There’s a long and a short answer to that question. The short answer is that the title comes from Rafael Hernandez’s song “Ahora seremos felices,” which translates into English as “now we will be happy.” Hernandez was an important Puerto Rican composer of music; titling the collection after his song is a way in which I honor him. The long answer is that I considered other titles for this collection, but after gathering the stories that completed the collection and re-reading them, this title made the most sense because it pulled the stories together and spoke to what was intrinsic about the stories separately and collectively. Yes, the stories are all about Puerto Ricans and the different permutations of that identity and culture, but more importantly the stories are about the ways in which people seek happiness and that is something that transcends race, nationality, ethnicity and citizenship. Each story in the collection features a character who is trying to achieve his or her own definition of happiness. As in real life, happiness is defined differently by each person doing the defining. In life, we each have our own definition of what happiness means for us. My happiness doesn’t necessarily look like your happiness and your happiness may not look like mine, but we each want and will fight for our version of happiness. The characters in this collection are no different from us in that way. The stories show their versions of happiness and the actions and risks they’ll take to achieve it and the ways in which their varying definitions of happiness may place them at odds with one another. For some of the characters, happiness means reuniting a family or keeping one’s family intact; for others, it means finding out who you are and reconciling your identity; for some, it’s relocating or returning to a place that’s longed for; for others, it is independence and getting out from underneath someone else’s shadow; for some it’s saving a marriage; for others, it’s protecting oneself from emotional harm.
So everybody’s happy in the end?
In your first collection At-Risk, the stories all had an “old school” vibe. What is the time period for the stories in this collection?
Just as in At-Risk, the stories in Now We Will Be Happy are primarily set in Brooklyn, New York and they all take place between the mid-eighties and the mid-nineties. A lot of readers missed that in the first collection, but I am definitely and deliberately writing about a specific time period in both collections.
How do we know?
There are references to WWF wrestling, kung fu theatre, record albums, movies such as Big, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, musicians such as New Edition, Menudo, Sheila E., Vanity, Run DMC and Big Daddy Kane which should make the time clear to the astute reader. If the reader is not astute, then perhaps it will not be clear. I’m a big believer in subtlety and restraint; I trust my readers to not need information crammed down their throats.
It’s linked, right?
Technically, it’s “half-linked,” but I do think that it is cohesive. One of the reasons I am attracted to the short story form is that it allows me to look at the same problem from various angles and points of view and through different lenses while having the freedom to return to an issue or topic and pick it up at a different starting point. This allows me to tackle the same issue from multiple points of view like a debater who sees both sides of the argument. That’s what I did in the first collection. Roughly half of the stories in At-Risk were about kids who navigated or had help navigating the perils they faced and roughly half of the stories were about kids who succumbed to those perils. In Now We Will Be Happy, roughly half of the stories feature recurring characters whose lives intersect in East New York, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. These characters (Nelida, Papi, Yauba, Pedro, Esteban Sr. and Rosa’s parents) are all characters that were born and raised in Puerto Rico and are reconciling their firsthand experience of life in Puerto Rico with their lives in New York City. The other half of the stories feature Afro-Puerto Rican characters who have little to no firsthand knowledge or experience of Puerto Rican culture and who receive it through ties of kinship. I say “roughly half,” because the collection has an odd number of stories—eleven—and the last story “Palabras” combines both experiences and pulls the two varying narrative threads together.
How long did it take you to write this collection?
I completed the first story “Palabras” back in 2000, a few months after graduating from Stanford University where I had been completing a degree in English literature with a creative writing emphasis. “Palabras” was first published in 2001. The last story I wrote for the collection was “Bodega” and I wrote it in 2012 and it won the Lamar York Prize in Fiction and was published in 2013.
So it took you twelve years?
Yes and no. As with At-Risk, I didn’t set out to write a short story collection. I set out to write short stories. For the past fifteen years, I’ve been writing and publishing short stories that interest, please, and challenge me in some way. I have about eighty-five or so stories now that have been published or reprinted. Somewhere around story #50, I noticed that my body of work was not disparate, but that certain issues, themes, or topics were featured prominently. So I started gathering the short stories that spoke to one another or seemed to make sense together. Then I’d read that batch of stories and eliminate some and write ones that seemed to be asking to be included. That’s what happened with At-Risk and that’s what happened with Now We Will Be Happy. I didn’t realize that Now We Will Be Happy would be a collection until 2010. I had written seven of the stories before I realized that I was writing a collection, or that a collection was writing me. I looked at what I had and saw that on some unspoken level I’d had an interest, a theme, to which I’d been returning for a good ten years. Once I saw that, I wrote the other four stories that I needed to write to complete the collection.
It sounds like a tedious kind of way to write a collection.
Perhaps. I saw myself as “building” a collection as opposed to writing one. When you build, you need more than just inspiration and tenacity. You also need a proper foundation, good tools, and the right materials. If any of those three things are missing or inadequate, you wait until the conditions are favorable. One of the reasons I love being a writer is the immense sense of freedom I feel when I write. When I sit down at the computer or notepad, I choose which story to tell. Today, I tell the story from the point of view of a rich woman; yesterday, I told it from the point of view of a poor man; tomorrow, I may write in the point of view of a spoiled child. I like to work on multiple projects and to follow the threads that interest me. I have a very short attention span and I need space between stories to pursue other topics or stylistic choices to keep from being bored. Working this way keeps me always excited about the writing. To this day, I have never had writer’s block. If I get stuck on one story, I just put it to the side and write a different one. When I finally come back to the other one, I’m no longer stuck. This kind of process might drive another writer crazy, but it revs my engine. If someone were to tell me that I had to write one book or one project at a time and that I couldn’t write anything else until I finished said book or project, I would run from the room screaming. It would deflate me; for me, it would take the writing that feels like fun to me and make it feel like drudge work. My process isn’t for everyone, but it works for me. Every time I sit down to write, I feel like it’s my birthday and there are surprise guests with presents.
This is your second short story collection in a row. Most writers typically follow a collection with a novel.
Yes, most writers do.
Hmm. So are you trying to prove some kind of a point? Are you thumbing your nose at the publishing world? Are you a rebel?
Every literary writer is in some way a rebel, since the creation and production of literature is inherently a revolutionary act, but, no, I’m not actively trying to prove a point to anyone other than my own self.
I bet your readers probably wish you would write a novel.
If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.
I’m a writer, not a short-order cook. As a writer, I’m an artist, which means that my first loyalty is to my craft. I write what interests me and nourishes my creative spirit. I write because there are things I wish to learn and know and discover that I can only access through the act of writing. I’m not interested in following a path that’s been trodden by others; it kills the grass. I like to strike out on my own and follow my own star. I already know what I want to write about, at least for the next five books, so I don’t require much guidance or hand-holding. I’m always working on multiple projects and depending on my mood, some may steal my attention away from others for various periods of time. In the end, they will all get done.
So are you writing something else right now?
Yes. I’m a writer. I write. It’s part of the job description.
Wanna tell me what it is?
If I tell you, I’ll have to kill you.
What’s the big deal? I’m just curious.
Curiosity is the big deal. There are two ways a writer can take it when a reader asks about future work. One, it comes across as very flattering. It implies that someone likes your work so much that he or she just can’t wait for the next book and is just eager to know. Alternately, it can also come across as a very dismissive question, as if the reader is skipping over the present and current work which you have just completed after long toil and in which you rightfully wish to bask. It’s like coming up to a woman who is holding her newborn in her arms and asking her when she’s having her next baby. I believe in keeping mum about works-in-progress. I think it is in my best interests as a writer to do so. First of all, I do not wish to lock myself behind a door or paint myself into a corner while I am engaged in the creative process. I like the freedom to change my mind as often as I like until the work is done. Maybe the story won’t actually be in first person POV; maybe I’ll change it. Maybe the protagonist won’t be a boy; maybe I’ll make him a girl. None of my choices are set in stone until I am done; during the process of revision I may do a complete and entire overhaul, keeping only the title. Then I look like an idiot for talking up a book that no longer exists, or is so different from what I first gossiped about that the reader sees no resemblance between what she’s received and what she was led to expect. Or worse, I take so long to finish and deliver the thing I’ve been talking about that by the time I finally deliver the goods, the reader is no longer interested. Better to keep my cards close to my chest. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to face a fresh page each day, to keep the thing you’ve put countless hours, days, weeks, months and years into writing and revising “new” to you each time you return to it. Talking it to death is the quickest way to make the spark that is your story die and go out. The only thing it does for the reader or fan is satisfy idle curiosity, which is not something I as a writer am tasked to do for anyone. If I have to choose whether to satisfy myself or to satisfy you… guess who’s going to win?
So I guess that means you’re going to tell me?
Okay, I see where you’re coming from, but I feel like we’ve grown closer throughout this process and have created a special bond. After all we’ve been through, are you sure you don’t want to tell me what you’re writing now? Maybe you can just drop me a hint?
Seriously, I really would have to kill you.
I think I could take you.
AMINA GAUTIER is the author of the short story collection Now We Will Be Happy (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), which won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and of the short story collection At-Risk (University of Georgia Press, 2011), which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Her short stories appear in Best African American Fiction, Glimmer Train, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, and Southern Review among other places. Find her at http://aminagautier.wordpress.com/