EVEN BEFORE the release of her second short story collection, Now We Will Be Happy (University of Nebraska Press), which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction, Amina Gautier was already racking up literary awards. Her first collection, At-Risk (University of Georgia Press), received the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. In many of her short stories — more than 80 of which have been published in various literary journals and magazines — Gautier explores the lives and relationships of African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Afro-Puerto Rican characters.
The stories in Now We Will Be Happy are about families that either grow together or fall apart, about the strands that weave together a culture, about the desire for a place both real and imaginary, about struggle and community and language. They brim with music, food, and history. They are infused with superstition, myth, magic. They explore how a person can long for an island they’ve never set foot on, how that connection can be passed on over generations.
I first met Gautier at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in the summer of 2012. This interview was conducted during several conversations over lunch, over the phone, and via email.
JAQUIRA DÍAZ: Like the stories in At-Risk, your first collection, the stories in Now We Will Be Happy are set in the Brooklyn of the ’80s and ’90s. Tell us about your New York? What does it take to capture that time and place in your stories?
AMINA GAUTIER: My New York is a lived-in city, not a tourist attraction, a place where people live, not go to visit. It is a place everyone seems to want to claim without understanding the impossibility of ever doing so. People shrug off their old towns and cities and move there and think that makes them a New Yorker. But New Yorkers are born. To be a New Yorker is to be from New York, born and raised there, schooled there, immunized there; it is to receive your working papers there, to have generations of family members buried there. To be a New Yorker is to live under the city’s dictates and dictums, not to move there as an adult who has the freedom to leave whenever he or she wishes.
My New York is a place of busy sections and quiet sections whose rules the natives implicitly understand and obey. They effortlessly adapt their behavior to the time and place. Walking down the street, riding an escalator, trying to catch a train are not the best times for walking slowly, lollygagging, stopping for no reason just to look around and getting in everyone else’s way and slowing down everyone else who has somewhere to go and wants to get there. Retreating to your stoop or front steps at the end of the day is a perfect time for sitting and standing around and doing nothing and taking up space. Otherwise, keep it moving and get out of the way. My New York is wealth and poverty intermingled, one block of homes across the street from a block of housing projects. It’s an hour-long subway ride full of quiet readers and noisy beggars. It’s the hub of culture, of art, literature, publishing, and theater. It’s the birthplace of hip-hop and of the first pizza to hit the New World. It’s the world’s largest stock exchange and a glitzy ball that annually catches the eye of the world to watch it drop. It’s a city that doesn’t need the appendage “city” attached to it. All New Yorkers know that New York refers to the city. If you mean something else, you say Upstate or New York State. It’s a one of a kind city comprised of five boroughs, a city whose construction is not duplicated anywhere else in the world, which is why non-New Yorkers get confused and keep trying to refer to Manhattan as “the city” and everything else as a “borough.” It’s also a place of welfare hotels, corruption, unfair housing practices, rage, danger, violence, drugs, hustles, and everyone trying to find a way to make it.
My New York is fire hydrants broken open on hot summer days, and Double Dutch on the sidewalk. It’s the 3 train and the 4 and the A and the C. It’s blocks and stoops. It’s seeing layers of neighborhoods superimposed upon one another; calling streets and neighborhoods by their original names and not giving into the snazzy acronyms created by realty companies to make a place sound trendier. It’s knowing where you are without having to look at a map or a street sign, and never being able to be lost, because everything is a certain distance away from a relative or friend’s house, a library, or a subway stop. It’s the smell of honey-roasted peanuts in the brisk winter air when all of the other smells have gone away. It’s the place where hot dogs go by their rightful name — franks. It’s egg creams and the thickest, densest cheesecake ever. It’s that perfect meal of a slice of pizza and a can of soda. It’s folding your pizza in half and tipping your slice so the extra oil slides off, because the pizza is just too cheesy for the paper plate and parchment paper to hold it all in. It’s the starting point for all of my fiction.
How does a story begin for you? Do you start with a character? An image? A place? Do you already know what the story will be before you sit down to write?
My stories start with images and characters. I’ve always been a film buff — I was raised on old movies from Hollywood’s classic or golden age, you know, the kind with not only sharp dialogue, but with strong women characters who have careers and roles and don’t just play sexy appendages to the male lead. I don’t love the fact that there are no black people in those films, or that the ones that appear are only there for comic relief, but I do love the narrative quality of those films, the continuity editing, the clearly demarcated beginning, middle, and end, the goal-oriented characters, the linearity and the invisible style of the cinematography.
When I first went to Stanford, my intent was to study film. I still remember the first time I watched Citizen Kane; I remember the focus on Kane’s lips mouthing “Rosebud,” the snow globe falling and breaking and the image of his boyhood sled burning in the fire. I remember watching Pillow Talk and seeing how much focus was put on the African statue Doris Day handles, and being pulled in. Because of those influences, I’ve always been drawn to the way one image can be used to speak an entire narrative. For me, the image prompts the questions that give rise to the details upon which I will ultimately hang my story. Once I have a visually compelling image I try to figure out who is impacted by the image, i.e., who the story belongs to, and why that character interprets the image in a particular way based on his or her background and set of beliefs. Character and place go hand in hand for me. In order to create a character I have to know where he or she is from and where he or she lives. What is the manner in which he or she operates within that space? Is he or she an insider, outsider, guest or host, native, exile, refugee, transplant, tourist, vacationer, usurper? What privileges or limitations can that place provide or invoke?
In “Aguanile,” music helps a grandfather connect with his granddaughter, the main character, but at the same time highlights their differences, both personal and generational. Music permeates this book in so many ways — music is culture, music is history, music is nostalgia, music is political. Can you talk about how you use music in your stories?
Like fiction, poetry, and autobiography, music has also long been a form of protest, rebellion, or revolution for the marginalized or oppressed, especially and specifically the black or African subject. In Now We Will Be Happy, both music and food perform political and cultural functions, operating in ways that culturally include and exclude certain characters, cleaving or joining characters at will. For example, in the title story, Rosa lacks access to her parents’ music because she cannot speak the language in which the musicians sing, but Yauba functions as a conduit who brings the music, the language, and the culture to her through translation. He invites her in by cooking, dancing, and translating. In “Aguanile,” music separates family members by generation or age, with the granddaughter’s aunt and uncle choosing more contemporary music over the classics their father favors, such that the moment when the granddaughter and grandfather create their tenuous bond over music, it functions to yoke family members together across age groups as well. The grandfather’s seemingly failed attempts to inculcate the music of his favorite singers into his granddaughter resonate in the story’s ending when music becomes a way for her not only to connect with her culture, but to grieve, memorialize, and heal.
In “How to Make Flan,” when the main character goes to her Abuela with questions about her identity, Abuela tells her, “You are the conquistador, the Indian, and the slave, struggling to be one. You are three kings bringing gifts. You are a fortress. You are chains and shackles. You are the ocean.” From their first meeting at the hospital, Abuela tells her that she wants her to make flan, bring it to the hospital, even though everyone knows she’s not supposed to eat it. Considering what Abuela tells her nieta, what does it mean for our main character to make the flan? Is making flan an act of rebellion? Or is it something else?
It’s both, an act of rebellion and it’s something else: an act of allegiance and a synthesizing act that melds culture, family, and memory and binds them all at once. Having the granddaughter make the flan is an act of rebellion on both the parts of the Abuela and the granddaughter. The granddaughter is told by her mother not to make the flan, so she’s rebelling against a mother who has been detached for too long and who suddenly decides to take a maternal interest. She’s also rebelling against the educational training that has been constantly removing her from her own grandmother. In making the flan, she becomes her grandmother’s accomplice and demonstrates her allegiance to her grandmother; she privileges her grandmother’s knowledge and desires over the recommendations of the hospital administrators who see her grandmother as merely a patient and not a unique individual.
Abuela is surrounded by people who make her feel like she’s invisible, old, and decrepit; defying them and their dictates makes her feel younger and as if she is still in control of her own life. The Abuela’s request is both a challenge and a plea. Asking her granddaughter to make the flan is the grandmother’s way of saying, Show me that some part of me is in you. Show me that your parents didn’t take you completely away from me. Show me that the hours and days we spent together meant something to you — that I mean something to you — and that the time of us is still there. Like the stories “Now We Will Be Happy,” “Muñeca,” and “Virgin of Providence,” “How to Make Flan” takes the premise that food and the act of consuming it is about far more than mere nutrition. When the characters eat, they consume values, memories, and their acts of consumption function as ritualistic expressions of allegiances in which they attempt to demonstrate their shared cultural belonging. In “Now We Will Be Happy” and “Muñeca,” Pedro defines manhood as the ability to get out of his in-laws’ apartment and not have to eat dinners dictated by his ill father-in-law’s dietary restrictions, and Rosa interprets her inability to prepare the meals Pedro desires as a flaw that reduces her worth as his wife. In “Virgin of Providence,” Lydia attempts to emulate her sister-in-law and learn how to prepare certain dishes that she feels will more closely align her with her husband’s culture.
“The Luckiest Man in the World” is one of my favorites. It’s short, but it’s funny, endearing, profound, and full of longing and desire. And also laced with music. (I could hear Marc Anthony!) I did not want it to end. It’s like a gut-punch, this story, and yet it’s one of the shortest in the collection. How is writing short shorts different from writing long stories? As a reader and a writer, what do you get from a short story that you don’t get from a novel?
I love good fiction that succeeds in terms of both content and craft, or both style and substance, and that is what I am looking for whether I am reading short stories or novels, writing that is good because of its story and its execution.
Now We Will Be Happy follows the lives of Afro-Puerto Ricans, US mainland–born Puerto Ricans, and displaced native Puerto Ricans who live their lives liminally, on the edge, yet who struggle to move into the center. It depicts characters who have been silenced and rendered invisible and who occupy the space between being natives and immigrants. Set in Brooklyn neighborhoods between 1989 and 1992, the stories in Now We Will Be Happy feature characters who either move freely between the island and the US mainland, or express an urgent desire to do so, who attempt to navigate the unique culture that defines Puerto Rican identity and the difficulties of expressing their bicultural identities. The 11 stories in the collection focus on the ways in which people seek happiness. I show how the characters’ varying definitions of happiness and the actions and risks they take to achieve it can place them at odds with one another. The stories in this collection provide a new way of looking at people of the African and Latino diaspora, by representing characters who are members of the lower classes or working classes with dignity and humanity, illustrating their plight, and making visible people who are often marginalized or treated as invisible.
The short story form has been the ideal vehicle for what I seek to accomplish in my fiction. To take one example of the way in which the form answers to my purposes, I use epiphanies — short illuminating bursts of insight striking the protagonist and/or the reader — to represent moments which are only temporarily definitive, lasting as long as the story lasts, momentarily slicing into a character’s life to reveal what came before and to suggest what might come after.
Your characters, in a lot of these stories, have a powerful connection with place. Puerto Rico and New York are deeply ingrained in their stories, affecting how they live their lives, what they long for, how they see themselves. How much do you think your connection to place — particularly Puerto Rico — shaped the way you wrote these characters?
I believe that time and place are definitive factors when it comes to story-making. They sketch out and outline the boundaries within which the story is to occur. I simply cannot tell a story without an understanding of “place,” whether that understanding be geographical, locational, positional, or relational. I seek to determine whether the story occurs indoors or out, in a vehicle or an office, in a bedroom or a kitchen, whether the action happens in a city, a countryside, a suburb, a town, or a village. Once that’s determined, I need to know who has primary ownership of that “place” in the story. Who lays claim to that vehicle, or bedroom? Who identifies with that city or town? What does it mean for that character to be from a major city? What does it mean for that character to be from an island?
As a native New Yorker, I have always been aware of the cultural clout that follows me as a result of being from a major city and my background growing up in such a place influences the way in which I move through other locations. I need to know where the story takes place in order to determine what can or should happen in the story. Place is important because it helps determine the story you tell yourself of who you are and the stories others tell of who you are.
Tell me about Miami. You just moved there last summer when you joined the faculty of the University of Miami’s MFA in Creative Writing program. How has Miami affected the way you write? Or is it too soon to tell?
Yes, last summer, I moved to Miami and joined the University of Miami’s English Department, of which the Creative Writing program is a part. For now, we will have to wait and see when and if Miami finds its way into my fiction.
While I definitely would not describe your stories as being about “issues,” many of the stories in both At-Risk and Now We Will Be Happy deal with race, identity, class, gender, and sexuality, sometimes pointedly and sometimes subtly. Can you talk about some of the challenges in writing these stories?
My own writing has been primarily concerned with focusing on dispossession, liminality, and social mobility. I write about characters who live their lives between various socioeconomic and sociocultural spaces, or marginally, on the edge, but who struggle to move into the center; I investigate the ways in which those characters are changed and impacted for better or worse because of their struggles. In At-Risk and Now We Will Be Happy, I have chosen to represent African American, Puerto Rican and Afro-Latino characters, culture, and experiences as quotidian — “commonplace” or “daily” — in order to shed light on what has been an often ignored aspect of literary fiction that needs to be more fully articulated in American letters. By focusing on the subtle or quiet daily moments in the lives of these characters, I present their lives as a normal part of the mainstream as opposed to part of an American “subculture” — only interesting when contrasted with white characters, when they experience racism and prejudice, or when they are rendered as spectacular subjects, victimized and tragic. Without denying the importance of these experiences, my work proposes that moments that explore the dual struggle of negotiating race and class dynamics, and moments that explore less spectacular aggressions, are just as important. I have consequently eschewed large-scale sensational topics that have the potential to depict black and Latino characters as pathological rather than sympathetic, or I have written about those topics in a way that shifts the focus from the sensationalism to the more subtle development of the character. And that, the choice to focus on nuance, restraint, and subtlety, is definitely a challenging endeavor. You want to show people realistically as they are, without objectifying them. You want to make the dangers clear without depriving characters of agency. It’s a deplorable and unfortunate truth that when drawn as independent, complex, or unique due to their actions, behavior, decisions, or values, black and Latino characters are often misread in terms of pathology rather than agency. Executing subtlety and balance is a constant but worthwhile challenge, especially when much is at stake.