Interview with Dr. Susannah Rodríguez Drissi, Cuban poet, writer, translator and scholar.
What could be the link between a Cuban writer and famous Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci? Dr. Susannah Rodríguez Drissi seemed to have had a crush during her childhood on…. Nadia’s haircut back in her halcyon days as a gymnast in late 70s and early 80s, but it was not only that…
Read an exclusive interview with Dr. Susannah Rodríguez Drissi to hear about her story, her passion for Nadia Comaneci and to know her insights about sports, competition and life models.
How does a young girl from Cuba become interested in gymnastic competitions or, more specifically, in a young Romanian gymnast from Onesti? How old were you then?
I was about 8 or 9 years old in 1980. The Summer Olympics in Moscow were the first Olympic games staged in Eastern Europe and in a socialist country. It was, as it has always been, an international multi-sport event. Curiously enough, Los Angeles was a runner-up, but lost to Moscow with 20 votes to the Soviet capital’s 39. You may remember the Moscow Olympics for the 65 countries who, led by President Jimmy Carter, boycotted the games due to the Soviet war in Afghanistan. This, of course, was later returned in kind by the Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles—a kind of tit for tat of the Cold War years (1979-1985). Among the many countries who did participate in the 1980 were Cuba and Romania. I, of course, remember the Moscow Olympics for reasons that are much more personal. I couldn’t tell you if Cuba medaled in any of the sporting events that summer—I simply don’t remember. Romania, however, had gymnasts medaled on every category. At the top was Nadia, who won gold medals for both the floor and the balance beam.
So, how does a young girl from Cuba become interested in a young Romanian gymnast? Well, it’s simple—really. Sports and sporting events were one way Cuba showed solidarity for fellow socialist countries. The 1980 Summer Olympics made an even stronger case for broad media coverage on the island, in particular because of the role the United States played in the affair. In addition to that, my childhood and the types of television programming I was exposed to as a child in Cuba in the 70s and early 80s had a great deal more to do with what children in other socialist countries may have been watching at the time than with children programming in Latin America. With respect to the coverage of the Olympic Games, in particular, one need only remember the early revolutionary maxim, “Sports, the right of the people.”
I would have loved to have been a gymnast at the time, but how? We lived in a small town, with very little access to the type of training that would have been required. A haircut was a much more accessible way of closing the gap between someone like Nadia and someone like me. My interest, then, was on her bob, which to me represented a kind of personal autonomy that, as a child, caught in the Mariel boat crisis of 1980, I did not have. Cutting my hair à la Nadia Comăneci was one way of controlling what I couldn’t otherwise control—namely, whether or not we would leave Cuba at that particular time. There was, of course, the sheer joy Nadia exhibited on the mat, the uneven bars, and any other gymnastic exercise she was involved in. Knowing that early in my life that it was possible to find ways to connect with others in such grand scale had an impact on my future personal and professional choices. Nadia was part of my childhood, and sacred somehow, among the many things both happy and sad that I remember about Cuba in 1980. I think most of my generation in Cuba remembers Nadia in some way.
Besides the ‘haircut’ and ‘look,’ affinities which were normal at this age among girls, would you say that you used to see a little bit of yourself in Nadia, in relation to her ambition, particularities, stubbornness?
I think calling attention to her haircut is significant, somehow. Hair can be so much more than filaments growing out of one’s head. In this case, for me, her haircut signified all of those things that were left unsaid about Nadia. Here was somebody who had actually put her ambition, particularities, stubbornness and, of course, charisma on display. It was this that I think attracted me to her, that I found courageous, and also special. With Nadia, every move was a leap of faith, in hope of perfect form, of nailing the landing—which, of course, she accomplished.
Was the haircut episode an isolated event, in terms of your interest in Nadia, or have you kept track of Nadia’s career and life later on, too? Have you ever met?
Nadia and I have never met. The closest we’ve come to a meeting was recently, and through Twitter. I tweeted the link to my short essay at Nadia and, lo and behold, she was kind enough to retweet. Incredible! I am not sure that she has actually read the piece, but I hope she has. Our lives intersected in such a mundane way at some point, but connecting a second time, even if through social media…well, there’s something sort of magical in that.
While I have not kept up with Nadia’s career over the years, I have always felt a sense of fondness, and even nostalgia, whenever her name has come up. I know she lives in Los Angeles and she has been engaged in humanitarian issues and charity work, as well as coaching, of course—important work, in other words.
It seems that the Nadia-like bob haircut marked a crossroads in your life, in terms of your relationship with your parents, your birth country, and perhaps even your career. Can these iconic characters, actors, athletes, etc., actually influence a child’s life, aspirations? Are human models crucial to an individual’s development?
Childhood heroes, or heroines, in this case, are instrumental to what we may envision for ourselves in the future. They are, in fact, narratives/stories that we engage in as children; and, sometimes, journeys we take on later in life. People we meet, or emotions and situations we experience at pivotal times in our development, have a kind of echo effect throughout our lives, but also stand out above the rest—they doggy ear our life’s story somehow, so that to remember this or that person at a critical moment in our life is also to turn to a particular page in one’s story.
If we are lucky, parents fulfill this role first. But due to choice or circumstance, we don’t always follow on our parents’ footsteps. In my case, and in spite of my parents’ limited possibilities, I was always encouraged to nurture my strengths, seek opportunities where none were apparent, etc. The haircut incidence, and my parents’ response to it, had a great deal more to do with the situation we were living at the moment than with the personal freedom I may have been allowed had circumstances been different.
When I was in high school, my AP English teacher, Mr. Baldetti, read Shakespeare and Dante out loud with such passion and intensity that he often shed a tear or two during the process. I saw the same passion and intensity in Nadia in 1980, and it was contagious and inspiring. Perhaps I focused on Nadia’s hair because there’s something magical about hair. After all, Samson’s strength was in his hair, and it was Rapunzel’s hair that allowed the trapped, young girl a connection to the outside world.
You became a scholar and educator, but also a poet and fiction writer. What role does autobiography play in your writing? In other words, was your memory of Nadia and the Nadia-inspired story than ensued typical of the way autobiography nourishes a writer’s work? Can writers be totally visionary, totally rely on imagination, or are all these memories latent and involuntarily shaped by the literary imagination to emerge as products (essays, poems, stories)?
Some incidents have a strange effect on you, like recurring dreams, and you can’t shake them off. They haunt you and you can’t help thinking about them, attempting to explain them to yourself. Sometimes, you recover from such dreams, at other times, you don’t. Fortunately for me, I’ve never recovered from mine. If you happen to write, writing down these experiences after the fact can be powerful. You can see what you couldn’t see before, the significance, the relationship between this and that. What is clear is that there are moments in your life that have lasting, evocative effects on you, and you feel compelled to write them down. There is something about these moments that we want to go on thinking about, that matters to us and to the type of stories we must tell. Even then, through the telling, you must rely on imagination. Thinking and writing about the past in the present always constitutes a kind of fiction.
Despite her short career as a gymnast, Nadia still rules as our major national brand. She became a successful coach, businesswoman, involved in humanitarian and charitable campaigns. How do you perceive her now? And what do you think of the concept of national brand heroes/heroines? Do young people need role models?
I guess it would be enough to say that the term “hero,” in the literary sense, which is the one I’m most familiar with, has been used exclusively to refer to the masculine form. Nadia, in contrast, gave us “Girl Power” and a “Yes, girls can” from the mat. Hers continues to be a voice that feels very necessary and relevant to me, in its effort to bridge the gap between potential and achievement for others, in particular for young people. I don’t know if that has anything to do with branding. What I do know is that young people need role models; and, if you like, heroes and heroines. But there are many places we can go for that.
The original story titled “The Hair, Like Nadia Comaneci’s” was published on August 1, 2016 in Cuba Counterpoints, a journal about Cuban affairs. You can read it here.
Susannah Rodriguez Drissi is a Cuban poet, writer, translator and scholar. She is Lecturer and Visiting Research Scholar in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming at Saw Palm, Literal Magazine, Diario de Cuba (Madrid), SX Salon, Acentos Review, Raising Mothers, and Cuba Counterpoints, among other journals. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA and is contributing and review editor at Cuba Counterpoints, a new journal dedicated to dynamic analysis and commentary on Cuban affairs.
She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters. She recently finished her first novel.
To read more of her work, visit her at www.susannahrodriguezdrissi.com or follow her on Twitter at @rsdrissi.