Blog tour: Until We're Fish

Welcome to the blog tour for Until We’re Fish by Susannah R. Drissi. Now get comfy and read on to learn more about this exciting new novel…

Hi Susannah! First of all, I would like to congratulate you on the publication of Until We’re Fish!

Did you have the plot entirely figured out when you started writing the book or did it take an unexpected turn as the characters grew on the page?

A: Not figured out entirely. The writing process was a combination of working my way to the end, which I already knew, and allowing the characters to navigate their way there. It was a matter of throwing obstacles in the way of characters and seeing how they rose to the occasion or fell to their circumstances. For a long time some of these characters had lived outside the world of the novel—in my memory, in short stories I’d written years earlier, or in my imagination—so all I had to do was step back, listen to them think, and watch them react.

Why the choice of the Cuban Revolution as the background for your novel? What kind of research did you have to carry out to make the setting as authentic as possible?

A: It would have been nearly impossible to write about Cubans on the island in any real sense without considering the impact of the 1959 Cuban Revolution on their individual lives. The Revolution, its processes, and its consequences on and off the island have marked the lives of several generations of Cubans and Cuban Americans, their relationships to the island, to each other, and to the United States. Omitting the Revolution would have constituted a real violence against the Cuban people and a flagrant denial of their lived experiences. I wrote the novel precisely because I recognized a genuine gap in our knowledge of what has taken place in Cuba since 1959 from the vantage point of time and distance. I have taken advantage of my position as someone who was born on the island and lived a great part of their childhood there, but who then came of age in the United States. As an outsider/insider personally invested in the ways in which Cuban history has impacted Cuban and Cuban American lives, and as a scholar, I have understood the political, social, economic, and cultural forces at play on the island in ways that I wouldn’t have otherwise. As a writer, I have a responsibility to my characters and to the truth of their experience which, in the case of this novel, happens to be also my truth, as I lived it and as the people I know lived it. The material for the novel involved a combination of lived experience and research I had already undertaken as a doctoral student specializing in Cuban Studies.

If this novel was going to be turned into a film, who would you cast in the role of Elio?

A: Hmmm . . . I think I’d love Jorge Perugorría in the role of Elio. Perugorría is a wonderful Cuban actor who continues to live on the island and whose acting roles include the character of Diego, in Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s Strawberry and Chocolate (1993) and Detective Mario Conde in Netflix’s Four Seasons in Havana (2016), an adaptation of Cuban writer Leonardo Padura’s novel quartet. In Gutiérrez Alea’s film, Diego is a gay artist who struggles to be himself under Castro’s repressive regime. He is a lover of Cuba and of world literature, and a very conflicted figure in the film—he’d be perfect to play Elio. Although not Cuban, Spanish actor Javier Bardem would also do a wonderful job, I think. He’s played Cuban writer Reinaldo Arena’s in Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls (2000), so I think he would bring to the role the kind of emotional depth and complexity it deserves.

Without giving too much away, can you tell us about a scene in the book that you love or that was particularly difficult to write?

A: One of my favorite scenes comes from Chapter 47. Elio, our main character, imagines seeing a dear friend who has left the island. The scene was difficult for me to write—it gave me so much emotional pain to prevent Elio from actually seeing his friend; instead, he has no choice but to imagine him. The encounter reenacts a scene that Cubans, Cuban Americans, and other immigrants, exiles, and political refugees everywhere know so well: the moment of return, whether real or imagined.

Is there anything that didn’t make it into the final version of the book?

A: Yes, I opted to leave out the role of music during the Cuban Revolution—in particular, the role of music as a window to the world in Cuban life, at a time when Cubans knew very little about what was happening beyond the island. For this, I would have needed to write another novel; instead, I have written a musical titled Nocturno, a jukebox musical that pays tribute to a legendary Cuban radio show and features some of the Spanish-speaking world’s most iconic songs from the 60s and 70s. Nocturno takes place in 1975 during one of the most repressive times in Cuban revolutionary history. In it, the radio show and its music become the backdrop to dreams of personal freedom and love in the tropics and to ways of mitigating food shortages, power outages, and the violation of human rights. The real radio show, “Nocturno,” first aired in Cuba in 1966. Nocturno, El Musical is entirely in Spanish. It is a truly original “book” musical, with lyrics revealing the roller-coaster story of teenage love in times of political upheaval, great cultural changes, and devastating economic conditions. After a sold-out public reading in December 2018 at Hecht Studio Theatre at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Nocturno was scheduled to premiere at Miami Dade College’s Koubek Memorial Center on August 6, 2020. Victoria Collado (John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons) was the director and musical direction was by Jesse Sanchez (Hamilton, national tour); George Cabrera, 3FEO Entertainment, was producer. Unfortunately, the production was canceled due to COVID-19. We are currently working on ways to move on with the show.

If you are already working on your next writing project, would you mind giving us a little anticipation of what we are to expect?

A: I have various projects in the works, including a novel titled Letters from Camus that takes place in Los Angeles, Paris, and Algiers. I am also working on various projects for television, something I have been wanting to do for a long time. 

What are you reading at the moment?

A: I am not reading a great deal at the moment; instead, I’ve spent the last year studying and binging on films and TV shows. The last book I read was Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season, which was merciless—a blow to the belly in the best possible way.

Due to the popularity of social networking websites, interacting with readers – be it via Twitter, Facebook Instagram etc. – is becoming increasingly important. How do you cope with these new demands on authors and do you think that they somehow disrupt your writing schedule?

A: I am a very disciplined writer. I write obsessively every day until I have come to a satisfactory end. Social media, which involves a great deal of self-promotion and interaction with readers, is absolutely necessary. Unless you live under a rock and have decided that you do not intend for others to read your work, you must care about social media; however, the need for promotion of your work should never take precedent over the work itself—it goes without saying that the work should always come first. I write early in the morning when the house is generally quiet, the children and my husband are still asleep, and there are no demands on me other than a blank page. While I teach, I am thinking about my own writing and how best to communicate what I learn from each project (current or past) to my students. In some sense, I am always thinking about the project at hand and finding ways to make it relevant to other areas of my life—both personal and professional.

What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring writers?

A: I would tell aspiring writers to give themselves permission to make mistakes, to start over, to reconsider. Sometimes what’s holding us back is not the lack of ideas, but the lack of courage to put those ideas into action. The fear of failure can be paralyzing, but the second you realize that failure is part of the process, you begin to let go.

Thank you for your time!

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