March 2, 2011
Haldeman, Dartmouth College
L: What is it like to be part of the Dominican writing community?
K: It is a strange writing community, simply because I’ve carried most of my education outside of the Dominican Republic. As a matter of fact I’ve lived more than half of my life outside the Dominican Republic. And then when I will sort of contrast myself to other writers in the same boat, if you will, who are part of this sort of Dominican writers group, or this Dominican writers diaspora, they happen to write, for the most part, in English. Although most of them, Rhina Espaillat, also writes in Spanish. But the majority of her production is in English. Then you have Junot Diaz who writes exclusively in English. And you have Julia Álvarez who writes exclusively in English. The rest of the Dominican writers who are in the United States, they are sort of, if you will, recent comers. They write specifically in Spanish but they’ve been here between 1-10 years. I don’t think that any one of them have actually been here more than half of their lives and have completed their formal education in the United States. So that sort of sets me in a particular place, if you will. And also, that again, in terms of the use of language, I have been forced in many ways to maintain my language skills through reading and not necessarily through speaking and interacting with my people. Because professionally I’ve been in a non-Spanish speaking world. Even geographically I’ve lived at many points in my life for long periods of times where speaking Spanish was a rarity, if you will. In the past four years I’ve been living in Hanover, New Hampshire, so I don’t really hear Spanish around here. You don’t just strike a conversation in the supermarket and speak Spanish. So that of course has had an impact on my involvement with the language. But at the same time, sort of maintaining my native language has been sort of a necessity as well. So writing in Spanish has an imposition out of need, if you will, because I can’t do without a relationship to this language. So writing, in the absence of speaking and living in the language, has been the vehicle through which I have been able to maintain my language.
L: That’s interesting. You answered the question I was going to ask. I was going to ask, why do you choose to write in Spanish? But you answered that.
K: I mean, I have written a few things in English. I have a couple of loose poems in English, I have a couple of short stories written in English. But I read them and they are very very, how should I put it? I wouldn’t say business-like, but they are very pedantic even because my language skills in English have always been in sort of, not in the creative. Although there is sort of creation in business writing, when you need to convey points, when you need to write manuals, when you need to write memorandums, when you need to write operations orders, when you need to write a whatever that is in that realm, you need to be skillful in writing, but again, the actual words that you use are more tangible, more sort of directive or directing and not necessarily free-flow, creative, sensations, feelings, that which one can really can’t put one’s hands on, but that which one can mostly feel. So my English, I haven’t sort of much developed except on the bread-making side of writing.
L: What are you most proud of in your writing career?
K: That is sort of a hard question. I think I’m proud of every single thing that I write, creatively speaking. But things that one can show for it, if you will, then I will have to mention the winning of the contest which published my first book of short stories, Reminiscencias, because it was a contest open to all Dominican writers who live outside of the Dominican Republic who write in Spanish. It was called Letras de Ultramar.
L: Literary Overseas Letters Awards. I googled it.
K: And it was an award that carried a couple things within the prize. One being the publication within the book; two being a $5,000 cash prize; and three being flying me to the Dominican Republic to be a guest at the international book fair for that year. That, to show for it, I would have to cite that. But I will have to say that I am proud of everything that I write. Some of it I think is better than others and as I have said in the introduction to my book of poetry, sometimes I read my book of poetry and I think it’s the best in the world and then the next day I read it and I think it’s just crap. I think that happens to writers. Sometimes you’ll read it and you’ll really really like it and then there are days in which you question whether it was really you who wrote that or why did you write that. I think with any work of art, the mood of the receptor of the work of art – the observer, the reader, the watcher, the listener – it will affect on how the work of art is perceived. Sometimes you come to realize that you’ve heard something all of your life but you never really knew what it said. It had no meaning to you. You never had a relation. Until one day it just hits you and you’re like, “Oh my god, I’ve heard this all my life and I never knew what it said. And now it says something that is really meaningful.” It might have been that you’d actually heard it but you could not relate to it at that point in time. Because of that sometimes I like to watch movies that I like over and over. You find pieces of the movie that you just missed before, things that you didn’t see or things that were said, and it just didn’t click. And now it’s like, “Oh now it makes sense!”
L: Now do you want to tell me about NYU and how you got to Dartmouth? How about, tell me what some of the differences are between your job at NYU and being at Dartmouth?
K: I’ve answered a similar question a number of times and the easiest way to summarize that is that it’s a 90 percent difference in the sense that at Dartmouth the student population is about 5,500 and at NYU the student population is about 55,000. Whereas the staff in the Department of Public Safety is around 350 uniformed personnel, at Dartmouth it’s about 10 percent of that, about 35 uniformed personnel. You could also say that Hanover is a small rural town; New York City is the most bustling city in the world, so that in and of itself is a big difference. When I have said that to people they have said to me, “Then you must be really bored at Dartmouth.” The way that I answer that is not really. One can drown in the ocean or in a glass of water. It all depends how close the water is to your nose. That’s what I will say in terms of that. If you are dealing with a hundred things, you’ll drown, or if you’re dealing with one thing you could also be drowning. It all depends. I am not really fumbling my thumbs over here. I’m quite busy.
L: Has your creative engagement changed at all between NYU and Dartmouth? If so, how?
K: My creativity engagement? Yes, it has. I’ve had so much more time to be creative here. It’s sort of that feeling of relaxation that I did not have in New York. The way that I was able to produce in New York was in the subway – that was my refuge. Or every once in awhile I could escape to a park to look at a sunset or go to the museum and escape a little bit. In the subway it was easy, it’s like, I’m not doing the driving. I get there when I get there. If I get stuck, everybody else will get stuck. Sometimes I’ll get to work in 20 minutes, or sometimes it will take 45 minutes, or sometimes it will take an hour to get to work. Within that time I would read or I would write. Or I would observe. Observing people in the subway in New York City is an amazing experience. I have a number of poems that you were written as part of that observation, or as part of the simple experience of riding the subway. So that was a space that I claimed for me as a creative space, which is kind of bizarre because there’s so much happening and actually no privacy and no comfort to be writing, so you’re all squishing and trying to make little notes. But that is the space that I had. Over here I have been able to put more time, more at ease, into my writing – to publish my writing, to transfer my writing, to type my writing, because I usually tend to write by hand person, and then I type, which is another interesting exercise if you will. I have also been able to be creative in other ways here. I love carpentry work and am building stuff, so I’ve been able to explore that to a certain degree. And also play a little around with film and video. So I have had more space and time to be able to be creative here. Another thing that is a little bit different in terms of what I do to make a living, which contributes to my ability to do more work here, is the fact that it was pretty much a 24-hour job. I was not able to detach myself from the job. Whereas over here, there is more of a defined definition as to who is doing what, when. So that not everyone has to jump in the same boat, so that allows me a little bit more freedom to be able to take weekends off, not have to worry about work. Which has been extremely helpful for me in maintaining living relationships.
L: What was your decision like to move from New York to here or NYU to Dartmouth?
K: Two things. I needed to get out of NYU and I needed to get out of New York City. It was literally eating me alive. I was overwhelmed at work and in life in general. New York City tends to take a toll on people and I had been nine years there and it was getting to a point which I needed to make a drastic change, particularly in the job front. I was no longer happy. I was, rather, unhappy. I was working too much and it go to a point that I did not want my name associated with the job that was being produced, so I knew that it was time to go, and I went. Interesting enough, I had not really seriously coming to Dartmouth. I had sent in my application, my resume and cover letter, when I saw the posting because I was in the market. I never really thought that they would even call me and I didn’t even look it up in a map until I had to come up here when I got invited to an interview, after having a telephone interview. And the process took quite awhile also. But I was very excited after my phone interview. I was like, Wow there is something happening up there and I have to check it out. And I did, and I am sooo happy and glad that I made the decision, well that they offered me a job first of all, and that I accepted and made the decision to accept it and move up here. I’m very happy here.
L: Cool! What year was that?
K: 2007. So the end of this month actually will be my fourth year here.
L: And I’m so glad you’re here!