Cuba Culture

Novels sprout from Cuban roots

Posted May 12, 2003 by publisher in Cuba Culture.

By Chauncey Mabe | Books Editor | Sun-Sentinel

Before Cristina Garcia became the award-winning author of Dreaming in Cuban and The Aguero Sisters, she was a journalist, working for Time magazine in New York and Miami. Those reporting skills, she says, help make her a better novelist.

They were especially useful in the creation of Monkey Hunting, which, in 272 compact pages, tells the multigenerational story of Chinese immigration to Cuba.

Garcia’s first two novels, while not autobiographical, arose from her exploration of her Cuban roots. The Chinese experience in her native land was something she knew little about. But she did know the details had to be right.

“I was apoplectic for most of the writing of this novel,” Garcia says from her home in Los Angeles. “I was so fearful of mistepping. My background as a journalist is a big help. I started as a researcher at Time. I’m confident of my information-gathering qualities.”

Like all of Garcia’s novels, Monkey Hunting began as one thing and ended as another. She started out wanting to write about a Cuban-American’s experience in Vietnam, but then it seemed more fruitful to make the key character part Asian as well.

“It began as a story about Domingo Chin, then flashed back to his ancestors,” Garcia says. “Then the ancestors got so interesting his great-grandfather took over the book. Domingo was left with a few paltry sections.”

The more Garcia read up on the little-known 19th century migration of Chinese workers to Cuba, the more fascinated she became. Her only knowledge of the subject, she adds with a chuckle, came from growing up in New York, “where there were a lot of Chinese-Cuban restaurants in my neighborhood.”

The hero of Monkey Hunting turned out to be Chen Pan, a young Chinese tricked into immigrating to Cuba in 1857, where he is forced to work as a slave cutting sugar cane. Indomitable, he eventually escapes, makes his way to Havana and becomes a successful small businessman.

Chen Pan rescues a mulatto slave, Lucrecia, and her infant son, founding a Chinese-Cuban family. With her customary adroit grace, Garcia interweaves the stories of later generations, especially those of Domingo, in Vietnam, and Chen Fang, an intellectual granddaughter who suffers in communist China.

“The story of the Chinese in Cuba is long and varied,” Garcia says. “Many waves of Chinese immigrants nestled themselves into every town and village. I took great care with the details.”

In addition to research that included trips to Cuba and Vietnam, Garcia asked experts to read the manuscripts. These included not only two Chinese-American scholars, but also a Vietnamese student who caught a small but, to Garcia, important error.

“I had a Vietnamese character pass the salt shaker in a dinner scene,” Garcia says. “Except in Vietnam they don’t have salt shakers. They use little dishes for salt. When you’re writing, you have to get things right down to that level of detail. Otherwise, don’t bother.”

Since the debut of her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, in 1992, Garcia has become a mediator of Cuban experience for American readers. Along with Oscar Hijuelos (The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love), she was among the first novelists writing about Cuba in English to achieve critical praise and wide readership. Dreaming in Cuban was short-listed for the National Book Award.

Born in Cuba, Garcia was brought to the United States when she was 2 years old. Growing up in Queens, she says she worked hard at becoming an American—or at least a New Yorker, which “isn’t exactly the same thing,” she acknowledges, laughing.

In 1984 Garcia visited Cuba to meet her mother’s family and her grandmother. She’s since been back four more times.

“I feel like an outsider there,” Garcia says. “I wish my Spanish were better. I’m fluent, but the level of nuance and subtlety I don’t have. But there’s still a deep pull and a deep feeling of connection.”

As a result, she realized her Cuban nature lay just beneath the veneer of her American persona.

“In the writing I realized that I may be a New Yorker on the outside, but the water table of who I am is Cuban,” Garcia says. “I guess I’ve repressed my obsessions all these years.”

It is only after some coaxing that Garcia will state her views about the U.S. embargo against communist Cuba: She favors lifting it, on the grounds it doesn’t work and harms only ordinary people. After more than 40 years, Castro is still in power, she says.

For the most part, though, she draws the line at being a spokesperson for Cubans or Cuban-Americans.

“I generally try to stick to the literary aspect of things,” she says. “I’m not an expert on politics or anything else. It’s something that’s occasionally thrust upon me, to my discomfort.”

But that’s the kind of unwanted attention that often goes with literary success. Garcia says no one was more surprised than she was when Dreaming in Cuban became a best seller. It began as a poem, then a short story, then a novella. She wrote for a year before she realized she was at work on a novel.

“I was extremely pregnant with my only child, so the surprise was compounded by hormonal derangement,” Garcia says. “So it was quite a year.”

Literary stardom left her “extremely self-conscious,” and resulted in more than a year’s work on a second novel that she eventually abandoned.

“It took the fun out of things,” Garcia says. “I decided to write for the fun of it, regardless of what happened. I was able to get back on track.”

“Back on track” meant her second published novel, The Aguero Sisters (1997), which solidified her stature as an important younger novelist and one of the leading Hispanics writing in English in the United States.

While Garcia relishes her Cuban identity, she says she’s “very comfortable as an American, too. Peaceful coexistence within oneself is a worthy goal. I’d rather accommodate all influences, rather than choosing.”

One happy aspect of the “conflict” between Garcia’s American and Cuban sides lies in her English prose style.

Garcia’s novels are notable for their stylistic beauty. Part of this comes from the challenge of writing in English for characters who are living in Spanish.

“I want the reader to have the sensation of experiencing the action in Spanish,” Garcia says. “For me, that means being extremely sensitive to language, especially to the cadence of English, and working with English to approximate Spanish. For me, it’s almost a musical question. You’re almost translating.”

And yet, when Garcia’s novels are translated into Spanish, the author finds herself dissatisfied.

“They lose something in the translation, even though that’s the language it’s supposed to be happening in,” Garcia says.

Despite what Cuba means to García, personally and as literary material, she’s not overprotective. She doesn’t mind that the island nation has increasingly become fodder for other novelists, including many, such as Martin Cruz Smith and Thomas Sanchez, who have no Cuban heritage.

“I stand by an inclusionary policy,” she says. “I would no sooner tell someone they couldn’t write about Cubans than I’d let someone tell me what to write about. The more the merrier. The more viewpoints you have refracting experience the better.

“But you do have a responsibility to get the details right.”

Chauncey Mabe can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or 954-356-4710

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