Fragments of Memory: An Interview with Derek Palacio

by    /  March 22, 2017  / No comments

Author Derek Palacio. Photo by Lily Glass.

Derek Palacio is a fiction writer and faculty member at the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA program. Palacio’s body of work includes the novella How to Shake the Other Man and the novel, The Mortifications. In 2013 , Palacio’s short story “Sugarcane” was selected for The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013.

Palacio grew up in New Hampshire, a community far removed from the traditional Cuban enclaves of southern Florida and New York City. As a second-generation Cuban-American, Palacio thinks a lot about the various shades of complexity that stem from being Cuban-America and the ways in which these complexities manifest themselves in one’s family life and one’s conception of self. His latest novel, The Mortifications, is an exploration of what happens to a rural Cuban family when they are separated from one another when the revolutionary patriarch chooses to stay in Cuba and when a mother leaves with her two children for New England.

Sampsonia Way interviewed Palacio about his work, his trip to Cuba, and his writing process.


Why Cuba, and why estranged patriarchs? To what extent did your family’s experience inform The Mortifications?

My father was born in Cuba in 1950 and he left in 1956 when he was about five years old and moved to Miami.  They were from the eastern side of the island, where a lot of turmoil was happening and so they decided it would be best to leave before the regime changed. So I grew up hearing stories about Cuba, and getting fragments of my father’s memory because he was so young he doesn’t really remember it specifically. But he does have these little snippets, and hearing some of those snippets sort of stoked a curiosity in my mind about Cuba and about my Cuban heritage. While in grad school, I started to write about it and explore it more, and I invented this novel. 

The estrangement is probably coming from having to read.

One of the things I did try to do because I wasn’t going to be able to make it to Cuba while writing the book was read about Cuban history, families, and authors. I think in many communities where a great portion of the populace is exiled you see the fracturing of families. Something I wanted to think about and investigate was that breaking apart of family and the decisions of who gets to go and why people stay and go. Those are such big questions for Cubans in the latter half of the twentieth century, and they felt vital to this story. 

What challenges did you face while writing The Mortifications

Many. The book starts out by leaving Cuba pretty quickly—on the opening page we see the family struggling with the mom wanting to leave and the father wanting to stay. Then, by page three or four, we’re already in Connecticut; we’re already in America. I think some of that comes first and foremost from wanting to begin the book in a place where I was writing about Cubans I knew. My family—my brother, sister, and I—grew up in in New England. New Hampshire to be exact. So those are the kind of Cubans I know: ones who are not just separated from Cuba or distanced from their heritage, but ones who are growing up outside of the familiar Cuban locales in America. 

I would say the biggest challenge wasn’t getting places right or an accurate understanding of what the day-to-day life looked like. I think I was able to do that by reading a lot of the literature I did, especially Reinaldo Arenas. But getting a sense of the Cuban mindset and psychology was particularly difficult for me. Especially because I was writing about a turbulent time like the 1980s, when the country had seen the promise of the revolution not come to fruition in the ways that they had hoped it would; the Cubans were battling with their relationship with the Soviet Union and so the economy was having trouble. In addition, the social structures were putting more inhibitions on citizenry. So, trying to understand how you move about in that culture—whereas in America we have a greater set of freedoms and mobility—was probably the most difficult challenge for me.  

What is the biggest difference between the initial conception of this book and the published edition?

When I first started writing it, I had supposed that The Mortifications was just going to be a novella. I had read Roberto Bolano’s Insufferable Gaucho, which is just this really beautiful story about a lawyer in Buenos Aires who goes back after the economy collapses to live on his family’s ranch out in the pampas. He goes back thinking he’s going to be a cowboy, sort of re-living a culture that no longer exists there. It’s really funny but at times also sad watching him bumble around and realize that past is gone and the world he knew no longer exists.

And having read that, I immediately started making connections to my own family and the Cuban story in general for Cuban Americans: having left Cuba behind and having to get back for many of us, and wondering what it’s like there and if the Cuba they remember still exists. So I really just wanted to write a story about someone who left the island and then went back and the disjunction between that. I thought it’d be about 60-80 pages long, but once I got the family to Connecticut and their own individual stories and relationships to the island, the novella started to expand; it grew and grew so that by the time I got them back to Cuba I had 150 pages—and that’s when I knew it wanted to be a novel. 

What was your process for getting inside your characters?

It’s interesting because it’s hard to talk about that in retrospect. Now having talked about the book and gone through proofing of it I feel I understand it so much better. Whereas at the time of writing it, I feel like I was just feeling out their relationship to the island: how it would manifest itself and the direction of their wanting. So with Isabel, the daughter, at the beginning I leaned on her faith and her religion in ways that I didn’t expect to, such that it became central to her character: following her calling and the alignment between her faith and her father and her relationship with the island. Whereas Ulises, Isabel’s twin, falls into a category that I understand more. He only ever has these brief memories of places having forgotten something of the island, but still having a pull back to it, and not knowing how to reconcile that and what the importance of that really is. For each of them it was about trying to understand the differences in their responses to Cuba having left, and how those differences sometimes overlap and connect and how they would sometimes be at odds with each other.  

Why did religion become a good part to gain access to your character Isabel?

I grew up Catholic and I went to Catholic school my entire life, so those questions of faith pop up in my writing anyway. But with Isabel especially, I think what I discovered not too far in was sort of this interesting synergy between the Catholic faith asking you in some ways to imagine and believe in a God that doesn’t have a tangible reality, and the idea of Cuba that I think a lot of Cubans leave with, and what Cuba was or is for them and what it should be. And that is another kind of belief and another kind of faith. When I started writing her experience and started getting into the particulars about why those two things are aligned with her—that sort of naked wanting for something that might be intangible or might not even be real—it was very sustaining and moved her forward. 

I find myself wanting to investigate those ideas: How do you search your identity? How do you make an identity apparent to those around you? And when does that identity become a standing in a sphere in which you belong? And when is that identity subverted as a means of abuse? And it can become abuse—you can use your own identity for certain ends.

How was the writing process for The Mortifications different than the process for How to Shake the Other Man?

This whole writing process has been really fortuitous. That first book, How to Shake the Other Man, was a little novella about 60 pages long that I thought was going to be a 20-page short story. I obviously have a problem with overwriting. With The Mortifications, I knew going into it that I was going to try for a bigger manuscript, something that would be around 80-100 pages. And while sometimes you’re trying to figure out which characters step to the front of the stage, with the early drafts of this I let them all come to the forefront at different points. Once you do that, in very good ways, they all establish their own narratives: their own conflicts, their own wants, their own needs. So the narrative started to require the space of the novel to really deal with each individual character’s problems and the dynamic of a Cuban family that leaves and comes back together eventually. 

What questions do you find yourself thinking when confronting your writing?

I’ve been fortunate this past year to start a new book and novel, and to try to finish a short story collection. Especially with the short story collection—it’s about Cuba and Cuban history—you get to see all the different ways you’ve approached it. The things that keep popping up now and especially in the new works is faith—on an individual and mystical level that we saw with Isabel—and then the weird question of just what does it mean to be Cuban? I think with The Mortifications, that Cuban-ness gets tied to memory: what you remember and what you hold onto. But with the newer work, I find myself wanting to investigate those ideas: How do you search your identity? How do you make an identity apparent to those around you? And when does that identity become a standing in a sphere in which you belong? And when is that identity subverted as a means of abuse? And it can become abuse—you can use your own identity for certain ends.

The new thing that I’m working on is about a Cuban-American swimmer that at one point fails to make the American team, and so he defects to Cuba to swim for them. I want to deal with those aforementioned questions a little bit more directly and through that my own anxieties about Cuban authenticity or feeling authentic as a Cuban. 

How do you think what it means to be Cuban is going to change now in this new political landscape? 

What I’m hopeful for is that the Cubans will have an opportunity to connect with this young generation of Cubans in Cuba and their kids in the sense that we will all be in some way post or outside of Castro. Especially those Cubans in America who have grown up outside of the reach of that government as first and second generation Cuban-Americans in a lot of ways. That is not to say they have not been affected by the Castro regime, but they don’t live in that culture. It will now be easier for those folks, myself included, to perhaps separate the direction of the country or how our relations should work, from the lightning rods of those figureheads as it was for generations beforehand. In that way, I’m very hopeful.

In other ways, I’m very worried about what happens to the Cubans if this big but very incremental change that we’ve accomplished in the last few years in relations between U.S. and Cuba gets rolled back, not just isolating ourselves but also isolating Cuba further. 

Could you describe your work at the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA program?

It’s still fairly new—I think we only had our first class of graduates two years ago. The MFA program is a two-year residency program. And because one of the goals of the Institute of American Indian Arts is to support and promote specifically the native arts by indigenous folk, a good portion of the student body in the MFA program are native writers. So, a big portion of the program is designed to support native writers and help prepare their work for publication, and to increase the awareness and the dissemination of said work so that it becomes more closely woven into the American tradition—or whatever you want to call it. I’ve been fortunate to teach at a couple places, but the Institute of American Indian Art is a place that continues to be challenging and honest about the work, a place that requires you to not just be a good writer on the page, but also to have the perspective of writing and creating art that is conscious of things outside of the classroom at all times. When that works, it’s a really powerful experience for both the writers and the educators there. 

What are some of the most compelling works that are coming out of this program?

Yeah, that’s great to talk about. Tommy Orange, a young man who just graduated last spring, has recently gotten representation and will hopefully really soon be submitting his novel to really big publishing houses. And his novel is this beautiful multivocal novel that weaves together several different kinds of native voices and indigenous peoples to talk about the twentieth century native experience. I was really fortunate to work with Tommy last spring on his thesis, and the writing was mind-blowingly good, but the thinking and the critical eye that exists within that work is just stunning. I really do believe it’s going to make a huge hit and be an incredible literary event when it gets out and be very necessary for American literature in this moment. 

Can you talk about the new novel you’re working on right now? 

The novel I started last spring is about that Cuban-American swimmer. I think with The Mortifications it was about trying to see the overlap between my experience as a first generation Cuban-American on my father’s side and his experience of having been to the island and now really remembering it. Which I think is why it ends up being placed in that mid-eighties period.

The new work, I think, wants to more directly tackle some of those anxieties I talked about: what does it do to you to claim an identity? What does it do to you to switch identities? What does it do to you if you’re going to Cuba and you choose to defect and give up certain rights as an American citizen? What does it do to you to make that choice? And can you make that choice? Can he be in Cuba—I think that was a question that the first novel did not ask because the characters were originally from there, and that’s something that now having gotten a chance to go to Cuba and having experienced the island it has now come to the forefront. To what degree can I, a second generation Cuban-American, be or know or participate in that culture at all, and what does that mean for my identity to maybe want that, but not be able to achieve it? 

So what did you do when you got the chance to go to Cuba?

I was really lucky. I applied to this new foundation, CubaOne, which is sort of modeled after that birthright Israel foundation; they take trips to Cuba with first and second generation Cuban-Americans who’ve never been to the island. I applied and I was really lucky to have gotten in and so I went with a group of other folks who had never been to Cuba. We traveled between Santa Clara and Trinidad and Havana and were there for a week. In some ways, on its surface, it just looks like another tour of Cuba; but along with trying to see the island and the people and engaging with the culture, there’s this other part of the trip for the program participants who still have family there. The program attempts to reconnect them with their family and reestablish those ties. So traveling around Havana and looking at all the historical places, we’re really just trying get a feel for Cuba to see if you could basically establish a connection that you could then sustain for the rest of your life. 

What books—especially Cuban-American books—do you recommend?

Oscar Hijueloes’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which won the Pulitzer, is one of the earliest books I read about Cuba and that idea of wanting and nostalgia— I think it’s such a beautiful book. Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban is where I certainly was pulling the idea of that multi-vocal book and the idea of having multiple perspectives on Cuba. And he’s not Cuban-American, but Reinaldo Arenas, whose work has fortunately been translated into English. Arenas was there for the entirety of the revolution and left in the late eighties when persecutions of homosexuals were really coming to a head and persecutions of writers and artists. So if you want to understand that period and have a sense of what it felt like for certain people, he would certainly be a good read. 

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