RACE, POWER AND STORYTELLING: AN INTERVIEW WITH ANGIE CRUZ
Angie Cruz is a New York born Dominicana, the author of two novels, Soledad (Simon & Schuster 2001) and Let It Rain Coffee (S & S 2005), which was longlisted in 2007 for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She has published short fiction and essays in several magazines and journals, including VQR, Gulf Coast, Callaloo, The New York Times and Small Axe. She has received numerous grants for her teaching and writing, including the Pittsburgh Region Artists Program Fellowship, Creative Development Grant, CUNY Dominican Studies Archives and Library Research Award, Barbara Deming Award, New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship, Camargo Fellowship, Van Lier Literary Fellowship, and NALAC Fund for the Arts Fellowship, and has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, The Macdowell Colony, Art Omi, Fundacion Valparaiso, La Napoule Foundation and The Millay Colony. She is the Editor-in-Chief of Aster(ix), a literary/arts journal, and Associate Professor in the MFA program at University of Pittsburgh. She holds a B.A. in English literature from SUNY, Binghamton, and an MFA from New York University. She divides her time between Pittsburgh, New York and Italy.
Her latest novel, Dominicana (2019, Flatiron Books), was inspired by her mother's arrival story. To research this novel, Angie scoured many photo albums, whose digital photo archive can be accessed through instagram: @dominicanasnyc. Website: https://www.angiecruz.com/; Twitter: @cruzwriter
Namrata Poddar writes fiction, nonfiction and curates the interview series called “Race, Power and Storytelling” for Kweli. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Poets & Writers, Transition, VIDA Review, and elsewhere. Her fiction manuscript-in-progress, Ladies Special, Homebound, was a finalist for Feminist Press's 2018 Meriwether Award, and will release from Speaking Tiger (rights sold for South Asia). She holds a Ph.D. in French Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an MFA from Bennington College and Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Transnational Cultures from UCLA. She lives in Huntington Beach, California. Website: www.namratapoddar.com; Twitter: @poddar_namrata
NP: Diversity has become quite a buzzword in the current American literary scene, one that is also known to be 87% white at executive levels of decision-making. Within this paradoxical scene, was it easy for you to find a home for your latest novel, Dominicana? What were some of the biggest obstacles and happy surprises you faced in the manuscript’s journey from completion to publication?
AC: It wasn't easy at all. I lost track of just how many rejections. From editors at big and small presses. Many letters started with “the writing is beautiful but…” the book is too quiet. Too bleak. Not edgy enough. No market. There was one editor who was very interested but asked if I would consider changing the ending to a more uplifting one. She asked if I could incorporate more food and music, more joy. She said while reading, she wanted to throw the book across the room because the character, Juan, was so unlikable and Ana was so trapped. And I thought that's exactly what I want, for the writing to enact the claustrophobia of being trapped in a situation, an apartment, with an abusive man. It got me thinking that maybe patriarchy, machismo, the toxic culture of it also persists because we continue to be invested in survivor narratives? Why should the writing be comfortable, easy, even relatable? We are inundated with narratives that say yes, things are hard, but in the end even in the most challenging circumstances, if you find the resources in yourself, even when the system has a boot on your neck, things turn out well. That's part of the myth making in the dominant immigrant narratives. But we are not okay. The laws, the economy, the culture are often there to make us feel not empowered, beautiful and protected. That particular editor’s desire for the book to have a happier ending actually made me understand what I want from my work. And I thought, if I'm interested in this kind of story, someone out there must also be interested. So I stayed optimistic that I would find someone who would fall for this book. I also wondered if this book were to be written by a man, would anyone say it’s too bleak? So I guess the surprise was that I did find an editor who understood my project and allowed me to write the book I wanted to write. Even more surprising is the reception of the book so far. It seems there is an opening in the market for diverse books. But what’s clear in the many lists that come out that what is being published with mainstream presses and being promoted is not always representing the makeup of this country. In this way I feel very lucky Dominicana even found a home after years and countless rejections. And even more so that it's already reached so many readers.
NP: With your protagonist Ana, Dominicana makes a strong addition to the canon of both American immigrant and feminist fiction. As a second-generation writer who was born and raised in the US, what were some of your biggest challenges in imagining and writing a first-generation immigrant’s story—Ana’s journey from the Dominican Republic to New York City. How did you overcome them?
AC: Although I was raised in New York City for the first 17 years of my life, I traveled quite a bit to Dominican Republic. For me, D.R. was closer and more familiar than downtown Manhattan. I have traveled plenty and lived in countries where I didn't know the language or felt lost and disempowered in a place. And while writing, I tried to tap into that experience and feeling. This novel was prompted by some photographs and stories in my family but because I wanted to liberate myself from the stories told to me, I wrote a novel about the 60s and not the 70s when my family actually arrived. I worked on this novel thinking about the impossibles. And one of those impossibles was allowing Ana to fall in love. To allow oneself to betray your family, to act impulsively, to fall in love, to even think of running away, is something no one in my family has done. Family, duty, is first. And I wanted to write a novel that explored that possibility.
NP: Despite a range of characters, your novel of over 300 pages does dialogue by eliminating the use of quotation marks, no small feat. This narrative choice also lends a strong sense of orality to the story, as the narration flows in and out of the voices of characters in a seamless way. While this has been done in literature before, what was your motivation in avoiding the use of quotation marks while writing Domincana? Was this decision challenging at any moment?
AC: To start, the characters are living in Spanish and quotation marks are not used in Spanish. There are other markers for dialogue but they didn't feel right to me. But also I think that moving through action, dialogue, thought, without signifying the dialogue, allowed for a fluidity and an attention to the music in the language and voice. I actually haven't found it challenging because I read many writers in my formative years who didn't use them, especially Latinx writers who forewent both. So reading them was part of my training.
NP: In addition to being a novelist, you’re the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Aster(ix) journal, a rare American literary journal with a masthead comprising entirely of women of color. What prompted you to start Aster(ix)? And in what ways, do you think, newer online spaces offer an edge over the older, more established lit mags where stories by nonwhite writers are often mediated by a white aesthetic history and legacy?
AC: Aster(ix) came about soon after VIDA released their count, proving what we already understood that more men were published and reviewed than women. The core founding members who are really women writers I am in conversation with, agreed that if there is to be a journal, women would be central in the conversation. And, how do we create spaces where we don't have to perform our identity, where we can experiment, play? Then in 2013, Adriana Ramirez committed to partner with me to actually build a structure, frame for the content. To be online makes running a journal affordable. But also, it allows us to publish timely pieces sometimes overnight, and obviously the work is more shareable. Many old mags with long traditions were not made with code-switching, translation, global aesthetics and politics in mind. I think it's hard to shake or uproot what people expect from them even when they strive to diversify. I also think in general white capital/aesthetics is a capital and it’s difficult to redistribute that capital and literary real estate even when many are well-meaning. Also, unfortunately, when one says diversity, some folks think that it's the right thing to do but they are somehow sacrificing quality. It's insane. As a new magazine we can reframe even what sometimes to me sounds colonialist language—like why are editors so interested in being the first to discover a writer. Why are reprints frowned upon? It's as if once you publish it, the work is stocked and piled somewhere when in actuality to reprint a work, allows it to have a new life. A great example of this is the story, The History of Girls, by the brilliant story story writer, Ayse Papatya Bucak that we published online, one that had only been available in print (And by the way if anyone reads one book this year, her book, The Trojan War Museum should be at the top of your list.) and a story like Summer of Nene by Ivelisse Rodriguez that was initially published in the Boston Review but found a new audience in Aster(ix).
NP: As a new mother, I’m curious to know how you balance the invisible, unpaid labor of motherhood with the labor you offer to the art world as a writer, editor and teacher of creative writing. What are your biggest support systems within the literary community while navigating a life of personal and professional multitasking?
AC: I am caught with this idea of “unpaid labor” regarding motherhood. Or any kind of expense in energy, is it physical, spiritual, emotional that is expended doing art, parenting, teaching community building and the trade of it. I think of young writers who say they won't publish something if they don't get paid, and then I think how so much of what I have done, my activist work, my writing, my editorial work, etc has been unpaid. I think of all the work we have to do for the real crisis that is the climate. The ways we have to change our lives and how we use the resources. Recently I read something by Derrick Jensen who was responding to someone who argued that it won’t really make a difference to the climate problem, if we don’t fly that one time, etc, and he said, when you love someone do you think your gestures to tend to that love to be transactional, do you make sacrifices for those you love thinking there is a goal or guarantee of something. So if we love the earth, every gesture is important to us. To it. And I think what helps me in creating a balance or not feeling taxed in all the hats I have to wear as editor, teacher, writer, mother is that I try as much as possible to think of working with passion and love. And generosity for myself when I fail or just can’t do it all. For motherhood, I've been fortunate to have a community that is willing to help me, both family and friends. For example, a dear friend came to live with me for three weeks to help with care with my son while I fly all over the place for my book tour. As an editor, I reiterate to everyone that this is a passion project. We are in it together, so everyone has to be patient with me, and what can happen. When I can give, I give, when I can't I need generosity and patience. Academia has certain demands that are less flexible but I am lucky there too because I have colleagues who share a vision and passion to cultivate the MFA with a diverse faculty and student body. And we are now fully funded! My fiction workshop at Pitt is 70% POC. It's incredible. It was worth the extra labor to do that. So I guess support systems in academia include finding allies in one’s life vision is essential for me. So it makes even the taxing work of admissions or committees be actually quite fun because it becomes about dreaming and vision. And I have definitely found that at Pitt. And if I frame motherhood as an adventure the labor, or what could feel like burdensome labor in my heart shifts.
NP: What are you currently working on?
AC: I just left a family gathering and my cousins and I started laughing because we have multiple jobs and side hustles. We wear so many hats it's hard to keep up. So when we gather we commiserate and laugh at how exhausted we are. So when you ask me this question I actually thought to myself, how honest can I be here without feeling embarrassed. I have a few projects on the burners right now. One is the novel due to my publisher this spring called The Immigrant Handbook. That is set around 2007 during the first recession, told in a long monologue. The structure is a set of job interview questions answered by my character candidly. This, after the factory she worked at for 26 years moved to Costa Rica. I am also closing the Fall/ Winter issue for Aster(ix): The Ferrante Project where we invited 16 writers to write anonymously. We wondered what happens when we are given a space to publish where we don't feel we have to perform our identities but also try something we wouldn’t necessarily try if we had our names attached. I am also developing the @dominicanasnyc archive on Instagram where I post photos of Dominican women in NYC from the fifties to the eighties. And I am also collaborating with composer Eric Moe. Where I have written a text for a classical music performance piece.