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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, tr