Pay Attention to the Skirmish

All the Water I've Seen Is Running by Elias Rodriques. New York: Norton. 272 pages. $27.
Elias Rodriques

In Elias Rodriques’s new novel, All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running, the protagonist, Daniel, returns to his childhood home in North Florida from New York after a high school friend dies in a drunk-driving accident. Back in the town of Palm Coast, Daniel reunites with a cast of old associates including Desmond and Twig—two friends from the track team—and contemplates confronting the person who could be responsible for his friend’s crash. A mediation on grief, memory, family history, and homecoming, the book is also an exploration of how race, class, and queerness affect these time-honored themes. Rodriques recently talked about the book with Omari Weekes via Zoom.

OMARI WEEKES: The novel begins with an epigraph from Jamaican-born poet Ishion Hutchinson’s The Mariner’s Progress: “Geography is not fate, but fatal.” Could you speak to how important the ecologies of Florida and Jamaica were to this book?

ELIAS RODRIQUES: As a person born in Jamaica who spent my formative years in Florida, it wasn’t until I left that I realized that much of what I took for granted—proximity to the beach or the presence of dangerous animals—are not normal in the US. I would tell stories about seeing a wild boar and people would respond, “What the fuck is a wild boar?” Or the amount of rattlesnakes; once saw someone try to pick one up and it snapped back—fang grazed their thumb and they lost that thumb. In the book, I’m writing about what it feels like to be grounded in that space, from a perspective where these things are normal. The narrator, for instance, sees snake guts smashed like pulpy grapefruit on the road. That’s particular to Florida partially because it’s tropical, but it also primes who people are. Everything’s beautiful in Florida, but also quite dangerous. And both have to co-exist in the natural world. In Jamaica and in Florida, even under regimes of private property, you can’t really own it. Any divide you erect between yourself and the natural world is at best aspirational and at worst delusional.

Do you find an inherent relationship between nature, ecology, the ocean, and memory? Your novel made me think of M. Jacqui Alexander’s line about how water overflows with memory.

Water is a great figure for memory. It’s a reminder of how slippery it all is. Those of us who are migrants try to do what the ocean keeps trying to do every day but can’t—get higher than high tide. (Of course, now it can, because of climate disaster.) I’ve spent a long time doing something similar, trying to remember more, trying to go farther on.

The novel deals with nostalgia as an unsettled form of memory. It shifts the past from what it is to what it wants to be. What is nostalgia for you and how does it influence your writing?

Nostalgia is both a gift and a curse. For people who are products of the transatlantic slave trade, nostalgia is hard. You’re everywhere confronted by what you can’t know. In fact, one almost never knows the things one wants to know. Nostalgia is beautifully ugly in its desire to redeem this forced confrontation, both with what we know and with what we’ve been told may or may not be fictional.

I’m going to return to the queerness of the novel later, but it also seems to be about a nostalgia for a past, a lot of which was built on lies or incomplete truths. Do you affectively change the character and the texture of relationships that were built on lies? What does it mean to re-encounter not just a fragmented past, but a past that is fragmented by one’s own inability to tell the truth?

Queerness and the closet have a lot to say about what we can know about the past. The book spans the pre- and post-gay-marriage-legalization moment. Maybe you were closeted in 2008 and then you go back home after gay marriage has been legalized and suddenly everybody knows it’s not cool to talk shit about queer folks. But some of those people said some pretty harsh invectives about queerness, and some people who were lying about their sexuality said the harshest things. There’s a confusing tension now that we have all changed our opinions about whether people can be queer. What effect does lying to maintain the illusion of the closet have on our relationship? Maybe it’s not as big a revelation as it might have been in 2000, but it does change things.

I wonder if you could talk more about how you see queerness modifying the relationship Daniel cultivates with his friend Desmond.

Daniel has moved up north and imagined that everything would be really different. In my experience—in many people’s experiences—you hear about these places as liberal bastions. Then you get there and find a different kind of conservatism. It’s quite confounding because it’s self-effacing, it disappears itself. Someone will say all of the right things to be anti-sexist, pro-queer, anti-racist, and then do something wildly fucked up. Part of Daniel’s struggle is thinking about what matters more for intimacy, actions or words. The person he feels closest to is Desmond, who is also likely to use the F word, likely to call him a sissy, and can only imagine him topping. There’s a bigger struggle there, which is maybe an old one. It’s certainly been long written about: the difference between Northern liberal racism and Southern explicit racism or Northern liberal anti-queerness and Southern explicit anti-queerness.

Black diasporic history makes its way into the novel through Daniel’s memories of being in Jamaica and longer histories of his family on the island, which stretch all the way back to the nineteenth century. What made you turn to diasporic history as a way of extending the novel’s preoccupations with longing and return?

Formally, I was interested in thinking about what a collective trauma narrative might look like. Daniel has this difficulty—not only remembering his own past but also the past of the diaspora, his mother’s past or the stories his grandmother told him. Trauma is, to some degree, a time-traveling disease. The symptom is that you’re in the present, but you feel the danger of the past. It’s worth thinking about what it means for the collective trauma experience and what it means to live that every day. How does one persist, and how have Black intellectuals grappled with that question?

As the novel moves between temporalities the ways in which the memory and the past imprint upon the present are very clear.

To some degree, this is about my experience. But it is more reflective of the stories we hear from our older family members. Sometimes you’re walking down the street and something happens that makes you think of a story you’ve heard, a story that ends with horrifying violence. Then you think, Am I about to get jumped? Maybe you think of a story someone told you about someone they loved getting shot on the street you’re on. It’s harrowing, but also a necessary—or at least enlightening—experience. It helps one think about what it would mean to actually provide real safety in the world.

You can often feel that the violences around you are idiosyncratic or specific. But having a knowledge of other violences, in your own past and in the community around you—it’s not solace or helpfulness, but it does place you within a particular history. That can provide other routes of access to figuring out how to get through it.

Yes, inasmuch as it can be harrowing, you’re also carrying a knowledge of how to survive, how to persist, how to turn a bad situation into a good one. Indeed, not just how to survive, but how to make a life that you can stand, one you think is valuable on your own terms. You can have intimacy and meaningful relationships in part because of the knowledge that freedom from violence has not necessarily been possible for your ancestors. You know it’s not quite possible for you either, but you also know it’s possible to feel close to people, to feed yourself, to do things you care about deeply, and to build a world that you hope is better than the one you were born into.

There’s a lot of visceral language about the body in this text. How did you come to see the body and physiology as so central to the narrative?

Track and field, which plays a big role in the book, is a deep confrontation with the limits of one’s body and an insistent exceeding of those limits temporarily, which comes back with deep ramifications. What does it feel like for Daniel to walk now that he’s basically been run into the ground by coaches who are seeking championships? Daniel was repeatedly asked to take a beating and keeps doing it. Sooner or later, those injuries catch up with you. You have to live with the beatings you took as a young person.

One line that really stuck out to me was from a scene with Desmond and Daniel at the beach: “We’ll race until we feel the wetness where the natural tides that they forced my ancestors to cross meets the man-made channel where I fished under the quiet cover of night with the girl I loved when she lived and again after she died.” It’s an almost perfect description of the novel as a whole.

There’s that common phrase, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” But the more intimate one gets with the past, the more questionable that becomes. Indeed, it’s possible for Daniel to think the exact opposite: all the things I don’t know about my ancestors are my wildest dreams. As the child of slavery and indenture, I often think about the things that people did to survive. How could someone possibly survive the dangers of slavery or indenture in Jamaica? I couldn’t do it for a day. But they survived not only a day, but years, and had children and family and an important and meaningful life and intimacy and love. In the book, I’m after other options for relating to the past, probing what we don’t know. And opening up the question: What if we are not our ancestors’ wildest dreams, but our ancestors are our wildest dreams?

2008 looms heavy over the present day of the novel. Could you speak to how you see the great recession working on the level of interpersonal relationships and intimacies?

I think 2008 looms very large over Florida. It’s a place where wealth is entirely built on bubbles: on the one hand, prisons, and, on the other hand, real estate. For people who lived through 2008 in Florida, there was no way of it not affecting your personal relationships. Overnight, people went from being your classmates at school to just fucking disappearing because their houses got repossessed. That friend who used to come pick you up, who you used to kick it with, no longer has access to a car, so you only see each other in the cafeteria. A big part of the book is showing that intimacy is also deeply classed. There is a kind of love that exists and is built amid precarity that feels quite different than love between two people who are putatively financially secure. And this means that everyone is aware of how wildly unstable the ground is beneath their feet. They may be willing to take more risks, because the whole world seems like a gamble. People are forced to do far more for each other. Daniel never really asked Desmond to be his enforcer but Desmond has taken on that role. I think part of the reason is that there’s a particular kind of safety that’s not available through monetary means, which they have to build for each other.

Who were you reading while you were writing this book? I see references to Toni Morrison’s Sula and the violences of water in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, as well as the play with history that’s reminiscent of writers like John Keene and Faulkner.

The first chapter I wrote is the cruising scene at the beach, which is the third chapter of the book—that’s deeply influenced by Morrison. (In every Morrison book, there is a long description about how someone gets their name.) The structure of the book couldn’t have been written without Gayl Jones’s Eva’s Man. I wanted the attitude to be kind of like Song for Anninho, about confronting the violence of the present and the past, and trying to work toward a better future. I don’t know that I did a good job of trying to fulfill the promise, or pay whatever debt I owe—that indeed we all owe—to those great Black feminist writers.

I also had like sixty different epigraphs, which were always different lines from Ishion Hutchinson. There’s a lot of his work that really shed light on what I experienced in Jamaica. There’s a Ruth Ellen Kocher allusion in the last chapter. There’s also Tarell McCraney, a great Florida queer writer, and, of course, Hurston is a big deal to me.

Films that influenced me include Moonlight by Barry Jenkins and Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty and Youth, which are about people who are quite old who come to feel young. In many ways, that is Daniel's predicament. And a lot of music—crunk music is explicitly mentioned, and I feel like it doesn’t get enough of its place in hip-hop history. There are also writers I read afterwards, who I thought were interesting and felt similar, like Lauren Groff and Bryan Washington. On any given day, I could probably list off like twenty other people.

But I also wanted to ask you a question: I was curious what you thought of the last chapter and the cataloging of different religious movements in Jamaica and their impact on Daniel.

To give a cursory reading, it’s related to what we were talking about before. Less about kinds of spiritualities and more about the question, How do we begin to think about the complexities of history and its impact? Spirituality causes particular understandings of the world that then filters into later generations, even if they’re not recognizing it as within a spiritual or religious tradition. The conversation that Desmond and Daniel had toward the end, about heaven and the afterlife, is heavily influenced by Christianity.

There’s the question of Christianity affectively, too, in terms feeling, emotions, and what exactly Daniel is looking for, what feeling Daniel is chasing. Or maybe not chasing—maybe it’s being produced by Christianity. I was raised an atheist but I know a lot about the Bible and Christianity and it does mediate a lot of my relationships with other Black people. The other day I was waiting for the bus and someone came running up as it arrived. She was like, “God is good.” And I was like, “Every day.” I just knew what to say.

A call and response.

Christianity makes possible different kinds of intimacy that are wildly different from what one would imagine if one were to sit down and read the King James Bible.

Omari Weekes is an assistant professor of English and American Ethnic Studies at Willamette University. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in n+1, The Point, The Black Scholar, and other publications. His last piece for Bookforum was about Paul Beatty’s classic collection of Black comedic writing.