- 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
? Are any of the characters based on your mother or other people from her past? Cuba
My mother told me many stories about her childhood in
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
- Considering this book is based on real events in
’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? Cuba
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
after hearing about it from your mother and her sister and reading about it in the news? Cuba
I have been to
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
- There are many characters in Telex from
. Do you relate to any of them personally? As a child, were you more like Everly, KC, the Carrington Sisters, or others? Cuba
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
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
? Did he inspire your work at all? Cuba
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
- 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 ’s? America
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
7. Why did you decide to name Rachel K after yourself?
Rachel K is a real-life historic figure of pre-revolutionary
- 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
, which is mentioned frequently in Telex from Cuba? Haiti
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.
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.