Excerpted from A Handbook to Luck by Cristina Garcia. Copyright © 2007 by Cristina Garcia. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: A HANDBOOK TO LUCK ranges more widely from Cuba than some of your previous books. Why did you choose to do this at this point in your writing career? In what other ways does HANDBOOK differ from your previous novels?
A: I spent a large part of the last fifteen years living in Los Angeles, which one writer intriguingly called ‘The Capital of the Third World.’ It’s a city of immigrants with literally millions of stories of dislocation and adaptation, tragedy and dramatic beatings of the odds. It’s an irresistible place for a writer. I’d dedicated myself in my first three novels to telling the story of Cuba and its various Cuban migrations from different viewpoints and time frames. But it was time for me to move on. I woke up one morning on the edge of the Pacific and suddenly discovered that there were stories all around me. It was a matter of choosing what I wanted to focus on, of finding just the right characters to speak to these preoccupations.
Q: Where did the idea for A HANDBOOK TO LUCK come from?
A: When my daughter was little, I hired a babysitter to take care of her for a few hours a day. She was from El Salvador and every morning she came, it grew harder and harder for me to go to work. Her stories were that incredible. She could be watering the lawn or sweeping the kitchen and ask quietly: “Did I ever tell you the time I shot my first husband in the foot?” What!? My jaw would drop and I would stop whatever I was doing or intending to do and listen. Her storytelling went on for years! Well, this woman is the inspiration for my Marta character. She hasn't worked for me for ten years but we remain close friends and I am the godmother to her daughter. And I still listen to her stories.
Q: The novel progresses from the year 1968 to 1987. Why did you choose this time period as your setting?
A: The time period roughly mirrors my own coming-of-age years and I felt confident describing a lot of what happened then. I have a political and cultural context for those years–a far cry from my last novel, MONKEY HUNTING, which was largely set in colonial Cuba.
Q: The main characters in A HANDBOOK TO LUCK are an impoverished girl from San Salvador, a privileged girl from Tehran, and a boy originally from Cuba who lives in Southern California and Las Vegas as a child. You are from Cuba and live in California, but was it hard to imagine the landscapes of Tehran and San Salvador?
A: I felt that I needed to go to El Salvador and Iran to do this novel justice. I couldn’t get a visa to go to Iran (I tried three times) but I managed to spend a couple of weeks in El Salvador, mostly traveling around with my daughter on the back of a flatbed truck with my old babysitter and her daughter. We visited her family all over the country, and listened, listened, listened. Many people talked to me about the civil war, something which is not spoken of much there, at least not openly. It’s almost as if there’s been an unspoken collective amnesia to avoid discussing unpleasant memories. But the trauma of the war lives on in everyone. In the book, I give the act of witnessing the war’s atrocities to Evaristo, Marta’s brother, who spends most of his life living in trees.
Q: The three main characters live in California in some point in the novel. Did you choose this state because you are familiar with it, or do you think it’s more of a melting pot than other states?
A: California is immigration central for the United States; Los Angeles, in particular. There are more Vietnamese living in L.A. than any other place in the world outside their home country. The same is true for Salvadorans and Koreans and Mexicans and Japanese–you name it. My daughter and I have done a lot of foreign travel, but we’ve crossed as many cultural boundaries living in Los Angeles as we have crossing international date lines. “What country do you want to visit today?” I might ask her on any given Saturday and we could very well find ourselves immersed for the afternoon in East L.A. or Koreatown. There are extraordinary cultural opportunities in L.A. that most people don’t appreciate or take advantage of, to their detriment.
Q: Your novel explores the notion of luck and circumstance. Why did you decide to focus on this?
A: Since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by notions of luck and fate, coincidence and destiny and chance. Was this meant to be? Do good things always emerge from bad, as my mother would tell me? How will my life be different if I turn left this minute instead of right? I was happily plagued by questions like this all the time, and they followed me into adulthood. To my mind, there is nothing more fraught with peril and luck (good and bad) than migration. In A HANDBOOK TO LUCK, I tried to write a story that combined my interests and obsessions on these themes.
Q: All of the characters in A HANDBOOK TO LUCK seem to outgrow their traditional family backgrounds and move on to a more modern, American life. How true do you think this is to the typical immigrant experience?
A: Yes, my characters do outgrow their traditions and try hard to adapt to life in the United States. I’ve certainly seen this in almost every immigrant community I’m familiar with. But the price is often high and immigrants may end up feeling like they don’t belong anywhere–not back home, not in their adopted country. Then memory goes to work on the past, as it always does, distorting it, selecting incidents, and revising history. That’s the basic recipe for nostalgia, isn’t it? Every immigrant I know struggles to find a balance between the present and the past, between the preservation of his or her traditions and language and becoming culturally fluent in their new surroundings.
Q: You were born in Havana and raised in the United States. How does your experience inform your characters?
A: As an immigrant myself, I can speak to the cultural duality that comes from “living on the hyphen,” as another Cuban writer put it. I know what it’s like to be both a participant and an observer in a new culture, to be an insider and an outsider at the same time. It made for many uncomfortable moments when I was growing up but now I see it as an incredibly privileged place from which to write.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’ve started a new novel tentatively titled The Lady Matador’s Hotel, which is set, for the most part, in a luxury hotel in Central America ten years after the end of its civil war (a thinly-disguised Guatemala). It features a widely divergent cast including my main character, Suki Palacios, a female matador of Mexican-Japanese descent who grew up in Los Angeles. She’s in town to participate in the first all-women bullfighting competition in the Americas. And that’s only a sliver of the story.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. How does Garcia distinguish her novel's settings and locate the reader in them? What details characterize Enrique's Las Vegas, Marta's San Salvador, and Leila's Tehran? In what ways are the characters matched to their settings? Las Vegas, for example, is the logical destination for someone like Fernando, but how does growing up there shape his son? How does life on the streets of San Salvador prepare Marta for her future? In what ways does Leila remain figuratively trapped in the garden where we first see her?
2. Along with the details that set the novel's respective worlds apart, there are some that occur in all of them: moths, for instance. Note the ways that moths appear in the three stories. Is this simply coincidence, or might Garcia be sending a signal to the reader, and what might that signal be? What other images and motifs figure in all three narratives, and to what effect?
3. Compare the ways the three protagonists spend their thirteenth birthdays. What is the effect of these parallel scenes? Where else in the novel does Garcia show her characters unknowingly doing the same thing—or experiencing the same milestone—at the same time? How does such synchronicity function structurally within the novel, and how does it reinforce the theme of luck?
4. Almost everyone in A Handbook to Luck is an immigrant of one kind or another: Enrique and his father from Cuba, Marta from El Salvador, and Leila, briefly, from Iran. Discuss the theme of immigration in the novel. What motivates García's characters to leave their native countries? In what ways do they remain attached to them? What regrets do they have about leaving? Which of them adapts successfully to life in the U.S. and which of them fails, and for what reasons? On the basis of their experience, what qualities might be essential for an immigrant?
5. Even as a child, Enrique is conscious of his responsibility to the adults in his life, both to his childlike father and his dead mother, whom he is fearful of forgetting. How do these loyalties shape the rest of his life? Which of the other characters has a similar loyalty, and what are its results? How does the old-world value of loyalty equip them for survival in the more fluid, atomized society of the U.S.?
6. What is the significance of Fernando Florit's profession? Discuss the connotations of magic as art form, as performance, as fraud, and as a genuine commerce in mystery. At what points in the book is Fernando merely a talented entertainer, and at what points do his tricks seem truly inexplicable? What significance do you see in the manner of his death, following a “death-defying” feat—catching a bullet in his teeth—that he has performed dozens of times before but that for once is actually deadly? In what ways does Fernando's death echo that of his wife many years before? Do you have any speculations about the identity of the strange intruder who appears at his funeral?
7. Although his father grooms him to become his assistant, Enrique eschews magic for mathematics, which he later applies at the card table. How is gambling related to magic? Enrique views his success at poker as a product of skill. “Gambling is a branch of mathematics,” he tells Leila [p. 114]. But he's also haunted by “how the slightest mistake could kill a person. A wrong turn here, a misspoken word there, and boom—your luck ran out. Fortune wasn't something you could hold tightly in your hand like a coin” [p. 71]. Which view of luck is borne out by subsequent events in his life? By the lives of the other characters? What do you make of the fact that Leila refuses to elope with Enrique because “the odds of them lasting weren't good” [p. 165]?
8. As a young girl, Marta Claros longs to read for the sheer pleasure of stories. As a young woman, she yearns for a baby. To what extent do these desires inform the choices she makes later in life? In what ways do they seem connected to things she doesn't choose—that is, to things that just happen to her? Are the novel's other characters driven by similar desires? To what extent do they “make their fortunes,” go out and get what they want? To what extent are they beneficiaries of luck or, alternatively, its victims?
9. Discuss Marta's relationship with her brother Evaristo. What might be the significance of his decision to live in a tree? Is his increasing madness simply an illness or perhaps a logical consequence of witnessing the brutality of life in his country? Might it also be a strategy for surviving it? What might be the point of Evaristo's internal monologues? How might they complement or complete the other narratives? What is the possible significance of his repeated references to birds and the color blue?
10. In what ways does Leila's relationship with her brother parallel Marta's with Evaristo? Although in future years she never seems to think about the incident in Hosein's bedroom, might it cast a shadow over her life? How does her relationship with her mother and father mirror themes in Enrique's and Marta's narratives? What role does her class play in her life's subsequent pattern? In what ways does Leila's fate recall the stories Marta watches on the soap opera Pobre Gente, whose characters aren't poor but “rich people whom you grew to feel sorry for because they were always so unhappy” [p. 197]?
11. Of all the characters in this novel, Marta may travel the farthest from her origins, but by its end Leila seems the most transformed in terms of character, having gone from a lively, free-spirited young woman to a cowed and prematurely aged prisoner of an abusive husband and a soul-crushing regime. What do you think accounts for her transformation?
12. In what ways is A Handbook to Luck a novel about history, as any novel about immigrants must be? To what extent are its characters' lives historically determined? Note that history seems most insistent in the book's foreign scenes-in Cuba, El Salvador, and Iran. Is one implication of this that America is a place exempt from history? How does history intrude into the novel's American sections as well?
13. As she prepares to have her son sworn in as a citizen of the United States, Marta imagines the two of them shouting, “We belong here!” [p. 240]. What does it mean to belong in this novel—to a place, to a family, to oneself? Is belonging always something desirable, since for some characters it means self-denial and imprisonment? How does Garcia suggest that belonging can be reconciled with freedom?
14. What is the possible significance of the novel's penultimate scene, the near-drowning of Marta's son. What earlier scenes does it recall? And why does Marta, who has always had trouble with swimming lessons, plunge into the water and command José Antonio, “Watch me”?