Interview: Rita Indiana Hernández

The first thing you notice about Rita Indiana Hernández is that she’s tall. She’s also very talented, gaining widespread acclaim for her books, music and theater work. Recently she published an op-ed in El País criticizing the denationalization of Haitian-descended citizens in her native Dominican Republic, where her vast array of talents has earned her the nickname of “La Mostra” (“the monster”).

But just as she’d become something of a pop star in the D.R. and abroad, she decided to quit the music business and focus on her writing.

I met Rita Indiana earlier this month at “Notas Del Caribe,” an event held at the National Museum of Mexican Arts, hosted by Contratiempo and celebrating various forms of Caribbean art. The interview was conducted via email.

You’ve made a name for yourself as both an author and musician, but you’ve recently decided to give up music and focus on your writing. You said in a recent interview that a writer’s responsibility was to observe other people, but that the fame you’d acquired as a music artist made it difficult to do that. Do you think fame automatically ruins a writer or weakens their art?

I think it’s true for me. I hated the pop star fame I had in my country. I love to walk and use public transportation everywhere I go, especially in my country. Suddenly I couldn’t do that anymore. I couldn’t go anywhere without being recognized. When I came to NYC in 2011 and felt the pressure after each gig of hundreds of people wanting to get a picture with me, I said fuck this, I’m going back to being a writer. The other thing is I’m not a night creature anymore, I used to be when I was in my ’20s. Now I’m a mom. I like hanging out with my family and friends at home, and the night gigs were boring and exhausting.

You once said that the writing of a novel was much more difficult than that of a song. Do you think this is generally true of the two media or just true for yourself? In what ways do you find the writing of a novel to be more difficult than writing a song?

Like with the previous question, I only think this for myself. I can write a song in a couple of minutes, even a meaningful one. I can’t improvise a novel.

I think it’s only natural for a creative person to exercise their creativity in a variety of different ways. Countless writers and poets have also expressed themselves through music and the visual arts. Are there aspects of songwriting or performing your music that you’ll miss? Have you given up making music altogether, or have you simply given up popular music?

I have quit popular music for good. I will in the future make site-specific music pieces for museums and other experimental projects. But for now I’m focusing on my literary career.

Speaking of your writing, authors are notorious for their habits and the strict routines they keep. Are you one of them, or are you among the few who are able to pick up their work anywhere and at any time? Do you ever suffer from writers’ block, and if so, what do you do to cure it?

It is different with every book. Some are written at night, others stealing time from my day job. For PAPI I wrote every Tuesday and Thursday at the same cafeteria in Ithaca for three months. Nombres y Animales was written when and where I could. I have suffered from writers’ block. Curing it is simple: start writing.

When asked by one interviewer if you considered yourself a Latina writer, even though you were born and raised in the Dominican Republic, you said, “Why not?” You seem annoyed by attempts to be categorized as an individual or an artist, whether it’s critics labeling you a Latina author, a gay writer or a Dominican musician. At the very least, you seem indifferent to such labels.

Labels exist cause they have a function. I’m uncomfortable with them anyways because I’ve been dealing with labels all my life. Tomboy, headbanger, weirdo or lesbian, underground, celebrity. Labels are caricatures.

I understand you’re currently working on a sci-fi novel, your first non-autobiographical work to date. Besides H. P. Lovecraft, who you’ve named as an influence, who are some of your other favorite authors in the genre?

I’m a big Philip K. Dick fan. He’s not just a science fiction writer, he’s a WRITER in capital letters. Bolaño once said Philip K. Dick was a Kafka on LSD. I totally agree.

Your homeland is in the news plenty these days due to the Constitutional Court’s September decision to revoke the citizenship of Dominicans born to Haitian immigrants after 1929, a move that some estimate will affect over 200,000 Dominican-born citizens. What’s your own view on the government’s decision to revoke the citizenship of so many of your compatriots?

The first week I couldn’t sleep. I thought, oh my god, this is horrible. I couldn’t believe it. This is not new. It’s yet another trick in the book of our corrupt system. Power uses language to control. They took a term like “foreigner in transit” (which means you’re on you’re way to somewhere else) and applied that to every Haitian worker in the D.R. since 1929. It’s more vicious because Dominican racism, even towards ourselves, is not secret, and this decision is obviously rooted in this fear of everything black.

Recently, Junot Díaz spoke out against the Dominican government and its decree, which led to a number of Dominican intellectuals and one official attacking Díaz’s Dominican-ness and his right to speak on Dominican matters. “Are immigrants and Latinos allowed to discuss issues pertaining to the patria or the homeland of their ancestors? What is your sense of these types of discussions on authenticity occurring on a daily basis in the Latino world?

Junot has more right to speak about Dominican issues than anyone. He’s given a bunch of Dominicans a voice and has documented their lives in beautiful ways. He has given us books where we can find ourselves. He’s a trailblazer. Besides, you know how many of these so-called patriots depend on the dollars and Euros their wives, brothers, fathers and sisters send from abroad? How many schools and roads are built with money sent by people from the diaspora? These people want to decide who can speak about what and when? They want to push this kind of atrocity and have everyone shut up. This only speaks to what all the critics of the sentencia are pointing at: that the sentencia is a trujillista monument.


Rita Indiana’s books, Papi and Nombres y Animales are available at City Lit Books in Logan Square.

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