Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Cuban Identity as Dreamworld: On Reading Cristina García

To me, a story is always subject to competing realities. I try to capture something of that in the way I write my books. Ambiguity is generally more honest that absolutes.
Cristina García

Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.
Sigmund Freud


During a conversation with Cristina García, I asked her about an incident that takes place in Dreaming in Cuban where a santera—a Santería priest—dissolves into nothingness as she stands before a house where she had been brought to perform a healing ceremony. The scene left me absolutely perplexed, but I also found it very believable.

“What made you decide to have the santera melt?” I asked Cristina.

“I really don’t know,” she answered. “It’s just the way the scene resolved itself.”

Can an author really hand over that much control of the narrative to the subconscious?

Since then, I’ve learned that the resolutions that surprise the author are the ones that leave the reader breathless. Moreover, Cristina’s access to the nether regions of her subconscious is so prodigious, so astounding, that she is capable of constantly bewildering herself, which in turn stuns her readers.

Years ago, when I first read Cristina’s first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, I fell madly in love with her narrative voice. And to this day, after keeping up with her subsequent works, The Agüero Sisters and Monkey Hunting, my infatuation with her writing style continues.

I’ve also been fortunate to have had several conversations with Cristina. She is intelligent, erudite, and witty. What’s more, she is one of the most unassuming authors I’ve ever met. Time passes far too quickly when one is with her.

The joy of reading her books ends much too swiftly as well—at least for me. Every time I turn the last page of one of Cristina’s novels I find myself wishing that the experience could go on forever.

In wonderfully poetic and sensual language, Cristina mines the richness of her Cuban-American heritage. And although the Cuban Revolution has a momentous impact on the lives of her characters, she doesn’t dwell on politics. Instead, Pilar from Dreaming in Cuban, Reina and Constancia from The Agüero Sisters, and Chen Pan from Monkey Hunting, discover that they have fallen into the gap between their family’s history and the myths they’ve created in order to overcome the pain and loss that resulted from their traumatic upbringings.

In the end, their search for personal truth and healing is far more important that the strife-ridden political circumstances that surround them. Remarkably, Cristina’s characters realize that bitterness and revenge are destructive forces, and because of this they invariably choose the path of reconciliation—with themselves as well as with others. In every one of Cristina’s novels, in spite of difficult loses, her central protagonists conquer their demons and successfully come to grips with the true purpose of their lives.

But what I like best about Cristina’s writing is the immense respect she has for the reader. She, like Miguel de Cervantes, is a master of ambiguity—or what literary critics today call indeterminacy—and they leave it up to the reader to resolve the nature of the reality described within the text.

During my last conversation with Cristina, I expressed how much I admired the opening of The Agüero Sisters, where a completely unexpected and cold-blooded murder takes place.

She smiled and then, leaning toward me to whisper as if the question she was about to pose was embarrassing, asked, “Can you tell me why he killed her?”

“Cristina,” I answered, “you wrote the book. You should know.”

“Well, I have a few theories about it, but I’m not really sure.”

And that, I believe, illustrates why Cristina’s novels are so magical.