Cristina García is the author of the highly acclaimed The Lady Matador’s Hotel, A Handbook to Luck, Monkey Hunting, The Agüero Sisters and Dreaming in Cuban, a finalist for the National Book Award. García has edited two anthologies, Bordering Fires: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Mexican and Chicano/a Literature and Cubanísimo: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Cuban Literature (2003). Her poetry collection The Lesser Tragedy of Death was published by Akashic Books in 2010. García’s newest novel King of Cuba was released in 2013.
Gulf Stream’s Jennifer Maritza McCauley spoke with García on the telephone about King of Cuba, the irresistible draw of Cuban culture and writing rituals amongst other topics. The interview is transcribed below.
JM: Fidel Castro has fascinated writers for decades. King of Cuba’s El Comandante character is clearly inspired by the infamous dictator. Why did you choose to write about a Castro-like despot?
CG: [King of Cuba] is inspired by [Castro’s] life, but not beholden to it. All of [El Comandante’s] interiority, his history and humiliations, all of the personal stuff I made up myself. What I wanted to do was reference Castro, but also give myself lots of room to create this caudillo, this strong man from the ground up. From his childhood, from his humiliation at being the son of a maid. That kind of thing. I took great liberties. Yet somehow, I think, I was attempting to get at the essence of the real Castro. His lonely essence.
JM: Why write a novel on this subject now?
CG: Really, because many Cubans are reaching the end of a generation. Castro is in his eighties, the exile community is represented by [the elderly character] Goyo. They’re all octogenarians. They’re getting to the very end of their lives. For me, it seemed like the perfect juncture to look back and assess after fifty plus years, what the hell has happened here? Has there been any movement? What has been the impact [of the revolution] on not only these lives but on the lives of millions? I also wanted to get [the novel] out before the real Castro died because I obviously had other plans for him.
JM: Where did you get the idea for the King of Cuba?
CG: The book began with Goyo, actually. The idea came from a story my father was telling me. He has a few businesses in Brooklyn Heights. My father said he’d been working on this house on Montague Street that was literally collapsing. I became completely engrossed with the image of that collapsing building and what [my father] was doing to prevent the collapse. The imagery meant so much more for Goyo. The collapse represented reaching the end of your life, and all sorts of other collapses. So it started there.
JM: King of Cuba is both beautifully nuanced and hilarious. Much of the novel’s humor comes from exaggeration and distortion. The language of the book itself is punchy and fun. Why did you choose to use comedy in the work?
CG: For me, the humor rose organically from whatever situation I wanted to present. From how preposterous so many of these [historical] events and junctures are. In many ways, [King of Cuba] was the easiest book I’ve ever written. By easy, I don’t mean it came easily. I just felt I had so much material to work with. So much history. I had lifetimes to look back on. The humor is darkly comic because these ridiculous things are going on. Like a dentist comes in the middle of [El Comandante’s] dinner and pulls out this guy’s tooth. It’s horrible! A man jumps out a window [during supper] and nobody’s eating! It’s the juxtaposition, the absurdity. It’s funny but I wanted to make it horribly funny. I have to say, I exerted next to no restraint on the book while writing it. You’ve heard it here, my true confessions.
JM: King of Cuba is a testosterone-heavy book. The pages of the novel sweat with machismo. The elderly El Comandante and Goyo still worry about their virility, relationships with women, and physical appearance. Was capturing a sort of never-changing male ego important to you?
CG: It was! A lot of the humor [about the male ego] was tongue in cheek. The Cuban male of any age is an irresistible object of skewering for me. I had particularly good obscene fun with these guys. At the same time I wanted to be sensitive to their physical ailments and foibles. There are really older men like this. That machismo, that I didn’t make up. I was reflecting in my own impish way, that culture.
JM: King of Cuba grapples with themes of mortality, failure and the painful obduracy of memory. Both Goyo and El Comandante want to be “kings of Cuba” in their own right, to be remembered and recognized. Are your characters’ concerns products of their culture or generation?
CG: [El Comandante and Goyo] are definitely products of their time. These characters are definitely products of the cleaving apart of [the Cuban culture] due to the revolution. But at the same time, aside from all of the visions, the rancor and shouting matches that have been going on for more than half a century [amongst Cubans], I was also trying to illuminate the false dichotomy between two men like El Comandante and Goyo. [They represent] the two Cuban points of view. The two sides of the street in Florida. Underneath this black and white, this “If you’re not with us your against us” mentality, underneath the roots, [the two sides] are really entangled. They’re really one in the same. They share that same intransigence, the same inability to compromise, the same [view of the] right and wrongness of things. These are folks who are not wired to agree or disagree. You know that Hallmark sort of good parenting, that “Let’s agree to disagree?” Those ideas do not apply to these guys. To this generation, this culture.
JM: You include footnotes throughout the novel that capture many different Cuban voices. The footnotes, in some places, correct and add to El Comandante and Goyo’s narratives. What inspired you to include this extra cast of characters?
CG: They came in late in the game. There came a point around early 2011, where [El Comandante and Goyo] were just driving me crazy. I didn’t think I could go to the finish line with these guys because they had a stranglehold on each other, on the narrative, on me. I was waking up cranky and feeling my mortality! I was not a happy camper. And then I realized that I have to break open the conversation. What these characters were doing is what’s kept Cubans and Cuban Americans in a stalemate for so long. I felt like the same thing was happening to the book. The two characters were going back and forth, back and forth, while still being reflections of each other. It’s not like there was a lot of action [between them] they just kept hobbling to the bathroom. I knew I needed other voices, but I didn’t know how to do it. I didn’t want a whole bunch of minor character cluttering the work.
So I decided to go to Cuba because I hadn’t been there for a long time. I went with my daughter for a few weeks in May of 2011 and we had the best time. [The trip] is exactly what the book needed. The fresh voices, the sound of the Cuban Spanish. And I could have that old fashioned journalistic ear to the ground. That, for me, became a way to break up the stranglehold and the literary log jam I was feeling. At the same time it became a way to contest and battle and skewer and challenge all of the assumptions of these titanic figures. I didn’t go there thinking, “Oh [finding these voices] is what I’m going to do.” I was sitting in the Havana airport on my way back when the voices started coming. I started writing them down by hand and I got about fifty voices. When I got them all down and edited them and reviewed them, I pulled out the voices I’d use in the book. I tried out different things. It was very necessary for me to go back and really breathe some fresh air into the novel. And then all the parts coalesced after that, and I knew I had the book.
JM: Yes, the footnotes are a great idea, really. Readers familiar and not so familiar with the culture get an even better sense of Cuban and Cuban-American views and attitudes.
CG: For me, the voices are like a little fist-shaking Greek chorus but a Cuban chorus. They’re complaining about this and that. The first thing that happened when I got off the plane [to Havana] was [someone telling me that] all of the coffee makers [in the city] were exploding. And I’m like, “What?” This is not the stuff you see in the Miami Herald. So you have to go find out why the coffee makers are exploding. When I got off the plane in May 2011, it was about the coffee makers.
JM: King of Cuba takes place in Havana, New York City and Miami. Do you have any personal connections to these locations? Did your relationship with these cities influence the novel?
CG: I grew up in New York City so I consider it my hometown. I know [New York City] well so it made a lot of sense for a myriad of reasons for Goyo to be from New York. [Goyo] also had to be a little bit of an outsider. [As for] Miami, I didn’t spend a lot of time growing up there. I was a journalist in Miami in the 80s. I also taught at the University of Miami, and one of the reasons I went there is that I wanted to see the changes. I taught at UM in fall of 2011 and did crazy stuff to get inside the exile community. Someone said to me, “You know where you’ll find the older Cubans? At the Enrique Chia concerts.” I’d never even heard of [Enrique Chia]. He’s a guy who plays the piano Liberace-style and doesn’t play anything past 1958. And it’s crazy, but these concerts are packed. They bus [older] people in there from the nursing homes, all to see this guy. [The Chia phenomenon] was the best thing ever. So as a writer, I gathered up all of these experiences and distilled them down to a line here, a line there. Those experiences lent authenticity to my fictional world.
JM: As you worked on King of Cuba, did you use any creative works as a model? Were you influenced by any classic or contemporary books?
CG: Yes, I re-read all of the great dictator books from Latin America. The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I re-read Feast of the Goats by Mario Vargas Llosa. My favorite dictator novel is El Presidente by Miguel Ángel Asturias. That book more than anything gave me a sense of that asphyxiation, that chilling phrase by Pinochet, “The least doesn’t move in this country unless I move it.” In addition to all of that research and my Castro immersion process, I re-read all of those dictator novels. I wanted to be in good company and also be worthy of those classic novels. I wanted to curtsy in their direction while still do my own thing.
JM: During your research for King of Cuba, did you find anything shocking or interesting about Cuban history or Castro?
CG: I found a really terrific book called The Boys from Dolores. The book was a look at the lives of many of the alumni from a particular Jesuit school in Santiago de Cuba that the Castro brothers went to, along with a lot of other exiles and those prominent in the revolution. The book connected the school to this whole web of important [Cuban] figures. It was fascinating how incestuous the social connections were at that time in Cuba. The book also helped me understand Castro’s education, since he was raised and educated by Jesuits. It’s really well-written too.
JM: Your first novel, the critically-acclaimed Dreaming in Cuban and King of Cuba both depict the Cuban experience in Miami, Havana and New York. Do you feel King of Cuba and Dreaming in Cuban speak to each other?
CG: Oh absolutely, I’m so glad you said that. I do feel like [Dreaming in Cuban and King of Cuba] serve as bookends of sorts. Both books span the whole era. In Dreaming in Cuban so much is focused on the early days of the revolution and the early fallout. In King of Cuba we’re looking at the last gasp of the revolution. Both books capture particular moments in time, in history. [Cuba] is my turf, my terrain. I still think I have one more book left in me about Cuba. My God, I can’t get away from it! But I feel these two books do speak to each other from different sides of the revolution. The past speaking to the future. The end looking back on the beginning.
JM: Who is your first reader?
CG: I have close friends who are writers and we swap work. They read my stuff; I read theirs. But I usually don’t let things out of my hands until I’m pretty far along. I don’t like to burn people out and I’m kind of particular and obsessive about my stuff. One of my readers, though, is Chris Abani. We’ve been reading each others’ work for many years. He’s always in the mix. I really value the feedback of my ex-husband, he’s a great editor. He always has interesting suggestions. I wouldn’t proceed without the two of them weighing in.
JM: Do you let your family read your novels? What do they think of your work?
CG: I don’t let them read anything beforehand. I don’t even insist. Honestly, I don’t even know who has read what. Well actually, my sister is reading King of Cuba and she enjoyed it; my brother has read it too. I haven’t heard from anyone else. I’m always surprised when someone pops up and says something nice. I come from a rather mercantile clan. What I do and how I do it is mysterious to them.
JM: Do you have any writing rituals?
CG: All bets are off now. I don’t even recognize myself anymore. I used to be extremely ritualistic, even superstitious, like baseball players with their special socks. Don’t make me go there! But ever since my daughter went to college, so much started revolving around her schedule. I really liked being available for her and her friends. I was the hot chocolate mom and I really loved that. And she was busy; I was always driving her around. Everywhere. But now I wander around, I go to a café. After all that discipline, I’ve become the complete opposite. But now I have no rhyme or reason. It’s fun. I wrote King of Cuba that way and I started [the novel] when she was in high school. And I started in a less disciplined way, in spurts, after I found all of those Cuban voices. I’m reclaiming my time now. I want to be in the world more than I used to do. The books get written, but in a much more haphazard fashion.
JM: Are you working on anything new?
CG: Yes! I am working on something new. I don’t know what it is. But it’s set in contemporary Berlin. I so enjoyed those voices in Cuba that I’m looking to create chronicles of different voices. Many of them have Cuban connections. Some are quite central, some peripheral. I was very interested in looking at the products of Cuba’s global adventurism. Cuba has fought wars in Angola and Somalia, and was very involved in the Eastern Bloc. I had an uncle who studied for ten years in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. There were Cubans in Vietnam, in Chile, during Allende. I was very interested in corralling the voices of the far flung. [I wondered] where are all of those hyphenated Cubans now? Where are they in the fall out? They have their own culture clashes and dislocations. So I thought I’d focus on the Eastern Bloc and I think my interest has narrowed down to Berlin. Berlin is such an interesting city and I spent three months there and had the best time. When I left, I felt like I was just starting to scratch the surface. It’s an incredible place. So right now I’m just sorting all of that out.
To find out more about Cristina García, visit her website.
Cristina García will be reading at the Miami Book Fair International on Sunday November 24th at 2:30 p.m. (Room 8302 (Building 8, 3rd Floor) in support of her most recent book King of Cuba.