In Conversation with Richie Narvaez and Gabriel Valjan

GV: Please explain “noiryorican” for those of us who have never heard the term.

RN: “Noiryorican” is a portmanteau of a portmanteau. It starts with the word “Nuyorican,” which means a Puerto Rican who was born or raised in the New York area. Originally, this was a derogatory term used by island-born Puerto Ricans against those they felt had been assimilated into the mainland culture. But in time, particularly with the advent of the Nuyorican Poetry movement and the rise of Nuyorican writers such as Pedro Pietri and Nicholasa Mohr, the label became a point of pride, a symbol of self-identity.

And so I stuck “noir” onto that because I’m a Nuyorican and noir is my genre of choice. It’s probably too clever by half and totally limits its market. But the cover is sweet!

Let me ask you this. Is there a Cuban equivalent to Nuyorican, do you know? If not a label, then that kind of idea?

GV: Congratulations on your second publication with Down & Out Books, Richie.

As to your question about a Cuban equivalent, I have to qualify my response by providing some context, like you did with Noiryorican. My father emigrated from Cuba in ’66, and my parents divorced in the ’70s. The perception of Cubans today is that they are politically more conservative than conservatives. This generalization is a by-product of the Cuban community in Florida, a group who’d believed that they’d return to Cuba in their own lifetime and when that didn’t happen, they doubled down on supporting politicians who promised to overthrow Castro and failed. The fiasco at the Bay of Pigs signaled that a return to the island would not be realized, and a feeling of betrayal by JFK and the Democratic Party. Their state of mind became one of living in permanent exile. My father, for example, maintained a Green Card for 20 years. He did not want to become an American citizen.

I should add that the first wave of Cubans (1959 to ’69) was the most successful immigrant group this country had ever seen: inside of 20 years, they had become doctors, lawyers, professors, and politicians. Perceptions changed with the Marielito Boatlift in 1980. The word Marielito became a pejorative. First-wave Cubans in the US interpreted the Boatlift as Fidel’s way of shaming them. He had purged the prisons and mental hospitals and sent his unwanted to South Florida. The homicide rate soared, tensions escalated and there were riots. Overnight, the image of Cubans changed from Ricky Ricardo to Tony Montana in Scarface with Al Pacino.

This first generation, however, is dying off and their children have inherited their parents’ values. Therein is the problem: a hazy nostalgia mixed with historical amnesia, about life before Castro, under Batista. They’ve forgotten what Castro had done to the poet Heberto Padilla, or the people both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara had murdered or tortured. Of course, fantastic writers have emerged from Cuba: Reinaldo Arenas, Leonardo Padura, and Daína Chaviano, to name but a few. There was a renaissance of sorts in all things Cuban when the singers from the Buena Vista Social Club toured and the late Oscar Hijuelos’ Mambo Kings received the Pulitzer Prize.

This long preamble is my poor attempt to explain Cubanidad, or what is to be Cuban. As for myself, I’ve never felt a sense of Home or Identity with either America or Cuba. There is also a profound cultural and emotional nuance—worthy of several dissertations—to two other related words, Cubaneo and Cubanía. There is an extraordinary diversity within the Spanish-speaking world, from pronunciation to vocabulary. Words act as a force multiplier, and do not translate easily. Let’s switch gears and talk about you. Noiryorican: Short Fiction, which was released earlier this month (Nov. 2020), appeared after Holly Hernandez and the Death of Disco (June 2020), a Latinx YA mystery. Do you prefer short stories to writing novels?

RN: I like to kid that I prefer writing short stories over novels because I know the work is crap a lot sooner. But, honestly, I really do like writing short stories. They allow me to jump into more characters, to explore more worlds more frequently, and generally they’re easier to find homes for.

You’ve done both as well, GV. Do you have a preference? And do you believe in the idea that short stories get a writer more of that precious thing called “Visibility,” or is that just hooey?

GV: I enjoy writing short fiction because there isn’t the breathing room you get with a novel. These days, editors give you three to five thousand words, so it’s like the ticking of the clock during a debate. Make your case or go home. As for Visibility, I don’t know. I was shortlisted for the Fish Prize in 2010 and my story placed in the top ten out of 4,000+ submissions, worldwide. I would be shortlisted again for Fish (total of three times) and once with Bridport. My recent story “Elysian Fields” in the 2020 Bouchercon anthology survived a field of 200+ submissions. Has an agent approached me? Did I get the benefit of the doubt, the “Can I see more?” when I cited these accomplishments and my publications in a query? (10 novels in nine years). The answer to both questions is No. I think “Visibility” is talent plus time plus a whole lot of luck.

What’s your day job and how do the demands of the real world affect or influence your work?

RN: I teach at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan — remotely now and for the foreseeable future. Teaching is a great career for a writer, of course, so much so it’s a cliché. But it works. After a three-hour lecture, the day is yours to shape: grade now or squeeze time to scribble down some yarns? I’ve not done an academia-based thriller although I have an idea for a series. A series! That’s where the money is. We’ll see. What is your day job? I mean, besides minding the Great and Powerful Munchkin.

GV: [Laughs] First, my respect to you as a teacher. All of you have had to pivot and learn technology and rethink lessons plans, while under extraordinary duress. Literally. I write full-time now. Twenty years ago, I became debt-free. In the subsequent years, I’ve learned to live without a lot of creature comforts. I’ve done some freelance work, ghost-wrote a memoir, and odds and ends. Yes, anything to keep Munchkin appeased and pleased. How about you? What can readers expect to see from you next?

RN: I’d like to work on an old-fashioned, serious noir book next, and then maybe I’ll take a shot at writing an airport thriller. Shorter paragraphs. Lots of white space. Then I’ll fit in some short stories. And you have a new novel coming out in January, no?

GV: I do. Symphony Road comes out in January 2021, from Level Best Books. It’s the second Shane Cleary mystery, set in 70s Boston. Shane is a former cop and Vietnam veteran, and now PI. Two of his clients whom he shouldn’t trust, he does, and the third, whom he should, he can’t. There are three cases and little time to solve them.

I also have the follow-up to The Naming Game, which was nominated for an Agatha Best Historical Mystery and an Anthony Award for Best Paperback Original, out in April 2021. Diminished Fifth, from Winter Goose Publishing, is set in the immediate aftermath of the Rosenberg executions. It’s historical noir, a story with mobsters, government types, and people caught in the Red Scare hysteria. It’s a world filled with lots of gray. The good guys are not so good, and the bad guys aren’t so bad.

Tell us something about yourself that would surprise readers? Secretly enjoy cozy mysteries, etc.

RN: Well, I do love cooking. I make a lot of comida criolla, my own sofrito, my own coquito. But so many mystery writers I know love cooking, so maybe that’s not so surprising. Do you think people would be surprised that you’re, like, a Cousteau-class deep sea diver?

GV: More like Inspector Clouseau. I’m what you call a belated athlete, that or my midlife crisis came early. After I freed myself of debt, I went a little nuts on the fitness front. I’ve done close to 100 road races, participated in more triathlons than I can remember, and I became certified as a personal trainer and yoga instructor. The truth is, I’m an endorphins junkie. As for diving, yeah, I did that, too. NAUI-certified. My instructor was a former Ranger and a combat diver later in his service, so I received special “motivation.”

To be honest, I’m grateful for it because it saved my life underwater once. Literal grace under pressure. An idiot abandoned his dive partner at 75’ below, on an advance shipwreck dive. I had to share my O2 with him. He freaked, kicked up silt, so there was crap visibility, thank you. We worked our way to the surface. He used up my air and bolted to the surface. How he didn’t get the bends I don’t know. I was about 30’ below, at that point, and still pacing my ascent. Oh, I had no choice but to swim through box jellyfish. Luckily, none of them stung me. My instructor, the Ranger, was not happy. Two other guys almost came close to experiencing Fredo’s last boat ride (see Godfather II).

RN: That is so much more interesting than my surprise. I feel like I was set up.

GV: Publishers talk about diversity and inclusion. Readers have seen a mini-explosion of writers of color. What’s your take on the phenomenon? Is it real to you, or, to be a little cynical, a marketing trend?

RN: I’m sure there are many earnest editors, agents, and publishers who believe in the importance of seeking out and publishing marginalized voices, and we’ve been in a flush period for nonmainstream writers in the indie sphere that you and I occupy. But let’s not fool ourselves because some of our friends got some headwind. We’re not seeing this as much in the Big 5. Those bigger and much, much, much more influential publishers, which are owned by massive corporations, look upon inclusion as either something they must pay lip service to and/or just another trend to be exploited. We have to keep in mind that if they scent that cultural winds have shifted, if they aren’t making money, then those corporations will dump diversity and inclusion on the side of the road like a corpse.

GV: I agree. There’s little transparency in publishing and lots of spin in marketing. What I mean by transparency is that some publishers appear to be small and indie, but they’re not; they are an imprint of a multinational conglomerate, like you said. As for marketing and sleight of hand, I’m reminded of the old Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler ads on television. Yes, I’m old. Everyone was led to believe it was these two old guys sitting on their stoop, them against the world of wine, and then we discovered they were front men for a subsidiary of Gallo Wines. Back in the day, people sent cash to these two gentlemen, thinking they were helping David win against Goliath. Gallo had to send the money back.

Thanks for stopping by, Richie, and best of luck until we meet in the real world.

RN: Cheers! Let’s meet up for wine coolers after this mess is over.

About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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