Last month saw the release of Love War Stories, the debut short story collection of Ivelisse Rodríguez. In it, the Arecibo-born, Holyoke-raised Rodríguez explores love in all its forms, for better or worse, as it relates to the premise that Puerto Rican women are conditioned, from an early age, to pursue romance through an idealized, almost fatalistic lens. However, as the title alludes to, love is paired with the consequences of this common thread, one which gives the author license to touch upon universal issues of intergenerational trauma, sexism, body image, violence, diaspora, and so on; within a distinctly Puerto Rican framework.
Below is a Q&A with the author in which she discusses the nine stories that compose her acclaimed collection; everything from the book’s relationship to different settings, from New York to Holyoke to Puerto Rico and back; as well as the her literary and cultural influences, future projects, writing process, and more.
*This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Centro Voices (CV): Can you discuss the origins of Love War Stories, how the project evolved over time, and the process that led you to publication?
Ivelisse Rodríguez (IR): I started this collection twenty years ago, and I worked on it through graduate school. It developed in the sense that the stories were revised and revised, and even through August of 2017, I was still revising it as I had to submit final edits to my editor. My writing process is very messy—I start with a small idea, and then just start typing away to see what emerges, and somewhere in the middle of the process, I start to do an outline and a literary analysis (like a professor would do). And then I keep revising from there. For example, in “La Hija de Changó,” it was in the 11th hour that I realized what the character really wanted. I sometimes need to step away from a story in order to get distance from it as I get blinded by the story I want to tell, which may not be the story the character is trying to tell.
In any case, for those writers out there, don’t get daunted by the twenty years; I didn’t write most of that time. Besides learning how to write, I also had to overcome the fear of writing, and learn how to take more pride in my work. Taking pride in my work meaning being meticulous and sending work out when I thought it was ready. So I wasted a lot of time focused on getting published versus being focused on writing the best prose I could write. Anyway, lessons learned, and I am a better writer for it.
CV: Representation is a large part of the media discourse in the United States, as well as the stories of women. Can you speak to both and how your collection of stories fits into this particular cultural moment, especially in regard to the visibilization Puerto Rican and Latina women?
IR: It's interesting because in the back of my mind, I always worried about whether anyone would care about the Puerto Rican girls and women in my book because they are Puerto Rican. I read Victorian literature, it’s one of my preliminary exam areas for my PhD, so I can read global literature because I am coming from a very humanistic perspective. But people of color are so dehumanized and seen as such others that some non-POC readers feel like they can’t connect.
"It's interesting because in the back of my mind, I always worried about whether anyone would care about the Puerto Rican girls and women in my book because they are Puerto Rican."
In terms of the cultural moment for women, I think the stories and themes of Love War Stories will endure beyond this moment as long as heterosexuality and gender norms are executed in the same way. Heterosexual women are indoctrinated to believe in and pursue love as the major accomplishment of their lives, and heterosexual men are socialized to elude love. What we need is for these two groups of people to be allowed and offered new narratives.
CV: Arecibo, Puerto Rico, the place where you were born; and Holyoke, MA, the place where you raised; are featured prominently throughout the collection, whether as the setting of a story or as a reference for a series of allusions. What does it mean to you to write about these two places and what were some of the essential qualities you hoped to convey?
IR: My first story is in Arecibo because I wanted to mimic the migration process, and I can’t help but wonder what my life would have been like if I had been raised in Arecibo. Of course my version is idealized—I would have been raised in a world that was entirely Puerto Rican, and I wonder what it is like to not grow up in a country that dislikes you. And I just happen to really, really love Puerto Rico. I’m not being biased here; I also really love Turkey. There are just some places you go to and as soon as you land, love is in the air.
"Holyoke has given me something that few places have—a Puerto Rican world. And I wanted to put this enclave on the map as there is no other Puerto Rican literature that I am aware of set in Holyoke."
Placing stories in Holyoke, MA and other parts of Western Mass was imperative for me because I always get this bewildered look when I tell people outside of the area about the throngs of Puerto Ricans who inhabit this area. While I wonder what life would be like if I had been raised in Puerto Rico, I grew up in a very Puerto Rican world while I was still in Holyoke. And I lost that when I went to boarding school when I was 13. And then I regained it when I went to Columbia for undergrad. And then lost it again by moving to other cities, and even when I came back to NYC to teach, I had very few Puerto Rican students. So Holyoke has given me something that few places have—a Puerto Rican world. And I wanted to put this enclave on the map as there is no other Puerto Rican literature that I am aware of set in Holyoke.
CV: Were there any specific influences, literary or otherwise, that you feel were important for the writing of these stories?
IR: Absolutely, I love the poetic voice of Sandra Cisneros—as a college student, I loved how she made her own sentences and how indulgent her poetry was. The book Loose Woman really touched me and has always stayed with me, especially in regards to what Cisneros describes as love. Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas is hugely important to me as it was the first book by a Puerto Rican I read, and it always felt contemporary, no matter the decade I read it in. I also will forever love Drown by Junot Diaz. That book felt like it was written for me, one of many who came up from impoverished neighborhoods but ended up in higher education. I read it at the start of my MFA program, and it gave me a tiny bit of hope that a story like mine could be told.
CV: The short story is somewhat of an undervalued format in American literature. Can you discuss your approach to the short story and some of the aspects that you find most appealing as a fiction writer?
IR: I started writing short stories as I needed to learn how to write and that seemed like the logical place to start. And I figured that writing a novel would be like writing a longer short story (not true!). When I started writing these stories, short story collections were in, so it was only later that I learned that short stories are the underdog. But for most of us in MFA-land, that is what we are workshopping, and that is what we are trying to get published in literary journals. Though, I was just on a panel with two other debut authors of short story collections, and we all told an audience member to start a novel if she wanted an agent and a book deal. I think that realization really hits home about short stories after you finish your MFA program, not while you are in it.
CV: You dedicate a story to the Puerto Rican poet (and Latina feminist icon) Julia de Burgos. How did it occur to you to (re)interpret her life through the lens of fiction? And what is her connection to the overall theme of Love War Stories?
IR: I was reading Jack Agüeros compilation of Burgos’ poems, The Song of the Simple Truth, and I was intrigued by his perception of her, which differed from all the other interpretations about her that I had read. As I state in my story, “The Simple Truth,” Agüeros offers this interpretation of de Burgos where she is this strong woman who is not done in by her lover Dr. Jimenes Grullón. So that is what kicked off my story—the ways of seeing someone. Plus, I already had a deep love for de Burgos, and I wanted to highlight her—an amazing Puerto Rican writer and resurrect her like Agüeros does.
"If I could shake Julia de Burgos, I would tell her about her achievements and how they are so much more than this love she can’t have."
Her connection to the overall theme of Love War Stories is that she, like so many of my girls and women, is hopeful to a detriment about love. And she can be so valiant in other phases of her life, but she fails in love and somehow this is the thing that some say does her in (a reason why she is an alcoholic). So if I could shake Julia de Burgos, I would tell her about her achievements and how they are so much more than this love she can’t have.
CV: There are some allusions to your background as a scholar in Love War Stories. How was this an asset to your writing and in what ways did it complement your voice as a fiction writer?
IR: Being a scholar allowed me to read a variety of literature by Puerto Ricans and Latinxs in general; thus, I could easily trace the trajectory of Puerto Rican literature from the continental US. I could then see common themes in Puerto Rican literature and seriously think about where I wanted to situate myself. 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.
CV: You are in the process of working on a novel. Would you like to share any updates on that project and if there are any parallels to the subject matter of Love War Stories?
IR: Right now, the novel, The Last Salsa Singer, is about two friends who are members of a salsa band, and the salsa singer Vicente is dismayed that his best friend, Richie, is about to take responsibility for Lucy and her unborn child. Vicente and the orquesta decide to play this song that pokes fun at Richie’s love story with Lucy. The song is meant to get Lucy out of their lives by humiliating both Richie and Lucy, but the song instead becomes their biggest hit; so in many ways, they can’t shake Lucy off. So it’s about sexism in salsa music, it’s about friendship, and it’s about failing in you artform.
Love War Stories
By Ivelisse Rodríguez
New York, NY: Feminist Press, 2018
200 pages; $13.95 [paperback]
To order the book from the publisher click here.
For reading groups, a guide with discussion questions is available for PDF download.