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Dreaming in Chinese 

Cristina Garcia on culture-bending, poetry and her new novel, Monkey Hunting

Thursday, May 1 2003
Photo by Debra DiPaolo

In the sugar-cane fields of 19th-century Cuba, an African slave was killed. At his funeral, the other slaves "chanted and clapped over the lifeless body, clamoring for the dead man's safe passage to Africa. Then they sealed his eyes shut with semen before burying him in the woods." So writes Cristina Garcia in Monkey Hunting, her third novel. Like her previous books, Dreaming in Cuban and The Agüerro Sisters, Monkey Hunting is at once dreamlike and historically accurate, lushly written and bristling with harsh human truths.

Spanning five generations of a Chinese-Cuban-African family, Monkey Hunting is a meditation on inheritance and culture-bending. The family patriarch, Chen Pan, a ruined farmer from the provinces, signs up for passage to Cuba in 1857 after hearing that women are plentiful there and "the river fish jump, unbidden, into frying pans." In fact, he has indentured himself to brutal work alongside African slaves in the sugar-cane fields. His escape and eventual marriage is one of the book's narratives; other stories follow a granddaughter, Chen Fang, who is raised as a boy back in China, and Domingo Chen, a great-great-grandson, who leaves Cuba after the revolution for New York, only to end up fighting in Vietnam.

Garcia herself was born in Havana six months before the Cuban Revolution. Her parents left the island in 1961 and settled in New York.

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Garcia grew up in Queens and Brooklyn, and attended high school in Manhattan, "getting suitably twisted by Catholic nuns along the way." After attending graduate school at Johns Hopkins in international relations — Garcia earned a degree in European and Latin American studies — she held a variety of odd incipient-writer jobs, including marketing Pampers diapers in West Germany ("I lasted all of six weeks") and working as a cub reporter in Knoxville, Tennessee. "Basically," she says, "I went from culture shock to culture shock."

After seven years at Time magazine as, among other things, a San Francisco technology correspondent and Miami bureau chief, Garcia "began gathering wool" for a book about Haiti. But then Amy Wilentz published her own book on Haiti, The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier, and Garcia turned to fiction. "If Amy hadn't written that book," she says today with a laugh, "I might be writing nonfiction now!"

 

L.A. WEEKLY: All of your books seem concerned with how individuals manifest the traits and patterns inherited from ancestors — and also with how certain choices an individual makes reverberate throughout future generations, "through the flesh," as you put it.

CRISTINA GARCIA: Yes, it's of great interest to me, the exploration of these inheritances. But I don't think, necessarily, that specific conclusions can be drawn. What I find fascinating is the journey, the following of threads and motifs and fixations from one generation to the next. It's never as neat as psychoanalysts might have us believe. We riff on the themes we're given along the way, spice them up with our peculiar times and dysfunctions.

Monkey Hunting is your third novel — was it harder to conceptualize than the others? How do you see it in relation to Dreaming in Cuban and The Agüerro Sisters?

Does a trek across Siberia — in winter, barefoot, with no cell phone — mean anything to you? This was the hardest thing I'd ever written because it was so far from my own experience. I had to keep fighting off self-inflicted charges of "Fraud!" every working day of it. Basically, my main character is a 19th-century Chinese male. Need I say more?

 

Where did the germ for this new novel come from?

The germ — I prefer seed! — for Monkey Hunting probably came from my first visit to a Chinese-Cuban restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, circa 1965. "You mean I get to order the black beans and the pork fried rice?" That blew my mind. Later, I got to thinking more seriously about compounded identities. My own daughter, for example, is part Cuban, Japanese and Russian Jew, with a little Guatemalan thrown in on my paternal grandmother's side. Traditional notions of identity don't work for her. I don't think they work for a lot of people anymore. I wanted to explore this.

 

One of the novel's concerns is slavery in its various guises — indentured servitude, prostitution, the buying and selling of women and wives. What led you to this topic?

The legacy of slavery is everywhere. Cuba, as we know it, would not exist without slavery's harrowing history. I did an enormous amount of research and reading on the topic for Monkey Hunting. I went to Cuba and spent a lot of time at the university research library. I read a lot about colonial Cuba and came across historical records — oddities like a pamphlet called Requiem for Havana's Chinatown — that were weirdly useful. Reading Chinese poetry in translation was enormously helpful for that distillation of culture that poets do. Then I put away the books, and tried to tell a story.

 

Monkey Hunting covers five generations of the Chens. Which of all these diverse characters came the most easily to you, and which was a real bear?

All of them were hard. The easiest was probably Chen Fang [the granddaughter raised as a boy in China] because she was literary and female and out of place. Even though she was so far removed from my own direct experience, with her it was mostly a question of cutting down and distilling her character.

Chen Pan [the patriarch] was the hardest. For years, I didn't know what was happening with him. After the early drama [when he comes to Cuba and escapes his indentured servitude on the sugar plantation], he actually settles down to a regular middle-class mercantile existence, and rendering that in a compelling way was difficult.

 

The novel has a complex three-part structure, with several narratives woven together, jumping around in time and place — from China to Cuba to New York and Vietnam. How did you ever arrive at this structure — did you try it various ways?

I arrived at this story blindly and bloodied from the effort of trying it 2 billion other ways. I threw out four books getting this one finished. I'm usually not this melodramatic! In fact, I'm currently finishing the first draft of a new novel that has proceeded suspiciously swimmingly. What's wrong with it?! Along the way, I kept asking myself: What is essential here? I tried to move from obsession to obsession. Ultimately, that was my guide.

 

A few years ago, you remarked to me that you were almost exclusively reading poetry. Is that still true? How does poetry feed your fiction?

Poetry has spoiled me for any other kind of writing. I read widely from many different traditions. I'm currently reading a lot of Middle Eastern poetry in translation. Embarrassingly enough, I'm almost incapable of plowing through a novel anymore! Things like plot don't interest me. What I love is the music of a sentence, the jarring juxtaposition of unexpected images. If I didn't read poetry, I couldn't write at all.

 

We were once on a panel together, and the moderator said that if a writer couldn't sum up his novel in a sentence, he didn't have a novel. You very graciously disagreed — which he did not take well! I laughed out loud after reading Monkey Hunting, because this was the book you were working on at the time — and how would you describe this novel in a sentence?!

I don't remember being terribly gracious. But I'll try to describe it in a sentence, as long as nobody thinks they can then ignore the book! Here goes: It's a 120-year dialogue between Cuba and Asia. Hey, maybe that moderator guy was right!

MONKEY HUNTING | By CRISTINA GARCIA | Knopf | 251 pages | $23 hardcover

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