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Meet Susannah Rodríguez Drissi

Today we’d like to introduce you to Susannah Rodríguez Drissi.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Susannah. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I suppose that it all began on an island, which sounds good because islands make for good beginnings—or new beginnings, at least.

I chose to be a writer when I was seventeen and have been a multi-genre writer ever since. I write everything. I am a poet, a fiction writer, a playwright, a TV writer, a scholar, and a translator. My obsessions and effectiveness as a person all come from a writer’s understanding of how the world works and where I started from. I started from an island: Cuba. Cuba is my point of departure and, sometimes, also my point of arrival. I began writing when English was something like a second language. I wrote my first poem when I was seventeen and heartbroken. Thanks to Mr. Baldetti’s AP literature class, I knew Greek mythology and the poetry of Dante and Shakespeare. I combined all three and came up with “Iphigenia,” a poem in nearly iambic pentameter, divided intuitively into cantos. Until then, I’d been very busy attempting to survive my first year of college. Had I not thought I had fallen in love, and had I not been deceived by the object of my affection, I probably wouldn’t have written that poem. So, in a sense, writing it was accidental. But writing, with a capital W, was not. It would have happened regardless—whether then or later. Trauma can be a creative state of mind, and I happen to have lived through moments that have gotten a rise out of me in some way. I’ve needed to unpack those moments, examine them, ask them questions—and the way that I’m most familiar with, most comfortable with, is by writing.

I started reading very early and have read with passion for many years. I ended up pursuing a master’s in interdisciplinary studies, a combination of Latin American and Maghrebian literatures, from Cal State University, Long Beach, and a PhD in comparative literature from UCLA, where I am currently faculty in Writing Programs. It is true that too academic an education can choke the creative mind, though it certainly doesn’t have to be that way. It hasn’t been the case for me, but that’s because I didn’t allow it and because I found a great deal of compatibility between the academic and the creative. Because graduate studies may delay gratification for many years and in such a cruel way, alongside teaching, research, and the writing of a dissertation, I wrote other things. These were things I could finish—realize completely—in a weekend or, at most, in a couple of months. They gave me a sense of completion.

Creativity, intuition, storytelling, and poetry are as much the lifelines of the academic endeavor as they are of the creative one—or, at least, they should be. I wrote that first adolescent poem and followed it up by writing more poems. Then I wrote short stories, a memoir, plays, a mini-series, a novel, sitcoms, more poetry, and a musical, among many other things. The thing grew and grew. Currently, I have boxes, baskets, and drawers jam-packed with things I have written. It would seem to me—and often to others, as well—that I have been relentless in my pursuit of writing. So, I’ve gotten to wherever it is I happen to be today—waiting it out in quarantine, like the rest of the world—by writing. And when I’m not writing, which is rare, I’m not unduly worried. There’s always more, I hope, where the rest of it came from. Writing is always a leap of faith. So, I leap.

I have two big projects on at the moment. The first is Radio Nocturno, a jukebox musical that pays tribute to a legendary Cuban radio show and features some of the most iconic songs of the Spanish-speaking world from the 60s and 70s. Radio Nocturno takes place in 1975 during one of the most repressive times in Cuban revolutionary history. In it, the radio show and its music become the backdrop to dreams of personal freedom and love in the tropics, ways to mitigate food shortages, power outages, and the violation of human rights. The real radio show, “Nocturno,” first aired in Cuba in 1966. Radio Nocturno, El Musical is entirely in Spanish. Radio Nocturno is a truly original “book” musical, whose lyrics reveal the roller-coaster story of teenage love in times of political upheaval, great cultural changes, and devastating economic conditions. This is Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg meets Mamma Mia in revolutionary Cuba. After a sold-out public reading in December 2018 at Hecht Studio Theatre at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Radio Nocturno was scheduled to premiere at Miami Dade College’s Koubek Center on August 6, 2020, directed by Victoria Collado (John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons), musical direction by Jesse Sanchez (Hamilton, national tour), and produced by George Cabrera, 3FEO Entertainment. Unfortunately, the production was canceled due to COVID-19. What is absolutely wonderful, however, is that the übertalented, tenacious group of people at the helm of this project are—as I write this—working on ways to move on with show.

The other very special project is my novel, Until We’re Fish, to be released by Propertius Press on October 6, 2020. I am beyond grateful that my novel found a home with an amazing indie press out of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The novel, experimental in some ways, opens on Three Kings’ Day, January 6, 1959, and only a few days before Fidel Castro’s arrival in Havana. The story follows Elio and Maria through the first years of the Revolution, the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, and the Special Period in Times of Peace, a euphemism used to describe the harsh economic conditions following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Soviet Bloc.

As a 1.5-generation writer (born in Cuba, but came of age in the US), I write about Cuba through a double lens—that is, from the vantage point of the native and also from the benefit of a temporal and geographical distance. Having been born in the 1970s, I know of no writers (or writers with whose writing I identify) from my generation writing in English today. There are those writers included in recent publications like Cuba in Splinters (translation by Hillary Gulley), for example, but these are Cuban writers who either still live in Cuba or who left Cuba in the last decade. Generationally speaking, however, and had I stayed on the island, I would belong to this group with writers such as Wendy Guerra, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, and Ahmel Echevarría, to name a few. These authors are generally interested in writing Cuba’s present. I, in turn, go back to the past. Much has been left out of Cuban-American fiction written in English—Until We’re Fish contributes to filling that gap.

For Cuban and Cuban-American fiction, Havana has been a privileged space. Much of my work, Until We’re Fish, takes place in Bauta, a small, rural town in the outskirts of the island’s capital. In addition, Cuban-American literature has been generally the product of Florida-based writers whose understanding of Cuba and Cuban life is specific to the social, cultural, and political milieu of the Cuban exile community in Florida and, in particular, in Miami. In contrast, I am one of those who left Cuba for Costa Rica and ended up in California in the early 1980s. Much like Elio, the main character, we were almost marielitos. My experience outside the larger exiled Cuban community in South Florida allows for a story that, while taking place in Cuba, is very much grounded in my understanding of the Cuban experience and, generally speaking, outside of Florida.

My characters are working-class Cubans whose spirit propels them forward, whether forward means choosing to stay or choosing to leave. Until We’re Fish does not dwell on a paradise lost; instead, its characters are concerned with the challenges, traumas, hopes, dreams, and preoccupations surrounding situations that I myself lived. This story has benefited from the elements of time and distance and, most importantly, from my double identity as native and stranger. Through its characters’ engagement with American and European literary and cultural tropes, Until We’re Fish highlights the national and transnational trends that have impacted Cuban national identity from at least the first half of the nineteenth century. In so doing, it establishes links between fiction and recent scholarship about Cuba and Cuba-related issues.

Because Until We’re Fish begins in 1959 and concludes in the mid-1990s, it also creates a kind of continuum between life in Cuba before and after the fall of the Soviet Bloc. At its core, this story is a defense of individual freedom and a warning about the ways in which that freedom may be taken away. Living in involuntary confinement, Elio creates from his island-prison; whether his creations lead to the actual economic improvement of his life and the life of his wife, Maria, is irrelevant. There’s joy and fulfillment in the process of creation that confinement, censorship, and fear cannot abort. Interested readers can pre-order the novel here:

Also in the works is a Zoom production of my short play Hola, Soledad, which takes place in Los Angeles during the global pandemic. Soledad is a forty-something married woman with children who has self-quarantined inside her closet. While her single friend, Alma, to whom she’s connected via Zoom, seems to crave the warmth and proximity of other human bodies, Soledad hopes for solitude. Yes, she wants her husband and children around—but more than six feet away. Hola, Soledad is one of a number of interconnected plays, along with Houses without Walls and Rey y Atenea, that explore physical and virtual distance at a time when the need for separation and containment daily tests our humanity. The women in these plays—Soledad, Alma, Atenea, Candela, Gloria, and the Narrator—convene us from a closet, a bedroom, a kitchen—and from their experiences of survival. Through them, we value closeness and distance, and each syncopated breath. We learn that silence, too, is a form of speaking, that seeking new ways of expressing ourselves is always a method of resistance.

Has it been a smooth road?
There is no use pretending writing, in any genre, is easy. It is not, and no amount of sentimental recall can disguise the fact that writing can—and very often is—a rather miserable endeavor. It requires time and discipline, intense self-absorption, generosity, and commitment to see a piece of writing to the end. Writing is a demanding activity, heartbreaking when things don’t go your way. I continue to write, in spite of the demands of an academic career, the birth and rearing of my children, and my commitment to scholarship and teaching. Publishing, however, has been a different pot-au-feu, as it depends on a great number of pieces that must all fall into place—an agent, the right publication or publisher, the right language, the right editor, a special circle of friends, and the right name. It is about finding your readers, discovering your niche—and that hasn’t always been easy for me. As an imperfectly bilingual English-Spanish writer, finding a home for my work has been a challenge. Although I have always known what language a new project should be written in, I am not always at peace with my choices—quite the contrary. A casual retrospective into recent work reminds me that choosing English over Spanish, or vice versa, means that I am leaving out a large number of readers. Writing outside of Cuba, my country of birth has exiled me. Writing outside of Miami, the center of Cuban-American life and work in the United States has also harmed me in some ways; in others, it has allowed me to grow independently of trends, and to be free of the potential demands of the community around me.

As in life, when we write we make a number of choices. Some of those choices may be altered or taken back completely through extensive and painstaking revision. Some, like the choice to write in one language versus another, may be irreversible. The language in which a piece of writing is written limits the number of potential publishers and readers, as well as its impact and its distribution. As a Cuban writer who has lived in Los Angeles for the last thirty-five years, there is no insincerity in either one of my choices, but there is an assumption of exile that is no less real because it is assumed. Unfortunately, writing in Spanish in a country whose official language is English is an act of defiance against a publishing industry that celebrates the exuberance of Junot Diaz’s Spanglish. That industry has a long way to go when it comes to truly vetting and diversifying its gatekeepers, what constitutes literature in general and—more specifically—what Latinx stories may or may not be about. Writing in English when your presumed natural readers speak only Spanish is alienating. I get over it and keep on writing. But the experience is no less painful.

Space and time have also had a considerable impact on how I write, and when. Before I had children, I loved to write at night, but everything changed when I had my first child. I started the doctoral program at UCLA with a seven-month-old baby girl. If I was going to make it through the next four+ years, then I would need to rethink when and where I worked. Space and time became of the utmost importance. I found solutions. I woke up very early and worked out the kinks of my writing during my non-writing hours so that, by the time I actually sat in front of my laptop, I had a very good idea of what I wanted to say. It was all very efficient. So much so that two years after the birth of my daughter, my husband and I found ourselves expecting another one. If time and space were cherished possessions with one child, with the second one they became goals in themselves. I learned to write everywhere—in the middle of the living room, in the car, at a park, with one baby rocking on a knee and the other child banging pots and pans or lapping up the cat food. No time could be wasted.

The habit of getting up early when the children were very young became a routine, then a choice. It was a moment of silence, of solitude, of self-nourishment before I begin to nourish others. I have always been short of time, running out of time. I felt this way when I was fifteen or sixteen, and continue to feel the same way today—of course, today I’m no longer fifteen, so the feeling may be a lot closer to my reality than it used to be.

Please tell us more about your work, what you are currently focused on and most proud of.
I am always most proud of bringing something into the world—an image, a story, a phrase, a word—that didn’t exist before. I am proud of accomplishments that once seemed nearly impossible. In the summer of 2018, for example, I wrote, directed, and produced Houses without Walls. The one-act play, starring Magdalena Edwards, Yelyna De Leon, and Maria Hojas, premiered at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, was a finalist for the Inkwell Playwright’s Promise Award, and won both the 2018 Encore! Producers’ Award and the Better Lemons Audience Choice Award, among other honors. Houses was my first production and I was involved in every single detail, including set design and costuming. Rey y Atenea, starring Magdalena Edwards and JD Mata, who was later replaced by Juan Carlos Flores, would follow. Rey y Atenea, which I also wrote and directed, premiered at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute on October 12, 2019, as an official selection of the 2019 Short+Sweet Hollywood Festival. As a People’s Choice pick, Rey y Atenea was a finalist for the 2019 Short+Sweet NBC Universal Talent Infusion Programs Award. The Fruit Flies, another of my plays, was directed by Jazmin Aguilar and starred Juan Carlos Flores, Nicole Garcia, Jo Dellapina, and Tony DeCarlo; it also premiered at the festival.

What sets me apart from others? Hmm. Being set apart from others has a special resonance right now. In that sense, two arms’ lengths are what set me apart from other people today. Everything else we seem to share at a global level. I am more like other people today than I have ever been; there’s something very comforting but also very disturbing about that. I suppose what has always set me apart, long before we began to wear masks to go out in public, was the sense that I had lived through experiences my American peers had never lived through. At a very young age, I was privy to a certain knowledge of the world, to rationing, and isolation, and fear—experiences we all share today. It doesn’t have to be all bad, however. Out of challenge and heartbreak comes creativity, tenacity, and a better sense of the world and our place in it, which is what my work tends to be about.

Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
When I first came to LA as a child, from the very first encounter, I thought to myself: the city makes you hungry. There’s an overabundance of everything in LA—traffic, good weather, food, people, languages. You want to possess it all, figure it out, decipher it, consume it. Once you are in it, you can’t escape it, whoever you may have been before. LA is desire, wanting, the search for something intangible. I like that the most about the city, and also the least. But desire is an absolute necessity, isn’t it? It is not a privilege or indulgence or a quest, but a kind of knowledge in itself because it takes us places. Angelenos have that. We are also resilient, multilingual, multiethnic. We have natural and manufactured beauty; we move about the city in leaps so big we couldn’t possibly walk. We fly. I love that, all of that about LA. I love that there’s a mosque in Culver City, that I find pupusas in West LA and platanitos fritos and pho noodles in the South Bay. I love, finally, that I have lived in one place for thirty years, and that I hate it and love it both at once. Angelenos are dreamers. We rush toward things, we explore new territory, and we illuminate what we see in that territory with billboards and moving pictures. After a night in LA, we want to see better, clearer, more. I travel away from LA to find out what’s going on in the world and what other people are like. But I return to it, my home away from home, to find out what I’ve missed, to continue to recognize in this city the same things I recognize in myself: a certain kind of daydreaming, a scrappiness, limitless tenacity—and an always evolving sense of self.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Personal photo (with trees in background) taken by Kanishka Mehra. Portrait next to window: Photograph taken by Christian Cheock, at Beyond Baroque, after a reading with Daughters of Whitman, Whitmania Los Angeles, June 2, 2019. Copy for photograph of reading at The Last Bookstore: (From left to right) Magdalena Edwards, Susannah Rodríguez Drissi, JD Mata, Justin Lack. Photograph taken by Aleida Rodríguez, in July, 2019, during the book launch of The Poet’s Guide to the Cosmos (Floricanto, 2019), at The Last Bookstore, DTLA. Copy for photograph at table with books: Photograph taken by poet Amber West (Hen & God), in September, 2019, at the Small Press Book Festival, Culver City, California, with artist Clovis Blackwell (Fleur de Boom Editions). Copy for photo with two actors: (From left to right) Juan Carlos Flores (Rey), and Magdalena Edwards (Atenea). Photograph was taken by Susannah Rodríguez Drissi in October, 2019, during rehearsals at Santa Monica Playhouse, Santa Monica, California. Copy for photograph titled “Nocturno, El Musical – Cast Photo”: Photograph taken by Rita Barrios at the first public reading of Radio Nocturno, El Musical, at the Hecht Studio Theatre, University of Miami, Department of Theatre Arts, on Saturday, December 15, 2018. The sold-out reading was directed by Cuban-American director, Victoria Collado, and sponsored by the Cuban Theater Digital Archive (CTDA). {From left to right) Nathalie Nodarse (CUCA), Ryan Rodríguez (MIGUEL), Susannah Rodrīguez Drissi (Playwright & Producer), Rachel Gil de Gibaja (Musical Director), Nora Ruiz (ANA), Victoria Collado (Director), Marcela Paguaga (NÉLIDA), Nicole García (ELENA), Isidora Miranda (MARIA ISABEL), Ernesto Gonzáles (CARLOS), Natalia Quintero Riestra (GUARDIA), Randi García (JULIO) Radio Nocturno was scheduled to premiere at the Koubek Center, Miami Dade College, Miami, Florida, on August 6, 2020. Production was cancelled due to the global pandemic.

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