Adam Braver is a novelist, professor, and human rights activist, though not always in that order. Braver and his students at Roger Williams University work with PEN America as case minders for prisoners of conscience around the world. One of the men Braver and his students worked to free was Cuban journalist and political prisoner, Normando Hernández González. Normando was incarcerated, along with seventy-five other journalists, during Cuba’s “Black Spring” of 2003. He served seven years of a twenty-five-year sentence, during which time he endured abuse, malnutrition, and life-threatening medical setbacks.
Thanks in part to Braver and his students’ efforts, Normando was released and exiled in Spain, where Braver and co-author Molly Gessford conducted an extended interview. The result is the delicate and haunting book, The Madrid Conversations.
Braver and I recently spoke about The Madrid Conversations, as well as the intersection between politics and writing. We talked about free expression, his written work, and Normando, the wrongly imprisoned man who is finally free. Whether manifest in an interview or a novel, Braver’s empathy is laser focused on an individual’s humanity. When discussing his historical fiction—Misfit and November 22, 1963—Braver says he tries to maintain deep loyalty to the “person inside the character.” It’s clear he’s equally determined to honor the man inside the dissident.
The Rumpus: How did you get involved with Normando’s case?
Adam Braver: I was trying to find something I could involve students with. I teach undergrads that are getting BFAs in Creative Writing, and it seemed to me what was missing for many of them was any sense of literary citizenship. While they were perfectly happy to invest in their own work and invest in themselves, they kind of missed that there was a greater community.
Rumpus: Is this something PEN typically involves undergrads in?
Braver: No. I actually called PEN and asked what I could do with students. They weren’t sure at first, but together we came up with this idea of students working as case minders. Case minders are usually just individuals volunteering. We cooked up this idea of having a whole class, ten people or so, minding one case, putting a little more effort into it. So that’s how it was born.
Rumpus: I wonder if you saw your students’ sense of urgency change. Did this work affect your students’ writing?
Braver: To some degree. I have to say that curiously enough, I started getting fewer and fewer writing students wanting to do this.
Rumpus: Interesting. Who came forward?
Braver: Often people who already had an interest in human rights work. What I did notice with all of them, even the people who professed to be interested in human rights, was that activism was somewhat a concept in their mind—a symbolic flag on the quad or something to show how many people were starving in the world. But once they saw their efforts connected to a person, I did see a change. The fact that my students could be in a little college in a little college town on the coast of Rhode Island, and be connecting in other countries with other people, did open them up and empower them and their sense of being. Whether it affected their writing, it’s hard to tell.
Rumpus: Normando’s case is fascinating, but I’m equally interested in the idea of you and other writers crossing overtly political lines. It makes me think of this quote by Stanley Kunitz that’s tacked on my bulletin board: “To live as a poet in this culture is the aesthetic equivalent of a major political statement.” I keep it there to combat my paranoia that sitting in a room and writing isn’t enough of a contribution. Devoting oneself entirely to writing is political, I tell myself, but I don’t always believe it.
Braver: I agree with that quote to an extent. It depends on how you’re using the word. If one is writing in a way that is questioning, or even raising questions about how we are supposed to negotiate the world—even if it is about the self, or love, or how human beings relate—I do think that has a certain subversiveness to it. Even if it’s not on a geopolitical level. I’m really sort of cautious about being too didactic. To me there are writers that can do that, but I think they drown in that after a while. I do think the job of a writer is to raise questions and nobody likes the questions being asked. What really resonated with my students, I think, is that most of the writers we worked with were journalists, and when they saw journalists simply raising questions and being put in jail for that, it did freak them out a little bit.
Rumpus: Yeah, we forget in America because we’re free to talk and talk.
Braver: We worked on a case with an Egyptian blogger, a college student, near as I could tell he was mouthing off about Mubarak like any college student. Just as American college students were mouthing off about Bush. The blogger was sentenced to jail for ten years. It was unbelievable to my students.
Rumpus: In one of our e-mails you alluded to this, but working on this project must’ve slowed your writing.
Braver: It did. It wasn’t supposed to, but it did. The students set up a Facebook page for Normando’s case. In an unexpected way it became something of a hub, especially for the international Cuban community. So we started connecting with friends of Normando’s, and eventually his mother. We got updates from his mother, who was getting updates from his wife, so we all felt pretty intimately involved. We all thought he was going to die because he was really sick. Eventually he was freed, through this back channel deal, which was completely unexpected.
He wrote to us to thank us; it was so moving. A couple students said, “Why don’t we go meet him and interview him.” It sort of blossomed into this book, and I guess I was naïve. I thought, How long could it take? We’ll talk to him for a few days, we’ll tape record it, we’ll translate it. A year later, we sent it off. I was working on Misfit at the time and it did slow it down, but it might’ve been a good thing it slowed it down.
Rumpus: Can you talk about how you and co-author, Molly Gessford, worked together on The Madrid Conversations? You utilize so much white space and the narrative is pretty fragmented. It’s such a big story to tell. I’m especially interested in hearing how you made decisions about form.
Braver: Our biggest challenge was—you know this, I’m sure, from interviews—when you listen back to these things, as a conversation it just barely makes sense without the context. In our interview, everything was jumping. We came back and struggled with what to do. We started, both, just separately playing with parts of the transcripts. The first idea was that maybe we’d separate it into themes to keep it from getting too linear. We tried to move into a linear context, but focus in sections so that everything thematically was related.
Rumpus: What was the reason you wanted to avoid a linear narrative?
Braver: Just that we didn’t have enough of it. Molly’s biggest concern was making sure that we captured Normando’s voice. She kept saying, “I don’t feel like we’ve captured his energy and his voice. I want to see the intensity we saw in his eyes on the page.” It was also very lyrical, the way he spoke. So Molly was focused on capturing that essence. I was afraid it was going to get too dense. I have my own aesthetic about that in general, in my own writing. In accordance with Molly’s concerns about capturing Normando’s voice, I think we wanted the page to capture his voice, but replicate as much possible, the way we felt too, having these pauses.
Rumpus: I loved the way space captured some of those pauses and I also appreciated the room to absorb the material. It felt like an elegant choice.
Braver: We wanted it to be artful. Luckily, the editor [at] Uno Press, who was a poet, was very open to something like this. A normal academic press would probably be much less open to having pages with one line on them.
Rumpus: After following Normando’s story for such a long time, was there anything that surprised you when you finally met him? If you’re comfortable speaking for Molly, feel free to share her reactions, too.
Braver: Molly and I were just talking with the University PR people the other day, so I do have her speech in my head. What was sort of odd for us when we first met him was that he was just there. And I don’t even mean that he was a human being, but that he was a normal human being. He was gracious and generous and warm and smiling. And I was like, Is this the guy that was beaten in jail and tortured? Although, back to what Molly wanted to capture: his eyes. They were just so… His warmth was surprising. Not that I expected him to be cold, exactly, but you expected someone sort of beaten down. And the other thing that really stuck out to me was the relationship with his wife. It was really sort of a testament to love and devotion, at the risk of sounding corny. There was a point where we took them to lunch at a restaurant…and when we left, they were walking hand-in-hand. If you didn’t know them you’d think they were a newly-in-love couple.
Rumpus: I suppose in many ways they probably were, right?
Braver: Yeah, I guess they were.
Rumpus: You mentioned Normando’s eyes. What was it you saw in his eyes?
Braver: Often when he talked, there was sort of a sub-theme of how he outsmarted [the government]. Even in jail, as much as they were in power, they were also buffoons. He would tell this and laugh, but you could look into his eyes and his eyes weren’t laughing. Not only had they seen too much but they were still seeing too much.
Rumpus: I’m curious about the distinction Normando draws between common criminals and political prisoners. It’s a fair enough distinction, of course, but I was surprised at what a strong divide he insists on. Seven years is a long time to live beside so many men and insist on them as Other.
Braver: Well, it was very inspiring to hear him talk, partly because he was holding to his convictions. That distinction made his prison life that much more horrible, because he refused to wear prison clothes and the refusal to wear the prison clothes led to beatings or further separation from his wife, and them harassing her. But it was because of that conviction: you’re not going to make me what you want to make me.
Rumpus: I work with incarcerated men and I have to think that Cuban men aren’t all that different from American men when they’re stripped down, wearing uniforms, and living in a cell, right? At one point Normando calls them “murderers, maniacs, and very bad people,” and of course murderer is not inaccurate for some. Yet the majority of men I’ve worked with in prison—they’re simply people; most really are like any other man that you’d talk to at a diner down the block. I was curious about the fact that these boundaries never dissolved for Normando. Was that maybe a protective measure?
Braver: My sense, and I’m sort of guessing, is that the journalists were being classified by the government as common criminals, and the political prisoners were so resistant to being that. Always keeping [the other prisoners] as murderers, thieves, that sort of thing, which has a certain irony to it, I guess. It’s a curious thing.
Rumpus: I’m sure you’ve given this thought. f you were in his situation, do you think you’d do the same thing?
Braver: I would like to believe I would. I am not sure that I would in the same situation. One thing Normando said in the book: when you’re there you just do it. You just think about how many people before you stood up for their convictions and they survived, because it was right. I felt fairly weak compared to him, sitting in the room across from him, but then you look at him and—as you were saying about the prisoners—he is just another human being sitting across from me.
Rumpus: Another mortal.
Rumpus: I have to say, the beatings, the lack of food—all of it sounds horrible, but to me, the most haunting piece is the image of Normando waiting out his arrest until his daughter turns one. I wonder if I’d be tough enough in a similar situation. That first birthday party? Seven birthdays? The mother in me crumbles and I can’t imagine getting through it.
Braver: I get the feeling there was a sense of disbelief in the beginning. That maybe this couldn’t really happen. They thought some of it was show, like, Maybe they won’t really do this. Toward the end his daughter was getting sick a lot. I think it was psychosomatic problems.
Braver: They were harassing the family quite a bit. Telling them he’d said he wanted a divorce, all these kinds of games. I don’t know what goes on when the door is closed, but when you were in the room, Normando and his wife seemed so much better adjusted than you would’ve imagined, under the circumstances.
Rumpus: The book gives the impression they were totally united in his resistance.
Braver: There were a few moments when you would just see his wife retreat into herself, when things hit a nerve. The point in there where we asked him, “How did you get through this?” He said, “I thought of my family every day.” Everybody’s eyes start tearing in the room. Right and love conquered all in his mind.
Rumpus: And he did make it out, luckily before he died.
Braver: The deal was brokered with the Catholic Church to release some of these “Black Spring” prisoners. No one really understands what that was about. Even Normando, who is very religious, sort of raised an eyebrow. Why the Catholic Church and the Communist Castro? How did that come to be?
Rumpus: Did you ever, at any point, feel in danger?
Braver: Outside of just my normal paranoid self? Molly was laughing about this. I was making one hundred copies on CDs, and mailing them and sticking them in various parts of suitcases as though we were on some covert CIA mission or something. There was a point when the guy who was translating for us…who was he? I don’t quite know who he was; he was the longest living Cuban in Spain and he seemed to know everyone. He was driving the big black Mercedes and…
Rumpus: He knew People.
Braver: Yeah, and he said, “So you’re making a book. Now you’re part of it.”
Rumpus: I wasn’t sure what that implied for you and Molly.
Braver: We weren’t sure either, but it freaked us out a little bit. But we were part of it, you know. It’s not like we were just a Times reporter going over to interview. We were a part of his story. When we worked on his story with the class, the president of the university got interested in the case and wrote an op-ed, and named us and I remember feeling a little… Well, I had the feeling, I probably won’t be going to Cuba anytime soon.
What Molly would tell you is, “That’s what Normando did. He did it, why can’t we do it?” And it circles back to the idea of literary citizenship. We actually can do it.
Rumpus: On the surface, your new novel Misfit—really all of your books seem so different from The Madrid Conversations, but it strikes me that in each of them you’re giving someone a voice, maybe at the soul level. Does that seem fair?
Braver: I think that’s completely fair. I come to all this as a fiction writer and part of that is giving people a voice or a part of their voice we don’t know. Not to sound too much like we’re in the classroom, but part of that, I think, is in the way one structures the narrative.
Rumpus: What do you mean?
Braver: The way the narratives are structured, the way they’re put together can also tell the way the subject is. Does that make sense?
Rumpus: Yeah. It makes me think of Carolyn Forche’s idea that narrative, for her, stopped making sense, and because of that she doesn’t want narrative to suggest senseless things make sense. I’m paraphrasing her badly, but you get the idea. In some instances, a cohesive narrative can feel like a lie. I don’t know if that’s what you were suggesting with your narrative in Misfit and especially with The Madrid Conversations, but that’s the way my mind interpreted the works.
Braver: I certainly would agree with that. The other thing I’d add is the book before Misfit, November 22, 1963, which deals with the day of the Kennedy assassination. In that, the central theme of the book—at least one of my central themes, anyway—was the idea that one can have all of these facts and the facts are in dispute, but the way one organizes the facts can tell completely different stories. It was interesting for me to think of conspiracy buffs with the Kennedy assassination that are operating from the same set of facts, but it’s the way they organize the facts to tell the story.
Rumpus: Was Tin House pretty open to gaps and white space and places that end a little abruptly?
Braver: Yeah, I found them to be sympathetic in understanding what I was trying to do and often judicious in earlier drafts saying, “There’s too much of a gap.” I’m basically attracted, in general, to nonlinear work more than linear work. I don’t necessarily mean abstract, but as I’m thinking out loud, I might say structural or thematic connections that really are about relationships of events as opposed to what caused the next thing to happen.
Rumpus: This is a little bit of a departure, but when you’re looking at historical characters, how does trying to get your mind into an actual living person hinder or enhance your empathetic imagination?
Braver: Let’s say with Marilyn Monroe, I wasn’t trying to say, What would Marilyn Monroe do in this situation? Because that would hinder it for me. I want to get at the idea that, again, it’s another mortal person questioning or suffering or trying to negotiate the same things, not even so much that we all do, but that I do. Trying, again, to reach that common space.
Rumpus: Connecting with a person through the page.
Braver: Yeah, in many respects most of the books I write deal with well-known people. I think of those books as more about me than about those people.
Rumpus: Do you think using historical characters gives you more cover than invented characters?
Braver: I think so. It also relieves me from having to come up with another story to provide that cover. They provide the cover story for me.
Rumpus: When I was reading Misfit, I didn’t care if it was Marilyn Monroe’s heart or yours. I just felt like you had inhabited a really human space. I found it intimate and moving, but I imagine you must, as you’re crafting it, have to elbow out so many little facts that want to wiggle their way into your story. How do you keep them from interfering with the emotional truth you’re tunneling toward?
Braver: I love factoids. It’s hard for me to keep those out. Some of those things you’re talking about probably are in earlier drafts. It just takes realizing that it’s stopping the character. Part of it is the decision to keep things where you want to train the spotlight. For me, it’s the personal side. I always ask, How does the person inside the character relate to this?
Rumpus: One of the things I most admired about Misfit is your empathetic imagination. You make me wonder, if you’re exercising your imagination to empathize with Marilyn Monroe’s perceived stubbornness, does developing this muscle make it easier for you to do this as a human in the world? Or do you do this naturally, and that’s what makes you successful as a writer?
Braver: I don’t know which comes first, although they feed each other either way. I guess all writers do this. I’m not as driven by the plot point. You know the scene at Dodgers Stadium where Marilyn Monroe is avoiding the woman in the wheelchair?
Rumpus: Yes, yes. That scene is excruciating.
Braver: That event is not a big highlight of Monroe’s life. It’s a footnote, essentially. To me, that was something I could feel. That’s what I understand in writing—sometimes to my detriment with lack of plot. That’s what I gravitate toward instead of the high drama of a story.
It was similar with Normando. I think on an unconscious level, we structured the story around those moments where we felt ourselves in the story, too. As you were saying—the parts that hit you as a parent, the parts where he’s talking about missing his mother as opposed to the high drama about when he was beaten, etc.
Rumpus: What part of Normando’s story haunts you most?
Braver: Ah, the beginning more than anything. In part, it’s the idea that Normando was having just a normal day…but by that end of the day he’s hiding in a tree out back. That sense of terror somehow resonates with me more than what he went through in jail. Maybe because the idea of being beaten and incarcerated is so far out of my worldview. But that sense of having the world turn against you really resonated with me.
Oh, and the moment he goes to kiss his daughter goodnight for the last time. That’s the part that really wrenched me.
Rumpus: Would you do this again? Not mind the case, but meet with the man behind the case after the case?
Braver: My sense is that I would do it again, but I don’t think I would plan to make it part of the work. In Normando’s case, there was the deeper connection that we made with him and his family during his imprisonment and after; but also there was the drive that he had to get his story out. He wanted the world to know. So, in that sense, there was an element of timing and circumstance that brought all this together. If it happens again in the future, then it happens. But it needs to be natural. I think (hope) what makes reading this narrative compelling was the legitimate admiration, respect, and bond we all had for each other. It was all very honest, and one without deeper agendas. So if it happens again, by all means.
Watch a video about Normando’s case, made by Roger Williams University students, here.
Watch a video of the Roger Williams University president attempting to deliver Normando’s commencement award to the Cuban Mission in NYC here.
Featured image of Adam Braver © by Emma Dodge.
Images of Normando Hernández González with Adam Braver and Molly Gessford, courtesy of Adam Braver.