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The Other Side of Alienation is Freedom: An Interview with Sandra Rodriguez Barron

Ivelisse Rodriguez, PhD


Editor's note: This interview is the seventh in a series that will focus on contemporary Puerto Rican authors. To read the previous interview with Eleanor Parker Sapia, click here

Author bio: Sandra Rodriguez Barron was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in El Salvador, and lives in Connecticut. She is the author of The Heiress of Water, which won first place for debut fiction at the 2007 International Latino Book Awards and was a Borders Original Voices selection. Her second novel, Stay with Me, was a finalist for the 2011 Connecticut Book Award. Sandra is the grateful recipient of support from The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The Greater Hartford Arts Council, the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, and the Connecticut Commission on Culture & Tourism. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University and teaches in the Western Connecticut State University (low-residency) MFA Program.

Ivelisse Rodriguez: Both your novels, The Heiress of Water (2006) and Stay with Me (2010), are set in Connecticut, which has the 6th largest percentage of Puerto Ricans in the continental US. There are large communities of Puerto Ricans in cities like Hartford, Bridgeport, Waterbury, etc. However, your characters live in towns like Branford, far away from any Puerto Rican enclave. Most of your main characters are not Puerto Rican, but are Latinx or half-Latinx, and they do not engage with the local Latinx population; instead, they are individuals, without a community. A great deal of Puerto Rican literature in the continental US is rooted in community, so this is how your texts diverge from those narratives. What is the story of the individual you want to tell?

Sandra Rodriguez Barron: My paternal grandfather migrated from rural Puerto Rico to New Britain, Connecticut, in the 1950s to work in a factory. The family might have remained in that Puerto Rican enclave forever, but my father, freshly out of college, joined the Peace Corps and set us on a more unusual path. His extraordinary talent for teaching and his reputation in the Peace Corps opened doors to an array of interesting jobs around Latin America, and I was born in Puerto Rico while he was working in the Dominican Republic.

My family wasn’t rich by any stretch of the imagination, but my father had a lot of energy and charisma and interesting opportunities seemed to flow to him. This is why I didn’t grow up in an enclave, why we didn’t lay down roots in New Britain, and why my novels diverge from the traditional narratives. I write what I know, of course, which is the story of the suburbanite, the traveler, and the transplant. Here is a section from my forthcoming novel, tentatively titled Aix, which best illustrates the story of the individual I want to tell. Vivian Fuentes is trying to find her tribe at a study abroad program in Aix-en-Provence, France.

Study abroad had a major perk in that you got two weeks for spring break instead of one. By the end of March, I sensed the nervous scramble of children in a game of musical chairs. Who was going where? Who needed a travel group? Throughout the semester, the Miami Latinas had been friendly to me, but I found them cliquey and impenetrable. Just like the blonde Texans who sat behind me in political science, the Latinas all knew each other before coming to France, and it seemed that they were a self-sustaining community. They glided back and forth on the Cours Mirabeau like swans—pretty, polite, disinterested. One of them kept promising to call sometime so we could all go out. But April came and that still hadn’t happened. I was grateful to have found Stephanie and Morgan, even more so when they agreed on Spain and Portugal as our destination for spring break.

There are scores of writers willing and able to speak from inside the enclave. In the meantime, I’ll tell the story of the one-eyed cat who doesn’t really fit in anywhere. Artistically, I think it works because fiction is all about trouble, and a person of color who isn’t protected by “the herd” is even more vulnerable than those who can retreat into the protection of a community. I went to a high school where there were exactly three students in the entire school who identified as “Hispanic” (to use the correct terminology of the time). I was shy, quiet, bookish. I got scorned sometimes. I was bullied. As a child, my favorite book was Island of the Blue Dolphins, based on the true story of a Nicoleño Native American girl left alone for eighteen years on San Nicolas Island. She learns to defend herself from attacks by wild animals and starvation and extreme weather. Symbolically, I could relate to it. I thought the book was about me.

I love the idea that the best person to hold a mirror up to society is someone who is standing at the outer edge. I’ve recently discovered the work of Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector. Originally from the Ukraine, Lispector is deeply Brazilian, but she doesn’t sound like any other Brazilian writer. Benjamin Moser, her biographer, writes that Lispector’s outsider background “left her less susceptible to the received ideas of Brazilian society.” He points out that artistically, there is an advantage because “to be a foreigner … was a productive cultural alienation, and the other side of alienation is freedom.” For many of us outliers, root culture is something that stands in sharp relief against the dominant culture (for me, it’s the white suburbs), whereas if you live in New York or Hartford, there are more opportunities to blend in. I lived in Miami for ten years, and I speak Spanish, so I felt like a chameleon; I blended in perfectly in most circles. In Puerto Rico, they say I’m more Salvadoran. In El Salvador, they say I’m more Puerto Rican. I guess my people are the hybrids.

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IR: While you don’t focus on the enclaves in Connecticut, it is significant that you use Connecticut as your setting because it shifts away from a Nuyorican experience. There are other locales that are often the sites of Latinx literature, like Los Angeles, Texas, Miami, etc. What does the choice of Connecticut as a setting add to the oeuvre of Latinx literature?

SRB: If art is about seeing things in a new way, then it’s essential that we push the boundaries of how we, as Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans in general, portray ourselves in literature and art. For a first-generation college student, going outside the comfort zone might be just “surviving” the first day of classes. For someone else, it might be learning to figure skate or engaging in extreme photography or traveling to another continent. As a reader, I’m always on the lookout for novels, memoirs, or stories about Latinos abroad. I absolutely loved the part in Sandra Cisneros’ A House of My Own where she describes her time in Greece. Sometimes the encounter with the “other” is a collision, other times it can be a bridge. I know two Puerto Rican women who live in Sweden. Unfortunately, they aren’t writers, because a memoir about Boricuas in Scandinavia is a perspective the world needs to hear. Imagine the challenge (or futility?) of trying to find ingredients to make pasteles in Stockholm. I imagine a helpful Swedish shopkeeper offering rutabaga as a substitute for yautía, and that this would remind the woman in the story of some other irreplaceable thing in her life, and she would start to weep because it’s Christmas, and she can’t make pasteles with rutabaga and suddenly the quest for yautía and sofrito is symbolic of love and family and loss, and suddenly it’s not just about food anymore. It’s revealing.

IR: Bodies of water are important in both of your novels—the sea can carry orphans to a new life, the ocean borders a family compound, and a body of water is a place of tranquility. In your work, how does the sea or bodies of water help connect people?

SRB: Anyone lucky enough to grow up near the sea knows that bodies of water can contain an emotional footprint. Just like champagne evokes celebration, the sea can have strong associations, especially if they are forged in childhood. For me, sea coasts are rich with memories of being in the best emotional space with my loved ones. I think that’s why I chose it as a place of healing for my characters in both novels. There’s a joyful scene in Stay with Me in which the main character, David, who has brain cancer, is experiencing the bio-luminescent bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico, for the first time. It connects him to his siblings, and the strange beauty of Mosquito Bay transports them all to a child-like state of wonder:

By the time we bungee our kayaks to each other in the middle of the bay, we are floating in an otherworldly field of curling, sparkling light. Never before have I heard adults giggle and squeal and carry on the way we do tonight. We don’t know what to do with ourselves, we can’t believe what we’re seeing.

In The Heiress of Water, the mother, Alma, is a marine biologist who believes that the ocean has a spiritual intelligence. She’s so intimately connected to the sea that it’s part of her anatomy:

At one point during their walk, Monica said something that made them both laugh. It was then that Monica recognized, for the first time, the subtle phenomenon that was her mother’s soul. Bewildered, Monica looked from her mother to the sea and back. Unbelievably, the sound that had burst from Alma’s insides was identical to the music that water makes as it folds onto itself.

In Heiress, everything important happens on the shore. Alma is last seen on a beach and the mystery of her disappearance can also be found there. Another unifying principle in the plot lines is the idea of absent mothers. Themes of motherhood, birth, and abandonment are symbolically connected by the steady presence of the life-giving sea in both novels.

IR: Both your novels deal with intense illnesses where characters lose control over their bodies. Your characters also have an elusive hold on what home means. How do you connect the sense of alienation in one’s body with one’s alienation in her/his physical space?  

  • I’ve heard it said that every story is about going home. If a character is dying, they’re going to experience echoes of the same emotions as someone exiled from a geographical place. I connect the themes of bodies and bodies of water by having the circumstances of the illness tied to each character’s need to be loved. In The Heiress of Water, Yvette, a young wife, runs into the man who broke her heart many years ago. Distracted by her memories, she flips her car and ends up in a permanent vegetative state. In Stay with Me, David’s plan for survival depends on forgiveness from Julia, the same girlfriend he pushed away just a month before learning he has cancer. Julia is his emotional home, and he has to find his way back into her heart.

I wanted her to know that she was more than my beacon. I needed her to be the very bones that hold me up.

IR: What are you working on now and how does it depart from your previous texts?

SRB: My third novel is very different from my other works. It’s much lighter, more romantic. No war, nobody dies. It’s not even set near water. As I mentioned before, it’s tentatively titled Aix, and its set in the South of France. It’s a first-person account of a young woman’s study abroad trip. Despite her plans for a future with her long-time boyfriend back home, Vivian falls in love with Kaspar, a French scholar, a relationship that wreaks havoc on her life and incurs the wrath of her conservative mother. I cite Under the Tuscan Sun and A Year in Provence as literary cousins, although Vivian has a much darker past--rooted in the Latin American post-colonial struggle--than the protagonists of those novels. I just finished it; it’s going off to an agent soon.

Born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, Ivelisse Rodriguez grew up in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She earned a B.A. in English from Columbia University, an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College, and a Ph.D. in English-creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her short story collection, Love War Stories, is forthcoming from The Feminist Press in summer 2018. The Belindas, a fiction chapbook, is forthcoming from Tammy in summer 2017. She is the senior fiction editor at Kweli, a Kimbilio fellow, and a VONA/Voices alum. She is currently working on the novel The Last Salsa Singer about 70s era salsa musicians in Puerto Rico. To learn more about Ivelisse visit: http://www.ivelisserodriguez.com.

© Ivelisse Rodriguez. Published by permission in Centro Voices 20 February 2018.
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