Catching Up with 2022 Fiction Prize Winner A.J. Rodriguez
A.J. Rodriguez was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He holds a BA from Cornell University and an MFA from the University of Oregon, where he was the recipient of the Logsdon Fiction Award. He is the winner of Fractured Lit’s Anthology Prize, the Gival Press Short Story Award, and CRAFT’s Flash Fiction Contest. His work has also placed as a finalist in New Ohio Review’s Fiction Contest, Indiana Review’s Fiction Prize, and New Letters’s Robert Day Award for Fiction.
CH: When did you first begin thinking about yourself as a writer?
AJR: I feel there’s a go-to answer here that most self-respecting writers rely on to remain humble and, well, respectable. That answer generally sounds something like: I’m still not sure I think of myself as a writer. Unsurprisingly, I consider myself standing firmly in that camp of general ambivalence. But I also find myself wondering what it means to really be a writer. Does it mean publishing a book or a story? But what if nobody reads or buys or cares about your book/story, are you still a writer then? I think the unspoken qualifier underlying the noun writer is that you’ve made some money off your work, which is a depressingly capitalistic way to ascribe value and legitimacy to art. So in the spirit of not being depressing, I’ll say I began thinking of myself as a writer at three years old—specifically on the day when I drew a collection of scribbles in green and red crayon and told my parents it was a t-rex eating a unicorn.
CH: What was your main source of inspiration when writing “Bendiciones”?
AJR: “Bendiciones” originated from an expectation I think many Latine writers grapple with due to the pressure that comes from a severe lack of representation in the literary world. Because of this absence, there’s an urge to address whatever big political issue hegemonic society associates with our community. For Chicanx and other Latine writers from the southwest, it’s the border crisis. That’s the story we’re expected to write, something that fits through the bottleneck of our stereotyped experience. I felt this burden weigh on me while conceiving “Bendiciones,” a story about a Chicano family that takes place in the border town of Del Rio, Texas. I didn’t want to subject myself and my characters to one-dimensional respectability politics, but I also didn’t want to ignore the reality of the border’s existence—because remaining silent enables its dehumanizing power to persist. So, eventually I settled on the mindset of making this a story in which the border is a part of the narrative but doesn’t define it—just like the border is a part of our lives but doesn’t define them.
CH: What does your revision process look like?
AJR: Before this past June, I was submerged in the MFA workshop grind, which more or less dictated my approach to revision for all the stories I’ve written over the last couple years. That approach involved sitting through an hour plus of nine people each pitching anywhere from two to two-hundred cents about what they felt wasn’t working in whatever I submitted. To help me cope with this process, I had it drilled into my head that part of the MFA workshop’s function, however fraught and corrosive it may be, is to teach you which readers really get what you’re trying to accomplish (or better yet, help you discover what you’re trying to accomplish). I also had it told to me that if you succeed in identifying which voices to listen to and which to avoid, then you simultaneously become a better reader of your own work, so much so that you’ll no longer need the workshop structure to determine how you’ll revise. I’d like to think that’s where I’m at now, meaning my revision process involves the following: a painstakingly slow first draft in which I get so lost in my own head that I need a trusted voice to give me a more grounded sense of what the hell is actually going on in the story. Once I have that conversation I return to the draft with a fresh, less delusional perspective, which allows me to shape the thing into something more structurally and thematically cohesive. After that draft’s done I leave it alone, let it and me catch our breath, until I feel ready to comb through the prose again and pinpoint the moments in which I overwrote or rambled. Frankly, most of my revising involves cutting, which I always get a thrill out of. It’s freeing to shed the weight of old, vestigial ideas. In revising “Bendiciones,” I had so many of those ideas that I ended up scrapping over a thousand words.
CH: If you could go back to the beginning of your writing career, what is one piece of advice you would give yourself?
AJR: Considering that my writing career is still getting started (or at least I sure hope that’s the case), I’ll offer a small repackaging of the guidance I’ve picked up from mentors thus far, stuff I try to remind myself on the daily as I figure how to survive this whole literary world. My advice is to recognize that the only person who’s ever guaranteed to read your work is you. I say this not as a cynic, but as someone who believes in the liberatory power of fiction. If you embrace this truth, then it will liberate you to write for whatever makes the human in you feel seen and loved and connected to your community. Ironically, staying true to yourself in this way will ultimately make your art more immersive, more moving, and more unforgettable in the eyes of your reader. I think this process of tapping into the most intimate and vulnerable parts of yourself as a way to meaningfully connect with another is a pretty rare and chingón thing—so chingón that it’s the primary reason I do what I do.
CH: Who are some of the writers who inform the work you do?
AJR: I’m a firm believer that writers should study and honor the storytelling traditions their work draws from. Because without the stories that came before, the stories we write today have no ground to stand on, no roots to grow from. Understanding yourself as one pulse in the heartbeat of a lineage allows you to think of your work as contributing to something transcendent of yourself, something that carries an ancestral and communal significance. I learned this through my appreciation of the Chicanx literary tradition, reading writers like Helana Viramontes, Rudolfo Anaya, and Gloria Anzaldúa. Paying homage to their voices, to the roads they paved, gives a sense of direction to my work that can only be described as spiritual, like lighting a candle and feeling the presence of your loved ones in the glow.
CH: What projects are you working on that excites you the most?
AJR: My whole professional life right now as a writer (again whatever that means) revolves around polishing and submitting a novel-in-stories, of which “Bendiciones” is the first “chapter.”
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