The Many Maps We Carry: Preface to the New Edition of Salsa Nocturna
Today the re-issue of my first book, Salsa Nocturna drops. To mark the occasion, I’m posting the preface I wrote for this new edition. It’s about my writing journey and the origins of the Bone Street Rumba series. Enjoy!
It was just past eleven p.m. on December 31, 2008 — that dizzy in-between time when we’re not quite here but not yet there — and white kids crowded the trendy streets of Haight-Ashbury. I was in San Francisco with my family but they’d all stayed in for the night and left me to wander my old stomping grounds — I’d spent a few months here after high school, first as a bike messenger, then a waiter at Mel’s Drive-In. I had stories on my mind.
I’d always been a big reader, but that year I felt like I’d rediscovered literature. I devoured all of Octavia Butler’s works, Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and, in one sleepless night that felt like it somehow flew past, Walter Mosley’s short story collection Six Easy Pieces. The literary chemical reaction of all that brilliance plus Stephen King’s On Writing and bingewatching Cowboy Bebop set a fire inside me. Up to that point, I’d put most of my creative energy into music, although stories had always lingered at the heart of it. But something was different now. Octavia and Walter and Junot were speaking a language I’d heard all around me on the street but never read on the page, certainly not in the context of stories about aliens, detectives, or supernerds. This was a new mythology; it was permission. I’d always known I could get lost in a book; now I knew I could be found in one too.
I dipped into a brightly lit headshop for a pack of cigars and a pocket sized rum. Lit a smoke and walked back out into the street, weaving through the crowds. An old homeless guy sparechanged; some twenty-year old rich kids sparechanged. Somewhere not too far away, the darkness of the panhandle and Golden Gate Park churned and beckoned. What mysteries did it hide? What magic? What stories would come from this night?
I didn’t know what being a writer meant, but I knew I loved writing. I’d always loved writing. I knew that telling stories was as essential to who I was as my own name, that stories sought me out, took shape in the air around me, poured forth when summoned.
A tall, wasted, and impeccably dressed cat with tightly wrapped locks stretching down his back addressed the festive street: Whaddup douchebags and douchebaguettes? A few passing revelers chuckled, but most ignored him. A blond lady rolled her eyes as if she was being hit on for like the four hundredth time tonight. Why so serious? He yelled into the sky. This is the year, people! The time, she has come! People, get ready! We made quick friends and partyhopped for a few hours. The new year entered with a few drunken yells and random objects thrown into the air. The night slid past with no major event, no fight or crisis, no sudden love affair or break up.
I came home, moved into a new place on Lexington Ave in Bed-Stuy, set up an office in the basement. I had been working graveyard shifts on the ambulance, coming home, blogging about the various disasters and doldrums of the night before. It was easy: I just wrote what happened; took a handful of minutes and the results flowed smoothly and encapsulated a tiny piece of what it’s like to work at the messy crossroads of life and death. I thought: what if I just made some shit up? Then it’d be fiction, not a blog. And some little dam inside me broke. Just tell the fucking story, became my motto. I stopped overthinking and started writing the book that would one day become Shadowshaper.
During the next year, as I was amassing the first dozen of what would eventually be some forty rejections letters from agents, I took a class with Sheree Renée Thomas at the now-defunct Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center on the Upper West Side. There, I started writing the stories that would one day become this collection. One of the first ones began like this: “It’s just past eleven p.m. on December thirty-first — that dizzy in-between time when we’re not quite here but not yet there — and hip young white kids crowd the trendy streets of Haight-Ashbury.” Eventually, that went on to become the first chapter of Half-Resurrection Blues, and the Haight became Park Slope and Sunset became Prospect and that mystery hiding in the woods became an entrada, a secret entrance to the Underworld. And the Bone Street Rumba began.
Sheree midwifed that world into existence, nurtured my writing with love and precision while more rejections piled up and the publishing world started looking like that misty impossible-to-scale cliff in the Princess Bride. I kept writing. Gradually, a few small and midsized publications took my work. When I approached Crossed Genres, who had published two of my stories, about serializing some of the longer ones, they said, “What about a book?” Under the editorial guidance of the excellent Kay Holt, Salsa Nocturna grew from a bunch of stories into a coherent narrative. It was Kay, during a phonecall I will never forget, who pointed out that the book was a damn sausage party, and I got my shit together and wrote Krys and CiCi’s stories, “Magdalena” and “The Passing,” and then the characters took hold, as Kia Summers would later do, and started popping up again and again.
Besides the two additional stories, “Victory Music” and “Date Night”, and this introduction, this new edition includes some small updates to the original texts. When I first wrote these stories, Carlos was the only inbetweener anyone had ever heard about. He hadn’t met Sasha or the Survivors yet, he hadn’t fallen in love. Except, of course, he had, I just didn’t know it yet. So in the interest of series continuity and making shit work, I’ve made a couple changes here and there.
The fun part about writing an interconnected collection was watching the arcs and structure emerge on its own. There’s no sense that any one arc needs to see itself to completion over the course of the book, so many disparate threads become their own unusual fabric. It is an ensemble production, the portrait of a community. In Salsa, without realizing it, I created two somewhat related worlds: one centered around Carlos, and one centered around Gordo. As with real-life communities, everyone knows someone who knows someone else who knows that guy, so all paths seem destined to lead into each other at one moment or another. Worlds collide; communities break down and re-form into brand new communities.
In my head, the sprawling map of the Brooklyn I know and love stretched for miles and miles amidst the complex tangles of power and history. Writing the world of the Bone Street Rumba meant deploying these characters into the world and letting the world do the talking. Narrative is melody, I tell my students, and worldbuilding is harmony. The stacked notes of literature, context-work allows us room to draw on all those messy intersections and imbalances that make places come to life. When I was a kid I loved those cartoon birds-eye-view maps of cities, where different sites of interest (and paying businesses) would stand out and decorative elements like balloons and trolley cars hinted at so many stories lurking beneath the surface.
We all have personal cartographies of the places we’ve lived; memories crowd the crossroads like ghosts: here’s the corner where we stood in the rain; there’s the club we played that gig and then walked the streets all night. My own maps include the many shootings, stabbings, heart attacks, and drunken disaster calls I worked over the years, plus the many walks I took with friends or alone, and that night on the brink of a brand new year, two time zones away when I roamed the streets of the Haight with a pack of cigars and pocket rum, imagining the world that would one day be the Bone Street Rumba.
Daniel José Older