Scott Shibuya Brown is a writer and professor at California State University, Northridge.
Scott Shibuya Brown: What inspired you to write the novel? How and why did you decide to write about the Chinese experience in Cuba?
Cristina García: When I was growing up in New York, my parents took me to my .rst Chinese-Cuban restaurant on the Upper West Side. A Chinese waiter came over, took our order in Spanish, and to my utter delight, I was able to get Cuban black beans with my pork-fried rice. I thought this was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. But when I asked my parents how and why the Chinese and the Cuban dishes could go together like this, they couldn’t tell me. So this book, in part, is an exploration of “why?” In addition, my own daughter is part Japanese, part Cuban, part Guatemalan, and part Russian Jew, and I’ve become interested over the years in compounded identities such as hers . . . not just those people trying to .gure out one hyphen but multiple hyphens.
SSB: Was it dif.cult to write about Chinese history and culture? Did you have any reluctance about taking it on?
CG: It was extremely dif.cult for me because my protagonist was not only a male and Chinese but from the nineteenth century and transposed to Cuba. I had to learn a tremendous amount about Chinese culture and history, as well as Cuban colonial times, and I had to .ght self-charges of fraud all along the way. What was probably most useful for me was reading a great deal of Chinese poetry in translation, both for the sensibility and cultural preoccupations that it offered. Even so, I had to work very hard to enter the bloodstream of my character, Chen Pan, more from the outside in than the other way around. I got to know him slowly and painfully but ultimately in a deep and satisfying way. Constantly, I questioned my ability to do his story justice and with authenticity. I was so concerned that I ran my book past several experts just to make sure I’d gotten it right. To me, the book is ultimately a 120-year dialogue between Cuba and Asia.
SSB: How did you conceive the novel? Was it done in terms of character or a certain milieu and history that you wanted to write about?
CG: The book started out as being Domingo’s story. Originally, I had conceived of it as a novel about Vietnam and the complications for a soldier of mixed race .ghting for the Americans there. But as I delved further into Domingo’s background, I grew more and more interested in the story of his great-grandfather, Chen Pan, and his travails coming to Cuba in the 1850s. So over time the back story became the main story and Domingo ended up as more of an echo of his ancestor.
SSB: What are some of the things that you discovered about Cuba and China in writing this? What surprised you in the course of your research?
CG: This may sound naïve but what surprised me most was the extent to which slavery, mostly from Africa but also from China and elsewhere, fueled the Cuban economy in the nineteenth century. It’s disturbing how the island’s vibrant culture was forged under such brutality. Now it’s never far from my thoughts when I think and write about Cuba. I also was surprised to learn that the Chinese participated in the various wars for independence. They very quickly took on the nationalist cause and fought as long and hard for Cuban independence as anybody. There were many Chinese war heroes.
SSB: Where does the title come from and what does it mean?
CG: It’s a bit of an homage to the Chinese myth of the monkey king, a picaresque tale about a brilliant monkey who did everything possible to ensure his immortality. He became such a nuisance that the gods .nally complained directly to the Buddha, who had him sealed under a mountain for .ve hundred years. With this title, I’m exploring the notion of immortality, how legacies get passed on from generation to generation, and how we’re always beholden to our origins.
SSB: So far, you’ve written almost exclusively on the theme of family. How does this novel differ from your previous two regarding that theme?
CG: I think this novel is painted on a bigger canvas. It covers large periods of time, broad social movements, and wars in two centuries. Yet at the same time I wanted to retain an intimacy with the characters and their struggles. I thought it would be inter- esting to explore the notion of identity traveling through the .esh, a concept I came across in the poetry of the Brazilian writer Carlos Drummond de Andrade. What do we inherit, not just physically but emotionally, psychologically, temperamentally? Does the past suffuse the present like a kind of water table? These were among my many obsessions writing this book.
SSB: How would you describe Chen Pan in terms of his character, his desires, his motivations?
CG: I see Chen Pan as an extraordinary man for his time. He was the son of a failed poet who never quite .t in and struggled against his wife’s disapproval. Chen Pan loved and admired his father deeply. What makes an ordinary wheat farmer sign a contract to go halfway across the world on the remote chance of getting rich and changing his fortune? Chen Pan was not only adventurous, but also unusually open-minded. He didn’t care much what other people thought of him. It was his father’s sharing of his time and his beloved poetry with Chen Pan that ultimately made him so special. For all his strengths, he was also a true romantic.
SSB: How do you see him? Is he a Chinese man in Cuba, a Chinese-Cuban, or is he simply part of the mix of Cuban people?
CG: At the end of the book, Chen Pan talks about belonging neither to China nor to Cuba entirely. He’s lost most of his Chinese and yet his Spanish is still quite fractured and heavily accented. He belongs somewhere between both worlds, but probably a little closer to Cuba. In the end, I think he gave his heart to Cuba (partly through the love of his wife) and that’s where his legacy remains.
SSB: The fate of the women here seems unusually harsh. Chen Fang has to pose as a boy in China, loses her child, and is eventually imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. Caridad dies and Lucrecia only escapes her fate with a delicate luck. Were you aware of this while writing the characters? Is there a larger theme being writ here?
CG: I think these were not unusual fates for women of these times and places—and in fact, for many women today in various parts of the world. I had no ulterior motive for making my female characters so oppressed except to stay close to their reality. I wanted very much to make their dire situations come vividly alive.
SSB: Domingo seems like such a lost soul. What’s his place in the novel?
CG: Domingo is a twenty-first-century man in the twentieth century. I had to ask myself what identity meant when it’s such a mix. And are the ways in which we discuss identity still meaningful or are they becoming obsolete? In Domingo’s time, compounded identities such as his were still uncommon. His confusion is further complicated by his moving from Cuba to New York and then to Vietnam in a few short years. He really doesn’t know who he is or where he belongs. That would be another book entirely. In fact, that was the book I originally set out to write. Maybe I still will! SSB: Was it difficult writing about men after your previous two novels, which were centered mainly on women? CG: Yes, to my surprise. Before I had my own daughter, I remember arguing vociferously for nurture over nature in terms of child development. After I saw my own daughter clomping around in feathered mules at the age of three, I understood that nature had a lot more to do with identity than I’d previously believed. The same thing happened to me writing about men. How hard could it be? I thought. What’s the big deal? What’s the big difference? It turned out to be inordinately dif.cult. For me, the men were harder to access and impossible to take for granted. I had to question every sentence I wrote in a way I never had to with my crazy Cuban women. They were already familiar to me. In fact, it’s all I can do to escape them.
SSB: With the exception of the man who provides Chen Pan with a letter of domicile, the Spanish in Cuba are not portrayed very sympathetically. What are your feelings on this?
CG: I suppose I share with Chen Pan a disdain for colonial imperatives and impositions. This also comes through in the Chen Fang section when the Japanese invade Shanghai. And it appears in my previous books, as well.
SSB: In the end, how do you think Chen Pan understands his life? What does he do with his knowledge of himself?
CG: There’s a scene toward the end of the novel where Chen Pan is talking to his grandson, Pipo, and tells him that all one can do is to live each day well, and that in the end the cumulative effect of that will be a largely satisfying life. I think Chen Pan, in his way, always tried to live like this, to do right by his family and friends and associates, and to appreciate the details around him. I think he also understood that what he passed on was just as important as how he himself lived. Ultimately, through him and his descendants, I was interested in exploring the nature of inheritance.
SSB: This is a novel of fragmented narratives, much like your other two novels. Is there a particular reason you choose to write in this form?
CG: As much as I’ve enjoyed the great nineteenthcentury novels written in the stentorian voice of the authorial omniscient, I mistrust it. I don’t believe any one voice can tell the whole truth of a story. In my opinion, you need several people, at minimum, to even begin to approach something resembling the truth. To me, a story is always subject to competing realities. I try to capture something of that in the way I write my books. Ambiguity is generally more honest than absolutes.
SSB: In terms of scope, this is your most far-reaching novel, yet paradoxically, it’s also your most condensed. How did this come about and what dif.culties did this present?
CG: I wanted very much to avoid the model of the exhaustive family saga. Nothing bores me more. I was interested in writing on a “need to know” basis, a tale distilled to its very essence. I wanted to offer just what a reader would need to move forward, nothing in excess. I wanted the narrative to move forward more by juxtaposition and imaginative leaps than by endless detail. I cut an enormous amount of background yet I hope, somehow, that the knowledge has still informed the work. What isn’t there, in my opinion, is as important as what remains. In the end, I was hoping the story would come off more like a series of prose poems or musical movements than a conventional, linear novel.
SSB: It’s interesting you bring up music. In the Los Angeles Times review of the book, the critic refers to Miles Davis and writes, “Like the trumpeter, García has a rare gift for concentrating beauty by leaving things out.” What are your thoughts on that?