We had the good fortune of connecting with Susannah Rodriguez Drissi and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Susannah, can you share the most important lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career?
Recently, Kwame Anthony Appiah—British-Ghanaian philosopher, cultural theorist, and novelist, and one of the most celebrated thinkers of his generation—confessed in the “Art of Nonfiction, No. 10” for The Paris Review that “literature is produced by writers, yes, but also by communities that shape them.” Years ago, I may have disagreed with Appiah. I may have actually insisted that a writer’s success was entirely a product of the hours spent nurturing a line, obsessing over a scene, spooning with a dear character until you and he became one—and that a writer’s ability to fling their work out into the world was tantamount to their tenacity, their work ethic.
Because when you’re young, no one tells you. They let you go on believing that it is all up to you: up to how much talent you possess; how much rigor you’ve poured into your work; how much time you’ve invested. As you grow older, however, the truth reveals itself as an entirely different story. Sure, you matter. But who you know, and who they know matter a whole lot more. Nothing matters as much as the communities you belong to. It is simply an infrastructure of success that builds connection upon connection upon connection—a kind of matrix that lets you exist and move forward in the game depending on your proximity to or distance from the next person playing.
So, many years later, I now side with Appiah. He knows what all of us know if we’ve ventured into anything worth doing: communities shape us. Even more, communities build us up and connect us to our agents, and editors, and publishers, and publicists, and finally (most importantly), to fellow writers and to our readers, the ones responsible for shaping us, and for passing on the word that someone somewhere has birthed something new. In the most profound sense, then, Appiah’s words remind us that communities—whether virtual, real-world, or imagined—continue to be the mechanism through which stories are produced and shared. This is the greatest, most fundamental lesson I have learned: we can’t do it alone. We need other people to carry us on their shoulders: people who will hold the door open for us, if only slightly; people who will tell others that we exist and that our work matters; people who will introduce us to those responsible for doors and for holding people up.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I chose to be a writer when I was very young, and I have been a multi-genre writer ever since. Though I had numerous other interests—fine arts, design, performing arts—I ended up pursuing a master’s in interdisciplinary studies, a combination of Latin American and Maghrebian literatures, from Cal State University, Long Beach, and a PhD in comparative literature from UCLA, where I am currently faculty in Writing Programs.
I have been teaching since 2003, and over the last eighteen years I have found a great deal of compatibility between the academic endeavor and creative work. Creativity, intuition, storytelling, and poetry are as much the lifelines of the academic endeavor as they are of the creative one—or, at least they should be. I have been relentless in my pursuit of writing in all genres. I write poetry, novels, plays, comedy, dramedy, drama, academic articles, op-eds, autobiographical essays, and whatever else piques my interest and I think I might be good at. So, I’ve reached wherever it is I happen to be today—waiting it out in quarantine, like the rest of the world—by writing. Currently, I am working on a couple of feature films and several shows for television.
As one might imagine, space and time have had considerable impact on how I write, and when. In the beginning, I was concerned about my writing environment; it was critical to how I understood my personal experience of writing as a daily activity. I was building a persona: the writer. As a result, I surrounded myself with old, found things, second-hand items that lent an atmosphere of “in medias res” to anything I wrote. I smoked, drank wine, played Billy Holiday or Edith Piaf, and imagined what it would be like to live and write in Paris—in other words, I was invested in a writer’s bio pic of my own creation. But with the birth of my children, and the publication of an increasing volume of my work, my day-to-day experience of writing has changed. I don’t need to play the writer anymore. With a little bit of imagination, sometimes even some fantasy, I can simply write. But I have to be in a particularly vulnerable state, my defenses down, so that things happen that might not happen off the page.
I don’t have an overriding theory or position about what a poem or a novel or a play should be, except that they exist in rhythms. When I write, I live in the rhythms that the particular form and content suggest to me. Mostly, I don’t need to fabricate the rhythm—it is already there, and I can’t detach myself from its effects. I have written plays that sound like poems and poems that I perform like plays. My novel, too, relies on certain rhythms—from philosophical to humorous to colloquial to brooding.
Before I had children, I loved to write at night, but everything changed when I had my first child. I started the doctoral program at UCLA with a seven-month-old baby girl. If I was going to make it through the next four+ years, then I would need to rethink when and where I worked. Space and time became of the utmost importance. I found solutions. I woke up very early to write, then used non-writing hours to work out the kinks in what I’d written so that by the time I was actually in front of my laptop, I had a very good idea of what I wanted to say. It was all very efficient. So much so that two years after the birth of my daughter, my husband and I found ourselves expecting another one. If time and space were cherished possessions with one child, with the second one they became goals in themselves. I learned to write everywhere—in the middle of the living room, in the car, at a park, with one baby rocking on a knee and the other child banging pots and pans or lapping up the cat food. No time could be wasted.
The habit of getting up early when the children were very young became a routine, then a choice. It was a moment of silence, of solitude, of self-nourishment before I begin to nourish others. I have always been short of time, running out of time. I felt this way when I was fifteen or sixteen, and continue to feel the same way today—of course, today I’m no longer fifteen, so the feeling may be a lot closer to my reality than it used to be.
I am concerned with two big projects at the moment. The first is Radio Nocturno, a jukebox musical that pays tribute to a legendary Cuban radio show and features some of the most iconic songs from the Spanish-speaking world of the 60s and 70s. Radio Nocturno takes place in 1975 during one of the most repressive times in Cuban revolutionary history. In it, the radio show and its music become the backdrop to dreams of personal freedom and love in the tropics, ways to mitigate food shortages, power outages, and the violation of human rights. The real radio show, “Nocturno,” first aired in Cuba in 1966. Radio Nocturno, El Musical is entirely in Spanish. Radio Nocturno is a truly original “book” musical, whose lyrics reveal the roller-coaster story of teenage love in times of political upheaval, great cultural changes, and devastating economic conditions. This is Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg meets Mamma Mia in revolutionary Cuba. After a sold-out public reading in December 2018 at Hecht Studio Theatre at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Radio Nocturno was scheduled to premiere at Miami Dade College’s Koubek Center on August 6, 2020, directed by Victoria Collado (John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons), musical direction by Jesse Sanchez (Hamilton, national tour), and produced by George Cabrera, 3FEO Entertainment. Unfortunately, the production was canceled due to COVID-19. I am currently working on a feature film adaptation of the musical.
The other very special project is my novel, Until We’re Fish, released by Propertius Press on October 6, 2020. The novel, experimental in some ways, opens on Three Kings’ Day, January 6, 1959, and only a few days before Fidel Castro’s arrival in Havana. The story follows Elio and Maria through the first years of the Revolution, the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, and the Special Period in Times of Peace, a euphemism used to describe the harsh economic conditions following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Soviet Bloc. Until We’re Fish was nominated for the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN Open Book Award, and the PEN/Hemingway Book Award for Debut Novels.
The story takes place in Bauta, a small, rural town in the outskirts of the island’s capital. My characters are working-class Cubans whose spirit propels them forward, whether forward means choosing to stay on the island or choosing to leave. They are individuals who are concerned with the challenges, traumas, hopes, dreams, and preoccupations surrounding situations that I myself lived. Until We’re Fish is a story that benefited from the elements of time and distance. Through its characters’ engagement with American and European literary and cultural tropes, Until We’re Fish highlights the national and transnational trends that have impacted Cuban national identity from at least the first half of the nineteenth century. In so doing, it establishes links between fiction and recent scholarship about Cuba and Cuba-related issues.
Because Until We’re Fish begins in 1959 and concludes in the mid-1990s, it also creates a kind of continuum between life in Cuba before and after the fall of the Soviet Bloc. At its core, this story is a defense of individual freedom and a warning about the ways in which that freedom may be taken away. Living in involuntary confinement, Elio creates from his island-prison; whether his creations lead to the actual economic improvement of his life and the life of his wife, Maria, is irrelevant. There’s joy and fulfillment in the process of creation that confinement, censorship, and fear cannot abort. Interested readers can order the novel here. The novel is also available elsewhere, wherever books are sold.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
At the moment, a week seems like a rather long time to me. Let’s say an evening, and let’s say it would look something like this:
As soon as we exit Grand Avenue, we’re ready for a reward, a reprieve from the tension that’s fed our journey eastbound on the 10 freeway up until that moment. This sudden awakening is accompanied by the sounds of a city that has suddenly—as of the last decade, perhaps?—become a real hub, a true-to-form Downtown Los Angeles. Everything is both familiar and welcoming, a place to heal our wounds. There is no need to ask the point of these comings and goings, of gestures, and storefronts, and menus. We know the point: downtowns are landing spots for the heartbroken and the homeless—landscapes upon which our heart can lean.
We browse the book stacks at the Los Angeles Central Library on the southeast corner of South Flower and West 5th Streets. Later we find ourselves at The Last Book Store. We search for vintage records and chat up a fifty-something cashier in overalls and reading glasses. We talk good weather and good music and remember the last time we saw a Jacques Demy film about umbrellas and smoked a cigarrete that tasted nothing like cancer. We walk somewhere for something Thai, or French, or Italian. Stop on Boyd Street at The Escondite (literally “the Hideout”) for mid-evening Moscow Mules, and head down to The Mayan Club (an early 90s throw-back) on South Hill Street for some old-school Latin salsa. We end there because, well, too many Cuba Libres, and we’re not getting any younger.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
We tend to think that good mentors are quite extinct. That like the Gandalfs of the fantasy world, they’ve been carried off by an eagle—but good mentors are everywhere. They accompany us on our journey, up to a certain point, then they set us free. A good mentor is one who allows us to find our own voice. I’ve had the great fortune to experience excellent mentorship, directly and indirectly. Sometimes, the mentor hasn’t even known my name.
From early on, my ambition was to become a poet, then a writer, in an all-encompassing sense—a prolific someone who writes about many things and in different genres, with a certain chameleon-like ability. I hope that is exactly what I’ve become, but I can’t be sure. In any case, I haven’t done it alone. In fact, the act of becoming—in all of its messiness and daringness—wouldn’t have been possible without the generous mentors I have found along the way.
When I first started writing I was seventeen years old. I had been speaking English for about three years, so I hadn’t read any books by Toni Morrison yet. It wasn’t until about eleven years ago—when I included The Bluest Eye, Morrison’s first novel, in one of my syllabi—that I began to study her work closely. Along with Nabokov and Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Morrison has been undoubtedly one of my great mentors. I found that, while my life experience may not be quite similar to hers, my love of metaphors is. If I had read her works sooner, I think I would have already accomplished much more.
The truth is that I owe way too much to way too many people to name names. My shoutout goes to each one of them who, though here left unnamed, is responsible for so much of what I’ve made of my life: family, children, siblings, friends, professors, writers, poets, translators, colleagues. Thank you.
Until We’re Fish 2020 Book Tour: In conversation with Presidential Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco, Harvard Bookstore, November 5th, 2020, Cambridge, Massachusetts. Until We’re Fish 2020 Book Tour: In conversation with Liz Olds, Write On! KFAI Radio, October 27th, 2020, Minneapolis, Minnesota (Left to right) J.D. Mata (Rey) and Magdalena Edwards (Atenea) during a performance of award-winning play Rey y Atenea, written and directed by Susannah Rodríguez Drissi, Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, October 2019, Hollywood, California. The Latin Poet’s Guide to the Cosmos 2019 Book Tour: Reading and performance of The Latin Poet’s Guide to the Cosmos (Floricanto Press, 2019), with Special Guests Grammy-award winner Yalil Guerra and Justin Lack, Orange County Center for Contemporary Art, March 7th, 2020, at the 2020 Boca de Oro Festival of Literary Arts & Culture. The Latin Poet’s Guide to the Cosmos 2019 Book Tour: Reading and performance of The Latin Poet’s Guide to the Cosmos (Floricanto Press, 2019), with Special Guest guitarist J.D. Mata, Book Soup, Hollywood, California. (From left to right) Yelyna De Leon (Candela) and Maria Hojas (Narrator) during a performance of award-winning play Houses without Walls, written, directed, and produced by Susannah Rodríguez Drissi, October, 2018, at Stephanie Fiore Studio Theatre. The Latin Poet’s Guide to the Cosmos 2019 Book Tour: Reading and performance of The Latin Poet’s Guide to the Cosmos (Floricanto Press, 2019), Alley Cat Books, with Special Guest guitarist J.D. Mata, San Francisco, California.