by Angeli Rasbury
By the time I had read the two songs that make up Song of the Water Saints by Nelly Rosario, I wanted another song, one that would take me back to the lyricism, history, and wonderfully developed women in the novel’s first part, Song One. Song of the Water Saints, Rosario’s debut novel, is the saga of three generations of strong Dominican women. Graciela doesn’t accept the strictures of the poor, rural life in the Dominican Republic in the early 1900s. She searches for her true identity, even though it takes her from her second husband and baby girl. (She holds onto the idea that her first love will return from the sea to rescue her.) She spends some time at a convent when she becomes ill with syphilis. Song Two opens with Mercedes taking care of herself after the death of her stepfather. She marries and moves to New York City in the 1990s, bringing her granddaughter with her. Leila has inherited her great-grandmother’s spirit, strong will, and passion. Her visit to the Dominican Republic to visit her mother Amalfi who stayed behind has some emotional moments to it. How do a mother and daughter relate after a mother sends her daughter away so she can perhaps have a better life, yet the mother decides to stay behind on the tiny island she loves?
Song of the Water Saints will capture the reader from the first line (They are naked) and with grace thrust the reader into the world of familial connections and responsibilities and the changing notions of home and obligations.
Rosario, who received a B.A. in engineering from MIT and an M.F.A in fiction writing from Columbia University, was named a “Writer on the Verge” by the Village Voice Literary Supplement in 2001. She was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Brooklyn, NY, where she now lives.
I talked with Rosario in her “kitchen,” a little diner next to her apartment.
Angeli Rasbury: Why did you choose to set your first novel in New York and the Dominican Republic?
Nelly Rosario: For me, part of writing is examining some parts of experiences and what you know and take a look at this. I did a lot of this. I am very close to my past, my family, close to history, so it only made sense for me to choose those two places. That’s the combination I was dealing with at the time. I am in the post-college mode when you are looking at yourself and your background. That’s where I was at the time I wrote the book. It’s personal in that sense. It definitely has to do with all the things that form me and inform me.
I used to work at the World Trade Center. One day I went to the [bookstore] and I found this book called 1,000 Nudes. I had bought the book. It was thick. It was so interesting to me. It had these Victorian nudes. I came out and saw this Japanese couple taking their wedding photographs in the area where the palm trees were. It started getting me thinking about the story. What if I told the story of this grandmother and a photograph? It just started snowballing. I looked through the book and saw a lot of pictures of women at the turn of the century. Nudes. I started asking questions. Who was the photographer? How did they pose? What got them to pose with all the social mores? It completely fascinated me. I said this is what I am going to write. This is going to be her grandmother and I kept going and going. Before I knew it, this tale started unraveling. I started discarding a lot of the old stories. It was important in the beginning to start spinning and thinking of a lot of different stories even though I didn’t use any of them.
AR: How daunting or haunting was it to familial history?
NR: The haunting part was that I really was not trying to write about my family. I respect the lives of people who are still alive. I didn’t want in any way to impose my viewpoint on them and out a lot of things that we hold dear. Privacy is dear to a lot of us and I respect that. But with time you start writing stuff and it’s part of your imagination and it’s either happening or it resonates in a way that you never expected. I just found out this weekend that my grandmother used to call her dad Pai and that’s the name of Graciella’s dad. Dominicans refer to mothers and fathers, as I understand it, as Mai and Pai in third person. Her Mai, her Pai. But not directly. So when I heard that, it was weird. That was interesting and that keeps happening. To me, writing is a very mystical process. I don’t care for anybody says. For me, it’s a very psychic and mystical experience because you have to tap into a world that has existed or doesn’t exist or you’ve never seen it before but you have to find that reality somewhere, that plane, in your mind or in space or wherever it is. For me, it’s dreams. I get a lot of inspiration from dreams.
AR: Do you keep a dream journal?
NR: Sometimes when the dreams really move me. It’s not so much interpreting literally dreams but visiting other places. There are dreams in the book. I’ve never had those dreams. But I believe in the power of dreams. I grew up with my parents getting up in the morning and saying Oh, I just dreamt about such and such plant and walking through this field. It’s valid. For us, it’s a valid thing to talk about. Some people find it really strange and very new agey but for us it’s a very real part of our culture. A lot of us feel through dreams. A lot of people have found cures by dreaming about a particular kind of plant. It’s very normal and natural and I respect that in terms of my art and my writing.
AR: What writer most inspired you?
NR: I’ve been inspired by a conglomeration of so many different people. One of the great things about having gone to Columbia was that I got to read a lot of authors that I normally wouldn’t have read. It gave me permission to do a lot of things that normally I wouldn’t have thought were okay. I said, Oh, wait. You can break it up like this. You can say this. You can say that. That was really good. I am also influenced by music and film. I took a Latin American film class which helped me [consider] ideas of plot. I really didn’t want to do a linear plot. I’ve been criticized for having a plot-less book. Even from the beginning when I was workshopping it, that there was no real discernible plot and it just kind of aimlessly wanders. That’s okay with me because I don’t think our lives are plotted. We kind of aimlessly feel our way around. That’s kind of how I wrote the book. I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t have a master outline. I just knew my characters. That was my whole thing: try to figure out your characters. That’s just how it is. I don’t have a climax and that typical male structure of how stories are scripted. I think a lot of women write like that, very multi-climatic.
AR: Graciela’s first departure made me think of Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God in Zora Neale Hurston. That decision and Amalfi’s decision to stay were interesting. I don’t want to say they are bucking the system but they made decisions that many other women in their shoes then and now may have wanted to make but did not. What drives these women? What’s behind their choices?
NR: That’s a good question. With the whole immigration patterns in New York City, I’ve seen a lot of women either send their kids back to the Dominican Republic or go ahead and leave their children with family members. That’s always surprised me that women made that choice for the betterment of the family economically. There is a flip side to that. There’s a lot of resentment, anger. Sometimes children are left with family members who are not very supportive, aren’t very nurturing. Sometimes they are. It works both ways. In a strange way that’s almost kind of unprecedented in a sense that a woman is taking this huge jump across an ocean and leaving behind family and it’s okay because it’s for the economic betterment of the family when that before was unheard of. A lot of women did but from rural areas to the city to work. I have always been fascinated by the big picture, how it trickles down to the everyday lives of people. We never think about that. We always think things are just happening to us but there’s a bigger pattern at work that we’re not always aware of. It’s just sad to me sometimes what economic pressure does to families. Even with my parents. My parents are still together. They had this policy in the home that we had to wait for my dad to come home no matter what. We always ate in a circle. And that was so important of how we connected as a family, how we stayed together as a family and unity. It didn’t matter if he had to work late. There was always some kind of core around work and the family. A lot of people lose that when they come to this country. Everybody’s working. There’s this whole shaking up of families. I think that’s one of the things for which I am most grateful for my parents. They worked so hard to keep us together despite the economic struggles, whatever (word). That was something they upheld.
In terms of Amalfi and Graciela, at first, I had Graciela go to Europe and follow the prostitution thing and I felt that was repeating a strand and I didn’t want to keep hitting the same nail. So I said Wow. I have an aunt who refuses to come to New York. She’s older now so it’s different. She doesn’t have the energy for it. I have yet to encounter other people who say I’m staying. I’m sure they are out there but I thought that was an interesting viewpoint in that kind of self-sacrificial viewpoint. I don’t want to be a part of the herd. That patriotic stance at the expense of your own child and going against what everybody does. That’s always something that I found interesting and putting your foot down and saying I don’t want to and going by what your gut is telling you. And maybe later having to swallow it. That’s what happens [in Song Two]. Her daughter comes back and she’s still there, making cakes, not really having progressed according to the family’s definition. I thought it would be another thing to look at and play with, [as well as] the concept of being loyal to your country and your country sort of not being loyal to you, which is another thing that’s messed up. And sometimes you’re being more loyal to your country by leaving than staying. There’re so many issues going on. I just said I am going to write the book and step back. I can’t analyze all of it, break it all down.