September 24, 2018KR Conversations

Dariel Suarez

Dariel SuarezDariel Suarez is a Cuban-born writer and one of the city of Boston’s inaugural Artist Fellows. He holds an MFA in fiction from Boston University and is currently the head of faculty and curriculum at GrubStreet. Dariel has completed a novel and story collection, both set in his native country. An excerpt from his story “The American President’s Visit” can be found here. It appears in the Sept/Oct 2018 issue of the Kenyon Review.

What was your original impetus for writing “The American President’s Visit”?

Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, juxtaposed with the fact that the façades of certain derelict buildings were painted over on the streets where he was going to be driven, felt like a special kind of ironic metaphor about the socio-political situation in Cuba. I tried to capture this juxtaposition with the opening line, and then attempted to explore the tension between outsiders and locals, between the hopeful possibility of opening up the island to the US and the difficult reality so many Cubans face regardless of what happens there. Once I found Reyna and Midamy—the external struggle of trying to save their building and the more internal conflict of their mother-daughter relationship—I knew I had something worth writing.

Your piece opens with a balcony’s collapse, prompting a crowd who “looked up and stretched their arms” and later, upon examining her home, a woman notices “dark mold spreading across the bottom of her balcony like tar inside a smoker’s lung” both of these moments encounter states of urban decay. Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between the body and the city in this piece? 

I’ve always been curious about the way our bodies interact with decaying structures. I grew up in Havana, in a neighborhood perhaps not as decayed as the one in the story, but definitely with its share of cracked ceilings and sidewalks, crumbling porches and fences, peeling walls. I recently went back after eighteen years, and the street where I used to play soccer and baseball was riddled with deep potholes and trash, to the point that even driving through was a challenge. I couldn’t help wondering about my how my bare feet used to run over that pavement, how the trash never bothered me, how looking up at the exposed rebar of my grandparents’ home seemed normal, how some of my friends lived in narrow, ramshackle spaces that today break my heart to even look at. And yet, there’s a nobility, in my opinion, in enduring and experiencing happiness within that physical reality, which I did as a child and teenager. There’s a fine line between this and romanticizing poverty, however, so I did my best to veer away from the latter in my story and would even dare say headed in the opposite direction.

The President is occluded by dark windows, the title of the piece announces but does not name him, and his arrival in Havana brings about a change in appearance but not in the reality of the city. Does his arrival change something (even if it is just paint on a balcony)?

It does. There’s a sense that things might actually change. His very presence in Cuba signifies a shift in the political position between both countries, at least at that particular moment. But there’s also the suspicion that in the long run Cubans will be duped again, as they were by the promises of the Revolution, for instance, and that it’s mostly all for show. It’s hard not to be cynical if you live in Cuba, even when something hopeful is knocking at your door.

How has your writing or writing process changed since you started out?

I’m much more meticulous in my plotting and mapping out of characters prior to actually drafting a piece. I sit with ideas in my mind for weeks and sometimes months before I write the opening line. I often like to have the opening and ending passages planned, even if they change in the process of writing the story. It’s like a road map that allows me to deviate here and there when I need to. I also feel more confident telling the difference between a good and bad idea for a story or scene. Whenever I find myself in slight contradictions, with several truths taking place at the same time or pushing against each other, then I know I likely have something nuanced and worth playing out. If it fits snuggly and obviously and requires no effort from the reader to discern the layers of what the characters are experiencing and the reality around them, then I toss it out.

What is either the best or the worst piece of writing advice you’ve received or given? 

Any version of “the rules of fiction” has done little for me. Teaching aspiring writers to write the same way and follow the same rules or stylistic patterns is a failure on the instructor’s part. It shows how narrow their views (and maybe ability?) are, how they don’t want to be challenged by what a student might bring to the table, by literary traditions outside of the ones they know, which in the US tend to be egregiously homogenous. Early on as a creative writing student, I was told to read Hemingway and Carver when I mentioned Márquez. I mean, I think that shit is a crime. If you don’t know how to teach Márquez, then go read him. He isn’t half bad, you know. And if you think a student can’t reach Márquez’s level, then you have no faith in the entire artistic enterprise, then your own limitations are blinding you to the possibility that someone else can actually get there, that a little generosity and effort on your part might just help them get closer.