Issue 10

An Interview with Cristina García

 · Nonfiction

By Storm Humbert

Cristina García is a novelist, teacher, editor, critic, and former journalist; she’s also published a book of poetry and written for the stage. Her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1992. Her work (six novels, two edited collections, three books for young readers, one book of poems, and one work of nonfiction) has since been translated into fourteen languages and won various awards, such as the Whiting Writers’ Award and the Northern California Book Award. Her most recent publication, King of Cuba, came out in 2013 and follows the elderly El Comandante (Fidel Castro) as well as a bitter, former classmate of the dictator, Goyo, and his exile life in Miami. García is currently a Visiting Professor at St. Mary’s College of California and teaches workshops across the country, including Las Dos Brujas Writers’ Workshops, which she founded in 2012.

While at Temple, García talked about how she watched old videos of Castro’s speeches – how, for months, she immersed herself in all things Fidel. She learned how he held the microphone just so – how he gesticulated and moved. There are tons of hard and fast facts about Castro in King of Cuba, but the words he speaks in confidence – his fears, joys, and regrets – those are all Cristina García. Her history in journalism can be felt in her writing. The world and people in it are so complete because the research has been done – she’s either lived it or read it – and the characters are born from this understanding. So I did some research and asked Cristina García some questions in the hopes of increasing my own understanding, both of her work and fiction in general. 

When you were at Temple, one of the students asked you about the function of magic in you work. Do you consider your work that contains a bit of magic, such as Dreaming in Cuban, to be magical realism?

I think it might be considered as such, but to me magical realism isn’t something quite so hard and fixed. It’s more a playing with the boundaries of reality. I think that, in a sense, magical realism is an extension of reality; part of that reality also being the imagination, longing, the distortions of love, the lies we tell ourselves. And it’s not only a Latin American phenomenon. It exists in all world literatures.

What are some “real” things that you consider to be magical that don’t get treated as such?

By magical, do you mean surreal things that are not considered scientifically possible? Because for me there are infinite mysteries in the world — in the so-called real world — that are not just products of psychosis but are genuine phenomena that we can’t fully explain. This may sound cheesy, but take love, for instance. Eros can’t be contained. It doesn’t follow any rules. It defies all attempts to contain it and frequently wreaks both havoc and sublimity. Our dreams, too, seem to me a kind of magical place. So, I guess, magical realism can be a loose catchall for mystery. Human mysteries, mysteries in the natural world, just plain inexplicabilities.

So then, do you find genre distinctions and genre definitions particularly helpful in classifying fiction?

I suppose so, if you’re talking about, say, science fiction, in which you’re building alternate worlds that may exist in reference to Earth, or understood in relation to Earth. On the other hand, even when you’re building such worlds — on different planets in different galaxies with different populaces — I think that many of the same mysteries apply.

Have you read Yoss’s science fiction novel “Planet for Rent”? The author is dealing with the Special Period, but he’s doing it through a situation where aliens have taken over Earth and they treat it as a tourist destination. So it’s a very easy metaphor between Cuba and Earth.

No, I haven’t read that. It sounds interesting, though. I ran a writing workshop in Havana in 1999 or 2000 during the end of the Special Period. Nearly all my Cuban writers — Cubans from the island, that is — were writing science fiction, mostly about utopian societies gone awry. At first, I was confused as to why. But then a couple of things occurred to me. The Cubans were preselected to participate in my workshop — meaning they were basically government sanctioned. And because they were writing science fiction, they weren’t subject to typical censorship. Science fiction gave them more freedom to express themselves, allegorically and otherwise. It made perfect sense. More traditional writers were clamped down on, their work more likely to be charged as antirevolutionary. That said, Cubans understand (almost) better than anyone that all language, in one way or another, can be propaganda.

There’s a fair amount of symbolism in your work, especially in Dreaming in Cuban and King of Cuba. Do you feel like symbolism is something that you “put” in or is it something that comes to the work organically?

More the latter. The symbolism begins, I believe, as a kind of subterranean iconography that, once I become aware of it, I begin to massage to the surface. Slowly, judiciously, this iconography becomes a net, or constellation, of imagery that ultimately holds the story together. Mostly, the images emerge from my reading poetry, or the characters themselves, or the environments they find themselves in. Each of my novels has its own subterranean lexicon that becomes the essential water table for the work.

You’ve worked as a journalist, as many other writers have. Do you think there’s any aspect of your writing that you think would be missing if you hadn’t been a journalist?

I don’t think I could’ve ever written fiction if I hadn’t written nonfiction first. Probably the most valuable thing for me was the opportunity to be out in the world — for almost ten years — trying to make sense of often very chaotic events. Forging narrative from that chaos was enormously helpful in learning how to distill story down to the essentials and harness the most salient details — such as getting quotes that went beyond the merely transactional or informational to reveal a speaker’s frame of mind.

But there were also impediments in transitioning from journalism to creative writing, mostly regarding style and scope and the narrative freedom I initially permitted myself. Getting the story is different than telling the story. In journalism you’re getting the story; in fiction, you’re telling it.

Do you feel a similar kind of give and take in terms of any effect writing poetry may have on your fiction?

I don’t think of myself as a poet, though I’ve written poetry and published a book of poems. For whatever reason, I have a dominant narrative streak — a prose narrative streak — so a lot of my poetry ends up sounding like miniature stories. Perhaps it’s a matter of wiring? But, thankfully, on the level of imagery and metaphor, poetry continually informs and illuminates my prose.

It’s interesting that you mention being wired for something because in the layout of your anthology Cubanisimo!, according to the summary, it’s laid out in five sections that correlate to Cuban dance styles “according to the music of their sentences.” Connecting music and writing is not incredibly rare, but I wonder if you might expand on the musicality you see in language?

For me, it really comes down to the sentence. Does a sentence have swing, can it move, is it flexible, is it accommodating — accommodating of the reader in the way a good dancing partner can be? It’s all about the movement from one sentence to the next, the music and momentum that carry the story forward. The plot is less important to me than that bounce, that flourish, that unexpected twist. I often read aloud work-in-progress just to hear its syncopations. And I base my editorial changes on how I hear the music of the sentences.

You seem to be incredibly fair with your characters. They all have their heroism and their villainy in mostly equal parts, even Castro. Is this something you consciously strive for or does it come more naturally from your view of people or humanity in general?

I don’t really believe in all good or all evil. I think it’s important to be able to look in the mirror and see the perpetrator in your own face. If we only identify with the victims, we aren’t surrendering to the larger complexities of human nature. I think that for every character, you have to be able to synthesize many opposites. Without this, they can become very two-dimensional. After all, it’s contradictions that make us human.

Storm Humbert is a 26-year-old writer from a one-stoplight town called Fayette in northwest Ohio. A second-year M.F.A. student in Temple University’s fiction program, Storm writes mostly science fiction and fantasy. He also teaches both first-year and creative writing. You can read one of Storm’s flashes here, if you are so inclined. It is, ironically, neither fantasy nor science fiction.

Return to Issue 10