Phillippe Diederich, UNG Visiting Author, talks Cuba, immigration and the art of writing

Current events often inspire art, and life experiences produce compelling stories that others can relate to.

This was the case for UNG Visiting Author and Phillippe Diederich, a Haitian-American born in the Dominican Republic who grew up in Mexico City and Miami. Diederich was also a featured author at the Dahlonega Literary Festival this past March.

Phillippe Diederich speaks at UNG Dahlonega. (Photo by Megan Broome)

The author of two novels, “Sofrito” and “Playing for the Devil’s Fire,” Diederich harnessed his experience moving to the United States at age 15 and work as a photojournalist to create captivating stories that focus on culture, immigration and socioeconomics.

“Sofrito,” Diederich’s first novel, is about a man who tries to save his failing restaurant by travelling to Cuba to steal a secret chicken recipe from a restaurant in Havana.

Inspiration for this novel stemmed from Diederich’s experience in Cuba in 1992 as a photojournalist.

“‘Sofrito’ was also very close to my heart when I did it because I was very nostalgic for Cuba. The story came from knowing that I wasn’t going to go back for a while,” Diederich said.

Diederich’s second novel, “Playing for the Devil’s Fire,” follows 13-year-old Boli and his friends in a tiny valley west of Mexico City.

Diederich said the inspiration came from his own childhood, when he would spend time with his friends.

“We had kind of the run of the neighborhood,” Diederich said.

Moving to Miami with his family at age 15, Diederich’s image of the United States stemmed from popular culture. However, his experience once living here proved different than expected.

“I read a lot of Archie comic books when I was young, and I thought life was going to be like in an Archie comic book where I’d have a group of friends, we’d hang out at the soda fountain and go skiing in the winter and go to the beach in the summer. It was not like that,” Diederich said.

Living in Miami, Diederich witnessed the divisions and prejudices present in the United States, with diversity groups staying to themselves and not interacting with others.

“I didn’t make a friend for six months,” Diederich said.

Expectations are often different from reality, and this was also true for Diederich’s experiences in Cuba as a journalist.

“I heard all the propaganda in the states about Cuba and from Cuban Americans, so I was pretty scared about going,” Diederich said. “Really what I found was that everybody was very pleasant and very human.”

Diederich explained how he grew to love Cuba and would visit often.

“My experiences in Cuba were really always great. So, for the next, probably almost a decade, I would go to Cuba maybe once or twice a year for work,” Diederich said.

“I was there when they legalized the use of the dollar. The exchange of the dollar. The opening of the small businesses. Most of them were economic changes,” Diederich said.

These are some of the ways his life inspired art, and Diederich expressed his enthusiasm for having a compelling story to tell for “Sofrito.”

“This was the first thing I had written that actually had a story. So I felt like it had the potential, now it needed a lot of vision and I didn’t know where to get help,” Diederich said.

Although the first draft of “Sofrito” was written in a month, it took another 10 years to revise and go through the editing process.

Diederich’s advice for success is to write first, then edit later.

“I like to write fast and not to correct anything until after I’ve laid out the entire story,” Diederich said. “Your first draft is not as clean. So if you start correcting your first draft before you finish it, then you’re always gonna want everything that comes next to be like what you have already cleaned. It gets really complicated.”

Diederich explained how reading as a child was a very important part of his writing process and he would often borrow books from the library.

“I told myself to read all the classics that I could,” he said. “I had read ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ by Hemingway basically because I knew the name Hemingway.”

Although Diederich said he wrote some in his younger days, he got serious about writing in 2008.

With both “Playing with the Devil’s Fire” and “Sofrito” introducing economic and politics within the stories, Diederich relates his novels and life experiences to recent events in politics and the immigration discussion.

Diederich said he and his family are very lucky when it comes to their achievements within the United States.

“We’re fortunate. I’m a citizen. Everybody in my family is a citizen. I became a citizen in the early ’90s,” Diederich said. “I don’t forget where I came from.”

Diederich uses his writing as a way to tell other people’s stories.

“My writing is about decisions made by others by people with power, whether they are politicians, people who have the power and how it affects those who don’t have that power,” Diederich said.

Diederich said that legislation is typically created based on certain intentions and theories, but there is often a differing of opinion.

“In the end, the people who suffer the consequences are the little people on the ground,” Diederich said. “The people whose scholarships are taken away or who are deported.”

Dr. Kyounghye Kwon, assistant professor for English and chair of the Visiting Author committee, said Diederich was a strong candidate for the 2018 Visiting Author because he brought global insight to the university and an international perspective with his use of Spanish words and phrases in his novels.

“Diederich’s work and his talks raised awareness of the victims of the Mexican drug war through an emotionally compelling story of the growth of a young boy named Boli,” Kwon said in an email.

Many English department faculty members taught Diederich’s novel “Playing for the Devil’s Fire” this semester.

“It was clear that students and faculty benefited greatly from reading the novel and going to Diederich’s talks, which took place on all five campuses,” Kwon said.

This also gave students a learning experience into how they can weave current events into their own writing.

“Students were also able to gain insight into effective ways to weave facts and emotion to develop realistic stories on social issues,” Kwon said.

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