INTERVIEW WITH WENDY A. GAUDIN
Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: In “Oro,” we love the short ‘dictionaries’ at the start of each section. Why did you make this creative choice? How do you believe they impacted the feel of the piece?
Wendy Gaudin: The short ‘dictionaries’ were cobbled together out of the journal that I kept while I was in Cuba. At the time, I had little confidence in my ability to improvise responses in the moments of conversation, and I worried that I would only remember words rather than grammar and sentence structure. So I kept a journal of events that happened while I was in Cuba, people I met and interacted with, and words that I remembered or learned from my travels. How I cobbled them together came from the rest of the story, what connections I began seeing between my history and my present subject position, connections between the sea and diasporic spiritualities, connections between what I was observing and what my ancestral memory held. The dictionaries also remind the reader of my subject position, as an elementary-level, non-native Spanish speaker in Cuba. They ask the reader to consider vocabulary that they might not be familiar with or comfortable with.
RR: Identity and placement are two of the themes that appear in “Oro.” What about your trip to Playa de Este inspired you to focus on these ideas?
WG: I am a diasporic person, and Cuba is a diasporic place. Acknowledging the presence of indigenous people, the important presence of indigenous people who survive colonization, Cuba is also a place of European power (both gain and loss), it is a place of Mestizaje, it is a place of African diaspora, and of course, it is a revolutionary site. Mestizaje is a recognition of mixture in the Spanish-colonial context — the mixture of indigenous and Spanish peoples — and the relationship of that mixture to a place. It is common throughout Latin America, and it is problematic in that it upholds mixture as an ideal, and erases non-mixed people in the process. I am also a product of a place that is associated with mixture — New Orleans. I am of Creole descent, a mixed person, and all of my ancestors are Louisianans from the eighteenth century, so when I am in spaces that are in some ways defined by mixture, I am keenly aware of myself in that place. The beach, specifically, did not inspire me as much as Cuba in general.
RR: The lineated sections of “Oro” flex the genre of the piece. Do you have a background in poetry and/or other genres?
WG: I enjoy experimenting with mixed-genre nonfiction writing. I consider all of my poetry to be a radical expression of creative nonfiction. I also often use oral narratives, census records, and historical documents in my writing, as I’m a trained historian in the field of the American South and critical race studies. I feel that poetry gives me an opportunity to write about historical things that are deeply felt, and perhaps not factually obvious or easily proven. I also like the freedom that the form gives me. For example, at the end of “Oro,” I write about my grandfathers’ great-grandfathers, who visited a church called Our Lady Star of the Sea before they went out fishing in the sunless hours of the early morning. I know that they attended that church, and I know that they fished in Southern Louisiana and that their grandfathers fished in the Caribbean. So I can use poetry to suggest that those Caribbean ancestors also entered Our Lady Star of the Sea, even though that may not be a historical fact. Our Lady Star of the Sea is also a name for the Virgin Mary and for Yemaya, goddess of the ocean, so poetry gives me the space to play with many meanings that are also historical.
RR: How does your background in history influence the way you approach writing about a place?
WG: I always want to know the history of the place I’m writing about. I want to know who struggled there, who was conquered, who fought, who survived, who fled. In part, because I’m writing about people who experienced what my ancestors may have experienced. I do whatever research I feel is appropriate for the current project, whether it is archival research, secondary research, literary research, or other kinds of research. I also grew up in a place where my ancestors did not — I am a product of migration — and so I strive to learn the history of Louisiana so that I can deeply, respectfully, and accurately write about the place my family left behind. I imagine other places in the same vein — who left this place, and why? And how does leaving change people? So writing about my time in Cuba reminded me of my ancestors who left the Caribbean and settled in Louisiana.
RR: What are some writers or works you’ve found particularly inspiring? Is there a specific line or image that stays with you?
WG: I am inspired by the writing of Helen Oyeyemi, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Marlon James, Ernest Gaines, the Tasmanian writer, Richard Flanagan, and Jesmyn Ward. Her recent book, “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” was deeply, deeply moving for me, especially because I also write about the South, about race, about heritage, although what I write isn’t fiction. However, I do write about the dead, about how the dead show themselves, and I am beginning to have a better understanding about ancestor veneration, and her work feels very venerative to me.
Wendy Gaudin’s work in Issue 7.1: