.
Do you have a routine writing schedule or do you write when inspiration hits? Do you have a specific place you like to write?
I do not. And I really should as that is when I am most productive. I get overwhelmed by (paid) work and have trouble balancing work and writing. I would recommend having a writing routine as that is the only way you move forward and can stay immersed in the story. When I am being consistent, I write an hour a day or 30 minutes a day. When I was just working on my writing and wasn’t doing paid work at all, I could do 5-6 hours a day. And that was a time that I was able to complete a huge chunk of work. I do not write when inspiration strikes. Inspiration is so rare. When you are being consistent, then you just have to do your best because even when you have a terrible writing day, you’re inching toward the breakthrough that is coming. And a terrible writing day, a day when you feel like you did not write in the right direction, can still offer you much as it can show you the direction you do not want to go in.
How long did the editing and publication process take for this book? How is the final product like or unlike what you envisioned all along?
Well, this is a sad and scary story. But don’t let it frighten you. I started the first story in this collection in the fall of 1996 and the book was published in 2018. But let me explain. Six and a half of those years, I was in school. Then, as I noted above, I was very inconsistent with my writing because I didn’t know how to balance writing and work, and I still don’t. Then, I spent a lot of time in abject fear of writing. I would sit down to write, and then this fear would overtake me, so I would just get up and walk away. Anyway, through all these long years, I was learning to become a better writer. And the book was accepted for publication around December 2016. It still needed more edits, but it was minimal edits compared to all the edits I had to make before.
In “Love War Stories,” you write that the narrator’s mother has a library consisting of “Anna Karenina, The Color Purple, Medea, The Joy Luck Club, The Odyssey, Madame Bovary, Native Son, The Scarlet Letter” (156). What books are in your library that are especially significant to you?
I have my top three, and a fourth bonus book. The books that mean the most to me are Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas, Loose Woman by Sandra Cisneros, and Drown by Junot Diaz. Down These Mean Streets is the first book by a Puerto Rican I read, but it is also a book that resonates decades and decades after it was written. It seems like a timeless story about masculinity, belonging, and becoming oneself. I love Loose Woman because it so touches the heart and shows what it is like to be in a relationship—the desire, the desperation, the loneliness, etc. And I love Drown because it is the kind of book one aspires to have written. It has these memorable lines that gut you and can capture human emotions and experiences. And it is a book that just stands up every time you read it. And my bonus book is The Museum of Innocence by Orhan Pamuk. I will never understand how he pulled off this book. It is basically 600 pages of a man’s obsession. But it never gets boring, it’s heartfelt, and just so profound and moving.
Emotions play a big role in Love War Stories. Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
This is a lovely question, and I can answer this in multiple ways, but I will answer it this way—someone who writes without emotions is not a writer I want to read. Could a sociopath or an unfeeling person write a book? Sure. But it will lead to certain types of text. For what I want to write and read, emotions are essential. I am always looking for books that have heart. That really touch me. And when I read books that lack emotion, I find it a waste of time, and I am not sure how I am supposed to connect with a text like that. It is a text I will forget and never recommend to anyone else. What connects the books I mentioned above is that they have a lot of heart. And that is what I want as a reader—a book that wakes up some dormant feeling in me and reminds me of a shared human experience, a book that I can always emotionally carry with me.
Ivelisse Rodriguez’s debut short story collection is Love War Stories (Feminist Press, 2018), a 2019 PEN/Faulkner finalist and a 2018 Foreword Reviews INDIES finalist. 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 from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She currently lives in NC with her beloved Lhasa Apso, Chocolatte Rodriguez.