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1 Beaverton Literature- A to Z

This title in other editions

Monkey Hunting (Ballantine Reader's Circle)

by

Monkey Hunting (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Cover

 

 

Author Q & A

A CONVERSATION WITH CRISTINA GARCÍA

Scott Shibuya Brown is a writer and professor at

California State University, Northridge.

Scott Shibuya Brown: What inspired you to write

the novel? How and why did you decide to write about

the Chinese experience in Cuba?

Cristina García: When I was growing up in New

York, my parents took me to my .rst Chinese-Cuban

restaurant on the Upper West Side. A Chinese waiter

came over, took our order in Spanish, and to my utter

delight, I was able to get Cuban black beans with my

pork-fried rice. I thought this was the greatest thing

that ever happened to me. But when I asked my parents

how and why the Chinese and the Cuban dishes

could go together like this, they couldn’t tell me. So

this book, in part, is an exploration of “why?” In addition,

my own daughter is part Japanese, part Cuban,

part Guatemalan, and part Russian Jew, and I’ve

become interested over the years in compounded

identities such as hers . . . not just those people trying

to .gure out one hyphen but multiple hyphens.

SSB: Was it dif.cult to write about Chinese history

and culture? Did you have any reluctance about taking

it on?

CG: It was extremely dif.cult for me because my protagonist

was not only a male and Chinese but from

the nineteenth century and transposed to Cuba. I had

to learn a tremendous amount about Chinese culture

and history, as well as Cuban colonial times, and I

had to .ght self-charges of fraud all along the way.

What was probably most useful for me was reading a

great deal of Chinese poetry in translation, both for

the sensibility and cultural preoccupations that it

offered. Even so, I had to work very hard to enter the

bloodstream of my character, Chen Pan, more from

the outside in than the other way around. I got to

know him slowly and painfully but ultimately in a

deep and satisfying way. Constantly, I questioned my

ability to do his story justice and with authenticity. I

was so concerned that I ran my book past several

experts just to make sure I’d gotten it right. To me,

the book is ultimately a 120-year dialogue between

Cuba and Asia.

SSB: How did you conceive the novel? Was it done in

terms of character or a certain milieu and history that

you wanted to write about?

CG: The book started out as being Domingo’s story.

Originally, I had conceived of it as a novel about Vietnam

and the complications for a soldier of mixed race

.ghting for the Americans there. But as I delved further

into Domingo’s background, I grew more and

more interested in the story of his great-grandfather,

Chen Pan, and his travails coming to Cuba in the

1850s. So over time the back story became the main

story and Domingo ended up as more of an echo of his

ancestor.

SSB: What are some of the things that you discovered

about Cuba and China in writing this? What surprised

you in the course of your research?

CG: This may sound naïve but what surprised me

most was the extent to which slavery, mostly from

Africa but also from China and elsewhere, fueled the

Cuban economy in the nineteenth century. It’s disturbing

how the island’s vibrant culture was forged under such brutality. Now it’s never far from my

thoughts when I think and write about Cuba. I also

was surprised to learn that the Chinese participated

in the various wars for independence. They very

quickly took on the nationalist cause and fought as

long and hard for Cuban independence as anybody.

There were many Chinese war heroes.

SSB: Where does the title come from and what does

it mean?

CG: It’s a bit of an homage to the Chinese myth of the

monkey king, a picaresque tale about a brilliant monkey

who did everything possible to ensure his immortality.

He became such a nuisance that the gods .nally

complained directly to the Buddha, who had him sealed

under a mountain for .ve hundred years. With this

title, I’m exploring the notion of immortality, how legacies

get passed on from generation to generation, and

how we’re always beholden to our origins.

SSB: So far, you’ve written almost exclusively on the

theme of family. How does this novel differ from your

previous two regarding that theme?

CG: I think this novel is painted on a bigger canvas.

It covers large periods of time, broad social movements,

and wars in two centuries. Yet at the same

time I wanted to retain an intimacy with the characters

and their struggles. I thought it would be inter-

esting to explore the notion of identity traveling

through the .esh, a concept I came across in the

poetry of the Brazilian writer Carlos Drummond de

Andrade. What do we inherit, not just physically but

emotionally, psychologically, temperamentally? Does

the past suffuse the present like a kind of water

table? These were among my many obsessions writing

this book.

SSB: How would you describe Chen Pan in terms of

his character, his desires, his motivations?

CG: I see Chen Pan as an extraordinary man for his

time. He was the son of a failed poet who never quite

.t in and struggled against his wife’s disapproval.

Chen Pan loved and admired his father deeply. What

makes an ordinary wheat farmer sign a contract to go

halfway across the world on the remote chance of getting

rich and changing his fortune? Chen Pan was not

only adventurous, but also unusually open-minded.

He didn’t care much what other people thought of

him. It was his father’s sharing of his time and his

beloved poetry with Chen Pan that ultimately made

him so special. For all his strengths, he was also a

true romantic.

SSB: How do you see him? Is he a Chinese man in

Cuba, a Chinese-Cuban, or is he simply part of the

mix of Cuban people?

CG: At the end of the book, Chen Pan talks about

belonging neither to China nor to Cuba entirely. He’s

lost most of his Chinese and yet his Spanish is still

quite fractured and heavily accented. He belongs

somewhere between both worlds, but probably a little

closer to Cuba. In the end, I think he gave his heart to

Cuba (partly through the love of his wife) and that’s

where his legacy remains.

SSB: The fate of the women here seems unusually

harsh. Chen Fang has to pose as a boy in China, loses

her child, and is eventually imprisoned during the

Cultural Revolution. Caridad dies and Lucrecia only

escapes her fate with a delicate luck. Were you aware

of this while writing the characters? Is there a larger

theme being writ here?

CG: I think these were not unusual fates for women

of these times and places—and in fact, for many

women today in various parts of the world. I had no

ulterior motive for making my female characters so

oppressed except to stay close to their reality. I

wanted very much to make their dire situations come

vividly alive.

SSB: Domingo seems like such a lost soul. What’s his

place in the novel?

CG: Domingo is a twenty-first-century man in the

twentieth century. I had to ask myself what identity

meant when it’s such a mix. And are the ways in

which we discuss identity still meaningful or are they

becoming obsolete? In Domingo’s time, compounded

identities such as his were still uncommon. His confusion

is further complicated by his moving from Cuba

to New York and then to Vietnam in a few short years.

He really doesn’t know who he is or where he belongs.

That would be another book entirely. In fact, that was

the book I originally set out to write. Maybe I still

will!

SSB: Was it difficult writing about men after your

previous two

novels, which were centered mainly on

women?

CG: Yes, to my surprise. Before I had my own daughter,

I remember arguing vociferously for nurture over

nature in terms of child development. After I saw my

own daughter clomping around in feathered mules at

the age of three, I understood that nature had a lot

more to do with identity than I’d previously believed.

The same thing happened to me writing about men.

How hard could it be? I thought. What’s the big deal?

What’s the big difference? It turned out to be inordinately

dif.cult. For me, the men were harder to

access and impossible to take for granted. I had to

question every sentence I wrote in a way I never had

to with my crazy Cuban women. They were already

familiar to me. In fact, it’s all I can do to escape them.

SSB: With the exception of the man who provides

Chen Pan with a letter of domicile, the Spanish in

Cuba are not portrayed very sympathetically. What

are your feelings on this?

CG: I suppose I share with Chen Pan a disdain for

colonial imperatives and impositions. This also comes

through in the Chen Fang section when the Japanese

invade Shanghai. And it appears in my previous

books, as well.

SSB: In the end, how do you think Chen Pan understands

his life? What does he do with his knowledge of

himself?

CG: There’s a scene toward the end of the novel where

Chen Pan is talking to his grandson, Pipo, and tells

him that all one can do is to live each day well, and that

in the end the cumulative effect of that will be a largely

satisfying life. I think Chen Pan, in his way, always

tried to live like this, to do right by his family and

friends and associates, and to appreciate the details

around him. I think he also understood that what he

passed on was just as important as how he himself

lived. Ultimately, through him and his descendants, I

was interested in exploring the nature of inheritance.

SSB: This is a novel of fragmented narratives, much

like your other two novels. Is there a particular reason

you choose to write in this form?

CG: As much as I’ve enjoyed the great nineteenthcentury

novels written in the stentorian voice of the

authorial omniscient, I mistrust it. I don’t believe any

one voice can tell the whole truth of a story. In my

opinion, you need several people, at minimum, to

even begin to approach something resembling the

truth. To me, a story is always subject to competing

realities. I try to capture something of that in the way

I write my books. Ambiguity is generally more honest

than absolutes.

SSB: In terms of scope, this is your most far-reaching

novel, yet paradoxically, it’s also your most condensed.

How did this come about and what dif.culties

did this present?

CG: I wanted very much to avoid the model of the

exhaustive family saga. Nothing bores me more. I was

interested in writing on a “need to know” basis, a tale

distilled to its very essence. I wanted to offer just what a

reader would need to move forward, nothing in excess. I

wanted the narrative to move forward more by juxtaposition

and imaginative leaps than by endless detail.

I cut an enormous amount of background yet I hope,

somehow, that the knowledge has still informed the

work. What isn’t there, in my opinion, is as important

as what remains. In the end, I was hoping the story

would come off more like a series of prose poems or

musical movements than a conventional, linear novel.

SSB: It’s interesting you bring up music. In the Los

Angeles Times review of the book, the critic refers to

Miles Davis and writes, “Like the trumpeter, García

has a rare gift for concentrating beauty by leaving

things out.” What are your thoughts on that?

CG: I love Miles Davis.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780345466105
Author:
Garcia, Cristina
Publisher:
Ballantine Books
Author:
Garcia, Cristina
Author:
iacute
Author:
A
Author:
&
Author:
Cristina Garc
Author:
a, Cristina
Author:
Garc
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Slavery
Subject:
Cuban Americans
Subject:
China
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Ballantine Reader's Circle
Publication Date:
20050331
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
288
Dimensions:
7.84x5.42x.62 in. .46 lbs.

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

Monkey Hunting (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Used Trade Paper
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$9.50 In Stock
Product details 288 pages Ballantine Books - English 9780345466105 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , In this deeply stirring novel, acclaimed author Cristina García follows one extraordinary family through four generations, from China to Cuba to America. Wonderfully evocative of time and place, rendered in the lyrical prose that is García’s hallmark, Monkey Hunting is an emotionally resonant tale of immigration, assimilation, and the prevailing integrity of self.
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