The Nature of Inheritance

A conversation with Cristina García, whose new novel, Monkey Hunting, explores Cuban identity, immigrant life, and the way family history evolves

Monkey Hunting

Monkey Hunting
by Cristina García
272 pages, $23

In 1857 a young Chinese man named Chen Pan decides to leave his country and immigrate to Cuba. He'd been promised that the drinking water there "was so rich with minerals that a man had twice his ordinary strength (and could stay erect for days) ... that the Cuban women were eager and plentiful ... that even the river fish jumped, unbidden, into frying pans." He was also promised plenty of work. So he boards a ship, and after a three-month voyage that he barely survives, finally arrives at his new home, halfway around the world. Thus does Cristina García, in her new novel, Monkey Hunting, bring her readers back to Cuba.

Her previous novels, Dreaming in Cuban (1992) and The Agüero Sisters (1997), have taken us there before, examining the rift between family members who stay in Cuba and those who immigrate to the United States. But in Monkey Hunting we see a man immigrating to Cuba, and one who not only comes to call Cuba his home, but takes part in the significant influence that the Chinese have had on Cuban history and culture.

Upon his arrival, Chen Pan is bought into slavery. After years of labor on a sugar plantation, he escapes and eventually finds some success and comfort in a marriage and a secondhand store called the Lucky Find. Chen Pan's inventory is decidedly eclectic. He sells powdered wigs, "patriarchal busts (frequently noseless)," mantillas, "plaster saints with withering expressions," and Moroccan figurines, among other remnants of Cuba's colonial and foreign influences. Though his customers often call him "un chino aplatanado, a Chinese transplant," by the end of his life he is as much Cuban as he is Chinese.

Monkey Hunting follows the Chen family down through the generations, telling the story of Chen Pan's granddaughter Chen Fang (born in 1899, brought up in China as a boy in order to be educated, and later imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution) and of Domingo Chen, Chen Pan's great-grandson (who immigrates from Cuba to New York City with his father after the Revolution, fights in the Vietnam War, and has a child with a Vietnamese woman). By including these stories García shows not only the effect that one man has on the generations that follow, but also how larger historical movements are at work on these individual lives.

In the tradition of Gabriel García Marquez, García's lyrical prose illuminates a colorful and fantastical world in which ghosts visit the living and a doctor's parrot offers patients medical diagnoses. But this is also a world in which a girl's eyes can look "raw as two wounds" and characters must take up arms in order to shape the political history that is their own.

García, who was born in Havana and grew up in New York City, now lives in Los Angeles with her daughter. She has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, and the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award. She is the editor of a forthcoming anthology of Cuban writers titled ¡Cubanismo!. This interview was conducted by telephone on March 25.

—Jessica Murphy

John Murray
Cristina García   

Your writing has focused on the complexity of Cuban identity. In Monkey Hunting you seem to be expanding the understanding of Cuban identity by including both Chinese-Cubans and African-Cubans. Does Cuban identity seem more complex to you the more you've written about it?

Absolutely. It's more complex than even the Cubans sometime realize, yet every strain of this compounded identity that makes up the Cubans is a critical part of it. Cuban music and culture would not be what it is without the African influence.

What made you decide to focus on the Chinese-Cuban subculture?

The Chinese have been there since the 1840s and have contributed enormously to Cuban culture and cuisine and even language. There are a million expressions that tip their hat to the Chinese presence in Cuba, and there's even a little instrument called the coroneta china, the Chinese horn or Chinese coronet—I don't know what you'd call it in English—that is used in parades. And the Chinese also participated in the various wars for independence. They were a pillar of social and cultural life in Havana. So Chinese-Cuban subculture is actually a huge part of the island that most people are not even aware of outside of Cuba. In Cuba they take it for granted, but they haven't really analyzed how much it's a part of them.

I became interested in it because of my more general interest in compounded identity. My own daughter is part Japanese, part Cuban, part Russian Jew, part a lot of things, so I wanted to explore the notion of identity when it's such a mix. What does that mean? Does it make our current notions of identity or how we talk about identity meaningless and obsolete? I also grew up in New York with all those great Chinese-Cuban restaurants on the Upper West Side, and I just wanted to know, How did that happen? How did I get to have my black beans with the chow mein? Why do these Chinese waiters speak Spanish? I was fascinated.

I wonder if you might talk about the creation of the character Chen Pan. Monkey Hunting is your first novel to give most of its page-time to a male character, and he's your first non-Cuban character to carry this much weight. What drew you to him? And what were the challenges of writing a character like him?

The challenges were endless. Don't get me started on the challenges of doing this guy. He was so far removed from my own experience, sensibility, everything, that it took me forever to even approach his bloodstream. I first read an enormous amount about the period, in China as well as in Cuba, and I read an enormous amount of Chinese poetry and translation to capture the right sensibility and to find the right cultural references. Then I very gingerly began moving him through the world, but I was still seeing him from the outside and was not getting any sense of his internal life. Little by little, over several harrowing years, I kind of epidermally moved into the muscle tissue until I final got into the bloodstream. At least that's what I hope I ultimately did, but it took a really long time, and I was fighting self-charges of fraud all along the way.

All of your books include several narrative threads. Your chapters make big leaps, changing the story's time, place, and character point of view. In Monkey Hunting these leaps are larger, covering more time, distance, and cultural reality. You begin with Chen Pan's voyage to Cuba on a slave boat in the mid-1800s. Then we get the story of Chen Fang growing up in China in the early 1900s and then Domingo fighting in the Vietnam War. What draws you to writing multi-narrative stories?

I think it's probably a product of my own restless nature and my own obsessions. I'm interested in how things work juxtapositionally and relationally, and I was pushing the envelope here. I was not so much exploring everybody on one plane, like in The Agüero Sisters or Dreaming in Cuban, where everybody is of the same time. I was more exploring the nature of inheritance—not just by way of who gets the nose, or the predilection to play the harp, but more emotional inheritances, and how those get played out subjectively in different times and places. Does that sound too abstract? I'm very interested in what gets passed down that we're not even aware of, and how that infiltrates and affects people almost unbeknownst to them.

You mentioned your obsessions. In an interview with the New Mexican Statesman you had stated that the "beauty of being a novelist" is that "you can explore your obsessions at length." In that instance you were speaking specifically about the recurrence of "family" as a theme in your work. Clearly family is still is a theme for you. Why is this something you feel is worth continuing to explore?

It's the building block of humanity in a way. I'm interested in large historical events, but I'm interested in how they filter down to individuals and relationships between individuals, particularly in a familial context. Chen Pan is really part of something bigger than himself, as is his granddaughter in the Cultural Revolution, his great-grandson in Vietnam, and so on. So there's a connection to bigger things, but I think who they really are, what makes them tick, is born and bred in the family. It's endlessly fascinating to me. And it doesn't necessarily have to be biological family. I'm also interested in how people compose families later on, given their histories and so on.

In Monkey Hunting, as in your other novels, there is a sense of an oral tradition, or stories and family history being passed down (and oftentimes distorted) from generation to generation. There is the story of Celia's love affair and her drop pearl earrings in Dreaming in Cuban. The false story of the mother's death haunts the daughters in The Agüero Sisters. And in Monkey Hunting Chen Pan's escape from slavery and his time in the mountains haunted by his mother's ghost becomes a family legend. What is the importance of a family's oral history to your work?

I think it's a kind of legacy, and legacies are really distorted memories. I was working with that in The Agüero Sisters, in that I was interested in learning whose version wins out. What becomes the official history and what gets left out in the process? Do versions remain in competition? Why the investment in this particular version of events? That stuff fascinates me, because I've had so many experiences in my own family where we were all sitting there—let's say there are nine of us—and there will be nine completely different interpretations of what happened, even of what I would consider factual things. I was a journalist for ten years, and I needed that period, so that I could go out in the world, and trust what I saw, and report back, and be told that I had gotten it right. Because in family everything was subject to instant revisionism, it wasn't even a matter of years. A family's oral history is about how a family sees itself, it's about legacy, and it's about constructed identity—and that's as interesting as things that you're born with.

I'd like to talk about how your characters are involved in and interpret major historical events. Most of your characters are political beings. Often politics splits families right down the middle. Do you consider yourself a political writer? Does the question of politics play a role in your creation of a character?

Yes, they are political, and I think I am political—it sort of comes in with the oxygen and other sorts of nutrients. But that's very different from saying that I have a political agenda, which I don't when I write. I generally find things with political agendas not very interesting to read. In my opinion there's generally a trade-off between political agenda and literary quality. But I am political to the extent that my characters are obsessed with politics and how it affects their lives and the lives of those around them. Dreaming in Cuban was a perfect example of that, where everyone had a different take on the Revolution, and they were all ferociously negotiating it with themselves and with each other, but I don't think you can say there's an agenda for Dreaming in Cuban . It's more of an exploration of politics and political obsession. I'm not promoting any particular platform.

Michiko Kakutani wrote in a 1992 review that you are "blessed with a poet's ear for language." You have written in the past about the influence of poetry on your writing. Could you speak to this influence?

I wouldn't be a writer if it weren't for poetry. I think what catapulted me into wanting to write was reading poetry seriously, beginning around my late twenties, early thirties. Before then I was just a voracious reader. Discovering Wallace Stevens, García Lorca, and Octavio Paz—they were the three initially—was like falling in love. It's become a daily essential. In fact, when you called I was just reading some poetry because I can't really start my day until I read for an hour or two and think about stuff and have all these disparate images floating around, derailing me from more logical, more ordered thinking. I like the kind of messiness it engenders in me as far as images. The poets are my heroes.

Speaking of influences, in a 1993 interview in the Michigan Quarterly Review, after the publication of Dreaming in Cuban, you said that while writing that book you kept copies of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, and a collection of Wallace Stevens poems on your desk the whole time. What books were on your desk during the writing of Monkey Hunting?

I returned to Chekhov for solace again and again during Monkey Hunting. I must have reread all his stories several times, and each time I did I would learn new things. I went to him when I was stuck, when I was trying to get a handle on the nineteenth-century sensibility. Not only do I love him and read him just for the sheer pleasure of it, but I learn an enormous amount about a certain type of character and about writing economically.

In another review of your work, this time of The Agüero Sisters, Michiko Kakutani wrote, "Fantastic events are common in Ms. García's universe," as they often are in the work of García Marquez. What draws you, like García Marquez, to the fantastic?

I see the fantastic as an extension of reality. For me there isn't this great divide between what's true or what isn't true. It's more about what's possible, what's remotely possible, or what's very remotely possible. And I'm interested in exploring those borderlands. But I don't see it as a strict demarcation or boundary, I see it as more of a perforated line, so I don't restrain myself.

Your works are infused with religious figures and with ghosts. Does this reflect a strong role that religion and the supernatural play in the Cuban identity?

I think Santería is really a cultural cornerstone of Cuban identity. However, white Cubans really deny it and downplay it. I was just in Alabama giving a talk, and a woman popped up out of the crowd and started arguing about Santería. There's always this middle-aged white Cuban woman who will have it in for me for something or other. It never fails. They're all sort of replications of my mother surfacing wherever I go. So anyway, she started going on about Santería and how there was no Santería before the Revolution, and how when all the good Catholics left the rest basically turned to Santería out of ignorance. I thought, Whoah, you are in denial. Santería is hugely influential, and without it we wouldn't have the music and so much else that's distinctly Cuban. What I like about the religion is how personal it is. Everybody had little altars in their homes; it's not necessarily about going to church, it's sort of about your personal experience and relationship with the deities, and you refer to them as tu. They're very familiar, very of the earth.

Ghosts are not particularly a Santería thing, but in my family everyone has dreams in which people who have died come back to them in their sleep. There's a kind of acceptance of the mystical to some extent. It's more ordinary than you would find here.

Your characters often have a sense of nostalgia, a longing either for the past, or, if they are displaced, a longing for home. What is it about nostalgia that intrigues you and how does this nostalgia play into the experience of the immigrant—another focus of your work?

It's so much a part of the Cuban experience. I woke up to nostalgia every day. I was very little when I left Cuba, but I grew up in the wake of my parents' displacement and nostalgia, so it was just steaming off them. It was like being in a nostalgia sauna. It's a part of me. I couldn't even separate it out. And probably in a larger sense it is a deep part of most exile experience. Even though it wasn't directly mine, I got it second hand and I can't get rid of it.

How much time have you spent in Cuba since you left for New York City when you were two?

My trips back have been pretty short. I first went back in 1984. Then I didn't go back for eleven years. I went back maybe four or five times between 1995 and 1999, but that's the extent of it. I think my longest trip was three weeks, so all told it's only been a few months.

Was it difficult, then, to write about and evoke a place that is so tied to your identity, yet that is relatively unfamiliar?

Yes, it was. That's why in Dreaming in Cuban I needed a fictitious town, the Santa Teresa del Mar. I didn't want everybody getting hung up on intersections. Also, because it's a book written by a hyphenated-American as opposed to a Cuban-Cuban, a lot of it is a sort of projection and dream and distortion. I wanted to have that freedom. I wanted to get certain factual details right, but I'm more interested in the details that I know that I get right, such as emotional details in terms of being Cuban. Maybe I'm not getting the palm tree on the corner, but I make sure I've gotten the vegetation, food, music, and all that stuff that makes a culture. The rest I make up.

In the introduction to your forthcoming anthology of Cuban writers, ¡Cubanismo!, you have written that "today's Cuban writers often are identified or identify themselves by where they stand in relation to the Revolution." As a Cuban-American, where would you place yourself?

Well, I'm not in Miami, but I'm in some sort of outer-concentric circle of disaffection. I probably have more in common with hyphenated-Cubans who have not grown up in Miami. I would have more in common with a Cuban who grew up in Madrid or in the Mojave Desert than I would with Miami Cubans.

Having grown up in the United States, how much of an impact have Cuban writers had on your writing. Did you come to Cuban writers early or late?

Pretty late. In fact, it was a great pleasure to do this anthology because I got a chance to immerse myself for a year in basically the whole literature. I had hit the highlights before, but there was a lot I had missed, and then there was a lot I had to read in Spanish. It was really an education and a lot of fun. I didn't grow up in a reading household, so I really just stumbled from one thing to another without any particular coherence. I probably started reading Cuban authors in my twenties, but they didn't resonate any more deeply than a García Marquez or a Toni Morrison or a Louise Erdrich. I was just as interested, but it was sort of an alien experience.

Has the growth of U.S. interest in Latin American writing in general had an effect on the landscape of U.S. literature?

Absolutely. I think the whole sixties boom kind of opened people's eyes and opened people's experience to this entire other world, an entire way of seeing things and way of expressing oneself. It was extremely compelling. And I think what's being homegrown in the U.S. is an interesting hybrid between that world and this one. It's closer to home, but with a lot of the Latin elements. I do think that influence from other cultures is redefining the literary landscape here, and what it means to be an American writer. I feel like an American writer. I know other Latino writers who feel like American writers, too. We're all American writers, but with an accent.