Miriam García interviews Dominican singer-songwriter Rita Indiana for The Creative Independent. The artist speaks about “multi-tasking, being grounded in your community, and creative work as a healing process.” Here are excerpts:
Born and raised in the Dominican Republic and now living in Puerto Rico, Rita Indiana is a driving force in contemporary Caribbean literature and music. She is the author of three collections of stories and five novels. Three of her novels have been translated into English. Papi made World Literature Today’s 2016 list of 75 Notable Translations. Tentacle, published by And Other Stories, won the Grand Prize of the Association of Caribbean Writers, the first book written in Spanish to do so. Mandinga Times is her first album in 10 years.
Where were you in your life in 2011 and 2012?
I was basically a little sick of the whole music thing, the music gigs basically. Because I liked creating music, writing it, and producing it. What I didn’t like was the touring and the celebrity status in my country, the Dominican Republic, so I quit. And I thought it was going to be forever, so I went back to writing, which is my main thing, writing novels. And I got a job as a senior copywriter, which is something I did for a long time before I made music in the DR when I was still just writing books. So I got a job to support myself and to start working on the book that would become “La Mucama de Omnicunlé”
Were you fed up with the music industry or creatively exhausted?
I was fed up with different things, I just got tired of the whole celebrity status, people recognizing me everywhere, having no privacy whatsoever. And my kids were little and I didn’t want to deal with the stuff that I was dealing with already. It was my choices that put me there. So that was another big reason for just going back to just writing and having a day job.
How did you develop your practice of writing?
I was always a storyteller. I think I got it in my genes because of my two grandmothers. I also think the Dominican people are very good storytellers. They’re very funny. They’re very creative with words, with the way they tell stuff with their bodies too. When I said “oh, I’m a writer,’ was when I was 14 and I started writing poems and rhyming and stuff in school. When I was a student, I used to do other people’s sonnets and I was really good at it. And I’ve always been really fast with rhymes. I would do the homework for my classmates and have them pay me five pesos each for stuff like this. And then I realized I liked it a lot and I started doing my own things.
How does your process or practice of writing literature is different from your practice of writing music? Do they nurture or complement each other or how do they do co-exist?
They definitely feed on each other. My new album, Mandinga Times, wouldn’t be possible without me writing “Tentacle” and La Mucama de Omnicunlé”, my two previous novels. They’re both writing practices about writing, so you’re exercising the same kind of muscles, but the difference is the time you spend on it. For me, the difference is in the time I spend on these two things, usually for a novel is a lot more time, and I have to think things a lot more. This happens, for example, with writing characters, I’m developing a character right now. And I think I’ve been developing that character for probably five, six, seven years just in my head, it’s not like I’m writing or even drawing or anything. It’s just this person that I get used to, I’m feeding this box of who she is and where she’s coming from. And then I change things. And so I’ve been living with this ghost in my head, since 2012, when I was in Miami. And I wrote two novels after that, and this is another character. So this is it, sometimes there’s a bunch of people that are living with you, that you’re creating for different books at the same time. So that doesn’t happen with songs. [. . .]
Can you elaborate a little bit on what you mean, that writing a novel is more about a healing process?
I always say that my novels are ahead of me. I express things and I crystallize ideas and things that I don’t as a human being in my normal relationships. My novels teach me how I was feeling in the past and how I was articulating things and ideas that I wasn’t ready to understand at that moment, but the novel did that.
And then a couple of years later, when I’m at another place emotionally or spiritually, I realize like, “Wow, I expressed an idea that I’m understanding now.” I already expressed this five years ago, ago in a novel. And now I’m understanding what I was saying there. And the other thing is of course when you’re playing around with things that have happened to you, things that you’ve heard, and things that you’ve come up with and speculate about, it’s like you’re doing this magical thing too. You have a little bit of power, at least on the page, to decide what you want to happen. So, I think that for me, writing gives you agency. A little control over a particular universe. [. . .]
[Photo by Eduardo Martínez. See photos and additional interview at https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/the-return-of-rita-indiana-a-singular-icon-of-dominican-music/.]