Interview by Elena Britos
I first met Dariel Suarez in Boston, where I had the good fortune of taking a writing class he was teaching. At that time, he was also honing a story collection, which would become A Kind of Solitude (Willow Springs Books). The collection went on to win the 2017 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction. It was such a pleasure to pick up Suarez’s collection for the first time and see stories I recognized as friends, along with many I had not had the opportunity to read. His first novel, The Playwright’s House, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press.
Suarez’s subject is Cuba: a nation of islanders whose individual ambitions and disappointments are always tied to the political due to the ubiquitous hand of government in daily life. Suarez was born and raised in Havana, and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1997, during the island’s economic crisis known as The Special Period.
Dariel Suarez is an inaugural City of Boston Artist Fellow and the Director of Core Programs and Faculty at GrubStreet. His prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Kenyon Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, North American Review, Third Coast, Southern Humanities Review, WBUR’s Cognoscenti, and The Caribbean Writer, where his work was awarded the First Lady Cecile de Jongh Literary Prize.
The following conversation was conducted via email in winter 2019.
Interviewer: You are from Havana originally, and moved to the United States as a teenager. Both of your books, A Kind of Solitude and The Playwright’s House, are set in Cuba. As a writer with a Cuban identity writing in English, do you see yourself writing toward an international audience? How much does audience play into storytelling for you?
Dariel Suarez: Language is always the starting point for me when it comes to audience. I’m writing stories set in a Spanish-speaking Caribbean country, so every word I write in English is an act of not just literary translation but cultural translation as well. Because of this, it’s important that I remain true, as much as I can, to the sensibilities of the place and people I’m writing about. Which is to say that the main audience I keep in mind is Cuban. However, because of my interests in international literature, I also hope one day a more international audience will come across my work. I trust my reader’s intelligence and curiosity, so I don’t like explaining things or overdoing context, but I do imagine someone very different from me entering into a dialogue with my fiction. I want to make sure I provide enough opportunities for them to engage. More personally, I have a very good friend, Artem, who was born in the Ukraine and grew up in New York. He reads and critiques everything I write. His artistic and social sensibilities are as close to mine as I’ve found in another person, so when I’m writing, I occasionally ask myself: what would Artem think? It’s incredibly useful.
Who are your literary loves and influences?
I originally got into writing because of people like Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Borges. As I’ve gotten older, my taste has grown more contemporary and diverse. I love authors who trust their readers, who are nuanced and raw and understand the human condition in ways I aspire to. Internationally, I love writers such as Elena Ferrante, J.M. Coetzee, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Juan Gabriel Vásquez, Javier Marías, Han Kang, Mariana Enríquez, Marlon James, and Alejandro Zambra. In terms of American lit, I lean toward Aleksandar Hemon, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Jesmyn Ward, Teju Cole, André Aciman, and Lauren Groff. I’m continually inspired by so much of their work, and I’m always on the lookout for newly translated fiction.
I’d like to talk about your collection, A Kind of Solitude. You write the landscape of Cuba and the (individual, collective, dangerous, humorous) ways its people cope with political oppression. I am always interested in writers’ processes of writing about home—what were the challenges of doing so, if any?
Distance, both physical and psychological, is the biggest challenge. I like that being away from Cuba allows me to have a broader, perhaps more practical perspective, since I can look at things from the outside. But I sometimes question whether I should be the one writing these stories, whether my details and language and cultural references will feel genuine to someone who lives there. When you don’t live in the world you’re exploring, you encounter endless questions as you’re putting a narrative together, creating characters, threading a plot. When that world is your native country, the stakes feel higher, the process harder. Also, although having left the island has given me freedom to write what I want, the political elements in my fiction will likely keep it from being published in Cuba, at least until the situation there changes. It’s something I’m aware of when I write, and which brings me sadness.
One of my favorite stories in the collection is “Primal Voice,” about a metal band trying to find footing in the government-surveilled arts scene. I know you enjoy playing guitar yourself, and that you are a bit of a foreign film buff. How have music, film, and other art influenced your writing? What feeds you artistically?
Movies have definitely influenced my writing. Many scenes in classic and foreign films have inspired particular moments in my stories and novel. Bicycle Thieves, Children of Paradise, Autumn Sonata, A Separation, Leviathan—they’ve all found their way into my work one way or another. I watch films searching for ideas on how to handle specific images, a moment between two characters, subtle lines of dialogue that just shatter you or make you pause. The same with television shows, especially novelistic or stylistically ambitious ones. I think shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Atlanta can teach you about narrative, about how to handle a story arc, develop a character, or layer a situation with humor and tension in ways that are truly resonant and representative of who and how we are.
In terms of music, I’m a proud metalhead. But I love music in general. I’m always listening to something when I write. I have two playlists for this: one is eleven hours long, the other twenty hours. Without them I wouldn’t be as productive.
What is the last book you read that knocked your socks off?
I’m going to cheat and give you two: The Vegetarian by Han Kang and Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue. The first for how raw, haunting, and intimate it felt, despite the shifts in perspective. The second for its exploration of Aztec history. It reminded me that dominant cultures tend to be the ones whose narratives we ultimately consume, and that if we truly want to understand the world and ourselves, we should seek out the stories that have been silenced or ignored.
Your debut novel, The Playwright’s House, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press. What advice do you have for first-time novelists regarding how to create a sustainable writing life?
Dariel Suarez: Learn to fall in love with the process of creating. I mean the process of sitting down as often as you can to write, regardless of how good or bad the writing might be, how difficult you might find it to come up with a decent sentence or word, to see what lies ahead or remember what you’ve already written. Drafting a novel is a messy endeavor (and I say this as someone who likes to plan and outline and have an ending in mind early on), so you have to be committed, you have to believe when no one else does, and you have to love what you’re doing to the point of near-obsession. Only then will you surprise yourself and fight through the uncertainty and self-doubt and mental exhaustion and realize you might actually have a story worth sharing with a reader.
I remember you telling me once that revision is one of your favorite parts of the writing process. Has your approach to revision changed at all moving out of writing short fiction and into the novel form?
Not really. I still know my first drafts are atrocious for the most part, but this is fine because the work at that point isn’t over, it’s actually just getting started. That knowledge alone gives me a tremendous amount of freedom and hope. This is shitty? No problem, I have weeks, months, or even years to fix it. Revision is where I can see the missing links, discard the unnecessary, strengthen the language. Meaning becomes clearer to me, too, the more I read something critically. Revision is a process of discovery and rediscovery, or realization and refinement, of ambition and humility. In some ways, it’s where the best writing happens. You get to have conversations with yourself and your characters. You get to read stuff out loud and hear how good or bad it is. You get to share drafts and receive feedback. You can see the work evolving. It’s really quite something.
You are a fiction writer as well as an educator, and Director of Core Programs at GrubStreet Writing Center in Boston. I know that recently you have been putting in a lot of effort at GrubStreet to remodel what writing workshops can look like. Can you talk about how your own experiences in creative writing workshops have influenced the changes you are hoping to make in the way creative writing is talked about and taught?
I learned a lot in the creative writing classes I took as an undergrad and MFA student. Many of my professors had good things to teach me, and some of my classmates’ feedback and writing pushed me to be better. But I also encountered a fair number of rules for fiction, “do’s and don’ts,” simplistic definitions of plot, and diagrams about rising and falling action that did nothing for me except make it seem like writing was ultimately about figuring out a formula. Furthermore, most of what I was taught was strictly white American, largely male, and in the realist and minimalist tradition. I was often asked to explain elements of my work because it was set in Cuba, or because the language felt “awkward” or “a bit off.” I watched as some of my classmates received harmful feedback or had their identities and experiences completely silenced because, you know, “we’re here to talk craft.” The work we’re doing at GrubStreet aims to be more inclusive and diverse in approach. Anyone who tells you that you should always show and never tell, or that we shouldn’t be discussing race or culture in a workshop hasn’t read a good international story or novel, or anything written by a writer of color. They themselves are probably a mediocre writer who thinks a sentence devoid of adverbs is the highest form of artistic achievement.
What’s next for you?
At the moment, I’m working on a personal essay about my childhood interest in science, the U.S. vs. Soviet Union space race, migration, and my relationship with my grandfather. Beyond that, I’ve started working on a second novel set in South Florida and dealing, among other things, with the world of human trafficking. I’ve also written a couple of stories for a second collection exploring the lives of Cuban characters in different parts of the world.
Elena Britos is the fiction editor of Nashville Review.