Journalist and Fulbright scholar, Ana Menendez was raised in Florida by her parents who had fled the Cuban Revolution. Her Cuban heritage saturates her fiction from her first short story collection (In Cuba I was a German Shepard) to her newest book, Adios, Happy Homeland! which is sure to confound some readers. While the cover of the book announces that it is fiction by Ana Menendez, a glance at its form and content shows an anthology of Cuban authors, curated by an Irishman-living-in-Havana named Herberto Quain. No better cultural colonialist could be found, as his introduction makes clear: Quain adores all things Cuban, a love he traces to his childhood and blood heritage. He appropriates these authors’ works not just enthusiastically but affectionately—which (to this reader’s delight) just emphasizes how brutal a violation it is. The structure and the interplay between the authors and their aggressor-editor all but guarantees this book will become required reading in college Post-colonial Literature courses as a 21st Century fictional meta-commentary on appropriation that opens five doors for every five windows, and invites readers to look, look again, and wander through.
Menendez’s books up to this point have focused primarily on the universal experience of exile, but this book is far more interested in the universal experience of escape, of flight. Its greatest accomplishment is how well and how vividly it portrays the particular combination of madness, hope, ambition, and loneliness that drives us to harness the wind and fly away from the void we know into the void we do not.
Menendez spoke with us from Slovakia and Holland, via e-mail.
The Rumpus Interview with Ana Menendez
Rumpus: I’d like to start with the way in which this book is a departure—and not just from your own books. Formally, Adios, Happy Homeland is an anthology of stories by 21 invented, Cuba-connected authors curated by an invented (and probably under-qualified) Irish scholar-appropriator. Puzzling out the relationships and conflicts among the writers is a big part of the fun of the book, but their individual stories are playful and experimental too—one story travels backwards in time [“Journey Back to the Seed (Que Quieres, Vieja?)”], another operates as a series of infinitely recursive loops (“End-less Stories”), some appear to be excerpts from eccentric reference works (“Glossary of Caribbean Winds”; “Zodiac of Loss”), and so on. What led you to approach this book in this way?
Menendez: Yes, this book about departures, is its own kind of departure. It’s a book about freedom and I wanted the form to reflect that as much as possible. For me, it was a new way of thinking about fiction. It was born, as much of these things are I suppose, out of a certain uneasiness. After three books, I wanted to do something new, something that would liberate and delight me, and hopefully also the reader. While my characters are setting off into the blue, I too wanted to break free of convention, expectation, ambition—the whole gang of misfits that muck up honest work. The need to escape—preferably in a hot air balloon—is part of Cuban lore. But it’s also a very human impulse. Who hasn’t looked at their life at some point and longed for wings?
Rumpus: But it’s difficult, isn’t it? The characters must risk everything to achieve flight—and they are surrounded by forces trying to stop them: governments, relatives, historical events, physics, the winds themselves. Even the fictional authors must fight the cage their fictional editor tries to put them in. It all makes me wonder if they are flying or falling, if freedom is viewing doom through hope?
Menendez: Damned difficult. The winds are unreliable, if not outright malicious. Governments, friends, history are all in collusion to ground the aerostat. And the “real” author, trying to escape Cuba, finds herself curating yet another book in debt to its traditions. Our absurd lot as human beings is longing for a liberation that is ultimately impossible—existence is rooted in this reality. All our senses are tied to our mortal form (with what clouded corneas will we perceive heaven?). “Viewing doom through hope” indeed. Sometimes the balloon takes off, but the rider is never heard from again. Sometimes the escapee risks everything, only to long for return. And sometimes a lovely line of poetry is mauled in its transformation. And yet… we plan, we dream, we build tunnels beneath the dead…
Rumpus: Which to me was one of the most interesting ideas in your book—transformation is the dream, the admired thing, the legend, and yet… what remains after that beautiful moment is sometimes a memory, sometimes a corpse, and sometimes (as with the poems devastated by Google translation) a joke. After all, today (as he discovers in one of your stories), José Martí is an airport. Your first collection of short stories, In Cuba I was a German Shepard, transformed the Cuban exile experience into art—this collection seem to be questioning, if not the process, the product that kind of artistic transformation creates. “Un Cuento Extrano” seems especially to me a commentary on your own work. Do you see it this way as well? Do you expect your non-Spanish-speaking readers will use Google Translate (like I did) to read it?
Menendez: I wouldn’t call it a questioning, at least not in the negative sense of the word. Perhaps an inquiry: Why did my generation of Latino writers choose to write in this particular way, about these particular themes? What would have happened if say, the American-born Calvert Casey had written his Cuban stories in a similar style—a dash of nostalgia, a sprinkling of foreign words? “Un Cuento” turns the accepted form inside out to bring its contradictions into relief. In that sense, I think you’re right, it’s a commentary of sorts: an acknowledgement that to write today is to produce a product, as well as a private protest against the packaging.
There’s an English language translation of the story on my site, but, yes, I’d prefer readers put it through Google translate instead. I did, and the results were hilarious. I rather liked the story in that form!
Rumpus: This is just one among the many ways Adios, Happy Homeland! invites the reader to take a greater active role in bringing shape to the book—the authors’ names (C. Casey among them), the game-like “End-less Stories,” the many references within the stories. In some ways it is a fantastic puzzle, and I had to read with internet access always at hand, so I could research and translate, which was incredible fun. How do you picture (or intend) the reader’s experience? Do you have any special plans for releasing an interactive ebook?
Menendez: Well, as I writer, I dream of readers like you, who approach a book with the same kind of engagement that went into the writing. Writing for me begins with curiosity, with a “what if”. And a book, especially one of fragments, grows like a branching tree. Writing Adios was very much like building a puzzle: One story led to another, led to another in a series of interlocking images and tones. Some of them are obvious immediately, some require digging, and others are little more than private jokes. The layering, I hope, creates a sense of serendipity or perhaps we should call it happy coincidence—that fleeting recognition that creates a frisson of joy in our regular life. I also, in the multiple references, wanted to capture something of what it means to be a reader today, with the bounty of information at our fingertips. It’s one of the reasons Google features prominently. More than anything else on the internet, Google has transformed the way we approach the written word. And I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing: much of that transformation holds a world of possibility for the artist. Even Google Translate is a kind of contemporary art!
That said, I don’t know about an interactive e-book. It would have to involve something deeper than the usual click-for-more-info, because that would return the reading to a passive, almost academic, experience. I prefer the idea of reading as you did, search engine and Holmesian magnifying glass at hand. In that sense, thanks to the internet, every book has the potential to be a truly interactive e-book, one that reflects not just the author’s choices, but is guided by each individual reader’s curiosity.
Rumpus: Do you have any further plans for escape working at the moment? Any thoughts about where your next flight might take you?
Menendez: Ha! We just moved to Maastricht from Amsterdam and one day, amid the boxes, I decided to count how many homes I’d had: Since I moved out of my parents’ house 20 years ago, I’ve lived in 16 different places on four continents. In my twenties, it was all a great adventure and I really got a lot of joy out of travel. Now, we mostly just travel to visit family, and even that I find taxing. The planes seem smaller and more crowded; the people meaner. On my last transatlantic flight, Dutch immigration asked me to prove that I was the mother of my baby (I asked the young man if he wanted highlights of my 12-hour labor). Maybe I’m just getting old, but escaping just isn’t what it used to be.