Each week this summer, we will be showcasing our authors to give a more in depth background and insight into their minds and their work. This week, we focus on Hugo Esteban Rodriguez, whose short story collection tentatively titled Running from the blank, will premiere in February 2018.
"Running from the blank (name pending) is a collection of twelve stories starring a variety of characters who have one form of mental health diagnoses or another and how these diagnoses impact their lives, for better or worse. It’s my attempt at facing our culture’s stigma against mental health by showing these characters living in sheer normalcy."
Hugo Esteban Rodríguez is a writer, poet, and essayist from Mexico and the Rio Grande Valley, currently working out of Houston, Texas. His work has been published in The Airgonaut, Riding Light: Starwheel, The Acentos Review, 101 words, Picaroon Poetry, Donut Factory and theTexas Poetry Calendar. His story, “The Ritual”, was longlisted for Wigleaf’s Top 50 and was part of The Airgonaut’s slate for Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Best Short Fiction recognitions in 2016. He occasionally conducts flash fiction workshops through Nuestra Palabra Radio’s Tintero Projects series and occasionally performs poetry. He was formerly an assistant editor for Bartleby Snopes and currently serves as Latinx Features Editor for Rabble Lit. Rodriguez lives with his fiancée and three furchildren in Houston and when he’s not working or writing he can be found watching Simpsons reruns, playing videogames, or attempting to come up with the Holy Grail of grilled cheese sandwiches.
1. Could you explain your style and approach to telling this story?
My approach was basically telling myself that I wanted to tell a whole bunch of stories and the best vehicle to do that in was short stories and flash fiction.
My style is a recipe.
First, you stir-fry the works of Sandra Cisneros, Neil Gaiman, and Julio Cortazar. Then, while those works are turning golden-brown, you start adding pieces of Raymond Carver, Benjamin Alire Saenz, and Dagoberto Gilb. Toss them around, and then you start adding the Gulf Coast shrimp until it’s cooked. You serve it on a plate made from the fronds of the Texas sabal palm and you pair it with a light beer or maybe a scotch and soda. It’s a great meal after shopping at Brownsville’s Sunrise Mall or the Houston Galleria or before watching a San Antonio Spurs game.
My style of fiction, in other words, reflects my influences, my environment, and my own take on things. For those that know me, I want them to read the book and tell themselves, “Yeah, this book is totally Hugo.” For those that don’t know me, which will be a lot more people, I want them to tell themselves: “I don’t know who this guy is, but I want to know more.”
2. What ideas drove you to write your story and what do you hope readers take away from your book?
I was driven to write this story because I wanted to fight the stigma of mental illness in both my Mexican and American cultures, but also in our current society. I have diagnosed attention deficit disorder, and it’s as part of my life as having a slightly weighted tattoo would be. My fiancée has anxiety and OCD. Many people I know and love live with one form of mental disease or another, but it took me until very recently, in my late twenties, to finally acknowledge what it was. Before? I was ignorant, and I didn’t know I had something different in my brain chemistry. It was immensely frustrating, because I knew I was smart. In high school, I’d ace just about every test I’d take with only the most minimal effort spent studying, but my grades suffered severely because I’d forget to do homework, or I’d forget other assignments. I’ve ruined so many pairs of pants because I’d forget that I stuck one or two pens inside my pockets. I just couldn’t focus at all, and it did affect me and the people I lived with. It was thanks to my fiancée to finally go to see a psychiatrist and I was there for maybe five minutes before she diagnosed me.
And you know, I’m very fortunate. My parents are people who emphasize the importance of communication and who always cared for what I was thinking. But I wonder how many people didn’t and don’t have that? People who say, “I think I have depression” and are told by the people who are closest to them: “Just get over it” as if it was a sprained ankle one could just recover from. Young men who are told, no, you can’t be sad, you can’t be this, because men are manly men who don’t cry and are not allowed to show emotion. That’s for girls. Can you imagine the damage that does to someone’s psyche?
I wanted to do something about it. Early in 2015, at my thesis advisor’s suggestion, I picked up two short story collections: Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek and other stories and Benjamin Alire Saenz’s Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club. Every story in those collections was amazing but two in particular stood out to me: Cisneros in the titular “Woman Hollering Creek” and Saenz in “Chasing the Dragon” because they conveyed human emotion in thought in such a raw and powerful voice that I knew then that I had to write short stories.
And to touch a little bit more on the approach, what I wanted to do was portray people living with mental illness as human beings. I didn’t want to have a preachy, after-school-special tone where I went “AND NOW, KIDS, WE TALK ABOUT ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER” because that would make people (justifiably) want to throw the book at me. I wanted to portray real, vivid portraits of people who are neither heroes nor villains; just regular everyday people who happen to have different brain chemistries.
I feel that besides the harmful “just get over it” perspective we have in the United States, there is an equally-harmful “oh, you have [insert mental disorder]? You poor thing! Let me treat you like a porcelain doll.” That perspective may be benevolent, but it’s also condescending. I don’t speak for anyone but myself, but I can say that I don’t want to be treated differently, I just want people to understand. Understanding is key. Let’s use the example of my ADD, for instance.
Person A: oh, you have ADD?
Person A: oh okay
Person A: oh, you have ADD?
Person A: what’s that like?
Hugo: well, imagine if your brain is an internet browser, and you have about fifteen or so tabs open at one time, and half of them are playing a video or a song. You can’t keep a single tab open for more than 15 minutes, or you start burning up a lot of mental energy, so you have to switch back and forth, which also costs energy, but now it doesn’t burn up as fast as it does if I were to keep one tab open.
Person A: wow, I didn’t know that!
See the difference?
In scenario 2, I have the opportunity to educate someone else and engage in conversation about a poorly-understood topic. I should also mention that between people who have mental disorders, there’s a lot to learn. For instance, I, like many others, used to think that OCD was just really being picky and fastidious about something. But it’s not that, it’s a legit disorder that is much more broad and much more damaging than just wanting something like, say, your socks in order. I don’t have full-blown OCD (although I do have certain compulsive behaviors), but I don’t need to have it in order to understand how it affects people.
Long term, I want my stories to generate those conversations and that mutual understanding because this will normalize mental disorders. I envision a future where someone can show up to Walgreens to pick up an anti-depressant or an SSRI with the same ease and comfort that they would in picking up an antibiotic for an ear infection.
3. What character/section/story challenged you the most and why?
In general, the whole collection offered its own unique challenges. I crawled to a finish, and when I was done, I spent two or three months just recovering because of the emotional investment I put in to the collection. But, I think there are two things that did come up as the most challenging:
The first was staying honest to my writing style while also remaining as accurate and sensitive as possible to the afflictions discussed in the stories. I must emphasize that I’m not writing from a clinical perspective, but rather an observational one. If I have come up short, I will apologize for that. However, I will not apologize for making the attempt in the first place.
The second was a content challenge in Of permanent marker scars. The story stems from an experience I had several years ago in which I failed to render help to someone in need. To keep the story as vague as possible, I stumbled into a scenario that left me with two bad options: either I spoke up and possibly lost a friend; or I stayed silent and kept the friendship. I chose what I feel was the coward’s way out and kept the friendship, but the side effects were carrying the weight of my actions for a long time after. There are many substantial differences between what happened and what the story relates to, but at the heart is an apology. In a way, it’s again, the cowardly decision, but I take solace in knowing that the decision could help others in the long run.
But if the individual recognizes the story, the following is directed to them:
I’m sorry. [redacted], for what I didn’t do.
I don’t know if it would have made any difference at all in either of our lives to reach out to you and let you know you weren’t alone, but I do know you were suffering and I deliberately chose to stay quiet. You deserved a better friend then and I hope that wherever you are now, you’ve found some peace, comfort, and happiness. I know what you went through wasn’t a unique situation, but the only way I can make it up to you is by being an outspoken advocate for those who are hurting. I will not be silent again.
4. What is your literary philosophy?
My literary philosophy revolves around observing the world around me, channeling the duende, and bleeding on a screen or on paper.
What is the duende? Federico Garcia Lorca, in Theory and Play of the Duende explains it:
“The duende is a force, not a labour; a struggle, not a thought. I heard an old maestro of the guitar say: ‘The duende is not in the throat: the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet.’ Meaning, it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins.” He elaborates on the difference between the three: “Angel and Muse come from outside us: the angel brings light, the Muse form (Hesiod learnt from her). Golden bred or fold of tunic, it is her norm that the poet receives in his laurel grove. While the duende has to be roused from the furthest habitations of the blood.”
The duende “burns the blood like powdered glass…it exhausts, rejects all the sweet geometry we understand” and the key here: “With idea, sound, gesture, the duende delights in struggling freely with the creator on the edge of the pit. Angel and Muse flee, with violin and compasses, and the duende wounds, and in trying to heal that wound that never heals, lies the strangeness, the inventiveness of a man’s work.”
My grandfather was a devotee of bullfighting, traveling across Mexico to watch bullfights and when he couldn’t travel, he’d watch them on television. My brother and I both have custom posters on our childhood bedroom walls lauding us as bullfighters. They maybe were tourist-y mementos to an outsider, but to us it showed us how important bullfighting was for my grandfather and some of my earliest and most cherished childhood memories were watching the bullfights on TV with him in his room.
Two decades later, I’m seeing Lorca talk about how the duende’s most impressive effects are in the bullring, “since [the duende] must struggle on the one hand with death, which can destroy it, and on the other with geometry, measure, the fundamental basis of the festival. The bull has its own orbit: the toreador his, and between orbit and orbit lies the point of danger, where the vertex of terrible play exists. You can own to the Muse with the muleta, and to the angel with the banderillas, and pass for a good bullfighter, but in the work with the cape, while the bull is still free of wounds, and at the moment of the kill, the aid of the duende is required to drive home the nail of artistic truth. The bullfighter who terrifies the public with his bravery in the ring is not fighting bulls, but has lowered himself to a ridiculous level, to doing what anyone can do, by playing with his life: but the toreador who is bitten by the duende gives a lesson in Pythagorean music and makes us forget that his is constantly throwing his heart at the horns.”
My family is a family of storytellers and masters of the art of conversation. I embrace that tradition and I channel it with the duende burning in my blood through my fiction, my poetry, and my essays. It’s unbridled intensity bled out on paper or on a screen. Intense happiness. Intense anger. Intense sadness. Intense love. Intense hate. Intense excitement. Intense hope. Intense nostalgia. All dancing between the real and the surreal.
5. What is your advice for young writers?
One of my favorite books on the craft of writing is Stephen King’s On Writing, and he advises: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
I think that’s invaluable advice, but I’m going to offer my own as well:
Carry a pen and notebook with you at all times. Write down vivid images that stand out to you or move you in some way. It doesn’t have to be something you see, it can be something you smell, something you hear, or even something you think. I also highly recommend journaling, but you can do that with a different journal, naturally. I stress the importance of this because inspiration can come at you from nowhere, from any source. I have notebooks in every room in my house for that reason, besides the one I carry with me.
“Tacos de tripa”, the lone novella in the collection, came about because one night, I was at a friends’ place and the words “magical taco truck” materialized in my head. So I wrote them down on my notebook, channeled the duende, and fleshed the phrase out into a story about addiction and desire over the next few months.
So don’t set limits on yourself. Bleed your heart out, channel that fire, channel that swelling of enjoyment that forms at the very core of your being. If it’s fun, if it moves you, it’s good. Don’t buy into bullshit, outdated notions that writers should only read/watch/listen to specific books or things. I’ve been moved by videogame music, anime, playing soccer, and Whataburger much more than I’ve been moved by some boring old treatise some stuffy person said I should read. The only thing a writer should do is write.