Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez took a chance when she left behind her high-flying career in print journalism to become a novelist. Her first effort, The Dirty Girls Social Club, turned out to be a best-seller, and was followed by several more books and a young adult novel, all featuring Latina characters.
Her books, which include lesbian and bisexual characters, have been influential in opening the publishing market to novels focused on and aimed at Latinas.
Valdes-Rodriguez answered AfterEllen.com’s questions via email. In this interview, Valdes-Rodriguez speaks about being bisexual for the first time in the press. She also touches on issues ranging from outing to labels, and gives us a snapshot of her upcoming work.
AfterEllen.com: The Dirty Girls Social Club and Dirty Girls on Top center on a diverse group of female characters, including Elizabeth Cruz, who is a lesbian. What were some of the sources, personal or documentary, that led you to create this character?
Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez: As a bisexual woman (who, as it happens, is faithfully married to a man and therefore living a “straight” life) I feel it is important to include homosexual or bisexual characters in my work. I am living proof that such things are not “choices,” but innate.
When I was a newspaper reporter, I once did a story on “coming out” in traditional Latino societies, and I was shocked by some of the stories I heard. Horror stories. A man being thrown through a plate-glass window by his own father; a woman beaten by her relatives.
Luckily, I never faced that in my own family ― well, my mom did tell me she had hoped to have “normal” kids, but she was the non-Latino parent. I should say I never faced it with my dad, who, when I told him what I was, hugged me and said, “the greatest secret in humanity is that inside every person is a gay person.”
Anyway, my point being, I think it is incredibly important in work for Latinas in particular to discuss lesbianism openly. Too many traditional Latin cultures view women as sexless beings whose only function is to please a man, so the idea of lesbianism is completely incomprehensible to many.
I included Elizabeth to highlight our shared humanity, to burst stereotypes, and to, hopefully, simply tell a good story about a woman struggling with the same issues we all struggle with ― career choices, love choices, a marriage that falls apart, the trials of being a single parent.
The fact that she looks like Beyoncé … well. That was all for me.
AE: In The Dirty Girls Social Club, Elizabeth is a popular newscaster who gets outed by a gossip columnist. With your background working in journalism, did you witness any behind-the-scenes incidents around lesbian identity in news that made you want to explore the topic of outing in your book?
AVR: No. Not directly. But as a reporter covering the music industry I was horrified to see George Michael’s career tank after he came out.
I was also very sad to watch a certain male Latin pop star work overtime to keep his gayness out of the public sphere. He was my inspiration for this thread of the Elizabeth line. What is it like to be a public figure working hard to appear as something you are not, at such a deep and fundamental level, just to keep your job?
I think we all know who that pop singer is, and for his sake I hope he finds peace in being himself, in spite of the risks. He’s a great defender of other oppressed groups, including children and victims of sexual violence; I’d love to see him come out for gays and lesbians someday.
AE: There have been a few attempts to bring The Dirty Girls Social Club to film or television. Can you tell me where that stands now? Is there an actor who you think would make an ideal Elizabeth?
AVR: I wish I could tell you more about the deal I’m in the midst of negotiating. But I have been down this road enough times to know that until the ink dries and production wraps, there really are no guarantees. Even if production wraps, there is no guarantee.
I’ll say this much: there’s a major studio. There are three producers. We are negotiating. It takes a really long time because everyone has to have a fleet of lawyers who take 71 days to counter, unless they’re constipated or low on Viagra, in which case it takes 73 days to counter. Hopefully, one of these days soon, we’ll actually have a deal.
As for the actors? I used to casturbate regularly, then I heard it makes you go blind.
AE: There have been some heated discussions on AfterEllen.com about whether it’s necessary to label one’s self. It’s a discussion that covers many areas, from sexual preference to racial identity to ideological bent. How do you feel at this point in time about the usefulness of self-labeling?
AVR: I think labels are generally used to benefit those who invented them, and those who invent them tend not to be those upon whom they are foisted. That said, labels can be tools of empowerment or marginalization, depending on who is using them and why.
Consider the difference between being called a “funny freakin’ Jew” at a dinner party by, say, Larry David or Mel Brooks, or being called a “funny freakin’ Jew” by, say, Hitler or Sarah Palin’s pastor. In the former cases, you sort of high-five, laugh, and move on to the port and cheesecake. In the latter case, you go directly to the gas chamber, do not pass go, do not collect your moose-antler door prize.