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  • Written by Cristina García
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  • Written by Cristina García
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Written by Cristina GarcíaAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Cristina García

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 288 | ISBN: 978-0-307-41610-0
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

In this deeply stirring novel, acclaimed author Cristina García follows one extraordinary family through four generations, from China to Cuba to America. Wonderfully evocative of time and place, rendered in the lyrical prose that is García’s hallmark, Monkey Hunting is an emotionally resonant tale of immigration, assimilation, and the prevailing integrity of self.

Excerpt

To Paradise
Amoy to Aavana
(1857)

There were other men like Chen Pan on the ship, not too young, but not too old either. From the farms, mostly, as far as he could tell. No weaklings. Cuba, the man in the Western suit had told him, needed sturdy workers. Chen Pan was taller than most of the recruits, and his arms were taut with muscles. His hair was tied back in a thick queue, but at twenty years old he barely needed to shave.

A few families came to see their men off. The women gave their husbands sticky rice balls and packets of seeds for their journey. There was no weeping. Even the smallest children were dry-eyed. Most of the men, like Chen Pan, went aboard alone and empty-handed.

That evening at sea, the coast of China gradually faded behind them. A haloed moon rose on a swell of wind, but this hopeful omen didn’t alter the facts of the ship. It was outfitted like a prison, with irons and grates. The recruits were kept belowdecks, like animals in a pen. The shortest among them couldn’t stand upright. Soon Chen Pan’s neck ached from stooping.

Neither the British captain nor his crew spoke much Chinese. The captain issued his orders with a flat expression and a wave of his girlish hands. His crew was far more unruly. They threatened the re- cruits with muskets and cutlasses and rattan rods, shackled those whom the rods didn’t tame. Chen Pan was struck with a hoisting rope for requesting an extra blanket.

Those men who’d brought food or tobacco on board began to barter and sell. These boiled chicken feet for your hemp sandals or your uncle’s flute. A handful of pumpkin seeds for your stash of turnips or hard-boiled eggs. A day’s opium for the woolen gloves. Gambling sprouted like snake-grass in every bunk. The incessant clicking of dice finely divided the hours. A man from W—— gathered most of the winnings and crowed, “If you were too dumb the life before, you won’t be enlightened today!”

After his misfortunes in Amoy, Chen Pan refused to gamble. He guarded his Mexican coins, tucking them between the meager cheeks of his buttocks for safekeeping.

The men got beef jerky and rice gruel to eat. Chen Pan ate, although the taste of the food sickened him. It was oversalted, and the lack of adequate water made him desperately thirsty. Hour after hour, he thought more of his shoe-leather throat than of the life awaiting him in Cuba. Those who demanded more water were answered with blows. Chen Pan watched men drink their own urine, lick moisture from the walls of the ship. A few swallowed seawater until their stomachs swelled and they choked in their own filth.

A squat melon-grower from T—— announced that he would throw himself into the ocean to end his torment. Chen Pan crept on deck with two others to watch him jump. The melon-grower didn’t shout or linger but simply stepped into the breeze. A moment later, the furling waves received him with indifference. The melon-grower had been an orphan and a bachelor. No destiny would be altered but his.

The ship continued to plow south into the hard-gusting wind. Chen Pan covered his ears so they wouldn’t blow away altogether. He asked himself four questions: What was the last sound the melon-grower heard? The last color he saw before he died? How long would it take for the fish to devour him? Would this death complete his fate? “Show me the person who doesn’t die,” shrugged a short-legged man next to Chen Pan.

This was something Chen Pan’s father used to say, that death alone remained impartial. All the towering men, all the great beauties with kingfisher plumes in their hair—not a single one expected to grow old. But they, too, would return to dust. If it was true that man had two souls, one of the body and the other ethereal, then they would merge with the earth and the air after death.

Chen Pan knew that he didn’t want to fade away slowly, like a dying candle—one day no different from the next; the dirt etched in his hands along with his fortunes. No, he would rather live in a blaze of courage and flame like Li Kuang, the ferocious warrior who’d battled the Huns, or the heroes in the stories his father had recounted to him.

Chen Pan’s father had been as restless as these heroes, never reconciling himself to a life on their farm. He’d recited the Songs of Wu as he’d absentmindedly hoed the wheat fields, grew devoted to the poetry of the deserted concubines of the Han court. He’d referred to the sun as the Lantern Dragon, the Crow in Flight, the White Colt. The moon was the Silver Dish or the Golden Ring.

Father had taken the Imperial examinations for twenty years without success. He’d been a good poet but incapable of composing verses on assigned subjects, as was required by the examiners. He’d blamed his absorption of useless knowledge for overburdening his imagination. Before picking up his brush to write, he would rub his inkstick on a whetstone for a meditative hour as Chen Pan watched.

Chen Pan’s mother ridiculed her husband as she hobbled from room to room on her lotus feet. “Ha! Everyone calls him a scholar, but he hasn’t found a position yet. And in winter he wears a thread- bare robe. This is how books fool us!” Chen Pan’s mother was from a family of well-to-do farmers, and far from beautiful. She knew little poetry, but used to repeat the same line to nettle her improvident husband: Poets mostly starve to death embracing empty mountains!

After ten days of cramped, stinking squalor, a fight erupted belowdecks. A city man named Yang Yün, contrary as a donkey, shoved a quiet farmer out of his bunk. “Son of a whore!” the farmer shouted, punching Yang Yün in the chest. The city man pulled a knife from his vest and silvered the air with reckless slashing. The farmer disarmed him in no time, then promptly broke his nose.

Chen Pan watched the fight from behind his tattered book of poems, a last gift from his father. He decided that if Yang Yün or any of the other city cocks so much as jostled his elbow, he would knock them unconscious with a blow.

The captain’s guards chained the troublemakers to iron posts. Others who’d cheered them on were flogged to intimidate the rest. When the stubborn Lin Chin resisted, the guards kicked him in the ribs until he spat blood. The next day he died and his body was dumped in the sea. It was said that Lin Chin didn’t sink at first but floated alongside the ship for hours, his eyes fixed on the sky. Chen Pan wondered if the dead man’s ghost would find its way back to China. Or would it wander forever among the unvirtuous and the depraved?

As the ship continued to sail, Chen Pan imagined his wife pounding the season’s meager yield of grain in their yard, looking warily to the sky for rain. They’d been married for three years but had no children. Unlucky, despite what the matchmaker had predicted. On their wedding night, Chen Pan and his wife had drunk pomegranate wine and she’d grazed his chest with her soft, scant breasts. But month after month her womb spilled its blood.

Chen Pan’s mother blamed his wife for ruining the family with her persistent barrenness. Weak and sallow-skinned, Mother ruled the farm from her bed, knees tucked to her chest, lotus feet curled and useless from the painful binding long ago. In her closet were three minuscule pairs of jeweled slippers, all that remained of a dowry once rich with silks and brocades.

She also chastised Chen Pan’s younger brother for spending his days writing with his one brush and inkpot. “Even from the grave, your father has cursed you with his useless ways!” In winter, their house grew so cold that his small supply of ink froze.

On board, the recruits began to suffer every manner of illness. Cholera. Ty- phus. Dysentery. Bad luck, Chen Pan decided, had settled into every crevice of the ship. Nine men died the first month, not counting those killed in fights or beaten to death by the crew. Many more might have perished but for Chien Shih-kuang, sorcerer of herbs and roots. With his felt bag of magic, the wry herbalist from Z—— brewed teas to mend every imbalance, quieting fiery livers, warming cold organs, restoring the temperamental ch’i.

The captain had promised Chien Shih-kuang payment of passage back to Amoy in return for his services on board. The herbalist had agreed because he’d heard that in Cuba men knew the secret to halting the winter retreat of the sun. He, too, wished to learn this secret.

One night Chen Pan dreamed that bandits had set fire to his great-aunt’s farm and that he alone was battling the flames. He woke up delirious, his skin hot and itchy. Chien Shih-kuang plastered a five-pointed leaf on Chen Pan’s forehead with a few drops of a caustic liquid. When his fever broke, Chen Pan tried to pay the doctor with one of his precious Mexican coins, but Chien Shih-kuang refused it. (Years later, Chen Pan would learn that the herbalist had married a Spanish heiress in Avila and generously cured the poor.)

But not even Chien Shih-kuang could save the poor suicides. Chen Pan counted six altogether. Af- ter the melon-grower, another man jumped into the sea. One more poisoned himself with stolen opium. A boy, no older than fifteen, passed his days and nights in tears. He confided to Chen Pan that he was in great grief over having been decoyed on board. “I’m the only child of my parents!” he cried before thrusting a sharpened chopstick into his ear. In this way he stopped his regretting.

A native of K—— hanged himself with strips of torn clothing deep in the ship’s hull. (The guards had beaten him savagely for siphoning rainwater from their private barrels.) Chen Pan thought his swaying sounded like the slow tearing of silk. With the winds stiff and the sea wide all around, he asked himself why someone would choose to die so confined and without air. Chen Pan wasn’t certain what made a man ultimately want to live. He only knew that he would survive unless somebody managed to kill him.

The night the Wong brothers died, a squall engulfed the sea. The ship creaked and groaned like a sick man. The storm ripped off a mast and tossed two officers overboard. The men feared that the brothers’ ghosts had cursed the ship, that they were causing the thunder and lightning, the wind from eight directions, the waves as high as the Buddha’s temples. But by morning the sea was calm.

At noon, a pair of whales was spotted off the Cape of Good Hope. Chen Pan clambered to the deck to see the breaching beasts. “Maybe we should kill them and get some fresh meat,” the lazy-eyed Wu Yao suggested. Chen Pan looked at him incredulously. It was obvious that this city boy had never caught so much as a pond carp.

T he rumors spread with every day at sea. A bankrupt tailor pieced most of the gossip together, all the while quoting ancient sayings. Caged birds miss their home forest. Pooled fish long for the deep. Chen Pan listened closely to the tailor, but he didn’t circulate the man’s tidings: that their ship was headed for the Philippines; that every last man on board would be killed there, heart scooped from his chest; that they’d be sold to cannibals who savored yellow flesh.

There was talk of mutiny. Should they behead the captain and crew? Set fire to the vessel? Reverse their course to China? Chen Pan knew there were men on board fit for murder, experienced warriors who’d fought the British barbarians. Arrow-scarred, they’d been dragged from their prison cells to the ship. But the ones who talked loudest were most filled with hot air.

Chen Pan grew increasingly regretful. Had he deceived himself with his own grand dreams? How could he go home poorer than when he’d left? (Already, he imagined his mother’s rebukes.) He tried to concentrate on his return to China a few years hence. A procession of men would follow him, triumphant in his sedan chair, carrying a hundred chests of princely gifts on their shoulders. Enough silk for three generations. New harnesses for the village horses. Countless jars of turtle eggs pickled in foreign wines. The villagers would gather around him, paying him the respect in life that his father had achieved only in death.

Because the days were long and the men so constricted, they entertained each other with stories about the tallest men who ever lived. Chung Lu-yüan, who was fond of lantern riddles, reported of a man who, sitting down, was as big as a mountain and could dam the course of a river with his ass. Hsieh Shuang-chi, a stevedore who was tricked on board by his greedy brother-in-law, told of a giant who drank a thousand gallons of celestial dew for his breakfast.

Chen Pan retold the jokes he’d learned from his beloved great-aunt. His favorite was the one about the evil warlord who’d had the length of his penis extended with a baby elephant’s trunk. Everything went well for the warlord, Chen Pan said, until the day he passed a peanut vendor in the street.

There was also a dwarf on board who could imitate perfectly the sounds of a cassia-wood harp. His name was Yang Shi-fêng, and he sang of his land, where the tallest men grew to no more than three feet. In former times, he said, his countrymen had been sent as jesters and slaves to the Imperial Court. Then Yang Cheng came to govern the land of the dwarves and convinced the Emperor to annul his cruel trade. To this day every male born in T—— has Yang in his name.

Others recounted the tale of the impudent Monkey King. Entrusted with the job of guarding the Im- mortals’ heavenly peaches, the Monkey King heartily partook of them instead. One transgression followed another, but none of the Jade Emperor’s emissaries could catch the fearless simian. Finally, the Buddha himself cast a powerful spell that sealed the monkey under a mountain for five hundred years.

On a nearby bunk, a pig breeder from N—— reminded Chen Pan of his father. His hair fluttered with unruly tufts, no matter that the air was perfectly still. The pig breeder shared the last of his wife’s pickled cabbage with Chen Pan. The taste made them both terribly homesick. Chen Pan recalled the long summer afternoons his father had read poems to him, their plows left untouched in the shed. Before long the cicadas would sing, signaling the onset of autumn.

These lovely seasons and fragrant years falling

Lonely away—we share such emptiness here

When Chen Pan was thirteen, bandits had murdered his father for protesting the rape of the water-carrier’s daughter. She was only ten, pretty and dull, and willingly had shown the bandits inside her neighbor’s granary. Father’s legend swelled and the villagers recounted his heroism, but Mother disputed their accolades. “What father leaves his children noth- ing but his good reputation to eat?” She scolded her sons to learn this lesson: “Avert your eyes to the sorrows of others and keep your own plates full!”

After three months at sea, Chen Pan’s arms and legs grew soft and white as the flesh of the rich women he’d glimpsed in Amoy. Often he fantasized about these women, inhaled the scent of their lacquered hair, slowly dared to love them. He recalled the tales of the women of the old Imperial Court, who were protected by the Emperor’s purple-robed eunuchs. Alluring women swathed in furs and jade, their gauze-silk sleeves blooming like orchids. Delicate women who drank only camel-pad broth and nibbled on rare winter fruit to maintain their complexions. Women best admired from afar, like the mountain mist.

Sometimes the men spoke wistfully of the road- side flowers who awaited them in Cuba, easy amber- colored whores who opened their legs for their own pleasure, expecting nothing in return. For all that it had cost him, Chen Pan couldn’t remember his one night with the dancing girl in Amoy. There were only the memories of his mournful wife.

The ship passed through the Straits of Sunda without incident, then followed the verdant curve of Africa before veering west across the Atlantic. In St. Helena they stopped for fresh water, continuing on to Ascension, Cayenne, the Barbadian coast, and Trinidad. Chen Pan heard the crew announcing each port of call, but the longer he remained on board, the farther away Cuba seemed. Could his eight years of servitude have elapsed already?

When the ship finally reached Regla, across the bay from Havana, Chen Pan climbed to the top deck to get a better view. It was a hot, sunny morning, and the city looked like a fancy seashell in the distance, smooth pink and white. A brisk wind stirred the fronds of the palms. The water shone so blue it hurt his eyes to stare at it. When Chen Pan tried to stand on the dock, his legs slid out from under him. Others fell, too. Together, he and his shipmates looked like a spilled barrel of crabs.

The men were ordered to peel off their filthy rags and were given fresh clothes to present themselves to the Cubans. But there was no mistaking their wretchedness: bones jutted from their cheeks; sores cankered their flesh. Not even a strict regimen of foxglove could have improved their appearance. The recruits were rounded up in groups of sixty—wood haulers and barbers, shoemakers, fishermen, farmers— then parceled out in smaller groups to the waiting landowners.

A dozen Cubans on horseback, armed with whips, led the men like a herd of cattle to the barracón to be sold. Inside, Chen Pan was forced to strip and be examined for strength, like horses or oxen that were for sale in the country districts of China. Chen Pan burned red with shame, but he didn’t complain. Here he could no longer rely on the known ways. Who was he now without his country?

One hundred fifty pesos was the going rate for a healthy chino. A Spanish landowner paid two hundred for him, probably on account of his height. His father had taught him that if you knew the name of a demon, it had no power to harm you. Quickly, Chen Pan asked one of the riders for the name of his buyer. Don Urbano Bruzón de Peñalves. How would he ever remember that?

Several landowners tried to cut off the queues of their hires. Those who protested were beaten. Chen Pan was relieved that his employer didn’t insist upon this. Now there was no question of his purpose in Cuba. He was there to cut sugarcane. All of them were. Chinos. Asiáticos. Culís. Later, there would be other jobs working on the railroads or in the copper mines of El Cobre, five hundred miles away. But for now what the Cubans wanted most were strong backs for their fields.


From the Hardcover edition.
Cristina García|Author Q&A

About Cristina García

Cristina García - Monkey Hunting
Cristina García was born in Havana and grew up in New York City. Her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, was nominated for a National Book Award and has been widely translated. Ms. García has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, and the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award. She lives in Los Angeles with her daughter.

Author Q&A

A CONVERSATION WITH CRISTINA GARCÍA

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?

CG: I love Miles Davis.

Praise

Praise

“A miracle of poetic compression . . . With the confidence of an artist who knows exactly what can be left out, García has made a small masterpiece—an epic of anecdotes, a vista of brief and beautiful glimpses.”
Los Angeles Times

“García combines her gorgeous writing with a relentless view of history and a fierce understanding of the degree to which the individual life is at the mercy of larger forces.”
The Atlantic

Monkey Hunting demonstrates that Ms. García can write just as persuasively about men as she has about women, and it signals her ambition to broaden her canvas, to explore in detail not only her characters’ inner lives but also the great public events that shape their daily existences.”
The New York Times

“A miracle of poetic compression . . . With the confidence of an artist who knows exactly what can be left out, García has made a small masterpiece—an epic of anecdotes, a vista of brief and beautiful glimpses.”
Los Angeles Times

“García combines her gorgeous writing with a relentless view of history and a fierce understanding of the degree to which the individual life is at the mercy of larger forces.”
The Atlantic

Monkey Hunting demonstrates that Ms. García can write just as persuasively about men as she has about women, and it signals her ambition to broaden her canvas, to explore in detail not only her characters’ inner lives but also the great public events that shape their daily existences.”
—MICHIKO KAKUTANI,
The New York Times

“RADIANT . . . MESMERIZING . . .
A LOVING EXPLORATING OF HERITAGE . . .
García’s grasp of atmosphere is nonpareil and the physicality of her scene setting is intoxicating . . . García writes so well, she puts the reader in the room with her characters. . . . Monkey Hunting is a novel of great scope.”
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

“An epic tearjerker . . . The story spans two continents, four generations, several wars, and the rise of two terrible dictators [yet] the focus always remains on the characters, a family of downtrodden dreamers. . . . García’s luminous prose makes palpable the pang of homesickness, the gut-punch of heartbreak. By the end, we are both exhausted from her characters’ incredible journeys and buoyed by their strengths.”
Time Out New York

“García employs an exuberant prose style in which even the smallest of her torrent of details come heavily jeweled. . . . Escape, family ties, luck, the pull of the homeland—these García trademarks serve here as background and texture to another, more singular matter of the fully lived life.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“Such is the force of García’s sensual, warm, witty prose [that] I was happy to follow wherever she led . . . . I soon found myself deeply attached to both major and minor characters.”
The Atlantic

“GORGEOUSLY DETAILED AND ENTRANCINGLY TOLD,
EROTIC, MYSTICAL, AND WISE,
García’s bittersweet saga of a family of remarkable individuals spans a century of displacement, war, and sacrifice, and a world of forbearance and love. . . . [García] writes pristinely lyrical and enchanting prose, and creates powerfully alluring characters, delectable qualities she takes to new heights in this many-faceted tale about an extended Chinese Cuban family.”
Booklist

“Up to now, [García’s] most formidable and affecting characters . . . have been women, extravagant creatures of ripe, even frenzied passions who bloom from the page as colorful as hibiscus blossoms and as huge as Amazons . . . and happily, Monkey Hunting swells their ranks by two.”
—Miami Herald

“[García] paints a vivid picture of her native Havana, both before and after Castro came to power. . . . Although few Chinese remain in Cuba, their legacy remains in Havana’s Chinatown. García’s eloquent novel is a fitting tribute to their lives.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Elegantly written . . . In this multi-generational saga, which embraces many cultures and spans more than a century, Cristina García demonstrates how much the human spirit can endure.”
Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer

“Graceful . . . Told in unsparing detail . . . Though García ranges further afield here than in previous works, her prose is as tight and polished as ever. . . . [Her] novel is a richly patterned mini-epic, a moving chorus of distinct voices.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“A VIVID FAMILY SAGA . . .
GARCÍA WRITES BEAUTIFULLY.”
Austin American-Statesman

“An expert sense of timing and pace . . . This slim book lodges so deeply under the skin. In describing the sensual world, García depicts her characters’ experiences so luminously that it’s easy to feel the pang of their homesickness, the oomph of their heartbreak.”
The Boston Sunday Globe

“García has a rare gift for concentrating beauty by leaving things out. Here is . . . a novel that manages to trace four generations of a family not by revealing every last detail of personal histories but rather by revealing people’s dreams, their unuttered concerns and observations. . . . Whether she’s writing about the food stalls in Chinatown, the lovingly tended graves in the city’s Chinese cemetery, or even the absurd assortment of curios in the Lucky Find, García savors her descriptions and never rushes through any of them, carefully building for us a Havana of cinematic vividness, detail by shimmering detail.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review

“In Monkey Hunting, author Cristina García does again what she is so adept at: guiding the reader through multiple generations of well-fleshed characters moving through time and place. . . . Monkey Hunting [is] a sensuous mosaic of fierce struggles to survive in new worlds.
This worthy novel deserves a broad audience.”
The Oregonian

“A provocative, generational story.”
Desert News (Salt Lake City, UT)

“FIERCE AND INTOXICATING . . . VIVIDLY IMAGINED . . . MONKEY HUNTING IS A LUCKY FIND, INDEED.”
Miami Herald

“García [is] a literary daughter mindful of her magic realist inheritance but maintaining a rebellious, streetwise edge all her own.”
The New York Times Book Review

“Visceral, poetic, fantastic . . . Sit back. Take it in. Read Monkey Hunting for its high-octane poetry, its cocktail of color and incident, its rat-a-tat-tat of vigorous verbs, and Isabel Allende–style eroticism. . . . Glorious images born of a writer who has a gift for splicing together unexpected scenes, cultures, and similes.”
Chicago Tribune

“At once dreamlike and historically accurate, lushly written and bristling with harsh human truths.”
L.A. Weekly

“DEEPLY AFFECTING . . . A POWERFUL, ANCHORING STORY OF ORDINARY LOVE . . . Chen Pan [is] a Chinese wheat farmer whom we first meet in 1857 as he boards a ship in the hope of prosperity and winds up enslaved on a Cuban sugar plantation. His brazen escape from his captors and ultimate success as a Havana businessman become a story told down the generations. . . . [His] granddaughter Chen Fang, born in China and educated like a boy, gives up her only child for a chance to teach literature. . . . [His] grandson Domingo Chen escapes Castro’s Cuba with his physically and emotionally ruined father, embraces the myriad seductions of New York City and . . . delivers himself to the hell of the Vietnam War. . . . Havana’s street life, Vietnam’s whorehouses, China’s staid interiors are meticulously rendered, visceral, [and] fully alive.”
San Francisco Chronicle

“García is an immensely talented writer whose work, like that of Jessica Hagedorn, Sherman Alexie, and David Foster Wallace, is renewing American fiction.”
—The Nation

“A POWERFUL, ANCHORING STORY OF ORDINARY LOVE . . . Chen Pan [is] a Chinese wheat farmer whom we first meet in 1857 as he boards a ship in the hope of prosperity and winds up enslaved on a Cuban sugar plantation. His brazen escape from his captors and ultimate success as a Havana businessman become a story told down the generations.”
San Francisco Chronicle
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Monkey Hunting, the extraordinary new novel from Cristina García.

About the Guide

When floods force Chen Pan to leave his farm in rural China and search for work in the city, he begins a journey that will take him to places and experiences he could not possibly have imagined. After a night of gambling and opium, Chen Pan foolishly signs on for a job harvesting sugarcane, and soon enough finds himself cramped in the dank holds of a slave ship bound for Cuba.

So begins Cristina García’s cross-generational, cross-cultural tale of slavery, love, war, revolution, and the deep connections of family that persist over time and space. Jumping from China to Cuba to New York and Vietnam, Monkey Hunting covers a wide terrain and time span. Readers follow not only Chen Pan’s remarkable change of fortunes in 1860s Havana, his daring escape from his owners, his successful life as a shopkeeper, and his marriage to a mulatto former slave, Lucrecia, but also his granddaughter’s fate in Mao’s cultural revolution, and his great-great-grandson’s harrowing experiences in the Vietnam War. Against a rich historical backdrop, the main characters’ personal lives, their hopes and fears, their struggles to maintain their identities in a rapidly changing and dangerous world are presented with all the nuance and imaginative bravado readers have come to expect from the author of Dreaming in Cuban and The Agüero Sisters.

About the Author

Cristina García was born in Havana and grew up in New York City. She is the author of Dreaming in Cuban, which was nominated for a National Book Award, and The Agüero Sisters. Both novels have been widely translated. Ms. García has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, and the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award. She lives in Santa Monica with her daughter, Pilar.


From the Hardcover edition.

Discussion Guides

1. What drives Chen Pan to leave China? What is he
pursuing?

2. How do the characters, particularly Chen Pan and
Lucrecia, navigate questions of identity and race?
What about Domingo? Does he end up trapped by his
identity?

3. What role does the fantastic play in the novel?
How do the various characters—Chinese, Cuban,
African—embrace it?

4. Why does Chen Pan buy Lucrecia? Does his buying
of her make him more or less sympathetic?

5. Why does Chen Pan go off to war to defend Cuba?
What are his feelings toward his fellow Chinese?

6. Why does Domingo go off to war? Discuss the
ironies of his being an Afro-Cuban-Chinese man fighting
for the U.S. against the North Vietnamese.

7. Compare and contrast how the fallout from the
Cuban Revolution and the Chinese Cultural Revolution
affects the characters’ lives.

8. Do you see an analogous colonialist relationship
vis-à-vis Cuba and the U.S. and Vietnam and China?

9. What effects do the shifts in character, setting, and
time period have on your experiencing and understanding
the novel?

10. Why does Chen Pan tell his grandson to always
choose the difficult path? (Page 193.)

11. Does Chen Pan ever assimilate into the Cuban
culture? In what way is he a part of it? In what ways
does he remain an outsider?

12. Compare and contrast the ways that Chen Pan,
Pipo Chen, and Domingo ultimately are betrayed by
the promises of other homelands, and how they reconcile
themselves to this betrayal.

13. The author seems to be challenging fixed notions
of identity. How is this shown throughout the novel?
How have your thoughts regarding identity been
changed?

14. The women Chen Pan and Domingo love are
extremely disadvantaged in their relation to the men,
one being a slave, the other a prostitute. Discuss this.

15. How is sex depicted in the novel?

16. The middle part of the novel is titled, “Traveling
through the Flesh.” What does that signify, particularly
in the relationship between Chen Pan and
Domingo?

17. Do Chen Pan and Domingo change significantly
as a result of their life experiences? If so, how?

18. What happens to Chen Pan in the end? What
gives him immortality?

Suggested Readings

Isabel Allende, The House of Spirits; Julia Alvarez, In the Time of the Butterflies; Christopher P. Baker, Mi Moto Fidel: Motorcycling Through Castro’s Cuba; Junot Diaz, Drown; Dai Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress; Ha Jin, Waiting; Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude; Christopher Hunt, Waiting for Fidel; Esmeralda Santiago, When I Was Puerto Rican; Antonio Skarmeta, Burning Patience; Amy Tan, The Joy Luck Club.

  • Monkey Hunting by Cristina Garcia
  • April 27, 2004
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction
  • Ballantine Books
  • $15.00
  • 9780345466105

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