Fidel died three years ago. Obama is no longer President. Their absence from the American political landscape and Trump’s divisive posturing has given rise to the old Cold War rhetoric between Washington and Havana, bringing into question where U.S.-Cuba relations might be headed. These tensions challenge us to inquire where the literary response may be for those writers who live in the hyphen between “Cuban” and “American.”
A telling answer can be found in Cristina Garcia’s arresting fiction. Over the last twenty years her work has steadily moved away from Cuba-centric fiction to explorations going beyond the political and sentimental boundaries sometimes limiting the work of other Cuban-American writers. García has done this without entirely abandoning the roots stubbornly linking her to the island of her past.
García’s novel, Dreaming in Cuban, a finalist for the 1992 National Book award, was conceived by her experience and need to understand her own Cuban past, ushered her into the American literary consciousness. Since then, García’s inventive prose and boundless imagination has produced a number of subsequent novels including Monkey Hunting, Handbook of Luck, The Lady Matador Hotel (soon to be a play), and her most recent, 2017’s Here in Berlin (Counterpoint), which was long-listed for both the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence and the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
These novels confront the contemporary reality of the Cuban-American diaspora by writing stories that go beyond wistful memories of what Cuba was, and instead bend toward the wider world. Still, Spanish remains in the writing rhythmically, if not linguistically, proving what noted scholar Gustavo Perez-Firmat argued in his essay Growing Old Bilingual, “Even if we forget all the words of our first language, our tongue remains tuned to its music.”
I met García, whose amiable disposition she proudly attributes to being Cuban, at a café in San Francisco’s Mission District to discuss her notable career as a journalist and novelist, and to hear her thoughts on the evolution of Cuban-American literature.
ZYZZYVA: Do you define yourself as a Cuban-American writer?
Cristina García: I think of myself as a Cuban-American writer, but not just writing about Cuban-American issues. I don’t eschew it, either. It’s part of me. It’s a big part of me.
Z: So what does being Cuban mean to you?
CG: I think to me it really comes down to being raised by an intensely Cuban mother, and it comes down to being in the wake of the dislocation the revolution perpetrated on my family and extended family, both sides of the family. It means always being attuned to the politics of every situation, to agendas and subtexts. It means navigating in two languages, two cultures, and the sub-textual archeology that comes with it. And it means being the object of curiosity and at the same time also being a whiteboard for people’s projections about the island.
Z: I wonder whether that label hinders or expands our visibility and the way we’re viewed as writers. Is there a need to define us as such?
CG: No, but everyone else seems to require it. With Here In Berlin, my agent circulated it to my usual publishers. They were like, “We don’t know what to do with this. It’s not a short story collection. It’s not really a novel. Where are the Cubans?” I had written other things that weren’t strictly Cuban, there was a Chinese nineteenth century novel for instance (Monkey Hunting), but it still revolved, essentially, around Cuba. But with this one, nobody knew what to do with it. Finally, Counterpoint loved it. The editor totally got it and understood it and even understood why I would be interested. Almost like the root system of that dislocation, the division of Berlin, all of that. Why that was interesting, to chase the analogous, not that it has to be analogous (to the Cuban experience), but it was to me.
Z: So does that mean you’re consciously moving your work outward to broader subjects and away from more traditional Cuba-centric writing?
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CG: My interests have just been broadening, and there are also many other really good writers investigating that. I’m just kind of following my own thing, my own obsession. It’s hard to imagine anything I write that would be devoid of Cubans, but yeah, it could happen.
Z: Do you see the same thing happening with Cuban-American writing overall? Will it expand beyond the ostensibly Cuban?
CG: Yes, I think it will. It just keeps expanding…but I often find that it’s the artists who are doing the expanding and the institutions that publish us, kind of run to catch up. There’s a time lag. What’s being written now by emerging writers will take time to catch up. There’s a lot of interesting stuff coming down the pike that is going to defy categorizations. The language, the lexicon for describing Latinx literature, they’re going to have to think of other kinds of rubrics. It’s going to be an interesting interrogation, not just by the publishers, but also by academia.
Z: Is there a difference between Cuban-American writing and other “ethnic” writing?
CG: I think “ethnic” is a sort of catchall term for the hyphenated Americans. It seemed for a while that there was this race by publishers to get the new hyphenation. It became a quest for the exotic within which they were corralling a lot of work that was really of the same template. Nothing against our ethos, but there are so many other kinds of stories. I think they’re just growing pains. Publishers and the artists are not always in sync. We’re sometimes at cross-purposes. They’re fundamentally mercantile organizations. They want to profit. They want a return. They want big audiences.
Z: What do you think is the writer’s place in this historically political moment? Writing fiction necessitates that we position it in the truth of the times, right? I mean, given today’s rhetoric of hate and divisiveness, I find it almost imperative that we do so. Contemporary fiction ought to be part of the fabric of the times, doesn’t it? It should inform.
CG: Journalists are basically writing the first drafts of history. They are in the most difficult and unenviable position in a way, because they don’t have a lot of the information. They are constantly negotiating, especially now with all the Internet misinformation and disinformation. How do you make sense of that? I think as writers, whether we write about our times directly in our fiction or not, we have a responsibility to be alert, watching, commenting, and saying in one way or another, A mi con este cuento? [You’re going to try to fool me with that story?] Then saying No, este es el cuento. [No, this is the real story.] So contesting, skewering, pushing back, and resisting official history.
Z: Should writing aim to be political? Do you consider your writing political?
CG: Absolutely. It’s part of the oxygen. It’s in the water table. It’s in the air. It’s everywhere. Not just when I’m writing about Cuba. I don’t think I could write without having the bigger political, historical context of a place. I’m not interested in stories that are hermetically sealed off in a classroom or a kitchen. For me, what makes it interesting, to read as well as to write, is that the story has roots and tentacles in the larger world. The decisions are a sense of self and belonging or un-belonging of the characters.
Z: An awareness of the moment.
CG: I don’t know who better captures our age than artists.
Z: I’ve been in this country over forty-five years, and my view of both Cuba and the U.S. has changed over time, influenced by my perspective of the politics within and between the two. Do you foresee Cuban-American writing changing as a result of the evolving politics here and on the island?
CG: The early generations are radically different from the later ones. All those preoccupations and how they inform literary production is a fascinating question. It would be interesting to look at it just in terms of all the writing happening in English. Would it all have to be in English? Would the new generations write in Spanish? You’d have to figure out what the parameters were. Are there commonalities generationally? It’s a point of view question. How far away are you from the island? What’s your perspective? At what level of heat in relation to the revolution are you? It’s always there, hovering. The revolution is the backdrop, whether it’s explicitly alluded to or not; it’s always there.
Z: There’s a passage in Dreaming in Cuban that says “Everyday Cuba fades a little more inside me and it’s only my imagination where our history should be.” I returned to the island twenty-eight years after I left. I recall struggling with the contradiction between my personal history, the country’s history, and the country of my imagination. How does history inform your writing?
CG: Maybe it’s my journalism background and my love of history, but I don’t hold back from supernatural things, yet everything is ultimately grounded in historical moments and facts. Even though someone might be talking to a ghost, the description of that Brooklyn street needs to be accurate. I take liberties with the descriptions. In Here in Berlin, there isn’t any story in there that wasn’t jolted into being from something I’d read or heard. Then I go crazy with the embellishments, the embroidery, and the imagining—inserting fictional characters into a setting and sometimes pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. I like getting close to the really impossible. But history is a trampoline for the rest.
Z: What prompted you to write Here in Berlin?
CG: It was a little bit of what the visitor character seeks. She’s a bit of an alter ego for me. It was trying to look out for any fallout from the Cuban association with the Soviet bloc. What was left of that whole experiment, in human terms? I originally thought of it as a sort of triptych. I thought one part might be in Cuba, and then Chile during the Allende era, and I thought of Vietnam. Then Berlin took over.
Z: How much time did you spend in Berlin?
CG: I spent three months there. I rented a little apartment and opened myself up to what came. It was all unexpected. The work ended up with a lot more German, Russian, and Polish than Cuban. I threw a few Cubans in there in kind of preposterous ways. I let it become what it became. When I went back to Texas after that long summer in Berlin, I wondered, what the hell do I have here? I was confused for the longest time. It took a while to sort it out and to just give space to the voices. I went there for the purpose of investigating that fallout that I was talking about. I didn’t find much fallout to my utter astonishment. I just started wandering the city like a visitor, and absorbing it, its story, and its archaeology.
Z: Why did you write Dreaming in Cuban?
CG: That’s the one that was burning to come out. It was the most autobiographical, not so much in the details but in terms of the divided family, of the extreme polarity of the politics, of what I saw and heard first-hand.
Z: Were you thinking of a particular audience when you wrote it?
CG: I don’t think about audience because there’s nothing more fickle than an audience. Trends change. If you try and guess it’s like playing the stock market. If you look at the books I love, they are not necessarily Cuban-American. What I’m drawn to, from many different cultures, are richly drawn characters. Drawn in by vivid, compelling language. I’m less interested in plot. If the language is not grabbing me in the first few pages I put it down.
Z: Were you aware of where Cuban-American writing was at the time? Did you perceive a void?
CG: I was longing to connect with stories that I could relate to. And that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t relating to Checkhov, or Toni Morrison, or any number of writers. But I was curious about what had been written from my culture. So began that journey. Then I wrote out of my own passion for the stories of these women, not so much to fill a void. In the end it contributed to amplifying what was available.
Z: Did you see yourself as a pioneer?
CG: I didn’t at that time.
Z: Do you now?
CG: I don’t know that I would say that. One of the comments I got after Dreaming in Cuban came out was that I “marginalized” the men, which was fascinating to me because no one ever says that women are marginalized. I knew I had hit on something by making these women the heroines. It wasn’t just one protagonist or one hero. It was a complicated set of women in a family all navigating and negotiating these new circumstances. I feel like in retrospect maybe I was pushing it in the Cuban-American context. But I was just really concentrating on the stories.
Z: You said once that you “dedicate your life to reflect the complexities of the Cuban diaspora…it’s not a monolithic culture” Do you still feel that you are in that space?
CG: I think that’s probably the heart of it