Friday, June 25, 2021

Q&A with Elias Rodriques




Elias Rodriques is the author of the new novel All the Water I've Seen Is Running. His work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Guardian and The Nation, and he is an assistant editor at n+1. He will become an assistant professor of African American literature at Sarah Lawrence College this fall. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, he lives in Philadelphia.


Q: What inspired you to write All the Water I've Seen Is Running, and how did you create your character Daniel?


A: Some years ago, a good friend of mine from high school passed away, and her death really devastated me. If I’m being honest, it still devastates me. Perhaps the main difference between now and then is that the sadness passes faster.


But, back then, I was distraught and isolating myself and doing the bare minimum to collect my paycheck and gradually found that I was bored of everything. I had to do something other than let my eyes glaze over during the day and go home to watch another episode of New Girl, or whatever sitcom I was watching, at night.


Then I remembered that, when I was younger and had just moved to this country, I found an escape from all the things that made me sad in Dick King-Smith’s A Mouse Called Wolf. When I picked up the books that I loved, they didn’t quite do it for me either.


Finally, I thought, maybe it wasn’t reading so much as imagining that helped me feel better when I was younger. So I decided to write.


One morning—I can only write in the mornings; by the afternoon, I have no willpower, and in the evenings, I just want to fuck around—I sat down and began the scene of Daniel cruising at the beach and thinking about his name.


I had to leave before I could finish the scene, but as the day went on, the voice kept speaking to me. Even when I was sitting in class or on the bus, I could hear the voice, and I’d have to scribble notes about what would happen next or something Daniel would say on whatever I had in front of me.


In many ways, Daniel came to me through this voice. I didn’t know who Daniel would be or where he came from, but I could hear him speaking.


In time, I paired transcribing this voice with lessons from things I was reading (Gayl Jones’ Song for Anninho, Ishion Hutchinson’s poetry), listening to (a lot of Future), and watching (Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth). The structure in particular came to me from Gayl Jones’ Eva’s Man.


And the subject was what interested me: Family histories that persist through Jamaican migration, grieving, and the Florida landscape. And as I kept writing, I found that I felt better; work was still boring, of course, but I didn’t mind doing it as much on days when I had written in the morning.


In retrospect, I realize now that I was writing about someone who was grieving and processing their family history as a means of processing my own emotions at a distance because it was easier to confront similar situations in fiction than my own situation in real life. But Daniel and the book started, for me, as a voice that I was lucky to have listened to.

Q: Author Maisy Card said of the book, "All the Water I've Seen Is Running is an absorbing meditation on the power of memory and the people and places that make us who we are." What do you think of that description?


A: I was quite touched by that description. I’m a big fan of Maisy Card’s novel, of the ways she sees history and texts and stories and their effects on people.


I think that vision comes through here. How has the past shaped Daniel, how has he reacted to its effects on him, and is he going to run away from both or is he going to come to terms with both? That’s more or less the story of the book.


Reading Maisy’s description now, the word people stands out. In the novel, Daniel confronts not only individuals who have shaped him (his mother, Des, etc.) but also collectives that have shaped him, like his old teammates and his family.


In many ways, the book I wrote is a trauma narrative, but it’s kind of a collective trauma narrative. Instead of a narrator flashing back to their own experiences, Daniel occasionally flashes back to traumas that his family experienced. In the process, he tries to come to terms with the violence and the potential of the history of his family.


It's worth noting, though, that Daniel does not flash back to memories of ancestral trauma so much as to memories of stories his mother has told him. He’s confronting history, including his personal history, but also a particular oral, family history.


This family history is limited in some ways; sometimes, Daniel doesn’t trust the stories his mother tells him, and other times, the stories his mother tells him do not answer all of his questions. Yet still he tries to come to terms with his position as the inheritor of this fragmentary history.


This effort drives much of the book: How does history—including the history that we experienced, the history that we’ve heard but that is not true, and the things that we cannot know—make a person, and how does a person respond to history’s making of them? I think Maisy saw that perfectly.


Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: You know, I’m not good at selecting titles. My friend Nico often jokes that I’m terrible at writing titles.


When I was drafting this novel, I had multiple titles in mind: “The Amphibians” (which became the title of the excerpt in n+1 but never felt right for the whole manuscript), “The Long Memory” (which I thought was good until I realized I had cribbed it from an old film noir), and “Names” (which was truly just a placeholder and an altogether bad title for this novel), to name a few.


But as I wrote the first draft of the second to last chapter, I heard in my head the line Des says—“All the water I seen is running”—and I thought, “That’s it.”


To me, the title signifies a lot. It expresses the perspective of some North Floridians, who live in a place where it never snows but are surrounded by water, and who have heard of snow but have never seen it, so they treat it the way they treat subways or the midnight sun or the Parthenon.


The title expresses the way these North Floridians know their perspective is limited—they know the world beyond the Atlantic or north of Jacksonville is big—and yet remains full: “All the water” Des has seen is quite a lot.


So, to me, the title signifies a sense of provinciality and of cosmopolitanism, a feeling that one is stuck in Florida and that Florida is so much. The beaches, the weather, it’s all the stuff many people dream of, or at least dream of retiring to.


The word water also does a lot of work in the title. Water is complicated for Black folk in the Western hemisphere. There’s a sense of the Atlantic as the site of the trauma of the Middle Passage, as John Akomfrah’s films or M. Nourbese Philips’ poetry demonstrate, and that’s there in the book.


But there’s also a Floridian sense of the Atlantic as a place to play or a thing to watch. And then there are all the waterways around which Florida is built: Canals, estuaries, swamps, rivers, etc.


Floridians breathe water; the heat and proximity to water is what make the air so humid, so full of water vapor. And yet there’s all this climatological writing about the water that is sure to swallow Florida in the form of rising tides, to say nothing of hurricanes.


Which one is it: Death or life, fresh or salt, a place to play or a route of transit? It’s all those things and more. All of this is to say, in the same way that what water means to me changes on a daily basis, so too does the title’s meaning change to me, and that’s part of what I like about it.


Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I didn’t, actually. About a third of the way into the first draft, I knew the places that I wanted to portray in the book: The abandoned development off Old Kings, the dirt road off US-1 that leads into Espanola, and so on. And I tried to listen to what the characters wanted. Those two things gave the book its direction.


But I didn’t know it would end on that shore of Matanzas Beach where the intracoastal feeds into the Atlantic. I arrived there because, after the characters had dinner, I wondered what Daniel would want to do before he returned home, and that’s how we got that drive.


But once I found the setting of the end of the book—the destination for the journey—I still had some things to figure out.


One was the question of how this journey had changed Daniel, and what effect it would have on its future, and some of that is talked about in the second-to-last chapter.


It also seemed important that Daniel, who felt prematurely old because of his exposure to violence and because of the passing of his onetime best friend, finally feel young again.


But it was also important that the novel discuss not only what the journey has helped him understand but also what he still misunderstands.


To some degree, the distance between what he knows and doesn’t know is measurable in the distance between the things that Daniel alludes to explicitly (The Odyssey, Lord of the Rings, etc.) and the authors that the novel alludes to without being explicit (Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Lucille Clifton).


But this sense of the limitations of Daniel and Desmond’s knowledge are also where the impulse for the Egypt chapter came from. (Desmond, after all, confidently proclaims that Egypt will sleep all night in the car, though that is far from true.)


I knew I wanted to write in Egypt’s voice somewhere in the manuscript—in an earlier draft, there was a chapter in the middle of the book from her perspective—but it wasn’t until I looked at that second to last chapter and thought about the limits of the story that I decided to move Egypt’s chapter from the middle to the end to give her the last word.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Good question! Nothing, in some ways, and a lot of things, in others. I have some book reviews on deck and I’m trying to write some essays that are more driven by personal narrative than the argumentative or review essays I’ve been writing recently. I’m also trying to shape up some short stories to send out.


I’m being vague. Sometimes, I worry that if I talk about something before it’s really done, then it’ll slip through my hands and disappear. Or I’ll have ruined it by describing it in one way before I really know what I’m describing and find myself no longer interested in that thing because I hate the description that I’ve given it, even if that description is inaccurate.


All of this is to say, I may or may not be working on another novel. If I were, I would want to write something in the third person with a large cast of characters. I’d also like to tell a few more jokes and lean a bit more into the comedic voice.


And I’d like to cover a broader span of Flagler County’s history; I’m especially interested in the history of Jamaican migration to the region, in the almost boomtown that Bunnell thought it would become when the railroad lines were laid, and in the sugar plantations of the area. But I can’t really say more than that because the truth is, I don’t know what this thing I’m imagining will be yet.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Mostly that the songs that Daniel and Desmond reference are worth looking up and listening to.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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