A Writer’s Responsibility is to Their Obsessions: A Conversation With Cristina García

by    /  November 21, 2019  / Comments Off on A Writer’s Responsibility is to Their Obsessions: A Conversation With Cristina García

The following conversation is reprinted with permission of Aster(ix). Interview by Lissette Escariz Ferrá.

Not every day does a cuban immigrant get to interview one of the most important voices of Cuban-American literature. Cristina García has been one of my heroes since I immigrated to the USA. I made it through high school reading her novels and finding my reflection in Dreaming in Cuban when no other story made my experience matter. I always imagined that if the universe gifted me with the opportunity to meet Cristina, it would happen in the warmth of Miami or in our city of origin: La Habana, Cuba. Our conversation would happen over pastelitos and cafecitos in Miami’s Little Havana, or in La Habana at la punta of the malecon before El Morro, watching the sea at the spot where many Cubans have thrown themselves into the waves out of desperation. Instead, we met in Pittsburgh in the middle of winter and on a day where the temperature had made a record low in twenty years. Cristina came into the studio where we would record our conversation and greeted me with the kindest smile. As soon as I told her I was also from La Habana, we switched into the warmth of our colloquial Spanish, sharing anecdotes about our first years in the USA, how she acclimated to New York and I to Miami, and where our journey has led us. The familiar accent of Cristina’s Spanish, which she would later describe as rusty, transformed the room into a piece of home, and soon we forgot the frost outside the window.

Let’s start at the beginning. Your first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, is a story about diaspora and the complications that come with that experience. What compelled you to write that story?

Well, like pretty much every other Cuban family on the planet, my family was bitterly divided over the Cuban revolution, and so the templates for the book were the divisions in my own family. I think what I was trying to do somewhat different is focus on the women in this clan and look at the fallout from a big historical event like the Cuban revolution. Look at how it was affecting, changing, corroding, and forming the relationships of these four women in one family over three generations. I think that if you’re Cuban in the mid twentieth century it’s impossible to not remain deeply touched by what happened in 1959 and the aftermath.

In thinking about your journalism work, does it affect or inform your writing?

Probably less now than it did at the beginning because I was a journalist for ten years. But I think there was an economy, a succinctness, a sort of narrative drive that I learned in journalism. You didn’t have too much space to tell enormous stories with far reaching implications, and so I think for me journalism and poetry in a funny way have a lot in common. I think when I moved from writing journalism to reading poetry, something happened along the way that made me unleash the larger narratives. Journalism was also helpful for research: I don’t feel too intimidated by tackling big subjects or writing about other cultures’ histories far afield from my own. I think journalism helped me feel more confident about taking those on.

In 2009 you started writing young adult fiction and published I Want to Be Your Shoebox and a children’s book, The Dog Who Loved the Moon in 2011. What made you decide to star writing Children’s literature?

That is really a personal response because I pretty much wrote the three books—the picture book, the middle grade book, and the young adult novel—as my daughter was growing up, so I wrote the three of them essentially for her. Now that she is off in the world, I haven’t written any more, so I guess maybe another round will happen if and when I ever have grandchildren. But it was a way of getting inside her experience. For the picture book: my daughter harassed me to get a dog forever, which we didn’t get till much, much later, but instead I wrote her a book about a girl who gets a dog! I was trying to get out of my maternal obligations there. In each way I was sort of interrogating something that mattered to her desperately. It was a way of trying to see the world through her eyes even more intimately then as her mother.

In King of Cuba you tried to do that as well: see the world through “El Comandante’s” eyes. In that novel there seems to be a persistent anxiety about memory—its construction and its preservation. How do you understand memory in your works of fiction?

I think memory, certainly in the case of “El Comandante” in King of Cuba is definitely related to legacy. I think memory is another way of forging narrative, and so what we remember unconsciously, what we choose to remember, what we forget unconsciously or choose to forget, all shapes that narrative. And I am endlessly fascinated in our emotional investment in the narratives that we believe and subscribe to, whatever their relations to facts. That is interesting in and of itself. But more interesting is what it says about what we need to believe to go on, what we need to believe about ourselves, and to what degree illusion and delusion are a part of that. It almost doesn’t matter what the facts are to me. It’s, “how good a story is this?”. I think memory is related to self-concept, to idealism, and to the absolution or exaltation of pain on an “as need” basis.

Something calls my attention to the ways you construct memory in your novels. I am really invested in how often, in your novels, scent will bring up a memory. It also happens through tact and the visual. Could you speak a little bit more about that craft of constructing memory textually?

I think for me the sensory details are the most important. It’s what brings a sentence to vivid life or not. I don’t do this on a conscious basis now but early on I used to ask myself what can I taste here, what am I hearing here, is there enough smell? I also happen to have a crazy sense of smell. I feel like I was a bloodhound in another life. Everything for me is very concentrated. I’m guessing probably 50 to 100 times because I walk around the streets and my husband doesn’t smell anything, and I am smelling something super acutely or I’ll smell it in the car half a mile before someone else will. It’s insane! I think for whatever reasons I have a very strong sense of smell and maybe its showing up in the books! But for me those sensory details are—and I am quoting someone—the life blood of a fiction. Without them, it’s abstraction. We can make arguments with abstraction, we can do math and even visual arts. But in the end what is going to make something come alive on human terms are the sensory details.

In your novels, there is a lot of attention the Afro-Cuban religion of Santería. It’s a topic that reoccurs, a motif that reoccurs. Why do you choose to bring it up often in your novels?

Yeah! It’s not something I grew up with specifically. My family, I would say they were culturally Catholic, not strict Catholics. But it was something that suggested itself first in Dreaming in Cuban through the character of Felicia, and then—because I didn’t grow up in Miami, it wasn’t around, I grew up in New York City—it was something that I actually had to research like any other subject. And so the more I began to research and understand it, the more I realized how much of Cuba’s cultural groundwater was steeped in Santería, and it’s rituals and it’s beliefs. Its syncretism between the Yoruban religions and Catholicism is at the heart of Cuban culture: it’s music, it’s dance—everything! I also think that with the criollo population it’s something that was resisted or despreciado. It wasn’t particularly appreciated until more recently. It was also under cover for a long time because it couldn’t be openly practiced. But I think that in recent decades, its value and its contributions to Cuban culture are finally being heralded.

Aside from your creative writing, in 2002 you edited ¡Cubanismo!, which is a collection of Cuban writing coming from various disciplines. You introduce the anthology with a statement about what constitutes Cuban identity. Looking back twenty years, do you think that what constitutes cubanismo has changed? More specifically, what does it mean to be a Cuban writer today?

I forgot what I said—I hope I can remember! I think (cubanismo) is constantly evolving like language, identity, and allegiances are constantly evolving even in the course of a single day. We were speaking Spanish a little earlier and I could hear how rusty mine is. Now we’re speaking tonally very differently and with different kinds of formalities and allegiances. It’s something that is a constant work in progress. I think I resent the notion that there is only one way to be Cuban or even that you live on the hyphen, as one citric said. You do or you don’t, and sometimes you are leaning more toward one side or the other, or you find other allegiances that are just as compelling. I think identity is a complex thing. You are not necessarily defined by where you were born or where your parents were. It’s part inheritance, part choice, and a mix of other kinds of expositions and impositions. And always in flux, I think. And what does it mean today? I don’t know, I think each person defines that for himself. In the past I’ve gotten feedback where they say, “oh, you can’t be really Cuban because you don’t write in Spanish”, and other things like that which I don’t really pay much attention to. I think there is room for all our stories and all their permutations.

In that anthology, you mentioned the music and sound of cubanismo. Is there perhaps something in the music that ties all of us together, do you think?

Probably! What do you think? I mean if you put on some Cuban music at a Cuban party, everyone dances. [Laughs] If you are sitting down, there is an identity issue. What do you think about that?

You know, I think dancing for me personally is a huge part of feeling Cuban. For me, like you say, it’s infectious. If I hear casino, or salsa that is Cuban or Puerto Rican, or merengue de Dominicana, it is infectious. My body does its own thing.

Absolutely! I lived in LA for many years and I always found it very funny to go to a Celia Cruz concert and see people sitting in an audience watching. I mean, that is crazy!


It is! I consider that blasphemy, exactly! So a few of us might go to a backrow in the isles, making everyone else uncomfortable but it was like, por favor, this is not to be—you know, it’s not sit down and watch like a classical music concert. This is very different!

And especially someone as legendary as Celia Cruz. If she is giving a concert, usted no se queda sentado, you get up and dance!

I know, es un insulto to stay seated!

In thinking about some of the topics that are coming to the foreground today, what would you say are the most pressing responsibilities or questions that immigrant writers or children of the diaspora must grapple with?

I think the responsibility of a writer is to his or her own obsessions, whatever they may be. You could be Cuban or Cuban-American, but you are fascinated by the history of South Africa or Pakistan. I think we have a right to write whatever we want. The responsibility comes in doing the work, the research, and getting all the details just right so that your readers can suspend disbelief. There is nothing worse than seeing something that you are already a little, you know, that you are arching your eyebrow about and you are like, huh, Cristina García is writing about Berlin, but this German is wrong. You can’t have that happen; you lose all credibility. It’s ironic in a way that you are writing fiction, but you have to get everything right factually so that the fiction can source and the truth can emanate from it. I think therein lie the responsibilities. In terms of the questions, I just think to let obsession be your guide to your questions. I wouldn’t say, oh you are all Cubans or you are all Dominicanos and you have to contend with these questions. If you want! I think there are no strictures. Writers can find their own questions, their own obsessions, their own way of refracting their realities, their times and other times. I trust the obsession of a good writer.

Your points about obsession are really useful. What would you say were those obsessions you wanted to satisfy in Dreaming in Cuban and King of Cuba?

I think it goes back to what we were discussing earlier about memory, legacy, and inheritances. How do we forge story out of all of this? Why are we invested in the stories that we do get attached to and how do we prioritize how we tell stories? How would you begin describing yourself, for example? And then how do you go archeologically deeper into the bedrock and even beneath of who we are and what the story is about? It’s almost infinite, really. With every choice we are negating a million other choices, but I think that every choice has an eternity behind it. We have to write what most desperately interests us and hope that it will resonate with others. But there is no guarantee.

What advice would you give to aspiring immigrant writers or children of the diaspora?

I think to read widely from many different cultures and genres. Everyone should read more poetry. I think we learn from our forbearers and those who are writing within our cultural context, but there is just as much, if not more, to learn from reading far afield form our own experiences. Not necessarily unless you want to write far afield from your experiences but certainly reading far afield from your experiences. The best advice I might give someone is to get a fantastic anthology of world poetry and start from there. See what you find, what resonates, what kinds of cross-cultural connections, what kind of roots get entangled with yours. There is a word I love—rhizomes—which are basically the roots beneath the surface. I think if you go deep enough, it becomes very rhizomic: all these roots begin to connect, all the tendrils begin to touch in fundamental ways that is hard to tell from the surface.

You keep coming back to poetry and you have your own poetry collection. What would you say, in the differences of those two forms, lead you to write poetry after a long line of novels?

Well, I’m not a poet, so I don’t recommend that book particularly, but poets are my heroes. There was a story I wanted to tell that I didn’t feel I wanted to tackle as a novel. The poetry book is essentially the story of my brother. He’s had a very difficult life. It’s a poetry book where a brother is in conversation with his sister, i.e. an alter ego of me, and in the spirit of my novels, but without taking it as a novel. It’s an interrogation of the past, of motivations, of family, of intra-familial allegiances or lack thereof. So, it’s a kind of extended poetic conversation about, “we are related but how do we belong?” Or not?

You’ve offered the suggestion to find a book of world poetry. What are some of those poets that you say have been your heroes and have absolutely inspired you?

That would take a few days! There are a few good anthologies to start with. One of them is called Against Forgetting, edited by Carolyn Fourché, and it is a broad array of voices from around the world. A lot of it is poetry of witness, testimonial poetry, but above all it’s gorgeous poetry. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have made it. She has a wonderful sensibility. There is another book called The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry edited by J. D. McClatchy, again wide array of voices from not just the Americas but also European, Asian, Indian, African voices. It is even organized geographically. Right now, I am reading a very contemporary poet, which I don’t always do: Ada Limón, whose last two books are just gorgeous. Side by side with her I am re-reading Rubén Darío and John Theodore. But as poetry, I am reading line by line because it deserves that quality of attention. So, at any given moment it’s sort of a mix of things.

One of my curiosities is the presence of the sea, so monumental, throughout your work. I am thinking about how you bring Santería often to the foreground and for me as a Cuban the sea has a very spiritual meaning but also a very concrete and contradictory meaning. I am wondering what the sea means for you. We are both from Havana, and there is something about ese mar.

I think you put it very beautifully. I think it has the spiritual charge of Yemayá. Just all that beauty and power in one, and yet it’s also what divides us. From one side of the straits of Florida to the other, it’s a kind of stand in for other kinds of divides, like political divides. It can save us and kill us both.

Yes, the sea for me as a Cuban can mean both freedom and imminent death, especially thinking about this history of open borders: when it has been possible to leave and when we want to return, if we want to return, the sea means both freedom and imminent death. Seeing it in Dreaming in Cuban and thinking about how the main character wants to go back to see her grandmother, that sea strikes me as a very powerful presence.

Thank you!


Cristina Garcia is the author of seven novels, including Dreaming in Cuban, The Agüero Sisters, King of Cuba, and Here in Berlin. She has edited two anthologies, published two young adult novels, and a poetry collection. She has won numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, and a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Lissette Escariz Ferrá is a Cuban immigrant from La Habana del Este. She graduated from the University of Maryland with a Master’s in English Literature and is currently a PhD. student at the University of Pittsburgh. Her areas of interest include caribbean, latinx, and US multiethnic literature. She also dedicates her time to writing poetry and fiction.

This interview originally was featured in the HMB podcast: [in brackets].

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