Interview with Rey Andújar

By Rojo Robles
Translated into English language by Kate O’Brien
Originally published in Spanish at 80grados.net

yo-solo-rey-andujar

In the fall of 2011 I received in the mail an autographed copy of Saturnalia by Rey Andújar. I read it on a train. To read it underground worked for me. The dirty subway of New York went well with Rey’s dark and somber stories. In Saturnalia, Manhattan, Río Piedras, Santurce, and that Old San Juan that I got to know so well, are profoundly captured. The familiar, the references and the atmospheres, were an incentive to devour the book. I felt close. It was a time capsule.

 

Rey and I were neighbors in a casco San Juanero while he wrote Saturnalia. We would pass in the streets, speaking about projects; we did a piece together. We both left Puerto Rico at the same time, he for Chicago, me for New York. The book is a link to what is left.

 

The first edition of Saturnalia (National Editor, Minister of Dominican Culture) ran out quickly. Now in 2013, it has been published again by the excellent publishing house Siete Vientos, those responsible for the gem And The Hippies Came (Llegaron los hippies) by Manuel Abreu Adorno. With the joy involved with this re-issue, I share this conversation with Rey.

 

How did Saturnalia come about?

In the Contemporary Art Museum of Chicago I got to know the works of William Kentridge, and this piece in particular especially caught my attention. So much so that while I was going back home I was already thinking about “The Redemption of Mrs. Kentridge,” which is for me one of the best stories in the collection. When I returned to Puerto Rico in the fall, I already I had a good amount of drafts. During that time I was working the graveyard shift at the Hotel Da House and sometimes as the bartender in Nuyorican. During those nights I wrote stories frantically and listened to jazz records…always the same, Coltrane, Horace Silver, Monk, and Miles. I was also listening to a lot of Frank Zappa, Captain Beefhart, Tom Waits, and, as always, the merengues of Fernando Villalona. It’s easy to find these references, among many others, in my writing.

I wrote for almost a year without stopping. I finished thirty-three and something stories. Rounding it out turned out this Saturnalia. I sent it to a contest and won a prize and like that the first edition came out, which for extraliterary reasons sold out quickly.

 

Some story collections function as anthologies of the author’s short texts. They bring together a scattered work. It seems to me that Saturnalia doesn’t fall within this line as the stories already maintain unexpected links, from themes to environments to geographic spaces. With that in mind, what internal logics bring the book into play?

Although one who writes is always evolving, I can say that I am still in a formative phase. I’m always learning to write. For me this process has a lot of laboratory, of unlearning, of experimentation. Before Saturnalia, I decided to get some background in theatre and performance and regain some basics. I decided to write without having a direction, something like automatic writing, while I was collaborating with companies and various groups (Sociedad Anónima, with El Kibutz…with Y people there was no light…) To write without pressure is the best break that a writer can give himself, and to be surrounded by such intense people, with such diverse interests, has opened doors and windows for me. This exercise freed my hand and the control I used in Saturnalia.

The connections and contradictions in the book are given by inertia, because the one who writes is listening to the story, the characters. I owe a lot to Pepe Liboy and Font Acevedo, now that I’ve read them carefully, and I know how well they handle the subject of placing the characters in unusual situations through various stories in the same collection. I wrote many stories to follow this anthology. Some of them are not to my liking but I left them because to my understanding they conversed much better with the universe, with the microcosms of the book as a whole. Maybe among the discarded someone will find something better than those selected. This also proves that more than writing well, the writer is faced with the “misery of choice,” as one of the stories says.

 

Some of the stories in Saturnalia narrate a type of very current Puerto Rican experience, specifically the life of a San Juanian. To what extent and in what way do these stories work as catalysts from your own experience living in this city?

Saturnalia is my most boricua book, although the idea itself emerged in Chicago, during a trip I took at the end of summer in 2009. Secretly, even for me, a plan was brewing to move to this city in a relatively short time. These stories are a certain form of farewell to my boricua time, specifically time in San Juan, that has really marked my work and that lives on in me.

I left Santo Domingo with a great interest in and rudimentary understanding of theatre and writing. In New York I met Urayoán Noel, with whom I attended various readings. At one of those banquets I met Awilda Sterling and that was an experience for me. Urayoán suggested to me that I could write stories, and a year later I was writing “The meat factor.” Many things changed. Some years later I traveled, until by accident I ended up in Puerto Rico, where they welcomed me warmly. It’s in Puerto Rico where I received my education. I had the opportunity to collaborate with great artists like Nelson Rivera and Carmen Zeta, and to study with great masters: Lilliana Ramos Collado, Juan Gelpí, Luis Felipe Díaz, Iván Silén…In the Dominican it wasn’t possible to do so, for many reasons. Along the same lines I confess that it is in Puerto Rico where I began to study carefully Dominican literature, as a result of some classes I took with Miguel Ángel Fornerín. Living in Puerto Rico made me more Dominican.

The act of writing so far and so close allows me to not be careful with accents, to play with them. You see that I say accent and not stereotypes. There are literatures like those of Wilfredo Matos Cintrón and now Luis Negrón that add an accent of outside, of the other islands, which come in handy as part of the Antillean discourse we have apparently taken up again. I say again because Puerto Rico has been home to people like Fornerín, Néstor Rodríguez, and Rita Indiana, to name a few. Saturnalia is many things. It is also a way to recognize influences, to recognize that Puerto Rico and the Republic are connected, strongly, on many levels.

The book is also an homage: it is of course altered—in this book characters by the name of Eduardo Alegría appear, for example; it also speaks of Mar and Macha Colón in discotheque version, and there is a story based on a video by Quintín Rivera Toro.

 

The feeling of displacement is frequent in the characters of the stories. Could you elaborate on this topic?

The concept of travel is precious to me. From a young age I had an understanding of moving and my first trip on a plane took me to Puerto Rico at six years old. These visits would repeat in an itinerant fashion. Others islands where I lived or visited were: Curazao, Aruba, and Bonaire. I understood early on that the caribeño travels seldom for pleasure and our travels were significant. During the eighties and at the end of the nineties, any woman who said she was going to Curazao was labeled a prostitute. To go to the U.S. meant long waits, the production of impossible documents, lots of luck, and then, if it happened, well, then that position of being committed to remittances. Borges says that there is nothing more terrible than to owe a favor.

My characters travel because I’m interested in different perspectives. They travel physically, but I also work into these stories the possibility for change, to transform a character in a linear narrative. That change is also a trip.

 

The Siete Vientos edition is a bilingual flipbook. What aspects of the the English translation have caught your attention in this process? What light has it shed on the texts? What shadows?

What has surprised me the most about the process with Kolin is the honesty. First I read his stories, and the fact that he lived in the Dominican for a while and is married to a Dominican woman completed the matter. The codes were grappled with better in that sense. He also managed to transmit more of the somber atmosphere of the text. As a writer I wasn’t interested in a word by word translation of the text; as an artist I was interested in the way he could make the book his own. I have a lot of respect for the art of translation. One of the first books I read to the point of affectation was Memorias de Adriano, translated by Cortázar. I like to say that it was the first of Cortázar’s books that I read.

Kolin was able to convey an interesting sense of Caribbean unease and detachment. The book in English is much clearer and more direct, more agile, I would say, than the Spanish version, which is more musical and accented. Regarding the edition as such: look Rojo, I’ve made all the mistakes that a writer can make, in terms of publication, I mean. Please don’t associate a mistake with a shortcoming, as I already appreciate all the books that I’ve published, because those books are in reality one, and everyone is saying things about the previous books or what is coming next. I don’t finish a book and start on another one, as my process is very open. I spend a lot of time in my jungle, on my wild farm, and I am always on the hunt. A book for me is the result of many coincidences and goes beyond the finished matter. How do I feel about the Siete Vientos edition? I feel closer to the book that I’ve always wanted to publish.

 

How would you describe your new creative process in Chicago? Has the city altered your methods or discoveries concerning writing and performance?

I left Puerto Rico with some nervousness because it was the second time I was trying to go to the US. But the conditions were different. The education I received on the island helped me to find the structure that I needed to settle in Chicago and write my thesis. While I was looking for work as a teacher, I worked for two years in the basement of a hotel, in the telecommunications department. It was a job that required more than 40 hours of work per week. I never felt panicked or afraid for my writing. Quite the opposite. I put as much work into the thesis as I did in my job in the hotel. I told myself that if the Guatemalans, Salvadorians, Mexicans and others with whom I shared the city were working three or four jobs at one time, I could buckle down and work hard, too. One could say that the precariousness of the islands and the biting cold and reality filled me with a sense of unknown circumstance. This exercise continues and is becoming an important resource for my creative work. I’ve taken up again the study of the dramaturgy of the body and one could say that the readings for the thesis and the things I learned at a corporal level gave me more strength and creative freedom.

If Puerto Rico was my school, Chicago has become my workshop. I work constantly on theatre and performance projects and I collaborate on literary magazines. As a result of the work with Antípoda, they have commissioned me to do another monologue for the Aquijón Theatre, which will premiere in 2014. Regarding fiction, well, I’ve continued working on stories. It’s the genre to which I’m dedicating the most affection at the moment. Writing stories is as much a challenge as a pleasure and I feel very good in my condition: living in the moment.

 

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