The Melancholy Muse: Mylene Fernández Pintado on Stories, Sentinels, and Staying in Cuba




EACH TIME WRITER Mylene Fernández Pintado has a new novel or short story collection published, she performs an unusual book-release ritual. New book in hand, she heads for Havana’s Terminal Víazul where she boards a two-and-a-half hour bus to the rural western town of Pinar del Río. The bus is usually crowded with eager, talkative tourists enroute to Cuba’s eco-paradise of Viñales, but Fernández keeps to herself, staring out the window at the oxen-plowed tobacco fields and spindly royal palms, the faded clapboard farmhouses and verdant Cordillera de Guaniguanico range. When her bus stops at Pinar del Río’s terminal, Fernández walks down the main street, block after block until, at its end, she reaches her destination: El Cementerio Católico. At its entrance, she purchases flowers, and then meanders through the maze of tombstones until she finds herself in front of her mother’s grave.

Here Fernández lays down her new book, which is always dedicated to her mother.

“And then I cry,” she says.

I bawl like a little child. When I calm down, I speak to her. I tell her how I’ve been, how much I miss her, and then I inscribe the first page of my book to her. I know that after I leave, maybe it rains and gets wet or maybe somebody steals it, but I always imagine that, in some way, my mother reads it. She was all my support for studying, for writing, and I want her to know it wasn’t in vain.

Fernández’s cemetery ceremony could be seen as not just a homage to her mother, but to all those who’ve influenced her writing, so many of whom she’s lost: her father, to whom her books are also dedicated, died in 2007, five years after her mother; and Fernández’s only sibling and most of her other relatives moved to Miami years before.

“Of my original family, only I remain in Cuba,” she says, “like some sort of sentinel.”

But more than a guardian of graves or of the family’s home where she still lives in Havana, Fernández might most fittingly be described as a literary guardian of Cuba, a collector of her island’s own stories of loss and longing and, also, of love.

Through her writings of the past two decades, which include four short story collections and two novels, Fernández has earned acclaim for her critical and psychologically astute portrayals of contemporary Cuba and the lives of Cubans living in exile. Her first short story collection, Anhedonia (Ediciones UNION, 1999), won Cuba’s prestigious Premio David award, and her first novel, Otras Plegarias Atendidas (Ediciones UNION, 2003), won Cuba’s Italo Calvino Prize and Premio de la Crítica Literaria.

Fernández’s works have been translated into numerous languages from Italian to Icelandic, but her most recent novel, A Corner of the World (City Lights Books, 2014), which tells the story of a couple with irreconcilable differences (he wants to leave Cuba; she wants to stay), is her first to be translated into English. During this historic time of changing US-Cuban relations, A Corner of the World is also one of the rare books published in the US by a writer currently living in Cuba, opening a new window into the island for American readers.

I first met Fernández in Berkeley during her 2014 book tour where we discovered that our paths had crossed before: in person at a 2001 writers’ workshop in Cuba, and then on the page, in the book Havana Noir (Akashic Press, 2007) where we each had a short story published.

At her Berkeley reading, I was immediately struck by Fernández’s friendly and unassuming manner, and her genuine enthusiasm to meet a writer who’d spent time in Cuba. To my embarrassment, when I asked a question at the end of her reading, she insisted I stand up so she could point me out to the audience. Afterwards, Fernández emailed to let me know she’d sat down, Spanish-English dictionary in hand, to read my story in Havana Noir.

“Thank you for writing about us,” she wrote me. “Thank you for loving this place.”

¤

In February of 2015, we meet up again, this time in Havana where I am attending Cuba’s International Book Festival, an annual event in which Fernández regularly participates and which, appropriately enough, is held at the seafront El Morro Castle, home to Havana’s original sentinels.

After her festival reading, Fernández waits for me at the fifth-story flat she shares with her husband Paolo Gebhard and her 21-year-old son (from a previous marriage) Mauricio.

For the past 46 years, Fernández, 52, has lived in this bustling block of Havana’s Vedado neighborhood. The unit which houses her flat rests atop a popular nightclub and between a farmers’ market and the much-photographed Malecón seawall, where locals and tourists alike stroll throughout the day and well into the night, staring out at the Caribbean. Just blocks away lies the always-crowded Coppelia ice cream park, conceived 50 years ago by Fidel Castro to rival the American Baskin Robbins, and the high-rise Habana Libre hotel, which was transformed into the rebel headquarters in the days immediately following the 1959 Revolution.

Mylene on sofa

To no small extent, the themes of food and politics represented by these two revolutionary icons still dominate conversation in Cuba, with Fernández now selecting the former.

“You must be hungry,” she says within minutes of my arrival. She wears the concerned smile of someone who’s left the country, who knows that in other places, food is more plentiful. “Could I make you something? A sandwich?”

When I tell Fernández I ate at the book festival, although, in truth, the pickings were slim, she leans forward in her chair, her eyes widening.

“¿Comiste en el festival?” she asks. “Really? There was food? Tell me, what did you have?”

On this trip to Cuba, there are all the standard shortages — from food staples such as black beans to electricity (there was a blackout on my first morning) to money (even the bank runs out one day). The conversations in many of my friends’ houses are varying versions of the age-old argument of who is at fault for this continuing hardship. The younger generations, who have grown up in the difficult decades since the collapse of the island’s biggest trading partner, the Soviet Union, tend to blame the Cuban government for having been so dependent. The older generations, who have directly benefited from the Revolution, blame the US embargo for Cuba’s privations. And the middle generations like Fernández’s often remain caught in the middle. Born after the Revolution but before the collapse of the Soviet Union, they were raised during a very different time — the heady, hopeful first years following the Revolution.

Born in 1963, just four years after the Revolution, Fernández describes her childhood as charmed. After decades of US-mafia backed crime and coups and corrupt politicians vying for power, peace had finally prevailed in Cuba. A socialist transformation was taking place: houses were being constructed for the formerly homeless, land was being redistributed to peasant farmers, laws were being enacted to fight racism and sexism, and a nationwide educational campaign, which would ultimately raise Cuba’s literacy level above that in the US, was underway. There was an overall sense of well-being, which trickled down into family life.

Fernández says she and her younger sister were spoiled by their doting grandparents and a gaggle of great aunts.

“You know the type who never have their own children,” she says, “and seem plucked straight from the pages of a Louisa May Alcott book.”

Fernández describes her mother and father as young, energetic parents who exposed their children to the world of culture, including film and music, theater and dance, and, most importantly, literature at an early age.

“My mother taught me to read when I was four,” Fernández says.

She told me later that I learned very quickly and with little instruction. And from then on, reading was my most constant passion. Sometimes I would get so obsessed with a book, especially great fantasies like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland, that I would stay up all night reading beneath the covers. My parents would have to take my books away so I would go to sleep.

Fernández’s sister would hide her books to make Fernández play with her; once in school, a teacher kicked her out of class for surreptitiously reading beneath the desk.

To this day, Fernández remains a big reader, although among her favorite books (which include classics by American, Eastern European, Cuban, and Latin American authors such as John Kennedy Toole, Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Alejo Carpentier, and Gabriel García Márquez), she also counts one which she hasn’t yet finished — and for which she has no plans to do so any time soon.

“I don’t want to reveal its name,” she says, smiling mischievously.

I started reading it in 2005, and I may have read better books since, but I still remember so vividly the feeling of well-being I had while reading it. I savored each page like a magical potion that you wait until the gravest moment to take. I do plan to finish it some day.

She pauses. Then adds, “Although it has occurred to me that maybe the sensation it gave me is really stronger than the book itself. Or maybe I will return to it in a moment of desperation, and I’ll discover that it’s no longer the same because I’ve changed.”

Perhaps because of her early fascination with reading and the pedestal upon which she always put books and their authors, Fernández never imagined that she could become a writer herself.

“Writers to me felt like they lived on Mt. Olympus, in some unreachable place,” she says. “And writing just seemed so … sacred, not like something that an ordinary person could do.”

So instead, seeking an intellectual challenge, she became a lawyer.

“It was a fascinating career, and I worked at a very open-minded place,” she says of the 17 years she spent at the Cuban Institute of Industrial Film Arts (ICAIC) as an intellectual rights lawyer. “At that time, I was the only lawyer working in a film institute, and there didn’t really exist any intellectual rights legislation, so I got to create it.”

It was not until 1994 when, at the age of 31, Fernández took an extended maternity leave (Cuba offers four months of fully-paid maternity leave, plus another nine at 60 percent pay) from ICAIC and found herself with an excess of free time and a scarcity of cerebral stimulation, that she took her first stab at writing.

“I was listening to the radio one day, and I heard this announcement for a writing contest, La Gaceta de Cuba, and I just thought, ‘I’m going to try this.’”

Fernández’s resulting short story, “Anhedonia,” recounts, in alternating voices, an encounter between two estranged friends whose mutual misunderstandings about their relationship prove insightful in unexpected ways.

Fernández believes her legal background directly influenced “Anhedonia” and her future writings.

“The skills I learned in law transferred perfectly to character development,” she says. “Law taught me to see a situation from various points of view, to understand that any apparently objective act is really the sum of a series of subjective truths.”

In this first short story, Fernández’s trademark qualities as a writer are already apparent: her wit and understated humor, her eye for the ironic and her ear for dialogue, her allusions to literature and mythology, and her conversational narrator’s voice. And here too emerges one of her ongoing themes — that of desamor, a word which has no direct translation in English, but which might be closest to “the unraveling (although not necessarily the end) of love” in both romantic and platonic relationships. In Fernández’s works, desamor manifests itself as an exploration of the incongruencies of human relationships.

“Anhedonia” won an honorable mention in the short story contest and was included the following year in the first Cuban anthology of women’s literature. It was later translated and published in anthologies in Italy and the US (Cubana: Contemporary Fiction by Cuban Women, Beacon Press, 1998), and ultimately became the title story for Fernández’s first book.

“It was even adapted into a short movie for Mexican television,” she says. It is a movie, which, to this day 14 years later, Fernández still hasn’t seen.

“Recently, I ran into the actress who played one of my protagonists,” Fernández says, sounding a bit sheepish. “She’s a magnificent actress, and she told me how to get a copy of the movie, but then, well, life happens, so while I would like to see it, I still haven’t.”

Fernández’s restraint in not rushing to see her work produced is indicative of her humility, a quality which also came into play when, in 1999, another cinematic opportunity presented itself. This time, Fernández’s shot at fame came in the form of a phone call from a close friend, asking if she was willing to be interviewed by a Swiss TV editor working on a documentary about Cuban artists. The only catch: the editor was on a tight schedule and needed to interview Fernández on the spot.

“But it was 9:30 at night!” she says, laughing.

I was getting ready for bed, and I was already in my pajamas, so I told my friend I couldn’t. He said, “Mylene, I’m begging you, please, as a favor to me. I told the editor I knew the perfect person for his shoot.” I told him, fine, but it would have to wait until the next day, and then my friend said, “Mylene, please, I’m standing here with him outside your flat. I’m calling from the street right below you!”

Here Fernández’s humility almost worked against her because — as the editor, now her husband, acknowledges from his seat on the sofa beside her — he knew that many writers would have jumped at the chance to be on international TV.

“If she had not relented,” he says, casting a playfully smug smile at Fernández, “I wouldn’t have come back the next day.”

For their first 14 years together, until Gebhard retired in 2013, he and Fernández maintained a long-distance relationship. Today, with Fernández also retired from her office job and writing full-time, the couple divides their year between their two homelands, spending eight months in Cuba and four in Switzerland.

For Fernández, the decision to continue living in Cuba (when many in her situation would have — and have — left permanently) was an easy and obvious one.

“I’m just too melancholy a person to leave,” she says.

This house and this city with its climate, its tempo […] I just have too much invested in all this — in the past or in my language — to permanently renounce it. “So,” she says, her voice drifting from dreamy to somber, “I have this opportunity to be in another place for a few months each year but, of course, I pay a price.

And the price, as Fernández sees it, is a continual sense of culture shock.

“I feel it each time I return to Cuba,” she explains.

And then I feel it again each time I return to Switzerland. Sometimes people ask me how I’ve adapted, and I think the problem is that I haven’t adapted. I’m always in some stage of adaptation. I’m always in a state of surprise or shock because I am continually living one reality while the other one, which I also belong to and whose changes do affect me, keeps changing without me being there. I can’t see it while it changes, which is the way to adapt to change without it being such a constant shock. And for those who leave permanently, the shock is all that much greater. So many parts of life in Cuba no longer form part of their daily reality. And even though there is this past they know and that they recall so well, that they carry with them when they are away, when they return for a visit, things are no longer as they were when they lived in Cuba. It’s already emotionally difficult enough to re-enter your past, but imagine when this past is no longer how you’ve guarded it in your mind. It’s different, and often less agreeable than how you remembered it. Or, to the contrary, there are those people who return thinking they’re going to encounter something very different and then they say that famous phrase, “But nothing’s changed!” Both of these situations happen, and in both, the reality is different than what they’d expected to find, and this is always a shock.

These themes — of melancholy and loss, longing and being perpetually out of place — are ones that Fernández has incorporated into her writing, most notably in her short story, “Mare Atlanticum,” published in English in the anthology Open Your Eyes and Soar: Cuban Women Writing Now (White Pine Press, 2003).

In “Mare Atlanticum,” a Cuban narrator residing in Madrid refuses to attend a Silvio Rodríguez concert with her Spanish husband, claiming a lack of interest. As the story develops, this excuse unravels, revealing the complex disconnect that prevents the narrator from being able to hear her favorite Cuban singer in an audience of foreigners — even if one of them is someone she loves, but with whom there nonetheless exists a cultural chasm as deep and wide as the sea that separates their homelands.

“Many of my stories are set around the sea,” Fernández says. “Maybe it’s because when I’m in Switzerland, I miss it so much — the way the water moves and the waves and the different tones of blues. It could be a sort of homage I write when I can’t see the sea every day.”

In Switzerland, though, Fernández finds herself unable to do much writing even with the ease and order of life there versus what her “Mare Atlanticum” narrator describes as life in Havana, in “that city where the unforeseen is the best synonym for plans and where chance is always better organized than anything else.”

“If you were to ask me why I write better in Cuba,” Fernández says, “I wouldn’t really know what to tell you. Maybe it’s just that Havana is a very creative pandemonium.”

Yet, after “Mare Atlanticum” and the publication of Fernández’s well-received first novel, Otras Plegarias Atendidas (Ediciones UNION, 2003), even Havana’s chaotic energy couldn’t save her from an extended dry spell bracketed by the recent death of her mother and that of her father five years later.

“I was in such pain that even writing couldn’t console me like so many people say it’s supposed to,” Fernández says. “I just wasn’t interested in it. I didn’t have the head for it, and the only writing I managed to do in those years was all commissioned.”

One such piece was the short story “The Scene,” published in Havana Noir (Akashic Press, 2007) and lauded by Publishers Weekly as the collection’s “standout […] a short but searing portrait of trapped lives.”

“The Scene,” like “Mare Atlanticum,” is a weave of Fernández’s life experiences set against a realistically fictionalized backdrop, in this case contemporary Cuba.

In “The Scene,” a daughter spends her bedridden mother’s last day attending to her needs while simultaneously trying to conceal from her the decrepit state of their building, which has been otherwise vacated in preparation for a major renovation. “The Scene” unfolds in a series of flashbacks, interweaving the former neighbors’ gossip about the daughter’s care-taking motives with the daughter’s own bitingly incisive commentary about them and life in Cuba, all posited from a 14th-story balcony with a view of the Malecón seawall and, beyond that, the Caribbean itself.

It is a view Fernández knows well, and one of which, like the narrator of “The Scene,” she regularly partakes from her balcony.

Mylene on balcony, sun

“The first thing I always do when I come home [from Switzerland],” she says,

is to set my baggage down and open the balcony door and feel the hot, humid air of the city, to look down at the Malecón, even if it’s night. I like to sit on the wall and look at the sea. And it’s not just me. I can remember, during some really hard times Cuba’s gone through, I remember walking along the Malecón and seeing so many of my neighbors out there doing the same thing. It was like a sort of therapy.

Something else Fernández sees on her frequent walks along the Malecón are the lines of hopeful émigrés outside the US Interests Section, the building which normally would — and could, in a future of restored relations — be the US Embassy. And it is this image, this idea of departures, embedded in her mind since childhood, that formed the basis for her new novel, A Corner of the World.

A Corner of the World explores the irreconcilable rift created between a couple — a young writer and a professor of literature — when one wants to leave, and the other does not. While everyone in Cuba knows someone who has left, stories told from the perspective of a narrator who, like Fernández, would never leave without a return ticket, are not ones often heard in the US.

¤

At her Berkeley reading, Fernández’s translator, Dick Cluster, told the audience,

In the Spanish version, there was this passage about Cubans dying to leave, leaving, and then lamenting it and always talking about how great it was in Cuba, and this had to be changed in the translation for an American audience to understand because what they’re familiar with are all the negative portrayals of Cuba in the media or of the anti-Cuba Cuban-Americans.

While on her book tour of the US, Fernández also got to see first-hand a story behind the headlines: of the immigration inequities the US’s policy towards Cuba have caused, embargoing those who remain on the island and rewarding those who risk their lives to defect by raft, granting them immediate political asylum once they reach the US. Meanwhile, undocumented immigrants from nearly everywhere else are regularly sent back.

“I stayed with an elderly cousin of my mother’s in California,” Fernández says. “She has a Mexican caretaker, and when I talked to her, I felt bad and embarrassed about how hard her life in the US has been because she’s received none of the preferential treatment that Cubans get.”

But, politics aside, Fernández says she has been pleasantly surprised by the American response to A Corner of the World.

“People say they’ve been entertained, and many people have said they’ve learned a lot, which makes me happy. They’ve liked the couple’s discussions and hearing about the way they view their lives and their futures. And they’ve also told me they laughed a lot at the secondary characters.”

In vignettes of the main characters’ friends and neighbors woven throughout A Corner of the World, Fernández uses secondary characters to dramatize — both humorously and heartbreakingly — the ironies inherent in Cuban life. There is Sergio, the idealistic writer who shuns international press trips and projects funded by foreign foundations in favor of the poorly-paid writing that nourishes his soul until, exhausted by the struggle of getting by, he gives in and accepts work as a black-market letter-writer for Cuban women seeking foreign fiancés. There is the responsible relative who, upon returning to Cuba for her first visit in six years of slaving away seven days per week as a housekeeper in Miami, is surprised to find that no one in her extended family is working — thanks, they tell her, to her generous remittances. And there is the man who sacrifices his status in revolutionary Cuba to stand up for relatives who fled to the US, but who is ultimately crushed when the government decides to allow exiles to return for visits and his relatives refuse, stating they cannot support the citizens of a restrictive communist country.

When asked about restrictions she’s faced as a writer in Cuba, Fernández says,

I think I have been critical, and it hasn’t caused me any trouble. In this country, there have been very difficult times for writers and artists, but this was when I was a child in the ’70s, in what is referred to as the “gray decade” of socialist realism when literature wasn’t supposed to question the revolution. Individualism was lost in the ideal of the communal. People still talk a lot about this time, although things have changed a lot now. Writers and artists have always had the possibility to travel, but one big change in the past year is that the required permission to travel has been done away with, so travel has become easier for everyone, and now with the proposed normalization of relations, I think things will keep changing, hopefully for the better, and not just for artists and writers, but for everyone.

The view from Fernández’s balcony on this unusually cool, windy Havana afternoon looks a lot like the one on the cover of A Corner of the World in which a lone figure sits atop the Malecón on a gray day.

“You know, that’s actually me on the book cover,” Fernández says, laughing.

Paolo took the photo. We hadn’t planned it like that, but I knew I wanted the sea and this view to be part of the cover, so we went for a walk, and when I found the perfect spot just above this salt-eaten painting of the Cuban flag, it was so high I didn’t feel right asking a passerby to scramble up there.

In the photo, Fernández has her back to the camera, her knees raised and her arms wrapped around them. She stares out at the sea, sitting upright and watchful like the sentinel she has become, this sentinel of stories.

¤

Lea Aschkenas is the author of Es Cuba: Life and Love on an Illegal Island (Seal Press, 2006).


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