Building Bridges: A Conversation with Cristina Garcia

By Marianne Murciano

Cristina Garcia's debut novel, Dreaming in Cuban, published in 1992, was pivotal in her career, and changed the landscape for Latino literature. A finalist for the National Book Award, it still remains on reading lists at universities across the country. The book raised the profile of Latino writers everywhere. Like the plots in her books that constantly surprise, it was a spontaneous journey for Cristina. A career that began as a journalist for Time magazine, based in Miami and focusing on Haiti, nurtured her love of doing what she does best – telling stories centered around families, love, and separation. Then she turned to fiction. With her natural gifts of wit and keen insight into her beloved characters, their place in history, and their political surroundings, Cristina has produced anthologies, children's and young adult books, books of poetry and nonfiction, as well as six novels. She has become one of the most important Cuban-American voices in literature.

This interview took place January, 2014, after the recent publication of her latest novel, King of Cuba.

Marianne Muricano: How are you able to reach deep into your Cuban roots while also having such wide appeal among readers who don't share your same background?

Cristina Garcia: My own reading and personal interests go all over the map. What draws me in is the specificity of other cultures and other experiences as well as the quality of the writing. So if I'm reading Louise Erdrich and the story is set in North Dakota, (I've never set foot in North Dakota), it doesn't matter because I trust the sensibility. I hope the same thing is happening with my own writing. It's the quality of the observation and the texture of what you're writing about that I think readers, good readers, will respond to as opposed to some fill-in-the-blank generic "put your name here" type of writing.

MM: You're the daughter of Cuban exiles, born in Havana, and growing up in New York City in two cultures.  How were you able to find your identity, not just as a writer, but also as a child, even before you started writing?

CG: I think I took it for granted when I was growing up. Looking back on it now, I see at least two layers. I was part of a family that was bitterly divided over the Cuban revolution: my dad's side of the family plus my mother in the states; and my mother's side of the family, which was very pro-revolution. There was that split. Then there was also the daily split in my life where I was living in a 1950s Cuban household, and when I walked through the door I was in 1970s New York. At the time everything seemed normal. But this was not what everyone else was necessarily experiencing. I didn't realize to what extent I was absorbing it all. I was just dealing with it, as a kid. I felt my mother was nuts, unreasonable; that her demands were impossible. I wondered how this happened. How I drew this lot in life.

MM: Did you feel Cuban or American?

CG: I felt American held hostage by Cubans. That's what I felt like. That was my childhood.

MM: When people are displaced, they long for the past; the life they could have had, perhaps the life they've heard about from their parents. How has your experience of being an immigrant influenced your writing?

CG: I think it's a very special kind of privilege and perspective. Anthropologists call it "participant observer" because it's not of the culture fully. You get to be a little bit marginalized, and to stand there and really analyze what's going on. So you don't take participation for granted. You're always watching out for the rules and where the boundaries are, especially if it's what passes for normal in your own life. So I think it's a continuous type of navigation, and that it's extremely useful for writing. You really get the lay of the land pretty quickly. I think it also comes in handy as a journalist. You've always got your antenna up.

MM: Because you've grown up in a place where, I'm assuming, you heard a lot from your parents about how life used to be, does that make you more of a nostalgic writer?

CG: I wouldn't say a nostalgic kind of writer, but I think I understand the nostalgia, and so when I write those characters, I can inhabit their nostalgia even though I don't particularly share it. I can write about looking back at Cuba, and my characters can use all the exaggerations. For example, the joke about all Cuban exiles supposedly having a deed to their ranch in Cuba. If they could actually produce that deed, Cuba would have to be the size of Brazil!

MM: Was there a fork in the road where you felt you had to make a decision between writing about your "American" experiences or portraying Hispanic, cultural experiences?

CG: It was more of the subject choosing me than me choosing the subject. I wasn't really thinking about writing fiction until much later in my career. I have graduate and undergraduate students who are writing amazing things, but at that age I had no clue I wanted to do that. It was only after I was in Miami as a journalist, and after visiting Cuba, that I had a lot of reconciling to do, culturally and emotionally. I had grown up with the bizarre luxury of being the only Cuban I knew in New York, except for my family, so I didn't get to test any sense of identity or belonging outside my immediate family. It wasn't until I traveled to Cuba and Miami that I became confused about where I belonged. Something I had taken for granted, suddenly I felt I didn't fit in anywhere. It was all familiar, appealing and repugnant at the same time. Sorting it all out made me want to treat it in a longer way, initially with poetry and then with Dreaming in Cuban. It was also about dealing with female characters. At that point I hadn't read anything about Cuban women that had captured the complexity of their strengths and submissions. That's what motivated me. There was something to be done there, I knew there were stories to tell, and I wanted to tell them. But again, this is in retrospect. At the time I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I mean, these things began as short pieces that got radiated or something, and went out of control.

MM: Family seems to be a theme for you. What is it about family that has you continuing to explore writing about traditions, generational oral histories, and how the family unit is affected by political events?

CG: I would say that relationships within families are affected by political events. Families are the basic building blocks of society. It's where we're incubated and steeped in relationships and cultural lore. It's almost like being one of those Cuban pressure cookers! You can't escape being steamed or boiled with everything around you and when you come out you're supposed to be normal but you're not. That's where it all happens. It's crazy! And even if we don't experience it, we absorb all the dislocation and mania of it all. I've recently been reading about Eastern Europe between World War I and World War II, and what has happened in Ukraine with the starvation policies. I'm wondering, where are those stories? So I'm starting to look for those stories. Right now I'm reading the history, and I want to know, where are the poets? Where are the fiction writers? How did I get to be 55 and not know this history?

MM: This year's Story Week theme centers around a "city of words" from diverse cultures that fosters unity rather than conflict in urban areas. As an author, what role do you play in that?

CG: I think artists are always building bridges. A story set in North Dakota, the Ukraine, or wherever can compel me. Visual artists, writers, or filmmakers are preaching about the distance between people and cultures. Who else is really doing that? Perhaps teachers in classrooms, but I don't think it's on a lot of people's agendas. Language brings out evidence, but humanity brings us closer to one another than any governmental policy. It's a very intimate experience to be spending time with a writer's sensibility over the course of many hours. You're standing in front of a painting and watching it over you. It breathes a fine intimacy. And it's one person at a time.

MM: Do you consider yourself a political writer? Do you have a political agenda?

CG: I can't write anything without a political context. However, when I write politics it's only to the extent that my characters are absorbed in them. I don't write with a particular agenda, even though I have my own strong opinions. I'm not at all sending a message in the stories. The message is, I don't have a message. What I'm trying to do is make my characters fully fleshed out, exasperating and funny, and then I let them do the work. My work is creating them. Readers bring their own associations and interact with them. I have no control over them, nor do I want to have control over them.

MM: Growing up in the US, what other authors had an impact on your writing? Any Cuban authors?

CG: Initially it was mostly Kafka, Virginia Wolf, Chekhov. I came to the Latin American writers later in my twenties and of course I fell in love with them as well. Later came the Spanish language poets. I grew up in a house without books, so it took me a while to get some traction. As a young girl, I read the same books as everyone else, such as Nancy Drew. It took me a while to get into serious reading and writing since I didn't have much contact with anyone who did. I was staring into space, burning daylight. I was always working at the family businesses and I had no time. I have more time now than I ever did as a child.

MM: How have Latin American writers impacted the US literary landscape?

CG: I think they've had a huge impact. It's amplified everyone's sense of narrative possibilities. I don't think people associated with magical realism right away, because other cultures have surrealism and magical elements. There's just so much that's out there. But I do think it's given everyone else permission to experiment and to not be so attached to the facts.

MM: How would you describe your new book, King of Cuba, for those who haven't read it yet?

CG: It's a book about the two Cubas. The Cuba that's still on the island and the Cuba that's been in exile all these years. Beyond looking at the surface, the differences are very pronounced below the surface. The roots are tangled, and in some ways, I'm hoping that it illustrates comically and tragically how they connect.

MM: What kind of research did you do for it? What books influenced you while writing it?

CG: I understood the exile side of things, but it was the Cuban side that I needed to learn. I watched all the old footage from the '60s. I read everything I could get my hands on. I was so surprised to hear how high [Fidel Castro's] voice was. I noticed the way he would caress the microphone while he spoke. I felt emotional when I was reading about his childhood in his biographies, his relationship with his brother. I just went to town, and I don't think I've ever had more fun making a character. In a way, growing up Cuban, he's the big elephant in the room except everyone talks about him instead of ignoring him. So to be the elephant, it was crazy fun. It was like inhabiting your worst fear. I did a lot of research, and it was a hell of a lot of fun.

MM: It's quite a sensitive subject for many Cuban exiles. How do you think they'll receive a book about Fidel Castro?

CG: It did cross my mind, but I dove pretty deep into the exile characters as well. I've gotten quite a few letters from older Cubans who read the book saying, "I really got it." I think of it as a really tragic novel. There are scenes in there that just make your skin crawl. He did awful things, yet he's a bold person. And of course, there are comic elements, too. But I don't apologize for it at all. People react how they react and I can't control it.

MM: What is the influence of poetry in your writing?

CG: Poetry for me is a necessary part of the writing process. It helped when I was writing the first draft, and it helps my imagination. It reminds me of the importance of the image and of the sensory details. You can get so caught up moving from one scene to another. You need to keep the details out there. You're moving chess pieces. For me, it's the daily reminder of all possibilities. I don't think I could live without it. And no, I don't consider myself a poet, although I do write some poetry.

MM: Tell me about your writing rituals. What is your process?

CG: I had a ritual until my daughter went to college. I would strap myself at my desk every day while she was at school, and when she got out of school, the hot chocolate parade began with her and her friends. But now anything goes and I'm actually not writing as much. I do have many goals, though I can't pretend to have any routines at this point. My most productive time recently was when I went to Berlin for three months. I always joked that all I wanted was a white cubicle with a wall of poetry, and that's what I got, basically. I had a tiny apartment and every day I went out to explore. I'd find a cafe and handwrite in my notebooks. Then, of course, I had to type all that damn stuff into the computer, but it was so liberating!  I was working without a schedule, just seeing what happened next. I want to see more of the world. In the end, it all goes into the books, one way or another.

MM: What's the one project you dream of doing?

CG: I want to do justice to the Berlin stories. I always thought it would be fun to do contemporary versions of some of the great Chekhov stories, although I don't know if I will live long enough to do that. There was a time where I would just cycle through the stories. I can't even write just a short story, it always turns into something else. I want the elegance and the economy of language for just one short story, but one can dream.