An Introduction to the Interview
by Alexis Enrico Santí, Editor in Chief
TO KNOW ANA MENENDEZ IS TO KNOW GRACE AND YOU COME TO BELIEVE THIS, PERHAPS, BECAUSE OF THE BREADTH OF COMPASSION IN HER PROSE. Yet, you also get this immediately by being around her. And you, dear readers, can get this from reading this interview. There is a grace in her writing—all of her writing—that shows an uncanny ability to grasp the human condition. A columnist for the Miami Herald, her articles are consistently witty, insightful and take up causes that cast light upon the human condition and give voice to where there was silence. As a novelist and short story writer her prose engages a reader, haunting them months or years after they first stumble upon her work. Some of her stories in her first collection, In Cuba I was a German Shepard, I still re-read and they still trouble me. I strive to understand people the world in the same way that Ana Menendez does; she admits that her obsessions are: “identity, displacement, love and the loss of it.” These are--of course--central themes of what it means to be Cuban. Of what it to be Cuban-American. It is the fodder of any writer—of any background—for these obsessions are at the core of what it means to understand the human struggle and to comprehend and connect to the world around us.
--Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us Ana. We know how busy you are.
-- Ha! Busy mostly hanging out with friends and enjoying my new niece – all good things. It’s wonderful to be able to chat.
--Tell us a little bit about what has been keeping you busy lately?
-- All of the above. More seriously, I write a twice-weekly column for the Miami Herald that takes up a lot of my time. The balance has been for a new novel, which I’ve just about completed. Though as Flaubert said, a work of art is never completed, only abandoned.
-- And the novel, from what I understand, you decided to take a departure from some of the overarching themes you’ve done before, ala your collection of short stories, In Cuba I was a German Shepherd, was heavily influenced by your background as a Cuban American and Loving Che documents the love a woman has for Che Guevara while he was in Cuba. What is this one about?
-- And when can we expect the novel to come out?
-- I’m wrapping it up now and if all goes well (does it ever?) it should be out in the Spring of 2009.
-- I was once up for workshop, doing one of my stories that attempted to draw on a particular Borges story and was told that I should't bother doing so, that it was slip shod or something to that effect, I countered that any Anglo writer who references, Hemingway or Faulkner is considered just writing in the “tradition”. What troubles do you believe Latin American writers have that are different than our slightly less rumbaesque colleagues?
-- You mean besides the troubles of never being able to find a good café con leche outside Miami? That’s too bad about the “slip shod” Borges reference. I hope you paid no mind. Though I suppose we Latin writers working in English are bastards and should not be surprised when we’re treated as such. There was a great debate in Cuban letters years back about where Cuban-American writers fit in the “canon” of Cuban writers. I don’t remember how it was resolved, but I remember thinking: put us wherever you put Calvert Casey. Or Alejo Carpentier, for that matter. This insistence on “authenticity” especially when it comes to the Caribbean is pretty specious. But now I’ve gotten off point. I honestly don’t know what troubles Latin American writers have. Of course there is always the question of where we belong. And what tradition we follow. Unfortunately, we always seem to be the exotics on the tail-end of some trend. But I like to think that those are academic issues, best left to the experts and of little use to the rest of us. The bastard writer in me wants to believe that the troubles Latin writers have, whether working in English or Spanish or Mandarin or whatever, are the same troubles writers anywhere have: how to be honest, how to work, how to forge an aesthetic morality that transcends the very human need to label every damn thing.
-- I’d like to move back to Loving Che for a second. What sort of message, or fire are you playing with is the sort of imagined romance of deep neurosis that Cubans suffer with—the love hate relationship with Cuba?
-- I like that: “Imagined romance of deep neurosis” that just about sums up Cuban history. And maybe we have the great modernist (though I’ll always see him as a romantic) Jose Marti to thank for our melodramatic approach to art and nationalism. I don’t know if I have any “message”. Fire, maybe, but “message” is for pundits and politicians. For better or worse, I approach every new project not with an agenda, but with curiosity. Che Guevara: In college, my friends loved him. At home, my parents couldn’t bring themselves to utter his name. That’s interesting. What’s that about? Who was he? What is it about the Cuban character that it creates great men, super-human men to adore for a period and then to tear down and destroy? Why does the Cuban always need someone to oppose? What is it about our approach to power and passion that has led us down so many ruinous roads? These are questions that only art can answer and that novel was a very modest attempt to posit them, even if it was too small a thing to begin to fathom a response.
-- On one hand I found the prose, so amazing, breathtaking in this novel that it was impossible to put down, yet, I felt seedy, sick at times as the prose comes with love removed, or love cut away from two women… first the love of a woman who has no mother, and second, the love of a woman who doesn’t have the love of Che?
-- Again, the bastard in us. My friend Junot Diaz likes to talk about the great silence in Caribbean history – the silence of genocide, of all the dead that rest beneath the great conquests and who forever will stand mute as alternate narratives are written. The great denominator in our story is absence. That is of course very true for Cuba. The lasting tragedy of the revolution will be the families it tore apart. And in exile, we behave no better, very often putting ideology above the deep bonds that we hold so dear. It’s a paradox: The Cuban who so values family, is willing to abandon it at the first crisis for some political whim. But even that abandonment is never complete. Cuban-Americans, while steadfastly supporting the embargo against Cuba, represent one of the largest sources of foreign aid to the island. Those are the contradictions we live with.
-- You are known, at least in my household, for being quite a funny writer and the title story of your short story collection—the jokes in it are so comical that I’ve stolen all of them and release them anytime I get the standard, So, what do you think about Cuba? question at dinner parties. What role do you feel humor has in your writing?
-- Ha! That’s quite an honor, thank you. But isn’t a sense of humor one of the requirements of Cuban citizenship? Everyone talks about Marti and his decimas, and Cubans can be an earnest, sentimental bunch – but I think the real, honest, Creole art that we have is humor. I fell in love with a Cuban man because he made me laugh – uproarious, abandoned, silly laughter that perhaps only a Cuban (and pardon my partisanship here) can really pull off. There’s that old saying, You have to laugh at life, or it will laugh at you. Some of the funniest (and saddest) Cuban jokes came out of the special period in the early 1990s. Psychologists recognize humor as a highly developed defense mechanism. So be it. I think it’s kept Cubans from completely giving into the despair of their deeply flawed history. Interestingly enough, the more Cubans have suffered, the funnier they seem to be. My uncle, Jesus Menendez, was a political prisoner for four years in the early 1960s and he is one of the funniest men I know. I have not suffered in any comparable way, but I could not live or write without humor. It’s a mainstay of my columns and it’s the one thing that makes my work – and life -- a pleasure.
-- Where do you think this humor came from? Are you known as the joke teller in your household?
-- I was always a cut-up. In elementary school I had straight A’s in every subject -- and C’s and D’s in conduct because I couldn’t stop joking around. In third grade, my teacher, fed up, sat me at a table full of boys, thinking this would dampen my spirit. Quite the contrary! Those were some of the funniest days I had. I think I learned early on that sad, uncomfortable or just plain boring experiences could be transformed by humor. I would arrive at lunch each day with a story about my family and hearing the other kids laugh at all my embellished details really just made me very happy. It was my first taste of the power of story-telling and I was hooked. To this day, my family knows that after dinner, my sister and I will start in with the jokes and not be able to stop laughing.
-- Something I heard you say once was that, every story must be critiqued from the genre from which it came. I was wondering if you could say something more about that as you see your role as a teacher.
-- Did I say that? I’m not even sure I know what it means. Another reason why you should be wary of all “writing advice”. I guess what I was trying to get at is that one should approach any work with a sense of openness and respect. I think this is especially true in workshops when writer and critiquer are both just beginning to learn the limits of their craft. You hear a lot of “I didn’t like this character” or “I was turned off by so-and-so.” Well, so what? That’s just self-absorbed nonsense. The only honest way to approach a work of art as a critic is to first understand the place the writer (or the painter, poet) is working from and then determine whether he or she has successfully added to the ongoing discussion. I’m not a fan of the crime novel, for example, but – as a critic – my job is to figure out if what the writer set out to do within a given set of parameters was successful or not. In other words, one needs to let go of the ego and the idea that our particular taste constitutes reality and instead give ourselves over to the universe created by the work itself.
-- I believe both before and after your MFA at NYU you worked for the Miami Herald, what brought you to earn your MFA, why not say, a journalism degree?
-- I never wanted to be a journalist, and that’s all I’ve ever been. Gives truth to the old saw: That which you resist, persists. In 1997, I was working at The Orange County Register and completely burnt out on journalism. My husband at the time had just won a post to New Delhi and I had a decision to make. Either way, I was going to be without a job, so I thought, I might as well go to grad school. I was lucky enough to be accepted to NYU’s excellent program and those were some of the best two years of my life. Journalism is about what and when. Fiction is about why – it’s about transcendence and magic. There’s absolutely no practical use for it and, from an accountant’s point of view, an MFA is a complete waste of money. That’s the beauty of it. And there’s no way I would have traded the experience of that for a sensible j-school degree.
-- Our Stories is committed to giving writers back something for everything they submit. We give advice to those whose work isn’t ready and offer words of encouragement. I guess I’d like to know your thoughts on this submission process, and your own revision process.
-- Oh God. I’m a mess in this area. I guess the best words of encouragement that I could offer is: No one knows what they’re doing; everyone suffers from self-doubt; it’s not easy for anyone. I think when you’re starting out, you think you’re the only one who has trouble getting motivated, the only one who is lazy, who is easily distracted, who can’t quite find the right words for the perfect idea in your head. I read recently that the writing process was labored and difficult for William Styron. Imagine that – the great William Styron. So then, it’s okay to admit it’s not easy. And maybe that admission is what makes the final work honest. As for the submission process, I’m the worst person to ask. I rarely submit anything. Probably it’s from a pathological fear of rejection. But I tell myself it’s because I’m too disorganized and forgetful. As for revision, I’ve said it before, but the difference between a great writer and a good writer is the tolerance for mediocrity. A good writer stops when it’s good enough. A great writer works and works and works until it’s the absolute best she is capable of.
-- What advice do you have for young writers? Any pearls that you enjoy repeating?
Write every day. Learn to observe. Be curious. Writing is not something you do for two or three hours a day. Writing is a way of life – a complete engagement with the world, a willingness to see even that which is painful and sad and to live without barriers. And read. If you want to be an actor, watch films. If you want to write computer code, play games. If you want to write: read, read, read, read.
-- Thank you Ana, we really appreciate your willingness to work with us.
-- Thank you, it’s a pleasure.
photo taken by Giovanni Lignarolo
Ana Menendez was born in Los Angeles, the daughter of Cuban exiles. She is a columnist at the Miami Herald and the author of two books of fiction, which have been translated into several languages: In Cuba I was a German Shepherd, which was a 2001 New York Times Notable book of the year and whose title story won a Pushcart Prize; and Loving Che, a national best-seller. She was a journalist for several years, first at The Miami Herald, where she covered Little Havana until 1995, and later at the Orange County Register in California. She has also lived in Turkey and South Asia, where she reported out of Afghanistan and Kashmir. She has taught writing at several universities including New York University and the State University of Texas at Austin. She holds a bachelor's degree from Florida International University and a master's from New York University.
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