Q: Much of our current knowledge of Cuba is second-hand, fueled by books and film. Your 1992 novel, Dreaming in Cuban, introduced the Cuban-American experience to many American readers, arriving on bookshelves well in advance of popular films like The Buena Vista Social Club or Before Night Falls. How do you make the Cuban and Cuban-American experience ring true for American readers? A:I try to stick to the particularities of my characters’ situations and obsessions. There is no such thing as a Cuban ‘type,’ only individuals who reflect in their subjective ways, the greater political and social realities of their identity.
Q: Monkey Hunting begins in territory unfamiliar to your previous novels--19th Century agrarian China--with the story of Chen Pan. How did his story come to you? Was there a significant wave of Chinese emigration to Cuba? A:The story of the Chinese in Cuba is long and varied, beginning in 1847 when the first ships of contract laborers arrived to work the island’s sugarcane fields. Over the years, many waves of Chinese followed, nestling themselves into every town and village in Cuba. I first became interested in their story as a kid, when I was taken to eat at Chinese-Cuban restaurants in Manhattan.
Q:Your novel explores the notion of opportunity. Chen Pan’s departure from the failing family farm for Cuba--where he believes the streets are paved with gold and the harvest never fails--ends in his enslavement. But his subsequent resolve creates a whole new array of opportunities that power his family history forward. In what sense is his story typical? A:I would say Chen Pan’s story is atypical. Most of the Chinese who had the misfortune to arrive in Cuba as he did ended up dead or destitute. Still, there were a few who managed to secure their freedom by hook or by crook and helped establish Havana’s thriving Chinatown.
Q:You’ve written previously of the challenge of living between two worlds. The multi-generational stories in Monkey Hunting move through time and geography from country to country. Is family the common thread that connects all these different places and times? A:The power of family cannot be underestimated, fictionally or otherwise. I think we receive many inheritances that we’re not even aware of–not just our grandfather’s nose or an aunt’s predilection for the flute, but other emotional inheritances that we play out in our own ways and contexts.
Q: How central is the notion of family to the Cuban-American identity? A:Family, music, and black beans. This is the holy trinity of Cuban identity.
Q: Was it difficult to write about a magical and timeless sense of place when it must contrast with the brash political landscape of Castro’s revolution, Mao’s China, the stark reality of an immigrant New York experience, or that of a patriotic new American soldier’s encounter with wartime Vietnam? A:It was both a liberation and burden to write about a place and time so far removed from my own. I immersed myself in the history of colonial Cuba to get the atmosphere and details right, but after a certain point I put all the books away and simply tried to tell a good story.
Q:What is the connection between Chen Pan’s emigration from China and the Cuban Diaspora two generations later? Which generation is marked in particular by an eagerness to assimilate? A:Chen Pan chose to leave China to seek a better life in Cuba, even though he ended up enslaved for a time. Those who left Cuba two generations later were motivated for largely political reasons. This is why so many Cuban-Americans refer to themselves as exiles, as opposed to immigrants. It’s a big difference and it sets them apart from other ethnic groups in the United States.
Q:You were born in Havana and raised in the United States. How does your experience inform your characters? A:I think my obsessions inform my characters more than my actual experiences. As such, I’m a part of all of them–even the 19th century Chinese farm laborer-cum-antiques shop owner.
Q:In addition to penning Monkey Hunting, you’ve also edited and written an introduction to ¡Cubanísimo! a new anthology of contemporary Cuban literature to be published in May. Tell me more… A:¡Cubanísimo! is a labor of literary love, a song to the contemporary music and literature of the island. I never had so much fun in my life!