Scientists are still studying exactly how our nerves’ collective activities transcribe our experiences into memories and, while a noble study, a certain question persists: isn’t memory so intoxicating because it’s so elusive? Memory’s pliability makes it a rich playing ground in fiction; it can manipulate and subvert what characters think they know and is fodder for ruminations. While Elias Rodriques’s debut novel, All the Water I’ve Seen is Running, can be described as a meditation on memory, what makes it stand out from other novels is how Rodriques uses memory as a conduit for revealing and exploring identity.
Daniel is working as a teacher in New York City when he learns his high school girlfriend, Aubrey, died in a car accident. His current boyfriend offers to help pitch in for a ticket so Daniel can fly back to Florida for the funeral, but Daniel doesn’t decide to return until after he and his Jamaican mother begin nightly phone calls in which she tells him tales of their family history, so he can keep their story alive. Daniel notes, “As the stories accumulate, the similarities between my family’s experiences and my own make me feel like I am living parallel lives, at one moment my own and the next my kin’s.” And a few weeks later, Daniel returns to his hometown to make sense of Aubrey’s death, confront the guy responsible, and visit—and come out to—his high school friends.
Daniel’s journey is heavily weighted by the past—both his high school experiences and his family’s history. The backdrop for these experiences is Palm Coast post-the 2008 housing crash, offering beaches and palm trees, but also overgrown vacant lots and a rural feel. After moving to town, Daniel’s first friend is Aubrey, a white girl who’s quick to make fun of people—as she does with his hair. (He doesn’t have a barber and she knows a few, which Daniel correctly assumes can’t cut hair like his.) When Daniel’s brother gets incarcerated, Daniel learns Aubrey’s father is, too. But the two have little else in common; Daniel is reflective, often quiet, while Aubrey is unapologetically loud and brash. And yet, the two are drawn to one another.
Daniel joins the (mostly Black) track team, becoming friends with Desmond and his girlfriend Egypt, and (white) Twig. These friends, and running itself, not only influence Daniel, but also present a path to escape the Deep South’s open racism, one his friends root for:
“Once I started getting good grades and posting fast times, my teammates sped me out of bad situations and started fights to protect me. They made sure I could get the scholarship to make it out. At first, I thought they did so because they wanted me to succeed. Then I thought they guarded me because they weren’t sure if they were going to get out of Palm Coast themselves. But if I escaped, we all did.”
And Daniel did. NYC allows him to live openly with his (also Jamaican) boyfriend, though as a Black man in America, there’s no escaping racism. Northerners just prefer carrying their racism in a more ‘subtle’ way.
A compilation of memories of racist and homophobic comments shows the ignorance and intolerance Daniel (let’s face it—that all people of color and those who identify as queer) must contend with, but he fights to not let it define him. And yet, how can it not affect who he is? Our experiences, particularly our struggles, make us who we ultimately become. It’s in this intersection that Rodriques skillfully uses memory as the vehicle that drives Daniel’s journey of identity. Daniel is shaped by many things: his mother’s tales and warnings; his father’s absence and abusiveness; Daniel’s love for a white girl from a racist family (both in the messy way adolescents love and, again, through reflecting on their past); his infectious friendships full of acceptance; humor; and Palm Coast itself. All the Water I’ve Seen Is Running is an impressive debut about the intersectionality of identity and memory, revealing how where we live and who we love can embed themselves so deeply, there is no escape.
By Elias Rodriques
All The Water I’ve Seen Is Running
W.W. Norton & Company
Published June 22, 2021
Rachel León is a writer, editor, and social worker. She serves as Daily Editor for Chicago Review of Books and Fiction Editor for Arcturus. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, BOMB Magazine, The Millions, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, the Ploughshares blog, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere.