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Writing and Environment: an Interview with Dr. Rojo Robles

by Melesa Santiesteban

Professor Rojo Robles’ work is a prime example of how writing can influence one’s environment. Thanks to his literary efforts as well as other authors, awareness is being brought to historical events such as the recent protests against corruption in Puerto Rico about the Nuyorican movement, and the performativity of the Afro Latinx identities.  These writings can give a voice and inspire activism within the Puerto Rican and Latinx communities as well.

In interviewing Professor Robles, I hoped to uncover the influences of the environment on one’s writing and how that writing can intern influence one’s environment. When referring to one’s environment I don’t simply mean one’s community, but also the current political and social events that impact them directly and indirectly. I theorize that just as one’s writing can be influenced by their environment, published writings also play a role in shaping one’s environment. I have aimed my questions to focus on proving this theory.

 

Do you ever take inspiration from your own life?

It depends on the project, but most times, yes. I have not written an autobiography or a memoir yet but many elements of my life, my family’s history or even anecdotes from friends sneak in. They do it in a disguised or distorted way. For instance, I have a character, Sabatar, that is a veteran. My abuelo is a veteran of the Korean War and I used some things he had mentioned through the years but the character is not a direct representation of him. Sabatar is just slightly inspired by him and his post-traumatic stress disorder after the war. In my most recent book, I wrote a story based to some extent on my experiences teaching in a private school in Brooklyn, but again I used some small needed details to give a sense of truth to the story, but if you read it, it’s not a narration of something that really happened.

 

How would you say your environment has influenced your writing?

My first novel, The Maladjusted, has many impressions on San Juan and other parts of Puerto Rico and my story collection Escapistas describes Puerto Rico, New York, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn. San Juan is seen in my work as a dark, chaotic but warm and vibrant space that ignites creativity and a lot of interaction and sparks between people. Meanwhile, I portrait New York, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn as a transcultural maze full of adventures but also socio-economic and racial tensions. When younger, I used to write more about abstract, imagined spaces but increasingly I am including more and more of my surroundings and socio-cultural observations.

 

How have current events in Latinx history influenced your writing?

I’m currently writing a poetry collection inspired by the Nuyorican movement then-and-now. Slowly events such as last summer protests on the island or the humanitarian crisis at the border are finding their way into the texts. The critique on U.S. colonialism, racism and discrimination against Puerto Ricans and Latinx people is stronger than in previous projects. At the same time, I’m celebrating poets, remixing lines and verses from a movement that has thrived against all odds. The poetic and artistic persistence is at the center of my collection.

In terms of my scholarly work, I am also developing a collection of essays on Afro Caribbean and diasporic film that is reflecting on representations of blackness, and the collaboration between African American filmmakers and Caribbean artists. Although this research and perhaps book are in a very early stage, one of my main points is that the relationship between different artistic sectors of the African diaspora has been and continues to be porous and constant, more than most people think.

 

With the rise in opportunities for Latinos, where do you see the Latino literature movement in regards to the next generation?

If we are talking about the U.S. I am feeling hopeful but the road is long and full of obstacles and white supremacy. The numbers are just slowly increasing from zero percent.

I have observed that many Latinx writers such as Elizabeth Acevedo, Erika L. Sanchez, Torrey Maldonado or Ibi Zoboi, just to name a few, are thriving, finding bigger audiences and publishing houses and winning prizes through the young adult genre. That is very positive. I think that young Latinx, diasporic Caribbeans, and African Americans are feeling more represented and culturally seen and are supporting these writers. Their narratives are very rich (because of the amalgamation of cultures and literary traditions) complex and truthful. Those are elements readers and critics alike are appreciating. Latinx poets have always been at the vanguard of the publishing industry in the U.S. but usually in small or underground presses. That continues to be the case. Latinx Scholars are also finding more ways to publish and present their extremely needed research on Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Latin America, and its diasporas but the data shows that equality in academia and in U.S cultural fields is very far still.

 

With Latinx literature being so tied with political and cultural themes, do you view yourself as an activist?

I have always been an independent thinker, artist, and writer but I am not an organizer in the traditional sense nor I belong to a specific organization. Having said that, I have always supported social justice and decolonization and freedom for my country Puerto Rico, for the Caribbean, Latin America and its people. Through the decades, I have participated and supported many marches, rallies, and direct action. Through my pedagogical work and the small platforms that I got, I am always exploring out-of-the-box ways of being political and sustainable and I am more and more invested in the possibilities of using the classroom as a space of liberation.

 

Escapismos, reseña por Pepe Robles

Al leer, “Que Solaris no nos atrape,” titulo del primer relato de tu libro  Escapistas (El kibutz del deseo, 2017),  una interrogante levanto vuelo en mi mente: ¿Stanislaw Lem es una figura histórica o un personaje, es decir, una ficción? Dejé la pregunta en el aire y continué leyendo y de un zopetazo, el nombre del protagonista, Oren Polio, me zambulló, ipso facto, en la esfera de la imaginación.  Todo quedo aclarado por el Google Académico. Stanislaw, verdaderamente, como afirmas en el cuento, es el famosísimo autor polaco que escribió la novela de ciencia ficción, Solaris. Si el nombre de Stanislaw prendió la duda de su existencia, sin embargo, el de Oren Polio me sembró en el campo de la certidumbre de que, definitivamente, Oren, es hijo del fingimiento. No es histórico. Por consiguiente, la luz irrumpe en las tinieblas al descubrir el vínculo esencial que estableces entre Stanislaw y Oren  por medio de la fantasía: Oren, como director de teatro que gustaba “adaptar obras literarias al escenario”. y siguiendo su oficio y su gusto, Oren, adaptaría  Solaris “la primera obra suya en un tour europeo”.

Esa extraordinaria relación es el motivo dominante en tu cuento pues te sirve para dar tu grito de alerta, ya implícito en el titulo, “Qué Solaris no nos atrape”. El pronombre “nos” es la señal egregia: ¡Cuidado, que en nuestros proceso creativos, en nuestro ser, se desencadene  la irracionalidad hasta el punto, que la no-realidad, la alucinación, nos dispare, en un santiamén, al mundo del frenesí, al mundo irracional de la locura! Tu amor, tu fino amor  por tu generación o los tuyos, despierta el grito: ¡Qué Solaris no nos  atrape, como le sucedió a Oren Polio! ¡Qué la sin razón, que la locura  no sea nuestro fin!

El cuento, con sutileza y mucho ingenio, va, lentamente, develando la profunda intríngulis de esa muy peculiar relación entre Oren y Stanislaw. Desde el principio ella se manifiesta en las serias preocupaciones que el protagonista tiene de que su adaptación “fuera del calibre que siempre deseo Stanislaw”. Lo raro es que Stanislaw yacía en su tumba; pero esa ausencia del panorama de los vivos, no era un impedimento para que Oren, con su puesta en escena de Solaris, intentara colmar hasta la saciedad, la excelencia que exigiría, como artista de la palabra, Stalisnaw.

La otra preocupación, su relación sentimental con la actriz, Alia Medrano, perfila, en un primer plano, una inquietud, muy loable en un director de teatro, lograr actuaciones ejemplares que contribuyan a la ejemplaridad de la puesta en escena  de la adaptación de Solaris. Pero, más allá de ese primer plano, se va cocinando un significado, más profundo, que quizá escapa al propio Oren: la identificación, que desenlaza el cuento, insólitamente, al final, deslumbrándonos, la relación de Oren con Alia con la que tuvo, Kris  Kelvin, protagonista de Solaris con Rheya. Obvio esa identidad descansa en que Oren, en una alucinación desquiciada, ve en Praga a Alia como Kris en la estación espacial alucina a Rheya.

Aquí tu cuento nos abre una ventanita muy interesante de esta fatídica relación de Oren con Stalisnaw. Si logramos abrirla veremos, en otro plano, que el narrador advierte: que el proceso creador, adaptar Solaris al teatro, no solo está lleno de complejidades, sino que entraña un grave peligro existencial: ¡la locura! Y vemos, no ya por espejos, que esa relación de Oren y Stanislaw, es un pretexto para tu texto: la fenomenología de la psique de un creador literario, de un artista. Tu cuento, por consiguiente, nos evoca ese concierto de todos esos poetas: Artaud, Breton, Poe, Hoerderlin,  Nietzsche, Van Gogh, que su creación, su genio los abismó en el mundo desconocido, misterioso,  en un mundo ignoto: ¡la locura!

En resumidas cuentas, Oren, es un signo arquetípico, de lo que el filósofo Berdiaeff llamo, en su extraordinario libro: Genio y locura. Pues, tu cuento trata, con una maestría profunda, con la relación de Oren y Stanislaw, de la conciencia de un artista, en un despliegue de un acto creador, que lo sumerge frenéticamente en la irracionalidad alucinante y alucinadora, al quedar atrapado en su Solaris.

Michel Foucault- History of Madness-Or why did he need so many words?

Michel Foucault- History of Madness-Or why did he need so many words? 

A song-play by Gisburg, with lyrics and composition by Gisburg (copyrights: Gisburg, ASCAP). The video is a live performance at Roulette, Brooklyn, NY 2017 as part of the interpretation series of Thomas Buckner.

Performers: Rojo Robles as Michel Foucault & Drew Pisarra as Friedrich Nietzsche

Band: Gisburg (voice/piano), Loui Terrier (drums), Zach Lane (bass), Raphael Painson (french horn).

Interview on The Maladjusted

 

By Jenn Polish

First thing I need to know — because I have a copy of your beautiful book in front of me right now — is who created this gorgeous cover art?

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My dear panita and constant collaborator, Félix Adorno created it with a little help from Adriana Adorno, his sister, chef and also an illustrator. Félix is a graphic designer, musician, and programmer from Puerto Rico- now based in Miami. What I love about his work is that he is a deep thinker. Part of the process with him is to have philosophical conversations, constant debrief on metaphors and allegories and U.S.S.R poster design appreciation sessions -his passion-.

In the case of The Maladjusted, we researched and got into in-depth discussions on real and figurative black holes.

 

The book is structured almost as a series of discrete, yet skillfully connected, snapshot-like scenes from Paliedemes’ life. How did these scenes come to you? Did you write them in order, or stitch them together? A combination?

It was a combination. One of the most important premises of the novella is that after getting struck by lighting, Paliedemes’ mind starts to work chaotically. The structure of the book mirrors Paliedemes thought processes. The borders between memories, events, written materials, and coma dreams are very porous.

The fragmentation also permitted me to incorporate different styles of writing I was working at the time. I put everything together using a montage technique, but once the book was getting a more definitive structure, I started to work in orderly sequences.

 

What was it like working with Tania (Molina) and David (Skeist) to make sure that your distinct narrative style remained consistent throughout? What things would you want people reading THE MALADJUSTED in English to know about what might have been lost in translation?

Tania is my life partner and the mother of my daughter Micaela, so she knows me very well and understands my ways and personal expressions. She is Puerto Rican as well, so she is also very knowledgeable on the slang used in the original. She did the first draft. Her goal was to keep the unique rhythms and to some extent my syntaxis. David is a U.S. American, so his task was first, to revise Tania’s version and, second, to work with us adapting particular, hard to translate expressions. It was a gratifying process because our sessions were like advance translation classes in which we will get into the complexities and contradictions of both languages. Because of that, it took us a lot of time to finish the translation. We were getting sidetracked all the time.

Of course, some words or expressions probably got “lost,” but I feel that, although faithful, the English version is its own thing. I don’t have significant concerns over it.

 

You write such incisive lines, sometimes within a mere paragraph of a segment. One moment that particularly struck me was “[My father] has scars that look like they’re from vampires or desert cacti. My life goes on peacefully.” The stark contrast between these lines is a beautiful gut punch. As a writer and a thinker, how do you know when to deploy such blunt yet beautiful contrasts?

In the case of that line, I was trying to reproduce the writing of a younger, teenage Paliedemes. Sabatar, his father, is a Vietnam veteran probably with what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and very real scars from the violence he experienced. Paliedemes is trying to understand the circumstances that led to these mental and physical scars. Also, he is tracing a line between his father and himself. He grew up on the island, far from the war zone and he knows, even at his age, that there is no way he could understand what his father went through.

As a writer, I wanted to foster these contrasts. The novella is full of disasters and dark mindscapes, but among it, there are recurrent beautiful moments.

 

Talk to me, if you don’t mind, about Marcia. It is she, alone, who stands in the storm at the end of the novel: what would you want your readers to know about her that didn’t make it into the novel?

Marcia is a brave, passionate but she is ultimately lost. The novella is full of people taking the wrong turn.

All the characters are experiencing the storm alone in some way. Paliedemes is in his car heading towards Marcia to join her in the kidnapping of Galíndez. Meanwhile, Marcia is anxious looking at the storm through the window trying to get a hold of the unknown. The novella has an open ending like most current series on TV. I love the idea of finishing with the crossroad: the multiple possibilities of action.

I already wrote and published a sequel to The Maladjusted. It is called “Los ajustes,” as of now it is not translated into English yet, but all there is to know about the whereabouts and backstories of these characters and all the loose ends that the first novel left -on purpose- is there.