Cristina García describes her new novel Vanishing Maps (Knopf) as a companion book to her 1992 novel Dreaming in Cuban. Set twenty years after the events in Dreaming in Cuban, Maps spans decades of Cuban history and follows several characters readers know and love as they travel the globe from Moscow to Los Angeles to Berlin. Punctuated by details about Cuban and Eastern European history, from the post-revolution exodus to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and brimming with music from Mozart’s concertos to New York City punk, Vanishing Maps is defined by rich settings, haunted by old ghosts, and alive with the scars of lived experience and memory. It is, as García describes a “sensorial” book—a luscious treat of a novel.
Having written eight books and adapting some for theater, García is a prolific artist and author, and I was eager to speak with her about her approach to her craft. Our conversation on Zoom spanned her distrust of omniscient narrators, her methods for writing multiple perspectives and strong-willed characters, the surprising black-and-white photo inserted halfway through the book, and García’s long-standing newsletter for writers, Las Dos Brujas.
The Rumpus: Can you talk about the publication of Dreaming in Cuban and how your career as a writer has grown since?
Cristina García: Well, I’ve always loved teaching. Over the years, I didn’t take a tenure track job just because of all the bureaucracy and meetings. I stayed afloat in other ways, parachuting in as a professor, which worked out for me. But I always loved meeting young artists. It’s so delicate to work with someone in an MFA, who is still in progress with a project. I think that understanding and taking a project on its own terms and treating it on its own terms, if anything, is what I can offer. I knew how vulnerable it is to show work, that they were showing work to me was a privilege. I have these longstanding relationships with writers. It’s hard. People don’t understand unless they’re doing it. The time and commitment and immersion that removes you from the quotidian. It’s about solidarity more than anything.
Rumpus: You’ve written so many other novels since Dreaming in Cuban, so I’m curious how you decide to write a follow-up to that book? Why did you feel it was time to revisit this material?
García: Well, it’s kind of simple. I thought that book was done, but over the years people asked me, “Did Celia survive walking into the sea? What happened to Lourdes?” I would say, “I don’t know, your guess is as good as mine.” And then what happened was I started working with this young director in New York—he’s thirty years old—he’s such a little powerhouse. He loved the book in high school and said he wanted to do an adaptation of the book—would I be interested? At that point I just started dabbling in theater. I had just adapted King of Cuba and I said okay.
So it was that process of getting reacquainted with all of them that got me curious. How did they survive? The first book was such an inflection point for Cuban history, it was the Mariel exodus. So much happened in the 80s and 90s in Cuba, especially in the 90s during the Special Period. How did everyone survive? What happened? Who got out? Who stayed? I was adapting and back in that world but imagining them forward in twenty years, another inflection point in the new millennium and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. That’s how it got started up in me again.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the characters in this book. I know this isn’t the first book where you take on many, many characters and write from different perspectives. What are your methods to creating so many characters with different attitudes, political views and also with such different relations to their heritage and homeland?
García: It’s from both my interest and my weariness of single narrators. As much as I love the Russian gargantuan omniscient point of view, I don’t really trust it that much. I feel like in my own experience and experience of many people I see, there is tremendous competition for narrative. For me, it’s interesting to see what pans out. I saw it this way or I saw it this way, whether it’s something familial or something on a grand, global, historical level, nobody has the same story. It’s up to readers to parse it all and come to some complicated ideas or not. I won’t give them a “pregurgitated” history. To me, it’s interesting to be inclusive of all kinds of points of view, even those I kind of abhor, like Lourdes.
Rumpus: You mentioned the characters are always competing, and it’s true that these characters do have a lot of tension.
García: Sometimes I feel like I’m not giving them enough airtime. Pilar could have her own book, [but] I’m sure she would want it. Lourdes sucks all the oxygen in the room. Or the twins, they would want their own book too. It’s about balancing all these parts to the whole arc. I was interested in having them be tethered to their environment, and how does that resonate back and forth with their histories.
Rumpus: I did really admire the number of places, environments as you wrote them in this novel, from Los Angeles to Moscow. How did you go about writing about each setting with vivid and rich detail?
García: It depends on whether it’s a place I know or something more historical, or whether it’s a place far away, like Moscow. So it’s a spectrum. There’s the intimacy and distortions of one’s own memory, sensorially. You can use all your senses and you can call that up. That’s kind of ours, we own that. And yet I still think there are opportunities to research and figure out things that we didn’t know when we were little. Like I grew up with Son of Sam, we thought we were going to get abducted. There’s the intimacy of details like that. On the far end, there’s the historical. I wrote a book mostly set in nineteenth-century Cuba, so that was delving deep into history books and sometimes you could find first person accounts of things. It’s a combination of intimacy, distortion of memory, and research and history. That combination is really valuable for opening up a place that’s larger than yourself.
Rumpus: Can you tell me about your approach to writing ghosts? There is a ghost in this novel—Alicia, Ivanito’s mother, who visits him from the dead.
García: Yes, Alicia. I had so much fun writing her. I just love playing with space and time and materiality. I also love just the sense of porosity historically and in terms of our actual lives. I’m really interested in our relationship to time. Some people will read it and think, “Is he hallucinating? Is he working something out? Should he go to a therapist?” Or is Alicia actually showing up and munching on carrots? I like the borderlands. I love the nebulous terrain between hard reality and facts, how some of our experiences get mixed up with longing and imagination and what does that reality look like? There’s an exercise coming in tomorrow in my newsletter to describe a room three ways. It just came from something I read in a book that said, “I could have described the room in three ways.” And yeah, it depends on the mood, on the time, is it one hundred years ago? Is it now? Is it the same person in three different psychic states? It takes a while, but once you’re in the bloodstream of a character you would know what they do in a situation. It’s not about making a right choice, because they could decide seventeen different things but that you begin to trust their decisions.
Rumpus: There is so much music in the novel—it gives each character a real sense of place and time and personality. Can you tell me about your decision to include so much music throughout the book? Is music an important part of your writing process?
García: I’m so glad you picked up on that. At one point, I was talking to my editor about having an addendum with a playlist because there’s quite a range there. It’s also part of the tension between Pilar and her cousin Ivanito. They might have been united back in 1980s New York with punk, but now he’s onto a whole other world and has a very different taste, but she’s still stuck on sensibility. That’s part of their clashing and incompatibility. So yes, there is always music and food. I have a kind of soundtrack for each character, actually. I don’t think Azul has one yet, but the others all do—even the twins—when they go to the bar and what resonates with them. Ivanito, too, he loves the old boleros, that’s a whole other aspect of his personality. For me, music is just another sensory realm to explore that also does work for you rather than explaining everything. Music is this luscious shorthand for sensibilities.
Rumpus: There is one photo in the book, smack in the middle. Can you talk about the archives you consulted to write this novel, and the documents, both real and imagined, that are a part of the novel?
García: That photo is me, actually. The alter ego of Pilar. I got sent that photo while I was in the middle of writing this book. And I was like “Oh my god, holy shit, look at this thing.” At that point I already had the trope of Pilar and her photographs being a parallel, structurally to Dreaming in Cuban when Celia wrote to that lover in the thirties. I kind of kept it aside, but initially when I sent the book to the editors, there were photos all throughout—vintage photographs, found photographs—but I found it was kind of distracting. Do you look at the picture or do you look at the words? My editor said, “You decide, ultimately,” and what I decided on ultimately is that one fierce thirteen year old looking into the future. That would have been Pilar at thirteen when Dreaming in Cuban starts. Less is more. I just think that sometimes it’s harder to be economical. You have so much space in a novel. It’s harder to use just the best stuff.
Rumpus: Only one of your characters, Pilar, speaks in first person. The rest speak in the third person. How did you make that decision? Did you feel closest to Pilar in terms of outlook and personality?
García: She was also in first person in Dreaming in Cuban, and she punched through with the first. Initially, everybody was written in close third. I thought, “Okay, everybody, calm down, let’s keep it elegant, everyone gets the same perspective.” But Pilar had none of it. Her name was Natalia at one point, and she said “I don’t like my name either,” and it was really mano a mano with her. I finally succumbed. It’s actually the hardest voice for me to write. Some of her early sensibilities I resonate with, but it’s the hardest for me to write because I have a lot less maneuverability when I’m writing her. I’m kind of in her head and there are these limitations. She doesn’t have this fluidity that Ivanito has, which I love writing because I can go on a tangent, which is awkward sometimes in first person. And my experience of writing her in Dreaming in Cuban is that she sounds just as strident as Lourdes. I’m like “You guys, dial it back.” Not that I want to rein in the emotions, but I feel like I don’t get to have as much poetry. Maybe that’s unfair, maybe I should work harder on that.
Rumpus: Ivanito does have so much fluidity. With the way he does drag, he inhabits another person entirely and changes who he is depending on his audience.
García: In that sense, yes, he’s very layered. The diva and all the layers, down to the part he’s trying to hide, the shame at the core and the abuse from his mother.
Rumpus: Reunion is a big part of this book. There are separated twins, reunited lovers, cousins who grow distant and then grow together again. Did you always know you wanted to reunite your characters?
García: That’s a great question. I don’t know if I thought of it consciously that way. One of the twins grew up in Russia; the other grew up in East Berlin. There are also the divisions in the Cuban community and how the mother Celia and daughter Lourdes never reunite because their politics are too radically different. I think there are attempts at reunion, but some are successful and some are tenuous and some don’t work at all. In a way, the book is looking at a spectrum of reunion possibilities, both personally and politically, and with varying results. I think the book interrogates the possibilities to impossibilities of reunions personally and politically. But politics gets in the way a lot. I mean, I see it in my own family.
Rumpus: In your newsletter, you are a real coach and support for writers both new and established. Tell me about that community you’ve grown and why you do that work outside of writing.
García: It’s very dear to my heart. Las Dos Brujas started with a summer conference in 2012. It’s already going over ten years. It was at Ghost Ranch outside of Santa Fe, and it was so crazy. People came from all over and we picked them up in buses in Albuquerque and drove them for an hour and a half into the wilderness. This was where Georgia O’Keefe lived, in this incredible desert. And here are New Yorkers getting off the bus, going, “Oh my god, where am I? Is that a deer? Is that okay?” I was like, “Yes, that’s a deer. That’s okay.” And here was the other thing I didn’t realize—we had no Wi-Fi, even though they’d said we’d have Wi-Fi. So people had to talk to each other all the time.
Two relationships were borne of that, romantic relationships, non-romantic ones, so much was borne of those eight or so days in the desert. Juan Felipe Herrera was teaching poetry. Chris Abani was there. Denise Chavez, Kimiko Hahn. Such a great bunch of people. It really inspired me. It’s a huge amount of work, so I’ve only done one other big conference in 2017 and we had it all up and down the Mission [neighborhood in San Francisco] in seven or eight different venues. But those kinds of conferences, they’re basically a job. It wasn’t anything I could sustain as I was getting older.
I follow this historian Timothy Snyder at Yale, an expert in Eastern Europe. And I saw he had a Substack and I was like “What is this?” As soon as I found out about it, I put it out because this was how I could keep a community going. I do get emails and feel like something has been slowly growing and forging over time. I know there is a lot of talent there.
Author photograph by Gary L. Aguilar