Hyphens & Borderlands, Ivelisse Rodriguez Interviews Cristina Garcia


IVELISSE RODRIGUEZ: Tell us about your new novel King of Cuba.  What will readers recognize, and what will they be surprised by?

CRISTINA GARCIA: It’s a book that looks at the official version of post-1959 Cuba and the Cuban-American diaspora, especially in Miami. And it is told from the point of view of El Comandante aka Fidel Castro (a fictionalized version of him) and a crazy octogenarian exile in Miami. But along with them, there is a whole rabble of other voices on and off the island that serve as unofficial voices skewering the old men’s official versions. So it’s a darkly comic novel about the last gasp of the revolution on both sides of the Straits of Florida. I think what might be surprising is the portrait of El Comandante because I tried to do him in as human terms as possible. He’s become a myth, a monstrosity, like time itself. So it was fun to draw him in human terms, even with all of his power. On the exile’s side: though his politics and many of his beliefs can be loathsome, he is someone who cares about his son, who makes the extra effort with family. I tried to humanize these two extremes, these two ends of the spectrum as far the whole Cuban question, I suppose. 

IVELISSE: In an interview with Ylce Irizarry for Contemporary Literature Review, you stated that “what strikes me more is the question of Cuban identity, the rigidity involved in that. I am interested in how Cubans are constantly defining each other and what it means to be Cuban.” What then is your deepest hope for Cubanized identity, and how do you aim to approach that in your writing?

CRISTINA: I think that it is so essential to acknowledge the plurality, the many ways of being Cuban. Right now, there are two official ways of being Cuban, represented by El Comandante and this crazy Miami exile, but there is a whole array of complexity in terms of people’s sense of identity and belonging that are not covered by the two official identities. And so I’m interested, and I have always been interested, in the exploration of these complexities, and of all of the category-defying ways of being Cuban. I think this is crucial, not just on the page, but off the page as well. I don't think any one groups has the market cornered on being Cuban, nor should they have a stranglehold on anyone else who claims to be Cuban and with whom they're in disagreement. 

IVELISSE: I lived in Miami, and I just remember how polarizing it was. You had to be anti-Castro. It was really kind of Fascist the way that was shoved down your throat. I always thought that was so ironic.

CRISTINA: Yeah. Absolutely.

IVELISSE: What was your initial goal as a writer and how have your goals changed?

CRISTINA: I think that Dreaming in Cuban, if I had a goal, although I don’t know that I articulated it exactly while I was writing it. But I think I was trying (very hard) to write the women into Cuban literary history. We have been defined historically by the men, our roles constricted, and I am thinking, for example, of [Guillermo] Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers [Tres Triste Tigres] in which the women fit primarily into two stereotypes--Madonna or whore, the whore with the heart of gold type. I’d just about had it. So I thought it essential to write a book (and I didn’t even know that I was writing a book for awhile; it started out as poems and then short stories) in which women's lives were front and center stage and to analyze the fallout from something as big and complicated as the Cuban revolution on these women’s relationships and family dynamics. So I definitely set out to write a book about women. Now I've come full circle portraying Cuban males in King of Cuba, doing it with a wry skewering sense of humor. Overall, I am interested in issues of identity and belonging and immigration and not just identity as something fixed, but identity as something that is continually evolving and that is transformed by immigration and invention. 

IVELISSE: Can you tell us about Las Dos Brujas Workshop?

CRISTINA: It was an attempt on my part to offer a very welcoming environment to emerging writers of color but, also, not exclusively for writers of color. [I wanted to] open the door to everyone who wanted an intense, interesting, and fun experience with the best writers and teachers of writing in the country. So I asked myself: if I was a young emerging writer today, what kind of conference would I want to go to and with whom would I want to study today? And that’s how I made my decisions. I wanted to set it in the Southwest because that is the nexus of much Latino/a culture, and I wanted to have the majority of the faculty be Latino/a as well. Those who weren’t writers of color were in the minority, a fascinating reversal of what you see out in the world, but I think the dialogue was all the more enriching for it. In my experience, many workshops are either not terribly diverse, a, or b, only for writers of color and then excluding the dialogue with anyone else who might want to come who isn’t a writer of color   So I wanted to open the door to everyone and yet have the faculty and overall vibe be one emphasizing diversity of voice. 

IVELISSE: How did the idea come to you? Was it something you were thinking about for a long time? What propelled you to put it in action?

CRISTINA: You know, I wasn’t that happy with what I saw offered, except for VONA. And I had taught at a couple of these summer workshops, and thought, I think I can do better. At least I was hoping I could do it better. I wanted to provide the kind of warmth and hospitality that you normally get when you go to a Latino/a home, so we had receptions every night and we really welcomed people. I just wanted that sense of community as well as festivity on a daily basis. And I also wanted options for people who wanted to take photography or drawing, engaging with other artistic media. I wanted yoga, I wanted the physical, the mental, and the artistic to converge in one place, and I thought Ghost Ranch was the place to do it because of all the history there and Georgia O’Keefe and the photographers and the light--and yes, the isolation for that first time just to see what would happen. So that’s what I had in mind.

IVELISSE: Many of your characters are hyphenated characters, for example in your last novel Dreams of Significant Girls (German, Cuban and Jewish, etc.) and The Lady Matador's Hotel (Mexican-Japanese). What is the significance of hyphenation for you in your writing and in your real life because it struck me that there are all sorts of hyphenations in your professional life and with these characters as well?

CRISTINA: You know that Dreams of Significant Girls is a YA novel, right?


CRISTINA: I think the hyphens and those borderlands and those perforated boundaries, are where I’m most at home. At one point in Dreaming in Cuban, I think that Pilar says something like she belongs “ . . . not here or there, but here AND there.” So I am straddling multiple worlds. and I think that’s where a lot of interesting energy happens and gets released, where languages and cultures collide and merge. I think it is also where reality and possibility meet, where a lot of interesting hybridity is going on. You met my daughter Pilar who is Japanese Cuban Russian Jewish and a few other things. I am just fascinated with all these new ways of constructing self. And so for someone like my daughter, what does it mean to be all these ethnicities, as well as a musician, as well as a budding anthropologist, as well as a million other things? I think it amplifies a sense of possibilities, not only in our own lives, but on the page as well. So I like that mixing, I like that shaking things up. And I think it is also more closely reflects a lot of the reality of what we’re moving toward.

IVELISSE: In an interview with Chris Abani for Bomb Magazine you stated that you use a multiplicity of voices to tell your stories, that you don’t trust the purported omniscience, authorial or otherwise. So why not?

CRISTINA: Those 19th century authorial omniscient books are some of my favorite books. But I don’t trust it so much in the 21st century.

IVELISSE: Why not? Do you think there are some limitations with that voice? Because it made me think of Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author.” I thought, does it then make the reader lazy if he or she is relying on the authorial voice?

CRISTINA: I don’t know. Again, some of my very very favorite books are written in authorial omniscient. But I also think it was very reflective of its times, when things were less complicated, when there was less competition for the truth, at least officially. And those narrators tended to have a God-like male sort of feel to them. I think that people are much more willing in the 21st century to entertain multiple points of view. After colonialism and other –isms, it’s incumbent upon us to question the truth, to not just accept received information, received histories. If we’ve learned anything in the last forty-five years, it’s that those official histories bear very little resemblance to the many truths that are happening.  And so I think, for me at least, that fiction or the fiction that I’m interested in writing and reading at this point reflects those multiplicities of voices and points of view and complicated realities. 

IVELISSE: What’s your proudest moment as a writer?

CRISTINA: I think it was at Las Dos Brujas--the very first night after a reading with Denise Chavez. Everyone stampeded over to the reception area, and my daughter was there selling the books of all our wonderful faculty.  And I think that was my proudest moment: seeing my 19-year-old—she’s now 20—graciously selling books, talking to writers and being part of the whole fray. Somehow motherhood and being a writer all came together for me in that moment. Also when she was playing clarinet at Chris Abani’s poetry reading. My heart just soared. It was so moving to me. 

IVELISSE: So you were saying Pilar is in Barcelona now?

CRISTINA: Yes, I just put her on a plane about five days ago. So I’ve been moping around. I miss her so much.
IVELISSE: Is she coming back anytime soon?

CRISTINA: She is there for the semester. So I’ll probably go visit her toward the end of the spring. She is a junior in college. I know she looks about 12; she would kill me if she heard me say that. [laughter] But I’m happy for her. I want her to be independent.

IVELISSE: What’s the most difficult aspect about writing for you?

CRISTINA: I think for me, it will sound kind of bizarre, the most difficult thing about writing is not writing—it’s when I’m not writing. I haven’t written that much since I finished King of Cuba. I started something new, but I’m having a hard time getting traction on it, so being in-between big projects is the hardest part of writing for me. When I’m in the swim, deep inside the world I’m writing, I’m usually very, very happy. Not that every day goes well but that deep immersion is where I’m happiest. When I am not in that place, or surrendering to everything else that competes for my time, it’s very frustrating. It’s very hard for anybody to achieve any serious level of concentration in this day and age with Facebook and the  internet and everything else. And so I think that’s the hardest part--to keep all of that chatter at bay.

IVELISSE: Last question: In the same interview with Chris Abani for Bomb Magazine you stated that “the world isn’t a fair place for the most part and the earth is littered with the bodies of those who died trying.” So my last question is, what is it you would die trying?

CRISTINA: I was so dramatic! [laughter] What was I eating that day? Died trying to move, to immigrate?

IVELISSE: It was something…the first part was the world isn’t a fair place for the most part. You must have been talking about characters. In any case, the question is what is it that you would have died trying?

CRISTINA: What is it that I would have died trying? Literarily or just in general? 

IVELISSE: In general or literarily. However you want to answer it is fine. 

CRISTINA: Well I think that I would have died trying all the things that matter the most to me which is writing a good book. Again, I sound so melodramatic, but yeah. You say things that matter. Protecting my daughter, I would die trying. Raising her well, . . . I wouldn’t die trying it, but I would work very hard. That’s just in a very personal way. Now that’s she’s off in the world on her own, I’m also searching for a way to be more…to have a more meaningful presence in the world beyond the book. A part of me wants to go to medical school so that I could go and be one of those Doctors without Borders or do something that’s really practical, like go into a community or country and help women and children. I am still young enough where I could do something completely different. I’m at a crossroads. I feel like I may write some more books, but I may not write some more books. I am feeling like I want to be in the world in a meaningful way, . . . writing books for me is extremely meaningful but a more practically meaningful way.  And I am just starting that search. 

IVELISSE: That’s really neat because for an unpublished writer it’s “I just want a book.” It’s like that’s your whole world, but there is like a world beyond it. I like the whole idea of practicality. I remember thinking that with 9/11the most useful person was someone who could work with his or her hands.  

CRISTINA: I haven’t figured out what this all means. Once my daughter is done with college, I really will be free, and we’ll see what happens. We’ll do a sequel. 


CRISTINA: You’ll interview me in rural Bolivia or something.