This is a very
ambitious novel, how did it develop?
writing a play about the murder of the comandante, like a ghost who comes back,
which is now the beginning of Chapter VII in the novel, when the ghost comes back to the
house. That´s how the play started. Then his wife became as interesting to me as he was,
if not more interesting, and it was the wife who took over the novel. There were so many
digressions but I just kept on going with it, I thought I was never going to finish it.
But many writers I talked to said: dont fight it, dont fight to finish it,
just let it go where its going. Tonight, Im going to read the "Bakery
Administrators Daughter" and thats a complete digression... What happened
was that the Cuban Historical Society here in New York sent me a magazine and I saw an
article about how hard it is to have La fiesta de los quince in Cuba
now, how people have to struggle to still do it. I thought itd be interesting to
write about this, to work it into the story. And I did. Thats kind of how the whole
novel developed, trying to have all the stories fit into the main theme... I dont
even know if I can trace what the main theme is...
Is there a
real life parallel to the story?
The story of Lazarus Rumba is based on what happened to an uncle.
character of Julio César . . .
...who was drafted into the Revolutionary Army. When he no longer wanted to serve
in the army and decided to seek asylum at the U.S. base, he walked towards the border area
and was shot near a Peerless fence. He was brought back to the hospital in Guantánamo and
died two days later.
What was your
Marco Antonio Ruíz...
When did your family
become disenchanted with the revolutionary process?
I think my family sort of
accepted it: "This is whats happening, Batista wasnt that great,
lets see what happens." I think, like most intellectuals, it was slow, it
wasn't right away. And eventually - the way I hear it from my parents is that they left
because they didn't want their children raised that way, and they say they might have
stayed if they hadn't had kids. Thats partly what Ive tried to reflect
in my book: What if my family had stayed? Whats the life of people who did stay, who
did not believe in the Revolution? Im sure there are a lot of people like that and
thats partly what I tried to explore with the novel: What if my aunt had stayed? How
disenchanted would she have become? How much of a dissident would she have become?
This aunt who left
is the basis for the character of Alicia Lucientes?
When did she leave?
She left in 1970, right after -
almost right after - her husband was killed.
Did she have any
children by your uncle?
Does she have
No. She never married again.
What about the
relationship between Alicia and Hector?
And the character of
Pretty much fictional, somewhat
based on a cousin of my mother . . . but all the acrobat stuff, thats fictional.
Triste is completely fictional.
Its a great
It's partly based on books
Ive read about the UMAP [Military Aid to Production Units - the equivalent of forced
labor camps where sexual and religious "deviants" were sent en masse
during the mid- to late-Sixties]. From what Ive read, Raúl Castro is the one who
went to Hungary and saw these electrical experiments with gay men and it was tried for a
little while and then it stopped.
experimentation borrowed from Hungary and Rumania and China to "dissuade"
But it was Raúl, right?
Raúl, who many
consider to be gay...
Is that right?
Oh yeah, he is known
as La China in some circles...
La China, I didnt
Yet he is so
family-oriented, he looks after his children, the nieces and nephews... its really
interesting, he is quite a character. Where does El Rubio come from?
I dont know . . .he is
completely fictional. [Cuban writer] Manuel Prieres has a memoir of Guantánamo where he
mentions a police captain with blond hair; he is mentioned once as the head comandante
in Caimanera, right next to the American base. I went and made him into this vindictive
police captain who happens to be gay too, which is interesting.
El Rubio epitomizes
the individual possessed by power and abusive of it.
At one point the mother called
him the little tyrant. Thats the danger with totalitarian governments - its
not just the big person at the top but the little tyrannies that form underneath them.
Did you see Néstor
Almendros Improper Conduct?
No. I know about it ...I still
havent seen it though.
wanted to do a documentary about the repression against homosexuals in Cuba, the UMAP
camps and all, but it developed into a larger story about violations of human rights in
general. However, the overall balance tips towards homosexual repression. The film closes
with an interview Almendros did with René Ariza - a playwright imprisoned because he was
gay and because his plays did not conform to the Revolutions official storyline. The
experiments with electro-shock drove him insane. Almendros closes Improper Conduct
with Ariza looking straight into the lens, a quasi-demented gaze as he says: Tenemos
que cuidarnos del Fidelito que todos guardamos dentro... [We must watch out for
that bit of Fidel that exists in all of us.]
El Rubio had some
power and went wild with it. What about that famed blue-feathered tenor-resurrecting
fighting cock known as Atila?
A very real
He is based on
my grandfather, who was a real gentle person but who still carried all the traits of machismo.
There was a gentleness to him that made him charming and those things acceptable.
And he loved opera?
He loved opera,
How about the
relationship between the two fighting cocks?
That I made up.
You know Atila has been mentioned in every review and I came close to taking that whole
section out of the novel.
I was being
pressured to make it shorter... Atila is such a big digression that I thought maybe this
ought to go but a couple of friends told me: "Dont take it out because
youll ruin the novel."
Cuban, its very much the spirit of Cuba. Cubas machismo, the
homosexual-homophobic relationship. How about Teodoro Lucientes?
Based on both
Was there a lot of
incest in your family?
dont ... He wasnt incestuous.
No, he wasnt
incestuous, but incest plays an important role in the story. The air of incest is
prevalent in the relationship between Alicia and Marta, the two half-sisters.
Right ... and
the relationship between Héctor and Alicia.
You know, I
dont know where that came from.
Its a very
I think that
may be part of it, and also there seems to be a whole theme in Latin American literature
about incest and what it does.
Why did Marta
That's a big
question. There is a suggestion that she went to Miami and I was thinking about writing a
novel about her in Miami. I think Alicia slowly loses touch with her whole family. Her
being a dissident becomes a central aspect of her life: she cant be a mother, she
cant be a daughter, she cant be a sister - especially when she is away in this
nightmarish place; she slowly loses touch and when she comes back to see her daughter and
sees that she's already a woman - thats when she finally goes mad.
In the book you
moved the Valley of the Nightingales...
Have you been there?
been there but Ive seen pictures and it looks so amazing, so I moved it to the Isle
of Pines or Isle of Youth.
Isla de Pinos is now
called Isla de la Juventud, Isle of Youth...
I moved it
there to establish a parallel: thats where Castro had been imprisoned when he was a
rebel. Castro was once the same kind of rebel that Alicia becomes.
Did you encounter
any reticence in your editors over the politics?
Not at all.
That was the last thing I was conscious of doing as I was writing. I just wanted to
capture what it would have been like to be in that country at that time, thats the
way it comes out. Its definitely political, everyone who reads it says its a
very political novel.
It would be quite
difficult to write a novel about Cuba and abstain from politics.
several readings of your novel, have you had negative feedback at any of the readings?
No, I read the
torture scene at a college upstate, SUNY [State University of New York] at Oneanta and a
couple of the professors looked at me and said: "How old are you? Its so real,
how do you know all this? Obviously it didnt happen to you, how do you know how this
took place?" So I told them what my sources were and that it was fictionalized, but
there was that kind of doubt... Are you inventing this?
Its very real
and, what is more important, you establish a parallel between what happened before and
after the Revolution. Power is power and the abuse of power leads to...
what I wanted to do with Julio César. I never knew this man and he is obviously a heroic
version of whoever my uncle was. He really believed in the Revolution. All he did was
write letters to Castro saying you promised we would have democratic elections. He was set
up for nothing.
has several unofficial offspring.
that came from, you hear that all the time. So you figure, what if theres one son
thats been sent away to try to reform his mother... not based on anyone.
Has the book been
Spain was the
first foreign sale.
Do you read well in
perfectamente pero [I read Spanish perfectly, but] I have to look up words. I was
rereading the essay by Reinaldo Arenas that I mentioned to you and I got stuck. There are
words I just dont know so I have to sit there and look them up because I speak
Spanish like a twelve-year-old. You seem to have a mastery of Spanish that I dont.
I've lived in the
States for thirty-six years. Two years before we left Cuba my mom decided to keep me out
of school; she feared Id be brainwashed.
That happened to us
You were kept out of
school as well?
My mom had a
big fight with a woman. My mom said: They're not going to be pioneros...[a cross
between scouts and a communist youth organization in which schoolage children are strongly
"encougraged" to participate]
When we left in '62,
pioneros had not come into their own; the big scare then was la patria potestad,
the fear that the government would take away parental rights. So my mother refused to send
me to school. During the last two years we lived on the island I was out of touch with
education in Spanish, and for the next eight years it was mostly English. I began to read
Spanish again with One Hundred Years of Solitude. I still have the old Spanish Larousse,
the best companion this girl had during those reading adventures. Thanks to it I was able
to read and comprehend the "Boom". I relearned Spanish thanks to that little
dictionary. We became inseparable...
what I do now...
Have your parents
read The Lazarus Rumba?
it now. When my father got to the part about the circus master and the two boys, he said: Está
fuerte, está muy fuerte [This is strong, very strong].
Thats it? That
dont think he even wants to talk about it. Partly because they have such a big
problem with my homosexuality.
You visit Miami once
We go down
there once a year. Ive been going out with Andrew for two years so I brought him
down there for the first time this January. They were pretty receptive. I was surprised
because I'd never brought a lover home before. My mother made dinner and they even took us
out; they were both very uncomfortable but were trying very hard to be nice. And just
because it is such a big issue with them and because this novel deals so much with it, I
think they might have problems with it.
Have you discussed
the novel with them?
them what its about but not in detail because I think it would be painful to them.
My father seems to be enjoying it. I think when you write you dont know how people
are going to accept things.
shouldnt care, you're right. The last thing you want is to censor yourself...
thats the worst kind of censoring, I think.
self-censoring is the worse kind of censorship. What are you going to do? You are a writer
and you have to do what you have to do.
Even you... you
had that reaction when I told you: my mother knows your work, you said I hope she didn't
read my novel [referring to 69: Memorias eróticas de una cubanoamericana].
Its the cubano thing; a society where you cant tell anybody anything.
My aunt wanted to
read my novel, she read it with a magnifying glass because shes almost blind...
How old is she?
What did she
Not a word.
But she read
the whole thing.
To be a woman and to
cross the line to discuss sex and politics frankly continues to be frowned upon. I used
eroticism as a means to tell a story that deals with Miami-Cuban politics. Or to be gay
and write openly about homosexuality continues to be a taboo here. And on the island as
well, although sex has become a commodity there.
sad part, thats what you were saying. Why go back and see that. And Ive always
said....well, you know because youre a writer and its your country....go back
and talk to the people, see whats going on. But Ive always been so afraid.
Everything there is
unpredictable and Cubans are so submissive.
Are Cubans in Cuba
submissive? Why is Castro still in power?
Both here and in
Cuba, otherwise he wouldnt be in power.
The easy answer has
always been leaving. Although to escape in a raft is terrifying, I couldnt do it.
You dedicated the novel to Andrew...
Yeah, and to my
Andrew is the big
love in your life?
We're going to
start a family and everything.
You are planning to
A little girl
first. We want a little boy and a little girl, but I want a girl first.
Where did you and
We work at the
same restaurant. I bartend on weekends, hes the maitred there.
How long ago did you
We met there
two years ago, then I went away for a while to a writing colony. I came back and we moved
Does Andrew share
your love of literature?
trained as a chef. I admire his passion for food; he loves preparing food and he's so
passionate about it. Thats what I admire in anybody. Someone whos passionate
about something. Thats why I admire people with faith because of the passion they
put into it.
You and Andrew are
having a commitment ceremony in Brooklyn?
Park, its beautiful.
Is the family
I told my
mother. She said she cant tell my father because she has to live with him and I
respected that. All my brothers are coming.
And you are not
going to tell your father?
think I should tell him but, you know, I see her point. You know how histéricos
Cubans are. He is going to go into this whole trauma and she doesnt want to deal
with it. What can I say? I told my mother: I dont judge you, Im not a devout
Catholic but I respect that you are. I admire your faith and I want you to do the same
thing with my life. Its simple: respect people ...not that complicated.
family coming to the ceremony?
His mother is
but his father is not. The same thing with his father, very nice but you could tell that
the poor man was so uncomfortable. His father is a farmer in Michigan, we went to this
huge sweetcorn farm they have. Its something that they dont understand so I
see what they are going through. He was talking to me but he couldnt even look at
me, thats how difficult it was for him. I understand and I dont judge the man.
All I ask for is respect and he did give me that. So thats fine. You cant
force somebody to love you, you cant force somebody to accept. My parents will never
accept the fact that I am gay because it goes so much against everything that they
has played an important role in their church.
Are any of your
Are they all
One is married,
one divorced, another is single and one is getting married.
Are they coming with
Yes, my little
niece is going to be the ring-bearer.
Angela, I mention her in the acknowledgements, my little niece is so beautiful.
Thats why I want a little girl.
When did you decide
to make your homosexuality public?
I came out when
I was twenty-five. I didnt come out to my brothers until a year after and to my
parents like three years after.
Came out to my
friends, people at work and all that...
Were you afraid
I went out with women, dated women - the whole farce, thats what it was. Partly
because of where we are from. I remember the first time I dated a guy in New York, in the
back of my head Id be thinking ¿qué va a decir mi tía? [What would my aunt
say?] It was stupid. But that's the kind of internalized homophobia that you are
always, always going to carry with you. I still catch myself doing it at times...
What do you do? How
do you catch yourself doing it?
were walking, Andrew and I always hold hands when we're walking down the street and
it feels really comfortable. But at times you feel people looking at you and you
dont want to hold hands because of this internalized homophobia: here come two fags
walking down the street. Its completely internalized by the way I grew up. I think
it's people who internalize it so much who take out their rage. Thats what I tried
to do with El Rubio. He lives a certain life and takes out his rage through his whole
El Rubio reflects
the dichotomy of a power-abusive, sexually divided nature.
The same thing
is true with Castro: there is an internalized rage to Castro which he has basically aimed
at the Yankees but it is about so much more.
The UMAP camps
reflect the serious problem Castro has with his sexuality - why would anyone go to such
extremes to punish differences in sexual preferences?
to base a character in my next novel on the head of the Cuban film society.
friend and the guy is a big queen. I read an article in Vanity Fair where they
asked Castro, is Guevara gay? And he said: No way, no way is he gay...
Gay!, Guevara is the
queen of queens, or as Arenas defines him in Before Night Falls: "a royal
dont know if Castro admits it privately, although hed have to say that
They used to share a
Is that right?!
Guevara is gay,
Raúl is gay. Castro seduced crowds; he seduced (in a manner of speaking, anyway) all his comandantes.
Those boys were in love with him, otherwise, someone would have done something to him.
Cuba is a very homosexual country, extremely homosexual, yet homosexuality está mal
visto [is frowned upon]. Cubans deal with sexuality in a very unhealthy manner.
Is that the
Spanish tradition or the Spanish legacy that were left with or is it something else?
I think that the
Spanish legacy has hurt us as a people in many ways. Its a combination of the
Spanish legacy and the African passion.
But the African
passion seems to me to be so much more healthy.
Until it's fused
with jealousy, sexual repression....then it becomes a lethal combination.
What about your
working on a second novel about a man writing his memoirs of his mother, who is also a
dissident. He has come back to Havana from the United States for his daughter whom he left
as a little girl with a nanny; shes now had kids and gotten divorced and everything.
And this man returns for her and in the process he befriends this character based on
Guevara. They share a house and he writes the memoirs of his mothers life.
Where is Guevara?
In Havana. He
owns this beautiful house and they befriend each other. The son writes the memoirs of his
deceased mother. I think he gets in trouble with the government. It's set in the late
eighties and nineties.
How are you handling
what Im doing now... I wrote sixty pages and said "I dont know what the
fuck Im writing about" so I went back and started reading more. You know the
Cuban Historical Society here? I go there and I read their papers, I kind of want to go
back to Cuba but Im still afraid.
Why did you use
spiders to open and close the novel? ["Spiders" refers to running fingers
lightly over the body.]
book deals so much with what repressed sexuality does and this priest is based on the
parish monsignor in Guantánamo. He was called Pastor. He had all these women servants; it
always intrigued me the way they dealt with each other privately which I didnt know.
I kind of imagined it.
Did you imagine this
as a child?
I imagined it
later but I remember thinking as a child....these women were like his wives.
Were you an altar
Were you abused by a
Did you have any
relationships with priests?
No ....I mean I adored
this guy but he was never abusive at all. I remember this one time, you know the service
on Maundy Thursday, he took all the altar boys and we sat up there and the pastor went
around and he washed all our feet like Jesus did with the Apostles.
I found that so sexual - I mean
thinking back on it now. Back then, you didnt think anything, but why do I remember
that above everything else? He washed our feet and he kissed our feet, all the altar
boys... I mean think about how sexual that is...
Of course, the
Church acts homophobic but is very homosexual.
Just the fact that priests are not allowed
to get married. It happened that as a matter of course if you were gay and didnt
want to get married, you became a priest.
then you had to express yourself somehow.
Its sick, all
this repressed sexuality is horrible.
That was the point of the
spiders, these people are... I think I used the phrase, "ritual bound them together
closer than rings bind lovers." Doing spiders is the ritual that they use instead of
Do you practice any
No....you know I tell this to
my parents, I really admire people who have faith.
You have none?
Not in the way they do. I have
faith in the tradition of literature say, thats what keeps me going. If I
couldnt have books then I might as well be dead.
Do you see
literature as a saving mechanism?
Absolutely. It saved my life.
It made me want to live. And it
was through teachers. Thats why Im starting to teach this fall, thats
why I kind of want to be a teacher and pass that on. It happened early in high school: we
were reading King Lear and this one Brother in school was so passionate about
literature....the way he talked to you about it, he wanted you to understand it. I said if
it can make this guy so passionate, there must be something there so I started reading. I
wasnt much of a reader before high school.
What was this
Brother Sheehan. I
had a similar experience, a high school English teacher whom I can still see reading Macbeth.
Yeah...those teachers ought to be deified. From Columbus you went to Tulane...
I went to Tulane where I
studied mostly English Romantic literature: Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats. It greatly
affected me, I had a professor there who was as passionate about Romantic literature as
anyone Ive seen. Her name was Michael Young. She infected me and thats what
great teachers do, they infect you with this love. Then I was getting my doctorate at NYU
in Renaissance literature and I dropped out because I said, I want to be a writer, I
dont want to be a professor writing about other peoples work. And I started
How old were you?
Well, I had already started
that other novel I told you about.
Right. When did you
first begin to write?
In college. I kind of started
writing... it took a long time to get to two hundred pages. I thought it was finished and
then I kind of abandoned it because it didnt make sense. Of course I read One
Hundred Years of Solitude when I was nineteen and that affected me a lot.
It affects you, it
just hits you... you know Arenas and García Márquez shared the Grand Prix DOr in
France for El mundo alucinante and Cien años de soledad...
It's funny, I just reread the
note at the end of the essay I was telling you about. You know people said El mundo
alucinante was very affected by Cien años de soledad but it was published
three years before...
Tom Colchie [New York-based
literary agent] has a great story, I forget the name of the Argentinean writer, he wrote
in the Forties and Colchie wanted to get his work translated and published in English; he
starts sending stories to The New Yorker and The New Yorker writes back
saying these are interesting stories but they are too derivative of García Márquez.
Colchie responds: thats very interesting, they were published when García Márquez
was still in diapers.
Yes, it is lamentable,
youre right. The ignorance, even with the very literary people here, about Latin
It's a situation
based on ignorance...
Not to take away from García
Márquez, he's an amazing writer.
He is a wonderful
writer - but Latin America has had a tradition of wonderful writers long before One
Hundred Years of Solitude.
Thats what Yankees do,
they hook on to something and say, lets move on to another culture.
Any other influences
aside from Arenas?
My greatest influences, more
than any Latin American writer, are the Renaissance poets, counting Shakespeare and John
Donne. The way they used language I want to use language and its tough to do that
when you are doing narrative. It makes narrative complicated, people have told me that my
novel is too dense, almost.
There is so much information.
But thats what Donne does, Donne can write an eighteen-line poem and jam so much
information and so much logic and so many images into it. Thats one person I think
greatly influenced me, and his essays and his sermons are amazing because even when he
became a preacher he was so obsessed with the human body and how it degenerates and all
its flaws. He wanted to be of another world but he knew he was too much of this one. And
that greatly attracted me. I think I'm obsessed with the way the human body fails and the
way it doesnt fail sometimes.
When did you have
your first homosexual encounter?
I was twenty...four.
Not before, no.
When did you know?
I knew when I was sixteen.
In high school.
Yeah, thats why I was so
jealous when I read Before Night Falls when he [Arenas] was doing it with his
cousin when he was ten.
I said: damn!, where were my
You missed out, your
cousins werent there for you. Reinaldo was something else. How did you manage?
I dated women and I slept with
women. And I was terribly unhappy because I was repressing what I was passionate about.
Will you teach your
children to be honest with themselves?
Absolutely, and I try to
imagine what they could say to me thats as painful as supposedly my telling my
parents I was gay.... I dont know. My daughter comes to me: I think I want to be a
prostitute. I would definitely advise her against it but... I want them to be passionate
about things. Thats the situation I come up with that I think would cause me to be
as hurt as my parents are.
Are you planning to
adopt Latino children?
No, we cant. We want to.
We have a friend who adopted a child from Cambodia... Latin American countries dont
allow single men to adopt.
What will you do?
We could adopt children who are
American, but that brings up issues in court. We have friends who adopted this little
black child from Mississippi. One of the parents adopted the child and they both raised it
for two years. Then somebody told the judge who approved the adoption that the child was
being raised by a gay couple and the judge started proceedings to get the child back.
I dont want to get into
that. So, the safest route is to go to the Asian countries - which, funny enough, are the
only countries that allow single men to adopt. So thats probably what we'll do.
When do you plan to
In a couple of years.
So now youre
planning for the wedding...
To conclude, I have a couple of
questions: The Lazarus Rumba is a Cuban story and your second novel is shaping up
as a Cuban story as well. Therefore, do you think of yourself as a Cuban author who writes
in English or a U.S. author who writes about Cuban issues?
I definitely consider myself a
Cuban writer who writes in English. That other option - "an American writer writing
about Cuban issues" - sounds so foreign to me. And I guess that someday I will write
a novel or a story that has little if anything to do with Cuba, but that doesn't mean I'll
be any less a Cuban writer. When you're raised Cuban and Catholic, you remain both for
life, at least in spirit.
Earlier we touched
on literature as a saving mechanism. Could you elaborate on that? What saving
characteristics do you find in literature? To what extent has The Lazarus Rumba become
a saving force in your life?
I don't think literature can
teach you how to live life. I know for certain that that's not how it saved me....how it
saved me is all the conversations it opened up inside my mind, conversations that
definitely made me a more curious thinker and a more honest human being. Like I said when
I reread Donne's prose the other morning, you walk away from it transformed in some
way....I'm not exactly sure how. Every time I read Donne he does that to me. As far as my
novel, just finishing and seeing it have a life in the world has made me very happy. But
it's a cheap, fake kind of happiness, I think - more real is the dread of approaching the
keyboard every day, and the elation you feel while you overcome that dread momentarily.
That's the attraction, the saving grace.