"The Red Dress is the Armor": A Q&A with Lilliam Rivera

Lilliam Rivera

When we came across "Death Defiant Bomba or What to Wear When Your Boo Gets Cancer" while reviewing submissions for our Spring 2014 issue, we knew we had found something special. A title like that evokes a gripping, funny, completely original perspective, and Lilliam Rivera's story certainly lived up to its promise. "Death Defiant Bomba...," which was chosen by Nathan Englander as an Honorable Mention for the BLR's 2014 Goldenberg Prize for Fiction, is a beautifully crafted, devastatingly sincere force to be reckoned with. The BLR is thrilled to congratulate Lilliam on winning a well-deserved Pushcart Prize for "Death Defiant Bomba...," which will be reprinted in Pushcart Prize XL (40th Edition), and are very pleased to feature an interview with Lilliam on her award-winning story below.

Lilliam is a 2015 Clarion graduate and a 2013 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Los Angeles Times, Tahoma Literary Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Midnight Breakfast, among others. Her young adult novel, My Shelf Life, is represented by Eddie Schneider of JABberwocky Literary Agency. Lilliam lives in Los Angeles.

What inspired you to write "Death Defiant Bomba...?"

“Death Defiant Bomba…” was inspired by two people in my life: my husband David and my brother Hector. David was born with a heart defect and since I’ve met him, he has had two heart surgeries and was also diagnosed with cancer. I’ve spent a lot of time being his advocate in various stages of his medical treatments so I understand that feeling of going to yet another doctor’s appointment and trying your best to be prepared for whatever comes. I wanted to write about going to war for the person you love.

Bomba is a traditional Puerto Rican music and dance performance. My brother Hector plays in a Los Angeles group called Atabey and I’ve seen him perform many times. He helped me figure out how to use the structure of the song and dance as a framework to illustrate this story. In bomba, the dancer leads the conga player to play a rhythm that accompanies his or her dancing. She or he leads the dance, climaxing to a synchronized beat. I imagined this nameless narrator having this dance with a doctor.

The style of the story is really striking. Why did you decide to write the piece in the second-person?

I read Junot Diaz’s “How To Date a Brown Girl (Black Girl, White Girl, or Halfie)” when it was published in The New Yorker back in 1995. There’s something reassuring about his use of second-person to create a sort of instructional manual on how to date. I wanted to do the same where a Latina could follow step-by-step what to do when attending a doctor’s appointment with her man.

After I wrote the story, I would later find out that many people have strong opinions about the use of second-person. “Death Defiant Bomba” was one of the first short stories I actually sent out for publication so I was naïve to all those opinions. I believed it was the right choice.

One thing that stands out in the story is the power of the red dress. What made you choose to focus on what we say with our self-presentation?

In this story, the red dress is the armor needed to go to war. Fashion to me is a protective shield. When I’m stressed out I try to dress up. When I was an extremely shy high school student, I wore only black, oversized clothes with my hair covering my face. Every sartorial choice a person makes says a lot about that person. This character selects red because it’s the equivalent of a fire alarm.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve received?

The best piece of writing advice I’ve received came from Los Angeles author and writing instructor Al Watt. He taught me to sit down everyday and write for two hours or up to 1,000 words a day. That is what I do. I write for two hours. That can include writing something new or rewriting but if I break it down to just two hours, I feel I can manage it. Aimee Bender once told me she would sit down in the tiny closet that she converted into an office and write for two hours. Now that she has twins, Aimee sneaks in writing whenever she can. I feel the same way. I’ve written many things in the car while I wait for my kids to finish up some activity. I don’t have an office. I work in the kitchen (my Koffice) but when I’m in there, I can block everything out and get to work.

Read "Death Defiant Bomba..."