Translating the Green Power Box: An Interview with Christopher Romaguera


Christopher Romaguera, a Miami native, has been writing fiction and poetry in New Orleans since 2011. He has reported for NOLA Defender, The Daily Beast, and Curbed, among others. Chris is the new co-editor of Antenna’s Room 220 blog, an online space that he plans to repopulate with un-heard voices and languages that lives outside of the mainstream. Poet Esme Franklin sat down to talk with Chris about the prose/poetry divide, connectivity in an age marred by online disconnects, basketball, and the Latin American experience on the page.

Esme Franklin: What are you working on right now?

Chris Romaguera: I’m an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of New Orleans right now, so I’m working on a collection of short stories. On top of that, I’ve also been working on a chapbook of poems about being the first member of my family to go back to Cuba since both sides of my family were exiled in the 1960s.

EF: Is the collection of short stories also thematic?

CR: So far, all the characters in the short story collection have been similar either to me or my father, immigrants or first-generation immigrants from Latin American countries. A lot of it is based on reactions to death, PTSD, immigration, exile. Really cheery stuff.

People are seeing stories from Latino writers that do that, like Ana Menéndez and Junot Díaz, but I don’t think any of the people from my neighborhood in Miami have read a short story that really spoke to their experience. So, I’m trying to do that in a way that makes sense to a lot of people, but that my people can also see and nod at, like, that’s right.

EF: So, would you say you consider your audience in the writing process?

CR: I grew up telling stories during basketball games on a green power box. We were all small, skinny fools. We would play basketball for seven hours at a time. Three of us would sit on the green power box, one of us would stand in front. They would be the “story-teller.” So, most of the stories I know are oral. I’m still trying to learn the craft of writing—trying to see, a) how do these stories transcribe to the page, and then b) how do they make sense? Half the stories I was told were in Spanish. So, on the page, I can put some Spanish, but it can’t be to the same degree. What do I literally translate between languages, and what makes sense to people who weren’t in this weird little enclave in South Miami?

I’m just trying to figure out a way that’s effective both for the people I grew up with—that does us justice—or people like us, who still have not read stories that relate to them, also, for people who are curious and want to connect to a different culture. It’s a balancing act.

EF: To translate yourself, in a way, is a difficult feat.

CR: That’s what the rum’s for. It is difficult. Because it is fiction. The Chris in the stories is not the Chris. What will be most truthful, but will also reach or connect with people?

EF: You’re working on both a chapbook of poems and a series of short stories. Can you talk more about straddling that line between poetry and fiction?

CR: When there’s no plot I call it a poem. [Laughs] I think no matter what I’m writing I write in a way that’s very rhythmic. I want the stories to sound as if they’re oral. When you’re reading them, I want you to hear my voice. So, in a way, I want my prose to have the same rhythm and lyricism that a poem has.

EF: Are you reading anyone right now who helps you understand that rhythm, and the relationship between prose and poetry?

CR: I always go back to Junot Díaz, because he is Latino, straddles that line of different languages, and is an immigrant. There are a few other people who hit multiple literary mediums like that. Kiese Laymon writes both fiction and essays; Olivia Clare writes poetry and short stories; and Beth Ann Fennelly writes poetry and micro-memoirs. It’s amazing to see how they all glide between those mediums—it seems seamless.

EF: In a lot of ways, it seems like your creative endeavors and the experiences you chronicle have to do with first-hand accounts, which can feel sometimes like non-fiction, or journalism. Can you talk a little about your journalistic work, and if or how it plays with your creative sensibilities?

CR: Let’s start with a joke. My undergraduate professor, John Dufresne, used to joke that writing is cheaper than therapy. And obviously, it’s a bar line, but I think there’s some truth to that. I come to writing with the same goal every time: I’m trying to explore something.

So, with my journalistic work, I’m trying to explore places I feel like have been under-reported or just not fully analyzed in a way they should be. I started with NOLA Defender because they didn’t have anyone who was working with people that could speak Spanish only. And I realized that the Times Picayune had issues with how they reported on undocumented people. I said, you know, I’ll write for free for a little bit, to just de-bunk this.

With fiction, I’m trying to figure out what avenues or perceptions a character has when things are unfolding that I haven’t explored or maybe haven’t been explored in general. Latinos comprise a huge amount of the populace, but our voices aren’t heard as much. The reason I’m doing the chapbook of poems for Cuba is I have all these little snippets from weeks at a time I’ve spent there, and while I can’t fully write peoples’ lives, I can write the rhythm of one moment with a person, and what that means to me.

EF: Do you feel your work is work of witness?

CR: I think some of my work is work of witness. Some of my work is very much work of experience. When it’s a straight work of witness, I will keep it journalistic because there’s importance in knowing that this is a real, valid thing. But the works of witness where I’m extrapolating or adding to something, whether it’s fiction or poetry, that’s all to connect to people.

Without trying to make everything about politics in 2016, I think a lot of people are just not connecting in general, before and after the election. People have stereotypes being strapped onto them. Ideas and tropes that have ramifications, and to which realities are just not being connected.

Parkland, Florida, is about an hour north of where I’m from in Miami. There are people right now, on CNN, saying that that school doesn’t exist, that those kids aren’t real, that they’re Democratic plants. I had a friend go to that school. That school very much exists. That football coach? Was a coach when my friend was there. I think if people actually connected to one another, nobody would tell these fifteen year-olds that they aren’t real.

So, I think part of my emphasis on connectivity is about seeing if you can feel and understand others. And it’s somewhat of a selfish pursuit for me, too, because I will improve myself by connecting to people that I haven’t met or fully understood.

EF: It feels a lot like a social imperative, in a non-selfish way.

CR: I feel like it is somewhat the responsibility of the writer. I think especially from a writer that comes from my background. My father and my grandparents were all Cuban exiles. All of my friends in Miami? You can point to a war in Latin America or the Caribbean, and that’s when their families got here. And there’s a lot of negative stereotypes associated with that.

So, I think in general we all have to do our best to connect, and lovingly so. That’s what I try to write. I write about heady stuff—it won’t always be happy, sometimes it’ll be funny. But I think all these connections are important to understand the world around us, because by having internet connectivity, we have somehow connected to less. I think it’s very easy to turn off right now, and by turning off we do all of us a disservice.

EF: How do you see yourself functioning as a curator of the Room 220 blog, given this issue of social connectivity?

CR: I think Antenna and Room 220 have done a great job with the literary community in New Orleans. No matter what, there’s always a particular group of writers, people who are not getting published or being found, so my hope is to be able to add a greater canon of writers, and topics, to this blog. Just because of the nature of the city and the solitary pursuit of writing, there’s amazing writers we haven’t found yet. And now I have the charge to find them, and to find topics that will get people to write.

EF: Great, new voices! One last question, regarding voice: as a basketball person, can you give me one word to describe Fergie’s performance at the All-Star game?

CR: One word for Fergie? Draymond. His face was priceless. But we all know I’m not a one word person. [Laughs]