Synopses & Reviews
The new novel her first in six years from the acclaimed author of Dreaming in Cuban
and The Agüero Sisters
follows one family from China to Cuba to America in an emotionally resonant tale of immigration, assimilation, and the powerful integrity of self.
In 1857, when Chen Pan signs a contract that will take him from China "beyond the edge of the world to Cuba," he has no idea that he will be enslaved on a sugarcane plantation...or that he will eventually, miraculously, escape his bonds and embark on a prosperous life in Havanas Chinatown...or that he will buy a mulatto woman out of slavery and take her into his home and heart...or that he will end his long days in Havana, surrounded by children and grandchildren, as Cuban as he is Chinese.
In a vivid tapestry of incident and feeling, Chen Pans life story is interwoven with those of two of his descendants: his granddaughter, Chen Fang, born in China and raised as a boy so she could be educated, her life coming to its end in one of Maos hellish prisons, and Domingo, Chen Pans great-great-grandson, who, with his father, becomes an American citizen after Castros revolution, only to lose his parent to the false promises of the American dream, and himself, finally, to the madness of wartime Vietnam.
Deeply stirring, wonderfully evocative of time and place, rendered in the lyrical prose that is Cristina Garcías hallmark, Monkey Hunting brilliantly illuminates a generations-long struggle toward a sense of true belonging.
"Gorgeously detailed and entrancingly told, erotic, mystical, and wise, Garcia's bittersweet saga of a family of remarkable individuals spans a century of displacement, war, and sacrifice, and a world of forbearance and love." Donna Seaman, Booklist
From a National Book Award finalist comes an emotionally rich and powerful saga of one Chinese-Cuban family. Rendered in the lyrical prose that is Garca's hallmark, "Monkey Hunting" brilliantly illuminates a generations-long struggle toward a sense of true belonging.
About the Author
Cristina García was born in Havana and grew up in New York City. Her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, was nominated for a National Book Award and has been widely translated. Ms. García has been a Guggenheim Fellow, a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University, and the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award. She lives in Santa Monica with her daughter, Pilar.
Reading Group Guide
The introduction, discussion questions, author biography, and suggested reading list that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Monkey Hunting
, the extraordinary new novel from Cristina García.
1. Why does Cristina García use multiple narrators? Why does she jump back and forth between time frames and settings in China, Cuba, New York, and Vietnam? What does such a narrative approach add to the novel that a more conventional structure could not achieve?
2. What ironies are revealed in Chen Pan’s letting himself be drawn to Cuba with dreams of returning home “a wealthy man”? What are the consequences of his fantasy of coming back to “build a splendid house by the river, huge and on stilts, better than any in his village’s memory. He’d buy two or three more wives, comely and fecund as hens, found his own dynasty”? (pp. 5—6). In what ways is this kind of dreaming similar to the fantasies of those who enslave him?
3. When Chen Pan arrives in Cuba, the narrator observes, “Here he could no longer rely on the known ways. Who was he now without his country?” (p. 21). Does Chen Pan lose his identity in Cuba? Or does he blend his Chinese identity with a new Cuban identity? In what ways is the novel itself about personal identity in relation to family, country, class, race, and gender?
4. Monkey Hunting takes place against the backdrop of Cuba’s revolutionary war against Spain, Mao’s cultural revolution in China, and the Vietnam War. How do these historical events influence the characters and their actions? How are these wars related?
5. Chen Fang says, “There is no harder work than being a woman” (p. 96). Why is she in a unique position to know this? Is she right? Does the novel itself support her view?
6. When Chen Fang meets Dauphine, she says, “Her long blond hair hung like a voyage” (p. 140). Why would Chen Fang describe her in this way? What does the likening of her hair to a voyage reveal about both Chen Fang and Dauphine? What does it foreshadow? Where else in the novel does this kind of metaphoric language occur?
7. Chen Pan tells his grandson, Meng: “In your life there will be two paths, one easy and one difficult. Listen well: Always choose the difficult one” (p.193). Why does Chen Pan offer this advice? In what ways has he himself chosen the more difficult path?
8. Thinking about the American soldiers who brought home Vietnamese women after the war, “Domingo wondered about these migrations, these cross-cultural lusts. Were people meant to travel such distances? Mix with others so different from themselves?” (p. 209). In what ways is his own family an example of such migrations and “cross-cultural lusts”? What are the good and bad consequences of such movements?
9. What motivates Chen Pan to buy the mulatto slave Lucrecia and her son? How has his own experience as a slave affected this decision and his treatment of Lucrecia?
10. When the Protestant missionaries try to convert Lucrecia, she asks, “From what?” and asserts her belief that “whenever you helped someone else, you saved yourself” (p. 128). What specific examples of this ethic does the novel provide? In what kinds of behavior is it subverted?
11. Why has García divided her novel into three parts: “Origins,” “Traveling Through the Flesh,” and “Last Rites”? How are these parts related to one another? In what sense is the novel about spiritual journey?
12. The novel ends with a remarkable sentence: “When Chen Pan drank his red wine, he smiled and became immortal” (p. 251). How should this sentence be interpreted? In what sense has Chen Pan become immortal?
13. What does Monkey Hunting, as a whole, say about the struggle between love and compassion, on the one hand, and greed and oppression, on the other? What does it say about the conflicts arising from the desire for freedom and the impulse to control?
A Conversation with Cristina Garcia
Q: Much of our current knowledge of Cuba is second-hand, fueled by books and film. Your 1992 novel, Dreaming in Cuban, introduced the Cuban-American experience to many American readers, arriving on bookshelves well in advance of popular films like The Buena Vista Social Club or Before Night Falls. How do you make the Cuban and Cuban-American experience ring true for American readers?
A:I try to stick to the particularities of my characters’ situations and obsessions. There is no such thing as a Cuban ‘type,’ only individuals who reflect in their subjective ways, the greater political and social realities of their identity.
Q: Monkey Hunting begins in territory unfamiliar to your previous novels--19th Century agrarian China--with the story of Chen Pan. How did his story come to you? Was there a significant wave of Chinese emigration to Cuba?
A:The story of the Chinese in Cuba is long and varied, beginning in 1847 when the first ships of contract laborers arrived to work the island’s sugarcane fields. Over the years, many waves of Chinese followed, nestling themselves into every town and village in Cuba. I first became interested in their story as a kid, when I was taken to eat at Chinese-Cuban restaurants in Manhattan.
Q:Your novel explores the notion of opportunity. Chen Pan’s departure from the failing family farm for Cuba--where he believes the streets are paved with gold and the harvest never fails--ends in his enslavement. But his subsequent resolve creates a whole new array of opportunities that power his family history forward. In what sense is his story typical?
A:I would say Chen Pan’s story is atypical. Most of the Chinese who had the misfortune to arrive in Cuba as he did ended up dead or destitute. Still, there were a few who managed to secure their freedom by hook or by crook and helped establish Havana’s
Q:You’ve written previously of the challenge of living between two worlds. The multi-generational stories in Monkey Hunting move through time and geography from country to country. Is family the common thread that connects all these different places and times?
A:The power of family cannot be underestimated, fictionally or otherwise. I think we
receive many inheritances that we’re not even aware of–not just our grandfather’s nose or an aunt’s predilection for the flute, but other emotional inheritances that we play out in our own ways and contexts.
Q: How central is the notion of family to the Cuban-American identity?
A:Family, music, and black beans. This is the holy trinity of Cuban identity.
Q: Was it difficult to write about a magical and timeless sense of place when it must contrast with the brash political landscape of Castro’s revolution, Mao’s China, the stark reality of an immigrant New York experience, or that of a patriotic new American soldier’s encounter with wartime Vietnam?
A:It was both a liberation and burden to write about a place and time so far removed from my own. I immersed myself in the history of colonial Cuba to get the atmosphere and details right, but after a certain point I put all the books away and simply tried to tell a good story.
Q:What is the connection between Chen Pan’s emigration from China and the Cuban Diaspora two generations later? Which generation is marked in particular by an eagerness to assimilate?
A:Chen Pan chose to leave China to seek a better life in Cuba, even though he ended up enslaved for a time. Those who left Cuba two generations later were motivated for largely political reasons. This is why so many Cuban-Americans refer to themselves as exiles, as
opposed to immigrants. It’s a big difference and it sets them apart from other ethnic groups in the United States.
Q:You were born in Havana and raised in the United States. How does your experience inform your characters?
A:I think my obsessions inform my characters more than my actual experiences. As such, I’m a part of all of them–even the 19th century Chinese farm laborer-cum-antiques shop owner.
Q:In addition to penning Monkey Hunting, you’ve also edited and written an introduction to ¡Cubanísimo! a new anthology of contemporary Cuban literature to be published in May. Tell me more…
A:¡Cubanísimo! is a labor of literary love, a song to the contemporary music and literature of the island. I never had so much fun in my life!