Welcome to May We Present…, a column from Lambda Literary that highlights authors with recent or forthcoming publications. This July, we’re presenting Alejandro Heredia and his collection of stories,You’re The Only Friend I Need, forthcoming from Gold Line Press.By bringing together four individual works that each revolve around friendship (the good and bad of it), Heredia “offers new possibilities for transnational storytelling and the Dominican diaspora by centering Blackness and queerness.”
The theme of friendship affords Heredia a multifaceted lens through which to write about topics like migration and identity with a striking fierceness and tenderness; and though the four stories share a central theme, Heredia’s evocative characters and vivid settings render each one singular in what it offers and asks of the reader. A testament to the phrase, “less is more,” You’re The Only Friend I Need is a reminder of the efficacy of the short story form and leaves its reader feeling grateful to have picked it up.
Below, Alejandro Heredia discusses contributing to the lineage of Afro Dominican and Diasporic Black writing, his obsession with friendship, and rediscovering Arnold Lobel’s iconic “Frog and Toad” series.
When did you realize you had to write You’re The Only Friend I Need?
There was actually no single moment. Some of these stories, like “La Rubia,” I started writing eight years ago, others in the book are more recent. I actually prefer writing that way. Just working on the pieces that are calling to me in the moment, and then piecing them together however it might make sense after I’ve written each one.
The book is actually made up of four distinct works. What is the thread that, for you, ties them all together? How did you decide what order to arrange them in?
I think as a writer you have to be aware of your obsessions, and then you have to spend a good chunk of time turning the thing over and looking at it from every angle. I’ve been obsessed with friendship for as long as I can remember, both its role in my own life and also how we view and care and imagine friendship in society.
What ties these stories together is an investment in taking friendship as a serious source of literary exploration. Some of the people in these stories call each other friends but are terrible to each other. Others are only able to survive the world because of the bonds they share. What I try to do with You’re The Only Friend I Need is to make friendship the event, everything else that unfolds is the aftermath of what happens when two people meet, by choice or circumstance, and say, “Come with me, let’s share this time together.”
The order of the works came pretty easily to me. I started with “Boys” because it is immediate, short, and disruptive. Because the title of the book is “You’re The Only Friend I Need,” a reader might expect a wholesome, positive journey about friendship. But I wanted to disrupt this expectation from the start by showing how some friendships can destroy us.
I knew from the beginning that “1999” would come last because of its investments in futurity. It’s a story about taking a leap, and that seemed like the best place to leave the reader: mid-flight.
The importance of representation is emphasized throughout the book. Who did you have in mind as you wrote You’re The Only Friend I Need? What would you hope they take away from reading it?
It’s a typical writer answer, but I am my first reader. When I write I am thinking about what I would like to read. That is my primary instinct, and where the initial inspiration to write grows from. But of course, there are folks I hope this book is useful for: primarily Black Queer folks. And when I say that, I mean folks throughout the diaspora, not just folks in The United States. So often the American queer imaginary is so contained to the boundaries of this nation-state. Even us transnational folks, those of us who have immigrated by “choice” (or what feels like choice as there are no patterns of immigration to the United States that are not informed by capitalism and colonialism) and not by choice, when we’re here we tend to focus on what’s here. I was very intentional about having part of the book set in Santo Domingo and wanted to push the reader to consider how queer lives transgress the borders of nation-states.
I do not aim to represent the entire Black Dominican Queer experience, because I can’t. The only person I can represent is myself, and barely that. But I hope that this book expands the universe of Afro Dominican and Diasporic Black writing and that it will be useful for those folks, first. If others find these stories useful, that too is an honor.
One of my favorite lines from the book is, “The only thing Fabio loves more than the great Dominican poets is twisting their poetry to create queer alternatives of their lives.” (35) What are some texts that you’ve queered in your reading of them?
There is a generation of Black Queer writers creating directly in lineage/homage of and to Toni Morrison, and I count myself amongst them. The Queer Black writers love her! I mean, it’s impossible to be writing today, regardless of identity, and not be influenced by Morrison’s work.
Sula is one of the most expansive explorations of friendship that’s ever been written in the English language, and every time I talk about that book, I can’t help but hone in on the queer possibilities. I understand the need and importance of narratives about the homosocial relationships between cishet Black women, and of course, I feel we should honor that. And I think that text is open to a lot of queer interpretation. Not only an alternative world where Nel and Sula are lovers. That’s an obvious one. But I think more keenly that the great triumph of that novel is that it suggests to us that friendship is equally if not more important than our love affairs. In a world where friendship is tertiary to romantic monogamous love and familial ties, what is more queer than saying “it was the friendship that mattered most, in the end”?
A major theme that permeates all four stories is the significance of community and connection with others. Who’s the character from You’re The Only Friend I Need you would most like to get to know in real life?
Oh that’s easy – La Rubia! I like difficult people.
In Swing Time, Zadie Smith writes, “Sometimes I wonder if people don’t want freedom as much as they want meaning.” To me, the story “La Rubia” is about the tension that often arises between freedom and living a life of meaning, which I take to mean a life that is coherent, that makes sense to oneself and others, a life that is legible. I am much more interested in the people that choose freedom over the comfort of meaning. The people that push, that demand more, that insist on living their lives beyond what is legible, even if it makes them difficult, demanding, or as Morrison says of Sula, “dangerously free.”
Your book is filled with meaningful items, such as Ziomara’s bible and the accompanying letter from her father. What is the most memorable object to you within the world of the book? What is a memorable object in your own life?
The object that stands out the most from within the pages of the book is the photograph of Ziomara and La Rubia. Without giving too many spoilers, I think it’s the symbol that most closely represents the major themes of the book: friendship, longing, and diaspora.
My most memorable object is also a physical photograph. It is a photo of my grandfather and me when I was about two years old. For various generational and life occurrences, there lies a sea of psychic distance between my grandfather and me. He is alive but not accessible to me in many ways. I know stories about his life, which I’ve gathered from others, that he can’t and won’t talk about. And like Jamaica Kincaid’s Mr. Potter, I know there are things he cannot make meaning of in his own life, that I now must carry and make meaning of because I am a writer. That photo is a reminder that I am of him, from him, and his lineage.
How would your ideal morning unfold? What about your ideal evening?
In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to show up to work until noon. I’d go on a morning walk, and then settle into writing for 2-3 hours. I write best in the morning, that’s when my mind is the clearest.
My evenings are for people. I know that writers need isolation. I need isolation and mental clarity to focus. But I also need community. My ideal evening is any evening I get to share with a friend, watching a movie or at dinner or being alone, together.
Which LGBTQ+ writers or works are you currently looking forward to reading?
I recently rediscovered Arnold Lobel’s series “Toad and Frog.” I know it’s a children’s series, but hear me out. I hated reading before the 7th grade, so I lied in every single one of my book reports (don’t tell my teachers), except these books which were the only ones I gravitated to and read all the way through. It is interesting to me that the only books I liked as a kid were a queer exploration of loneliness and friendship. I am curious about how we develop our obsessions. Rediscovering this series has clarified that I have been curious about friendship for a very long time. I can’t wait to dive back into those!
Kyle Carrero Lopez’s Muscle Memory is out in August. My mother is bringing me a copy of Johan Mihail’s Chapeo from her trip to the Dominican Republic. Black Latinx/Caribbean queer writers are killing it right now. My hope is that the literary world catches up.
And of course, Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom, because anything Nelson writes is worth longing for.
Lastly, what’s the one line from You’re The Only Friend I Need that you just can’t get out of your head?
“In Sal’s palm, a number and name. Call me. A gesture towards the future, calling it here.”