THE AUTHOR OF 13 BOOKS of prose and poetry, including a translation (with Mark Statman) of Federico García Lorca’s Poet in New York (2007), Pablo Medina has slowly nurtured an unassuming but distinguished career in letters. He identifies proudly as a Cuban American, and his family history and political leanings play a prominent role in his work. His memoir Exiled Memories: A Cuban Childhood (1990), for instance, is an elegant account about growing up in Cuba during the 1950s, a decade marked by the leadership of Fulgencio Batista and the rise to power of Fidel Castro. Among the photographs included in the book is a snapshot of Medina, a child of 12, boarding one of the last flights to New York City out of Havana, just before Castro assumed control of the island.
The 1990s marked a resurgence of Cuban childhood memoirs, including Gustavo Pérez Firmat’s Next Year in Cuba: A Cubano’s Coming-of-Age in America (1995), Virgil Suárez’s Spared Angola: Memories from a Cuban-American Childhood (1997), Flor Fernández Barrios’s Blessed by Thunder: Memoir of a Cuban Girlhood (1999), and Carlos Eire’s childhood memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy (2003), winner of the National Book Award. This movement in nonfiction spoke to the impulse in the Cuban American community to document the surviving stories of Cuba’s first generation of exiles, now growing old and dying, many of who still cling to the dream of returning home after the end of Castro’s reign.
Cuban American fiction continued to flourish, especially with the rise to prominence of such authors as Oscar Hijuelos, whose novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love (1989) was the first by a Latino author to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize; Ernestro Mestre-Reed, author of The Lazarus Rumba (1991); Cristina García, whose novel Dreaming in Cuban (1992) was a National Book Award finalist; and Achy Obejas, author of Memory Mambo (1996). These works explore, among other themes, the complexities of a Cuban identity and culture after the revolution, including the negotiation of feminism, assimilation and LGBT issues within the borders of Cuban traditions. Indeed, the transition from insider to outsider offered plenty of literary territory.
In many ways, Pablo Medina couldn’t have picked a better moment to make his literary debut. But though he released his first novel in 1994, The Marks of Birth took an original direction that likely cost Medina the critical attention it deserved. The Marks of Birth revolves around Antón García Turner, whose Caribbean family was forced out of an unnamed island by its dictator Nicolás Campión. The novel traces the family’s cultural dislocation and Antón’s difficulty in acculturating, even within an assimilated Cuban Miami, where he attempts to live, briefly, as A. G. Turner. By shaping a narrative outside of history, Medina sidesteps the overshadowing figure of Castro and illuminates the tragedy of exile and the emotional pull of añoranza, that indescribable but powerful longing for home. The García Turners’s tenacious desire to see the overthrow of Nicolás Campión’s (a thinly veiled Castro) and reclaim their native citizenship is so strong they are incapable of acquiescing to the newfound comforts and opportunities in the United States. In this way, Medina distinguishes himself from other Cuban American writers whose immigrant narrative is one in which the community embraces its new home while the homeland grows faint as whispered song. Cuban Americans don’t extinguish the hope of a return to Cuba, but over time the hope becomes more of a sentimental gesture, while for Medina the flame burns intensely. Indeed, Antón comes to realize that his destiny must be “fulfilled in blood.” The Marks of Birth ends with Antón tending his garden — in this case not a symbol of his investment in American soil. To the contrary, Antón has just completed training with a paramilitary group set to invade the island. He is biding his time before returning home.
In his second novel, The Return of Felix Nogara (2000), Medina names that once unnamed island, Barata, to which the protagonist returns shortly after the death of its tyrant Nicolás Campión. In many ways, this imagined scenario is a sharp critique of Castro’s expectations of the revolution. What Felix witnesses is a disenchanted island whose people have been beaten down by decades of isolation and poverty. The culture has been sullied by one man’s ideology: “And who ever cared about ideology anyway? The Baratans had never been people of ideas; they were people of passion and allegiance.”
Symbolically, one of Felix’s goals is to locate his mother — parent and child were separated when Felix fled at the tender age of 12. When he finally finds her, she’s a patient in a mental institution. In a striking (and deliberate) reversal of fortune, as an act of both loyalty and agency, Felix opts to remain in Barata, giving up his middle-class lifestyle in his adopted country to work as a cab driver on the island.
Medina’s third novel is arguably his most lyrically and syntacticly ambitious. The Cigar Roller (2005), written in the vein of Carlos Fuentes’s La Muerte de Artemio Cruz (1962), in which the death-bound protagonist’s life flashes before the reader’s eyes on the page. In this case, that lengthy and eventful history belongs to Amadeo Terra who, as a Cuban citizen in the late nineteenth century, bears witness to the Ten Years’ War, the heroic life of José Martí, and Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain. Now confined to his bed, he must cherish the smallest of events in order to feel alive:
In order to find in his memory the source of that taste […][he] swallows, closes his eyes. Mango. Yellow, pulpy, stringy, sticky yellow. Mango! He wants it, tubs of it, he wants all mango, mango day and mango night, mango moon and mango sun and mango sea and mango mountain and mango swamp. Nurse is mango. Home is mango. Amadeo is mango. He opens his mouth wide, he wants mango. The fat around his throat is quivering for more. Mango, he yells with his eyes; mango, he begs, blinking yes.
In his prime, his pride was his own artistry as a cigar roller. The cigar roller’s motto: “A man is judged by his ability in the rolling bench and by his capacity for work.”
Yet as the cigar rolling industry thrives, its workers come under political suspicion, so Amadeo flees to Florida, where the industry flourishes removed from Cuba’s turmoil. But this distance distresses Amadeo, who succumbs to fits of rage and violence, particularly directed at his sons, who seem more than willing to assimilate into a twentieth-century American identity. Amadeo, “clinging to the depleted island of his body” after a paralyzing stroke, weaves his homeland’s history with his own to stimulate his mind, his last working muscle, and keep his consciousness afloat as he disintegrates into forgetting. The tale of Amadeo Terra is a startling allegory of the story of a beloved land.
By now another generation of Cuban Americans thrives in the U.S., one more generation removed from the exiles who still hold dear those dreams and memories of Cuba. Castro, now 86 years old, has clung to power for over half a century, as if determined to outlive every last wait for a return. And second-generation Cuban American writers such as Jennine Capó Crucet illustrate those contrasting political and ideological differences with their exiled ancestors in her critically-acclaimed story collection How to Leave Hialeah (2009). Her “post-exile” consciousness moves her characters one more step away from international conflict and cultural displacement, and into a position of challenging the roles and expectations shaped by the influential components of Cuban identity. But though the tide of Cuban American fiction has changed once again, Medina remains steadfast in his narrative ambitions; his loyalty is to the plight of the Cuban exile. And so he soldiers on, writing his most touching novel to date, Cubop City Blues (2012).
In a recent NPR interview, Medina acknowledged as an important literary influence Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s novel about 1950s Havana: “Tres Tristes Tigres was the book I needed to show me that, if the past could not be recovered, it could be invoked through books.” If Medina cannot return to Cuba, then Cuba can come to Medina through the stories of its people.
In Cubop City Blues, two protagonists guide the reader through New York City (called Cubop City). The first is a visually-impaired Storyteller, a 20-something young man who becomes the unexpected care provider to his parents, both of whom are dying of cancer. He entertains them with stories that range from comic to tragic about Cuban exiles in various parts of the U.S. It’s as if the Storyteller’s imagination compensates for both his and his parents’s inability to leave their apartment. And Havana (and by extension Cuba) expands across the American continent via the musical influence of its exiled talent, like Chano Pozo, “the best rumbero who ever lived,” and Adalberto Fuentes, the famous cornet player who surrenders his magic touch, “the Spanish tinge,” to Jelly Roll Morton. Indeed, the ear is the funnel for both life-giving word and lively note. As it was for Scheherazade, silence — when the stories stop coming, when the music stops playing — ushers in death.
The second important figure is Angel Romero, a man who survived a stabbing in a seemingly senseless act of violence, but who develops an obsession in locating his assailant, “the man with the handlebar mustache.” Like the Storyteller, Angel moves through one episode after another, paving his own story with the stories of other people and places. Ultimately, both the Storyteller’s and Angel’s journeys, despite the ground they cover, are journeys toward the self: “We are born here. We take our first steps. We learn the new language, the rhythms of the days and nights, the hymns of false virtue that keep us in place, moving nowhere but deeper into ourselves, where a minotaur waits.” Arrival to that place, dark and troubled as it may be, is a hard-won homecoming.
That uneasy homecoming, that coming to terms with “feeling foreign all the time and staying awake nights wondering where your language went and where your grandparents are from and why you feel so different from anyone else that walks past you on the street,” is the strongest emotional pull in Cubop City Blues, a rich and stunning novel with an incredibly intricate scaffolding. In fact, the structure of Cubop City Blues has much in common with “the big Babel” that dominates its pages. City Blues is filled with characters whose lives cross like Manhattan intersections, or who walk parallel lines, never meeting but headed the same direction. Weaving through the Storyteller’s and Angel Romero’s narratives is a third, more anonymous speaker who chimes in with startling philosophical observations about life, death, landscape, and longing:
A city is like a novel. It spreads outward from a starting point, which is where you happen to find yourself when the lights go on […] Then the city, your city, moves in the direction that is most accessible, away from one moment to the next.
As Medina’s fourth major work of fiction, Cubop City Blues is yet another triumph for the Cuban American writer who continues to listen to an important muse — the island that inhabits him.