Your own mother grew up in the United Fruit Company community. Did she discuss her childhood with you often? Was she able to help you were writing Telex from Cuba? Are any of the characters based on your mother or other people from her past?
My mother told me many stories about her childhood in Cuba. Living there had a profound impact on her and how she regards herself. Some of those details made their way into my novel, but as all writers come to understand, autobiographical material, even when it seems absolutely ripe for the picking, can bog you down. That said, listening to my mother’s stories, I was able to tune into a certain frequency of what living in a quasi-colonial town in OrienteProvince was like. The larger effect of interiorizing her stories--that frequency--was probably huge. Writers have to be able to replicate the cadences of real life. The only way to do that is to be a good listener. I also had this incredible archive of my late grandparents’ lives. They saved absolutely everything: all of their correspondence, every last telegram and telex, everything from my grandmother’s Saturday grocery lists for shopping at the United Fruit commissary to club invitations to the business card of the Holguín piano tuner who came once a month to tune their piano.
The Lederers are schematically similar to my mother’s family, the Drostens—although there are some key differences. My grandmother, like Mrs. Lederer, had the attitude that they would endure the god-awful jungle so that my grandfather, a metallurgist who had worked in Oak Ridge, could get a better salary and be a manager. But while my grandmother had her prejudices, she was more complicated than Marjorie Lederer. She had an architecture degree and had trained with Frank Lloyd Wright, but such a strong character would have been a distraction from what I was trying to accomplish, so I made Marjorie a little simpler. My mother’s older sister is an artist and a brilliant documenter of her own very fascinating life, and like Stevie Lederer, she did make a scrapbook of her adolescence in Cuba, which she loaned to me while I was writing the book. And my mother, like Everly, was under the spell of the houseboy, a fascinating man named Cleveland Manning, with whom she is still close. Some of the other characters embody aspects of people from Nicaro and Preston. There were several employees from Nicaro, for instance, who were kidnapped by rebels in the summer of 1958. Some of them became friendly with Raúl and were subsequently invited to his wedding in Santiago de Cuba, just after the revolution. My grandfather would have absolutely loved to have gone to that! Unfortunately for him, he hadn’t been kidnapped.
Considering this book is based on real events in Cuba’s history and features several well-known figures, such as the Castro brothers, did you have any reservations about which stories and events to include?
Yes, deciding what to include was crucial. Story and plot, not historical facts, are the engine of a novel, but I was committed to working through the grain of actual history, and coming to something, an overall effect, which approximated truth. So I chose very carefully what I felt were key moments in Cuban history, and ones that would work well with my characters, my various story lines. As I was writing, I made maps and various timelines, larger ones that included the major historical shifts (Columbus’s arrival, the French Revolution, and a more detailed timeline of important social and political events in Cuba and the Caribbean from 1898 to 1959), and then I overlaid that map with the lives of my characters. I thought long and hard about who intersected with what actual political event, which real-life figures. Obviously, the detailed scenes among my characters and real-life figures--like the Castro brothers and La Mazière, for instance, are constructed. This is fiction, but the larger synthesis is not unlike the events that unfolded and led to the revolution. The benefit of writing about an actual political history is that you know how it ends, and so you work backward from inevitability. How do you get there believably? And meanwhile entertain, and say something new about a known story? Those were the tasks.
What was it like to visit Cuba after hearing about it from your mother and her sister and reading about it in the news?
I have been to Cuba a few times now. In researching for my novel I stayed twice for three weeks each time, interviewing people, going through library archives, and generally trying to trace back via the residue that remains of the old American colonies of Preston and Nicaro. My first trip was with my mother and two of her sisters, in 2000. We flew to Santiago and rented a car and made the long drive up to the NipeBay area where they had lived as children. We stayed in Nicaro, at the home of a man named Mr. Presilla, who had been my grandfather’s assistant at the nickel processing plant. Presilla had become a national hero after the revolution because he got the nickel plant up and running after the Americans left, in 1959. Fidel had given him a house. It was one of the old American managers’ homes, right next door to my grandparent’s former home. It was just so strange and fascinating for my mother and aunts to be there, in this other context. We reconnected with lots of people they had known as children—it was very dramatic, because none of the Americans who had lived there had ever come back to visit them—not in forty years. My mother and her sisters were the first people to return.
Certainly people there endure a lot of hardships, and the environment has suffered, due to the Soviet-style management of the nickel plant. What was described to me as a languid and softly tropical rural area was still beautiful, but Nicaro itself seemed depressingly industrial and polluted. Cuba did not strike me as that different from how it is portrayed in the American media, but there’s a complexity that you don’t grasp just reading about it (then again, this might depend on which media outlet one relies on for news). Is the lack of food, the environmental degradation, the crumbling infrastructure all Fide’s fault? How much of it has to do with the circumstances of, and fallout from, the Cold War? Or the embargo? As far as the crucial and very serious issue of human rights go, I feel it’s impossible to know what it’s like to live without freedom of expression unless you’re a Cuban in Cuba. It’s just very hard to know what that’s like, hard to know if people are honest when they express loyalty to Fidel, or what.
There are many characters in Telex from Cuba. Do you relate to any of them personally? As a child, were you more like Everly, KC, the Carrington Sisters, or others?
I feel like I relate to all of them, at least in certain ways, because to breathe life into a character, you have to locate something in yourself that is like that character. But probably the two adults I felt the most emotionally close to were Charmaine Mackey and La Mazière—probably the two least similar characters in the book! Mrs. Mackey’s disappointments and bewilderments moved me. With La Mazière, it was part of the job of writing him to try to track his interior. And some of his interests are my own, like occupied Paris, and a certain kind of reasoning through contradiction, and French literature.
As a child, I was probably something like Everly. As I wrote her, I resourced very deep and dormant aspects of my own childhood, like an underground river that I drew from continually in order to sustain her voice.
Ernest Hemingway appears in your novel. Have you read his writings on Cuba? Did he inspire your work at all?
Like most writers, I’ve read a lot of Hemingway and I admire him greatly. And I did borrow specifically from his letters to Marlene Dietrich, but his cameo in my book is less a reference to his writings than it is a response to a cliché of pre-Castro Havana that includes him. I wanted to twist the cliché, take away the hunting vest and the big game fishing, and make him sort of fruity and even a little ridiculous. Then again, I find his sadness at the disappearance of the poet-diplomats very real and un-ridiculous.
Several of the themes, such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity, citizenship, and class seem transitory.Was this important for you to portray? Are Cuba’s society rules less strict than America’s?
I can’t say I was making a specific argument about the permissiveness of Cuban culture vis-à-vis our own. Citizenship and ethnicity can become, in certain contexts, restrictive, and perhaps that’s one reason I was interested in people who feel compelled to mask their origins and thereby circumvent the restrictions. The colonial tropics, in particular Cuba after 1898, when it was no longer technically a colony of Spain and something more like a protectorate of the US, was a land of opportunity that attracted people escaping various fates. Also you have, in Cuba, several different occupations of American Marines (in 1898, in the 1930s) and thereby the “inexplicable” occurrence in Oriente of Cubans with dark skin and absurdly light green eyes, a feature that belies a simple or straightforward geneology, and even speaks of the unspeakable. And then there’s World World Two, and European figures, like my La Mazière, who are subsequently compelled to obscure who they are and what they’re up to. To a degree these ambiguities are the byproduct of historical circumstance.
In terms of gender and sexuality, there are number of impulses. It’s no secret that Cuba is a typical Latin American culture in that it has a fair amount of homophobia. Homosexuals have been notoriously persecuted under Fidel’s government. Pre-revolutionary Havana was not a more progressive place, but there is an idea that it was a kind of fleshpot, and that so-called permissive forms of recreation were easy to come by. In general, I’m interested in and sympathetic to the blurring of gender boundaries, not only in real life but in literature. If you grow up in San Francisco, as I did, and then you read Proust’s Sodom and Gomorrah, well, each experience offer its glimpse into the fascinating codes of transgender worlds, and these codes, those worlds, interest me.
7. Why did you decide to name Rachel K after yourself?
Rachel K is a real-life historic figure of pre-revolutionary Cuba who became an icon, though specifically of Machado’s era—the 1930s—rather than Batista’s era (the 1950s). She was a cabaret dancer who was friendly with the mob and with Machado’s inner circle, and was found mysteriously murdered in a hotel room. No one ever figured out what happened, and the mystery of her death came to signify the mortal decadence of Machado’s dictatorship. The Cubans made a film about her in 1973, called The Strange Case of Rachel K. In historical accounts, she is always referred to as a “French variety dancer.” No one ever explains the oddity that her last name is simply K. Which is strange for many reasons, aside from being obviously not French. Because of her role in history, and in historical imagery, and due to the striking coincidence that her name is like mine, I felt it would be an act of exclusion, not to put her in the book.
This is your first novel. What do you now know about the writing process that you didn’t before? Do you have any future books in mind? Perhaps one set in Haiti, which is mentioned frequently in Telex from Cuba?
Writing a first novel was an arduous crash course. I learned so much in the six years it took me to write it, mostly technical things pertaining to craft. It isn’t clear to me yet if the skills I picked up are specific to the challenges of Telex from Cuba, which had a structural complexity in its many voices, or if the lessons will carry over, and the next project will come more easily. The fact that I managed to finish is perhaps the most valuable “lesson”: that it is possible to complete such a thing means it’s that much more important to be scrupulous, and to apply myself and solve problems with every resource I can muster.
Haiti interests me greatly, partly because of how it prefigures and informs political events in Cuba, and because it is an epic and heartbreaking political history, but a lot of my thinking about Haiti was for Telex from Cuba, and I’m onto something completely different now: a novel that’s about the lives of American artists and Italian terrorists in the late 1970s. I’m very excited about it!
What is your favorite part of Cuban culture? The music? Dances?
I would have to say the literature and film, and also Cuban architecture. Cuba has a very rich literary history, back to Jose Martí, who was a poet as well as a revolutionary. Alejo Carpentier is one of the great novelists of the 20th century and very important to me as a model. I also admire Severo Sarduy, and to a degree Lezama Lima and Cabrera Infante. These are incredibly sophisticated modernists, who were working in dialogue with French writers, and other South American writers. The late 1960s was an amazing era for Cuban film. Tomás Gutiérrez Alea made his best work then, like Death of a Bureaucrat (1966) and Memories of Underdevelopment (1968)—which is as exquisite and baroque and avant-garde as the writing of Carpentier, in its thorough examination of life in Cuba before and just after the revolution. Havana is world class in its urban planning and its exquisite mélange of different architectural styles. The beautiful tile floors, the colonnades, the height of the interior ceilings, and the way that space is utilized, and kept spare in its decorations, is very distinct.
Danzón is my favorite Cuban music, played by a traditional string orchestra with flute and piano. It’s very formally structured but romantic music, which derives from the French-Haitian contradance. The music that people in the States are most familiar with, the music of Wim Wenders’s Buena Vista Social Club—all comes from Mayarí, which is the world of my book.