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One Island, Many Voices

Conversations with Cuban-American Writers
Eduardo R. del Rio

Introduction


In her 1991 book on Cuban?American writers, Carolina Hospital includes selections by authors whose primary language is Spanish but who write poetry and prose in their adopted tongue. Because employing English to write about the Cuban?American experience was, in her estimation, a new phenomenon, she subtitled the book Los Atrevidos (The Daring Ones).1 In 1999, Pamela Maria Smorkaloff attempted to bridge the literary and linguistic gap between Cuba and the United States in her Cuban Writers on and off the Island.2 In the final section of that book, for instance, Smorkaloff examines the narrative fiction of Cuban?American authors, such as Achy Obejas and Roberto Fernández, as part of her overall analysis of Latino literature. These are only two of the many recent publications that focus on Latino literature, in general, and Cuban?American writers, in particular, and it indicates a growing interest in this academic field. None of these publications, however, allow the writers themselves to explore the issue of dual identity and linguistic difference inherent in their works. This book is designed to rectify that glaring omission.

Several years ago, Juan Bruce-Novoa published a much-acclaimed book of interviews with Chicano writers,3 and more recently, Carmen Dolores Hernández did the same with their Puerto Rican counterparts.4 One Island, Many Voices presents a series of interviews with some of the most distinguished Cuban-American writers in the United States. It is designed to explore some the issues prevalent in the field of Cuban-American literature. These twelve well-known Cuban-American authors are working in a wide range of genres, including poetry, fiction, and drama. The book also incorporates a broad array of viewpoints, including the somewhat marginalized but highly significant perspective of gay writers. The authors selected for this study were chosen based both on their prominence and also on several guidelines that I believe define Cuban-American literature.

First, the Cuban-American writers in this collection were born in Cuba but have lived in the United States for most of their lives. This is crucial because it means the writer's artistic consciousness has been affected by the sounds, images, and experiences of American life. Second, the works of these Cuban-American writers contain similar characteristics, including an attention to family, a concern for home, an interest in historical formulations, and a focus on cultural components, such as music, food, and religion. Additionally, their works deal with matters of identity formation, appropriation, and determination.

A sense of duality regarding the English language is another trait of Cuban-American literature that is prominent in the works of these twelve writers. For some of them, Spanish may be a mere memory or something experienced sporadically through familial bonds. Others, however, are more at home in the Spanish language, and English thus represents a direct confrontation with a new and confusing tongue. For all of these writers, however, their linguistic consciousness includes a sense of both languages. Because of this duality, the body of Cuban?American writers' works is written primarily in English, as they seek to express this conflict in the language that is the embodiment of it.

Finally, and most significantly, Cuban-American writers are exiles, and their literature reflects the sense of loss associated with the forced departure from their homeland. Although these twelve authors have had their artistic consciousness shaped by American life, it has also unarguably been shaped by their exilic experience and the memory of Cuba.

The criteria employed to select these twelve writers served as a paradigm to formulate questions that would explore the creative process as it pertains to Cuban-American literature. The questions were chosen with several goals in mind. First, the interviews are designed to establish what makes Cuban?American literature distinctive. There are clear similarities between Cuban?American literature and its Mexican?American and Puerto Rican counterparts. All these groups share the use of the Spanish language, and they collectively trace their heritage to indigenous and African roots. Perhaps the most important bond, however, is related to the concept of identity. All three groups have a shared past of having been and, some argue, continuing to be (as in the case of Puerto Rico) a colonized and oppressed people. Because of this, all three groups have developed a strong nationalistic sense, while at the same time feeling the need to be accepted by the people in their adopted home. The interviews focus on this dimension of Cuban?American literature in order to determine how it differs from other Latino writings. Secondly, the interviews explore the theoretical aspects of the literature, including such issues as hyphenation, labeling, gender, and sexuality. In her seminal work on this topic, Cuban-American Literature of Exile,5 Isabel Alvarez-Borland has explored these issues by focusing on matters that are specific to individual authors, while still framing the discussion in terms of Cuban-American literature. Her examination of the work of Achy Obejas, for instance, concentrates on matters of sexual identity, but only as it is relevant to the broader issue of the Cuban diaspora. My purpose is similar. The type of question I offered to a writer was designed to elicit a response that examines the unique qualities of that author, without losing the connection to the larger arena of Cuban-American literature. What role does memory play in the novels of Cristina García? How does humor relate to Cuban culture in the work of Roberto Fernández? How are Cuban-American women portrayed in the plays of Dolores Prida? Finally, and perhaps more importantly, because this is ultimately a study in American literature, I wanted to determine how the individual authors perceive their work to be connected, if at all, to the American literary tradition. This is a crucial component designed to contribute to the humanities in both a theoretical and pedagogical manner. In other words, the authors' reflections on this issue will serve both teachers and scholars who might want to explore the similarities in technique and thematic content between a Cuban?American novel and one by Twain, Hemingway, or Faulkner.

In order to lay the groundwork for the connection between Cuban-American literature and the American literary tradition, I begin with a brief survey of Cuban-American literary history. Although we usually think of Cuban literature as the exile literature of the Castro era, the literary connection between the two countries has deep historical roots. Many early exiled writers focused their work on the country they left behind, while they almost entirely ignored their newfound land. Later, the literature, now completely embracing America as its authors' political and economic savior, was a vehicle to castigate Castro's regime. In the last three decades, there has been a definite shift in this two-dimensional portrait, however. Some writers continue to describe the conflict between Cubans and Americans, but they also depict the U.S. economic system as an exploiter of Cuban workers, a subject considered taboo by many earlier writers. Most recently, many Cuban?American authors have further problematized the relationship between Cuba and the United States by using humor to explore the linguistic and cultural confusion of exile. Additionally, authors have attempted to depict Cuban-Americans' feelings toward the United States as more than a mere dichotomy. This survey will place the interviews that follow in their proper historical context, as these twelve authors reveal their own sense of place within this history.

In addition to the introductory material, each interview is preceded by a biographical sketch. As is traditional, these sketches summarize the author's academic and professional accomplishments. However, part of the book's subtitle, "Conversations," rather than "Interviews," reflects its attempt to humanize each author and make him or her come alive for the reader. Thus, these sketches also reveal characteristics of each writer that are not usually considered in a book of this nature and that may not be evident when one reads their poetry or prose. These personal details, which include such things as appearance, mannerisms, speech patterns, and sense of humor, also help illuminate the conversations that follow.

Finally, a few words must be included here regarding the omission of certain writers. As noted earlier, all of the authors in this book have lived in the United States for a significant period of time, they write extensively in English, but they were born in Cuba. Many critical attempts have been made to establish the parameters of Cuban-American literature. Drawing on sociologist Rubén Rumbaut's labeling of children who were born abroad but educated and raised in the United States as the one-and-a-half generation, Gustavo Pérez Firmat applies the term to Cuban-born writers, such as himself. Because of their birthplace, he would identify the writers in this volume as Cuban-American, and he distinguishes between them and Cubans, whom he identifies as those individuals who left the island as adults, and Cuban-Bred Americans, the U.S.--born children of Cuban exiles.

Isabel Alvarez-Borland also attempts to define Cuban-American literature, and like Pérez Firmat, she includes writers who are members of the one-and-a-half generation and also those she calls Cuban-American ethnic writers, second-generation Cubans who "came from Cuba as infants or who were born in the United States to parents of the first exile generation." Alvarez-Borland observes that the literature of these second-generation writers places a greater distance between the writers and the events of the diaspora."7 Partially relying on these two definitions,8 I have concluded that the twelve writers included here must be classified as Cuban-American writers both because their work is often centered around the diaspora (thus making them ineligible to qualify as ethnic writers) and because they were born on the island.

Because of this focus on Cuba as a starting point, at least three talented writers---Oscar Hijuelos, Ana Menéndez, and Richard Blanco9---are not included here. Again, Pérez Firmat makes it clear that despite Hijuelos's popular success, particularly his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, he lacks a true understanding of Cuban culture. Pérez Firmat asserts that although Hijuelos is "coeval with the Miami one-and-a-halfers, his outlook is . . . much closer to the second generation."10 In other words, Hijuelos is, in Pérez Firmat's opinion, an American-Bred Cuban, rather than a Cuban-American writer. Ana Menéndez, who was born in Los Angeles to Cuban exiles, also doesn't qualify to be included here based on place of origin. Blanco was born in Spain shortly after his mother arrived there from Cuba, so it is somewhat difficult to label him based on his origins. Moreover, this book focuses not just on place of origin but also on established writers with a significant literary corpus. Leaving aside whether or not Blanco should be considered a Cuban-American writer, he has not yet had the same impact as his fellow poets Ricardo Pau-Llosa and Dionisio Martínez.

Anyone who has ever edited an anthology or collection knows that the process of selection, by definition, involves exclusion. This book, though necessarily excluding some writers, nevertheless presents the reader with twelve authors who not only represent a wide range of genres, but who constitute the core of the Cuban-American literary canon. Although technically all twelve can be classified as part of the one-and-a-half generation,11 that would do them a great disservice, because placing them under that single rubric might imply that they share the same literary sensibilities and preoccupations. Even though they are all Cuban-American authors and thus share a hyphenated existence, as they speak about their work, it will be evident that we need to look beyond the hyphen to appreciate the uniqueness of each of these gifted writers.


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