"A Movement Towards Life" — Elias Rodriques

Elias Rodriques on grief, Florida, and his debut novel, All the Water I've Seen is Running

Charlie Lee:

Your novel begins with a line from Ishion Hutchinson's poem "The Mariner's Progress": "Geography is not fate but fatal." It struck me as particularly fitting and illuminating for the book as a whole. Can you tell me about why you chose it?

Elias Rodriques:

I tried like 50 different epigraphs. One was from Rosa Guy's Bird at My Window: "No, I’ve never been young, or satisfied, or happy. I have only lived my life on the periphery of a dream." That one captures my narrator’s plight in many ways, but that book’s plot revolves, in part, around incest, so its plot doesn’t quite fit. There was also a Terrance Hayes line that I played around with from "Lighthead's Guide to the Galaxy": "Brothers and sisters, when you spend your nights out on a limb, there's a chance you'll fall in your sleep." And I was reading a lot of Ishion Hutchinson as I was writing, and I just came across so many great lines. For a while it was "their ragged music pitching diaspora against despair," also from "The Mariner's Progress." I think in some ways that captures a lot about the book. It's a book about people who are experiencing despair trying to use diaspora — in the Stuart Hall form, identity made through and across difference — to persist and to survive.

But the more I thought about it, the more I became drawn to "geography is not fate but fatal." I think that the movement between causal determinism (“fate”) and the question of death (“fatality”) is the tension I'm interested in here. It's also relevant to both Florida and Jamaica. There's a close connection between death and the feeling of determinism for Black people in much of the American South and also in the Caribbean. Both, of course, are sites of tremendously horrific historical and ongoing violence, violence that is distributed on the basis of race and that leads towards premature death. So what can one do to move or act within that very limited space between fatality and fate? That, I think, is the question many of us face.

CL: Much of the novel is pervaded with this sense of trying desperately to regain something that's been lost, whether that's a person, or a place, or a time. What is it that draws you to that idea?

ER: Grieving is certainly the thing that I have thought most about in the last decade. On an autobiographical level, I wrote this book during a period in which I lost many people — friends, family members, some who were young, and who seemed like they had died too soon, and others who had lived to old age and had full lives. And that was tremendously hard. Experiencing all this loss in my mid-twenties, I was looking around at my friends, asking, “Why the fuck is nobody else having to go to this many funerals? What is it that I’ve done? What's put me in this position?” Being faced with that much loss led me pretty directly to a question of how I could regain. In my mind, I was good on Monday, and on Tuesday I found out this fucked up thing, and I was trying to figure out how to get back to feeling whole. But I also tried to regain in the sense that I had to confront for the first time that there were people to whom I would not be able to return, whom I would not be able to call ever again.

As I moved through that period, I became quite aware, on the one hand, that regaining or returning was an impossibility, and on the other hand, that the things we try to regain, we actually never had, and the places we try to return to, we actually never knew. Of course, this is an old story in literature. It's certainly there in European classics from the Odyssey to Proust, and in a great deal of Black literature of the 20th century, especially Sula. That realization was very difficult for me, that returning would be impossible. And yet the thought of it remains seductive. This is true for Daniel, the narrator, as well. He knows it's impossible, and yet he keeps trying to do it. That's quite tragic to me, that Sisyphean futility, but it’s also very human. It’s a movement towards life, towards living.

CL: On that topic, something that recurs throughout the book is Daniel telling his friends (and telling himself) that he's going to move back to Florida, that he's going to return. None of his friends seem to believe him — I'm not sure I believe him. Do you? Or does that feel like an impossibility?

ER: I don’t know. We all have plans for the future, and who the fuck knows what's going to happen. After all, some of what Daniel is dealing with is the randomness of life. He had not expected his friend’s passing. Of course, there are causal factors here — the driver was drunk — but many people get in cars with drunk drivers and don't die. That doesn't mean drunk driving isn't dangerous — I'm just saying that people survive it. So the result can feel very random, which is difficult to come to terms with.

Thankfully, I no longer have the final say as to whether or not Daniel will return. Now that the book is published, I’m not the only person deciding what the story is and what it means. Readers get to determine or co-constitute its meaning. As a fellow reader of the book, I think that Daniel's belief that he's going to return is important for him in that it makes him feel whole. It allows him to be vulnerable and intimate with his friends. Most importantly, it makes him value a particular kind of Southern and Jamaican Blackness that he has otherwise isolated himself from. Having moved to New York, living this new life, he's disconnected from his high school friends and from his mother. The hope of his return —an idyllic, utopian hope — is in part about how he might come to value a particular kind of Blackness that he had sought to escape in his pursuit of class ascension.

CL: Speaking of what Daniel tried to escape by moving to New York, another thing he seems to be reckoning with is a particular type of masculinity. Most of the novel is focalized through the perspectives of Daniel and his male friends, and I think much of the story's poignancy emerges out of how these men manifest their complex feelings about each other. The book ends, though, with an unexpected shift to a woman's perspective, which casts all of these characters in an entirely different light. How do you think about the movement between those perspectives?

ER: When you return, you sort of give yourself up to a collective. You are made to confront the fact that geography determines who you are and that your friends and family determine who you are. When I'm in my mom's home, I'm basically a ten-year-old. That sounds absurd, but I think it's actually just part of what it means to return home. When you run away from home, as so many of us do, that running pushes you to believe that you alone determine who you are, which isn't quite true. Then when you return home, there's a reversion of sorts — this happens to Daniel. He's back in Florida and he's acting 16 again. I think that contrast between who he was in New York and who he is in Florida helps him realize that he's not self-determined. That helps him give himself up to the collective. The turn towards that new perspective in the final chapter was in part a way to honor that all of Daniel's experiences and realizations in the novel have been heavily contingent and limited. We realize that there are questions he doesn't know how to ask, just as there are parts of his family history he cannot know.

As for his masculinity, Daniel's relationship to his gender might seem fine or ethical to him, but is in fact quite troubling. That's meaningful to me, in part because I wanted this book to be about Daniel undergoing a process, moving towards a better version of himself and of his masculinity, even though we realize through the perspective shift at the end that the process is still very much ongoing. He's only 26, and he hopefully has a lot more life to live.

One aspect of this troubling masculinity is the way that it’s defined by women's deaths, even for queer men. This is what Emma Eisenberg's book, The Third Rainbow Girl, is partially about. Daniel has left the South and tried to leave behind his past, and then Aubrey dies and he tries to understand himself through her death, even as many characters in the book point out that doing so is fucked up. This is conditioned in part by 200 years of history. Rather than pretend that Daniel is free from that history, the novel tries to move through it and to see what people can do that is better than the cultural scripts that they have been given. This is part of how I think about history in general; rather than just act as though it didn’t happen, let’s reckon with what it has done to us and try to do better.

CL: It seems like one of the other transformations he goes through in the book is from being someone who can't speak, who can't say what he needs to say, to someone who can speak freely, in terms of coming out to his friends but in other ways as well. Is that ability or inability to express himself part of that struggle with masculinity that you're describing?

ER: Definitely. I don't know about you, but I know a lot of dudely dudes who basically don't talk. They'll say like five words in an hour. That's never been me, honestly; I may be a little bit more into the sound of my own voice than one should be. And I’m always trying to make my way into the shit talker’s hall of fame. But it does strike me as something that's very present in many of the men in my life and in Daniel's life. This emphasis on silence may seem strange in a novel in which dialogue is most of the action, but part of what I'm interested in is what can happen when people sit with their silence. Just because someone is not speaking doesn't mean they're not conversing. Often, Daniel's friend Desmond —nicknamed Loudmouth — will say things that slowly seep into how Daniel narrates his experiences. Not all silences are equal. Much of the story of this novel is an attempt to move from a repressed silence through a learning silence to a productive speaking.

CL: I'm curious about the role that fiction writing plays in your life. I know you're also an academic, and a teacher. How do you find those things balance each other? Do they play different roles for you in terms of your own thinking and expression?

ER: I don't have a great answer to this, though I wish I did. In terms of balancing fiction and academic work, I think I could do both better. My main way of dealing with both has been to just keep them very separate in my head. But in actuality, the two bleed into each other in ways that we don’t always realize. Writing this book, for example, it wasn't until the third draft that I was like, “Am I just writing the fucking Odyssey? There's a Telemachus character, an Odysseus, a Penelope, suitors... Damn it.”. And then another draft went by, and I was like, “Hold on, have I just been using fiction to work through Lose Your Mother and ‘Venus in Two Acts’ by Saidiya Hartman? What the fuck is going on here?” All of which is to say, we try really hard to erect whatever boundaries are personally useful for us, but that doesn't make them real. I wrote fiction from 9 to 11 in the morning, and then would have lunch and do my academic work after. But despite that boundary, those things ended up bleeding into each other.

At the same time, though, it would not be entirely fair of me to say that fiction writing does the same exact things that academic writing does. I chose to write fiction in part because I couldn't write nonfiction about the grief that I was experiencing. My therapist told me to keep a notebook about grieving. I tried, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to think about it. I just wanted to watch New Girl on repeat till I had the episodes memorized. But I was able to write about grief in fiction. The best fiction doesn't try to be academic, and it doesn't try to be nonfiction. It tries to take advantage of the particular affordances of its genre, even if the generic lines are blurry.

CL: To your point about accidentally writing the Odyssey, one of the things I was really reminded of while reading this was Omeros, by Derek Walcott. Were there books or writers or lineages that you felt yourself to be responding to or taking up while writing this?

ER: So, there were two books that I tried really hard not to write. One of them was Omeros. Part of that is because, well, that book is really fucking good. Who am I to compete with Walcott at the height of his powers? Trying not to write Omeros was helpful in some ways, because it enabled me to lean into some particularly Floridian aspects of the book. In other ways, though, at a certain point I just had to give in and realize that not only have I written the Odyssey, I've written the Odyssey as a Caribbean author, which is to say I wrote Omeros. Shit. The other book I tried really hard not to write was Invisible Man. I feel very mixed about that book. It's hard for me not to read that book as supporting an anti-leftist Cold War conservatism. And yet, at the end of drafting, I thought, “There are basically no physical descriptions of Daniel anywhere in the book. This is a very auditory book. Now, what does that remind me of? Oh no, I've done it again.”

This is all very Bloomian, in terms of the anxiety of influence, but there are other books that I was happy to wrestle with an inheritance from. My favorite book is Gayl Jones's narrative poem, Song for Anninho. I tried to learn from that book, from its attitude, which is effectively an attitude of not shying away from the real material traumas that persist throughout history, while also privileging the ways in which people survive and have valuable lives and are able to achieve something like cross-temporal love. In that book, Almeyda, a formerly enslaved woman who has fled her site of enslavement with her lover, Anninho, moves to Palmares, in Brazil. Palmares, this famous maroon settlement, is then burned down, and Anninho dies. At the end of the book, Almeyda says something to the effect of, now I make roads for you, Anninho. I think that idea of cross-temporal love gets at one of the big questions of the novel, which is to what degree we can actually move through time.

There are any number of other influences, of course — the music of Future, a bunch of crunk. Toni Morrison looms very large. Hurston, of course. But Gayl Jones's Song for Anninho showed me something that I had to keep searching for.

CL: You've spoken about the book's relationship to the past, and how people try to regain that which is lost in the past. I'm curious, also, about the book's relationship to the future. It seems to me that much of the futurity envisioned here is infused with a kind of ecological dread, a sense that all of these places and people will one day be underwater, quite literally. Is that sense of dread regarding the future something you intended to write about?

ER: Oh, absolutely. In many ways, the book is a trauma narrative. On the one hand, it's a post-trauma novel, in that it's about the kind of time travelling that accompanies trauma when you're in the present but feeling the danger of the past. But it's also a pre-trauma novel. At the same time that people see the beauty of the water, they're also deeply aware of its destructive force. In Flagler County, that road that Desmond and Daniel drive down in the second to last chapter was washed onto the beach in a hurricane a year after the book takes place. There's no pretending that loss isn’t on the way. Ideally, of course, it will be less bad, and people will make good decisions about ecological policies that will limit that loss and its distribution along all the classic subaltern axes, but from the present, it certainly looks like a catastrophe is coming.

A big part of what Daniel feels is this: I'm really sad that I lost this friend, and I'm also pissed that I'm going to lose other people, that I've been born into this world where I will lose other people, and that because of some decisions I had no part in making, I will especially have to lose many of the people that I know in Florida. Last week, one in five Covid cases in the US was in Florida. That's an unimaginable scale of violence and loss. It is so fucking heinous that there are people whose entire communities have been wiped out because of governmental policies. Part of what these characters are struggling with is how to live in this world with the knowledge that they'll have to lose people in part because of their race, their gender, their sexuality, their geography. How, then, knowing that this is true, can they move towards something like gratitude? Towards happiness? The fact of the matter is, they may not have chosen to be born in this world, and there are many things they can do to change it, but this is nonetheless the world they live in right now, and they have to come to value themselves in this moment.

I've recently been reading Rinaldo Walcott's book The Long Emancipation, in which he describes freedom not as a static juridical quality — say, as a legal right given by Emancipation — but as a movement from present bad conditions towards better conditions. I think that's a big part of where this novel is trying to end. Everyone is aware — I myself am aware — of all the tremendous loss that is ongoing in Florida in particular and in the world in general. So with that awareness, how can you move to a better place?

CL: Do you have a sense of what's next for you after this book, either in fiction or in your other work?

ER: Well, yes and no. You never really know if you have a novel until it's published. I'm writing something, but who knows if it's anything. I have any number of things that I've just thrown away or tucked into hidden corners of my computer, deeply embarrassing things that I thankfully realized were god awful.

I will say, though, that I've been reading a lot about Florida history, and especially about the Seminole Wars. The Second Seminole War in particular is a rather strange conflict, I think. It’s a conflict in which, essentially, formerly enslaved folk and indigenous people fight U.S. settlers from Florida to as far as New Mexico, or thereabouts. Prior to the Civil War, this is very likely the largest rebellion of enslaved people in the U.S. And yet it's not really the subject of a ton of history. Every year there's like, 30 new books about the Civil War, and the same cannot really be said about the Seminole War. That's really interesting to me. All the documents about it are so obviously full of holes, and all the sources are so obviously biased. Many of the sources that we have are from soldiers serving in the war. There's one particularly absurd moment in one of the narratives, in which the soldiers have to flee the plantation where they're stationed, and they leave behind the enslaved people they've been holding there and forcing to work. Then they come back and they're like, oh, the Seminoles burned down the plantation manor and the fields, but the enslaved people's homes were untouched...that must have been a mistake! And it's obviously not a mistake.

Because the documents are biased, history seems closer to rumor than to fact. I'm really interested in that kind of rumor, or gossip, and how it operates in a small town over time. I've heard any number of stories about my region's history that may or may not have been true. I'm particularly interested in how all these stories, even the ones that may not be true, still continue to animate social life, especially among poor people and poor Black people. I’d like to take seriously that there are social gestures and rumors that bear a lot of meaning and shape poor Black folks’ lives, but I don’t know what form writing about it will take.

CL: That sounds like it would be fascinating. Before we stop here, do you have any advice for younger writers?

ER: You know, when I was 22, I thought it would be really cool to be a published author. I thought it would lead to a broader popularity, or whatever. The older I got, I became more interested in what it would mean to publish this book for personal reasons. Then the book came out, and a lot of my friends had reactions to it that were really meaningful to me. I had a friend who texted me the day it came out, saying, this is so cool, and also I'm really sorry for all the fucked up shit I've done to you in the past. And I was like, oh, I didn't write this book to make you feel bad, but also I'm really sorry for all the fucked up shit I've done to you, too. I didn't really anticipate the meaningful interactions that would come of publishing a book, from people in my community whom I already value and trust. I think many of the best books come out of an honoring of some sort of obligation to one's particular community. You still have to live your life once the book comes out. If it's going to piss somebody off, you have to live with those consequences. So I think being guided by a sense of honoring those whose opinions you value can be a good way of steering yourself in what is ultimately a pretty tumultuous ocean.

Charlie Lee

co-founded Soft Punk with Jacob Barnes in the summer of 2019. He is an assistant editor at Harper's Magazine.

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