A Corner of the World: Interview with Author Mylene Fernández Pintado [Part I]
Mylene Fernández Pintado has been writing and publishing in Cuba, winning prizes and readers, since 1994. Her latest novel, La esquina del mundo, has just been published by City Lights as A Corner of the World, translated by Dick Cluster. Cluster’s other new Cuban translation is Pedro de Jesús’s Vital Signs, released this month by Diálogos Press in New Orleans. During Mylene’s recent visit to San Francisco, author and translator put together the following mutual interview about her work, their translation process, and more. Mylene’s responses, which were in Spanish, are translated by Dick.
Dick Cluster: Your first published story was also, coincidentally, one of the first I ever translated. It contained a sentence which I might render now as: “Here I was, standing on Calle 17 which is for me the most charming and the saddest street in Vedado, under a sun shedding its rays with a verticality completely devoid of imagination, trying to make my way through a petrified city.” That same street was full of associations for me, because I used to bicycle it on my way home from working with Cuban professors of English and from various aspects of a complicated social life in Havana. I associated it with startlingly beautiful flowering trees, the petals they cast off onto its pavement and sidewalks, the heat as described, and the blackouts that plunged long stretches into evening and midnight darkness and silence. Though you and I didn’t yet know each other or even have email contact, it already seemed that we had something in common.
Mylene Fernandez: “Anhedonia” was not only my first published story, but the first I ever wrote. I wrote it because I was home almost all day with my new baby—who, in another coincidence, is now studying English in the same university where you worked in Havana—and I heard about a short story contest. When “Anhedonia” won an honorable mention in that contest, for which I had a lot of respect, that said to me that maybe this was what I should be devoting myself to, even though I never studied writing and had never written anything, not even the poems usually written by teenagers in love.
In terms of career, I started out as an architecture major, but gave that up after a year because I didn’t like drawing. Still that one year gave me many tools of observation. Then I studied law, which taught me ways of reading and writing with great care, because in the law even punctuation marks, subordinate clauses, enumerations or ellipses all matter. It also taught me to see all the different points of view on a given situation, all the attenuating or aggravating circumstances, the attendant or consequent ones, the why’s and wherefores of everything. This is of great help in creating characters: the sum of subjective truths in every apparently objective event or action. That’s why one of my favorite films is Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, for its magnificent and always disturbing exploration of the truth.
In 1994, I was working in the Cuban Film Institute [the Cuban movie production company responsible for most Cuban films] as a legal advisor, and my relationship to literature was as a voracious reader. Then that first story changed my life. This may sound like an exaggeration but it isn’t. Many years later and with a literary career that I would call a fortunate one, I’m still “the author of Anhedonia,” which has been republished and anthologized, turned into a TV special in Mexico, and there’s also a screenplay for a theatrical film out there. The story was born the same year as my son and it eventually put you and me in contact, confronting us with words and sentences that described places we had shared without knowing it.
DC: So, our first collaboration was “Anhedonia,” for Cubana, an anthology of Cuban women’s writing from the 1980s and ’90s (edited by Mirta Yáñez, co-translated with Cindy Schuster). The story is about two women, old friends who haven’t seen each other for a long time, who happen to meet on Calle 17. I’m often asked about what it’s like, as a man, to translate women’s voices. My answer tends to be to quote Marge Piercy who once said that one of the joys of writing fiction is “to explore lives that are not my own.” I have found this to be true both in writing fiction and in translating it. Sometimes those lives are far outside our experience, and the challenge for either writer or translator is to adentrarse, to get inside the experience by way of research, interviews, conversation—in short, by way of words. In translation, of course, it’s the author’s words that provide the main tool or path, but not the only one. At an opposite extreme from your writing set in Havana, I once translated a story by a Chilean writer about walking a dirt road through the Atacama desert, a place I have never been in a country where I’ve never been, but I’ve walked and hitchhiked through hot, dry, flat, and lonely places, and that gave me something to go along with the author’s words.
But in the case of your work, I do think there’s a special connection, because much of it is intensely about Havana, a place I’ve so thoroughly investigated, while living there and in many visits since, by looking and asking questions. This began in the 1990s when bicycles were the main means of transportation, and I would frequently begin English classes by asking for explanations of things I had seen on my ride. Those years also led me to take up translation, because they were years of constant alternation between languages. I loved doing that, and, since I was already a writer in English, literary translation offered a way to keep it up even when I was not in Cuba any more. And finally, that experience led me to understanding the complexity and contradictoriness of Cuba, so different from the clichés about that country so prevalent here, which also led me to want to share what Cuban writers on the island were writing with audiences on this side of that deep divide. The next story of yours that I translated—for another anthology of Cuban women’s writing, Open Your Eyes and Soar, edited by Mary Berg—contained a description of Havana as a place where “the unforeseen is the best synonym for plans and where chance is always better organized than anything else.” That story also has a lot to do with the divide between Cuba as Cubans see it and as foreigners do, though in this case the foreigners are Spaniards. Maybe you could say something about “Mare Atlanticum” and our process of translating it, from your point of view?
MF: “Mare Atlanticum” is the story of a Cuban woman living in Madrid with her Spanish boyfriend. They’re truly in love, both are cultured and sensitive people, with many things they share and many others that separate them. And the story is based on this, on the “island they’ve built of the things that bring them closer, that they’ve built but can’t inhabit.” Its catalyst is a concert given in Madrid by the famous Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez. By the time you and I worked on “Mare Atlanticum,” I was alternating between living in Havana Switzerland, because I had recently married a Swiss citizen. You and I still hadn’t met, but now we had email contact. And through the emails I learned that you also knew Silvio’s work and had seen him in concert, and we each had stories about our relationships with his songs, stories we told each other over email while working on the text. What was most impressive to me was the way that you, to translate a text which mentioned only the titles of a few songs, searched out those songs, listened to them and read the lyrics with so much care. During our sessions of work-by-email between Lugano and Boston, in which we tried to plumb the most intimate meanings of a story about Havana as seen from Madrid, I grew fascinated by your way of understanding something as complex and distant as a Cuban living not in the U.S. but in Europe. It was a marvelous work process, and so was the resulting translation. A little while ago I sent you something written by a U.S. student who did her academic thesis about this story, using your English version, which provided proof of what I knew from the time I first read the translation—that this was my story, exactly as I’d conceived it, yet there it was in English, all the nuances and subtlety, irony, puns, melancholy, this interior island whose contours and details are conjured by evocations.
I’ve had other experiences with translations into other languages, and sometimes I’ve had trouble seeing my words in those translations, sometimes even after the translators asked me things and I tried to clarify the meanings. In those cases, when I’ve felt alienated from my own story because of a translation that did not re-create it, I’ve remembered the saying about “traduttore, traditore.” Translation is telling a story by capturing the spirit behind it without tying oneself to the words in a literal way. In our case this means keeping the values intact while making the Cuban reality accessible to someone who has never been in Cuba, despite its complexities that so often escape our attempt to trap them in adjectives or catalogues. That’s why I’ve so highly valued your manner of writing Cuban literature for readers in English. You’re extremely careful with tenses, tones, and specific details. Your questions and reflections have made our work sessions into an analysis of the story in which we both become involved on a personal level.
In addition to how well you know Havana and its vagaries, the fact that you’re also a writer makes you re-compose the language from a point of view in which the most important thing is to communicate to the English reader the sensation, the thinking, the dilemma, whatever it is. This is often very creative work for the translator, seeking a way to express—in the literal meaning of “express,” to squeeze out—such sentiments. Sometimes you’ll send me several alternative phrases or sentences in English so I can choose the one that best expresses the soul of the sentence. I find that this makes me rethink my characters, makes me ask myself new questions, as if I were re-discovering and re-evaluating what I’ve written in Spanish. The process is like when one tells a friend about a problem and knows that out of this conversation will come a solution because that friend both understands the situation and has enough distance to evaluate it, what in Spanish we call “distancia media,” not so close as to blind you nor so far as to blur your vision.
DC: We’ll go into some details about specific choices and issues involved in “translating Cuba” when we get to A Corner of the World, but I do recall one small example from “Mare Atlanticum.” There’s a moment when the Spaniards are eating Japanese food with chopsticks and the Cuban narrator/protagonist resorts to a fork and thinks “maybe they were suffering my same difficulties, only for them these constituted a delicious Western awkwardness whereas in me they testified to a terrible isolation from the world.” The original said, “un terrible falta del mundo,” which word for word is something like “a terrible lack of world,” which could rendered in many ways, but for Cubans has a lot to do not just with First World/Third World things but with living on an island, so the word “isolate” (etymologically, “to make into an island”) helps to capture that.
Finally, after our work on that story and another for the same anthology (a teenage girl coming of age kind of story), we got to meet in person when I was visiting Havana and you invited me for lunch. That was when I found out—when we both found out—that we’d been living only two blocks apart in the ’90s.
MF: It’s very striking to meet in person someone with whom you’ve shared such intimate details of your texts, with whom you’ve worked to uncover their deepest meanings and the why’s of your words. I don’t know whether you remember that you were wearing a T-shirt with a drawing from Alice in Wonderland and a sentence from the book. That seemed so perceptive on your part because it was a mark of our unspoken understanding, since my first novel opens each chapter with quotes from Lewis Carroll’s book. Then we talked about your years living in Cuba, the building where you lived so close by, and you saw the square meters that are my apartment in Havana where I write and that somehow or other are always my center and that of my texts. The way you are both sensitive and implacable with words and their inflections sometimes reminds me of the character in Alice who talks about putting the verbs and adjectives to work as if they were hired employees, one of my favorite parts of the book.
DC: Yes, Humpty Dumpty. I don’t remember that I was wearing that shirt but I do remember that the quote from Alice on it is translated into Italian! And yes, that day you gave me a copy of the novel, Otras plegarias atendidas, and also I got to take in the sea-view from your balcony, which of course I recognized when I got to the delicious scene where a character in the novel rents out chairs on her balcony to foreigners to watch the sunset for a dollar a pop, without their having to actually rub elbows with Cubans in the street. Can you tell a bit about that novel, before we move on to the new one?
MC: During several trips to the U.S. in the late 1990s for Latina writers’ events in New York, I also spent considerable time in Miami. Those experiences—unforgettable and intense in every sense—led to Otras plegarias atendidas (Other Answered Prayers), which was published in 2003.
That title is a nearly unconscious homage to Truman Capote, because without knowing that we shared the Santa Teresa de Ávila quote that says “more tears are shed for answered prayers than for unrealized desires,” that was the sentence with which I began writing the novel. Later I discovered that Capote too had chosen the phrase for his unfinished novel Answered Prayers. My novel was well received by both critics and the reading public. In Cuba it won the Italo Calvino prize and the Premio de la Crítica, and was published in Italy, in translation, by Marco Tropea Editore. It’s divided into two parts, one in Havana and the other in Miami. A reason for its success, I think, was that Cubans living in Cuba wanted to know about the life of the Cuban in Miami, and Europeans were very interested in the passages depicting life in Havana. You worked on translating some samples of the novel but we didn’t succeed in finding a publisher in English. If one day we do manage to publish it, I’m sure we’ll go back over those and discuss them all over again and doubtless make some changes. In the books of short stories that followed, I’ve continued with the theme of exile and with other more intimate and personal ones: love and its successes and failures, personal relationships and the environments that condition or nuance them.
La esquina del mundo is a fusion of all of that. A love story in today’s Havana—changing, chaotic, the relationship of a couple torn by the daily dilemma facing so many of us in Cuba, that of staying or leaving. It’s also—really I’d say it’s above all—an homage to Havana, which becomes not just the setting but a character, sometimes an accomplice and sometimes a silent observer of the others in the story. It’s everyday Havana, told with humor, melancholy, irony, in the voices and actions of its residents, very human characters with their doubts and questions, their dreams, their daily struggle in the gap between what one wants and what one can do. Although no neighborhood is specifically mentioned, the novel is set in the same area as “Anhedonia,” on the same streets where you and I were neighbors without knowing it—the streets which end at the seawall where many of us go to gaze at the sea while we think and we dream. So, again, it’s a place in which you know what it feels like to walk or bike those streets, you’ve experienced that sensation of darkness or silence in the midst of bustle and din, you’ve seen how the sea curves around the city like a belt, showing us the rest of world and isolating us as well. I often say that the Malecón is the sedative most popular among Havanans, to which we have recourse when we’re seeking serenity or unburdening or solutions. There’s a kind of therapy that consists of sitting on that Wall and watching, whether the sea on one side or the city on the other. Maybe we should talk about our re-encounter on the day of the presentation of the book in Havana.
DC: Well, U.S. publishers’ interest in Cuban writing done on the island had flagged once again, the rash of anthologies had ended, we hadn’t found a publisher for Otras plegarias, and so we kind of fell out of touch. Then I happened to be in Havana just after New Year’s of 2012 and someone said to me, “Do you know there’s going to be a presentation of a new novel by Mylene Hernández, who you translated?”, and I said “You mean Fernández?” and they said yes. So I went with that friend to the presentation and, as it happened, I grabbed us the last two copies off the sales table, which was besieged by a crowd as tends to happen in Cuba where the press runs are short and the interest is high. I waited out the crush to get it signed, re-introduced myself to you in person, and was surprised and pleased when you inscribed my copy to “el major traductor que he conocido” (the best translator I’ve met). And then I loved the book. Besides its many other qualities, it’s once again Havana I recognize—the worries, joys, and dilemmas of so many friends and acquaintances, the question of staying or leaving that weighs on the minds of so many, especially the young. I like the way the book is nuanced, its light touch, so unlike so much written about Cuba—but rarely from Cuba—that Americans see. So I proposed we should give it a shot, and this time I’d translate the whole book, not just samples.
MF: Somewhere I have a photo, it must be on my computer in Switzerland or else the one in Havana, I’ll send it to you, which shows my surprise at seeing you in front me at the presentation. The novel’s release had been really very successful in Cuba, I was feeling a little fearful of all the praise, all the critics who wrote so much about the book and readers who identified so much with the story, readers of all ages and tendencies, people who lived in Havana in very different situations, Cubans who lived abroad, and even Spaniards. My son’s teenage friends, old people, people who live and think in very different ways, people who want to leave or stay, those who love Havana and those who are bored with it. People who are happy, are depressed, are happily in love or shipwrecked by it. While I was very agreeably surprised by the book’s reception, I was almost afraid of so much attention. But when you proposed translating it on your own hook, without any offer from a publisher, I was delighted, partly because it made me happy that you saw it as something worth taking on such an uncertain voyage as the attempt to publish it in English, in a language and country so different from mine.
So we got to work, enthusiastically. I was convinced from the get-go that you understood it all, the life and thinking of the main and secondary characters, the daily lives, the dilemmas, the moral values in conflict. Still, you held up for my consideration every passage which you thought needed any clarification on my part. That was really exciting work, work that made us both happy, that we enjoyed very much without knowing where it would lead.
Then came the stage of looking for publishers—all your responsibility—and sometimes they would appear and show interest and then vanish. The finally, at the same moment, both City Lights and another publisher appeared, and we decided on City Lights, with whom you had worked well before and whom I knew from the Beat Generation writers and from sharing so many values. I’m very happy with this book, from the cover photo to the last sentence, and I want to thank everyone from City Lights who joined in with your effort . . .
Check back in tomorrow for the continuation of the interview.