Friday, January 3, 2020

#117 Inside the Emotion of Fiction "THE CUBAN COMEDY" by Pablo Medina

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*Pablo Medina’s THE CUBAN COMEDY  is #117 in the never-ending series called INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific excerpt from a fiction genre and how that fiction writer wrote that specific excerpt.  All INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION links are at the end of this piece. 

Name of fiction work? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us? The Cuban Comedy: A Novel.  Yes, the novel had other names but I forget most of them. The one that I worked with as I was writing was Elena's World, but I couldn't have titled it that. For one thing, it was too static.

Fiction genre?  Ex science fiction, short story, fantasy novella, romance, drama, crime, plays, flash fiction, historical, comedy, movie script, screenplay, etc.  And how many pages long? The closest I can come to is literary satire, though it is in the end a very serious book about the abuses of power and the way poets confront those abuses. It clocks in at a modest 205 pages.

Has this been published? And it is totally fine if the answer is no.   If yes, what publisher and what publication date? The book is printed. I have copies and it looks beautiful. The publication date is July 9, 2019. Unnamed Press ( is the publisher. They took care of this book as well as you can expect. This press is going places and I am glad they published The Human Comedy.

What is the date you began writing this piece of fiction and the date when you completely finished the piece of fiction? I began writing this novel in 2004, at the Rockefeller Foundation's Study Center in Bellagio, Italy. I continued writing in New York and subsequently in Las Vegas. Then I ran into a roadblock that made me stop cold and led me to work on other projects. I felt I had the wrong perspective, the focus was blurred, the writing wasn't moving the way I wanted. I then went back to it in 2014 while I was living in Boston  and completed it early in 2018 in southern Vermont, where I now live.

What were your writing habits while writing this work- did you drink something as you wrote, listen to music, write in pen and paper, directly on laptop; specific time of day? I drink water while I work, sometimes a little tea. I like to write in the mornings while my mind is fresh and the heart full of expectation. I work every day, starting usually between 8:30 and 9:00 and work until one, in time for lunch. I spend a couple of hours in the afternoon rereading what I wrote, but by then my creative juices have dried up. Novels I usually compose directly on the computer, usually in English. About half of this work was written in Spanish and then translated. Spanish keeps me honest. English keeps me straight.

What is the summary of this specific fiction work? In an isolated village known mostly for the hallucinatory firewater produced there, Elena is the distiller's daughter, helping her father keep up with growing demand. It is the end of the Cuban Revolution, and the country is on the cusp of great change, but in Piedra Negra the only thing that matters to wounded soldiers returning home is the town's infamous moonshine. Elena, however, isn't much interested in the family business, or family for that matter. She is a Poet, and when she wins a national poetry contest, she doesn't hesitate to abandon Piedra Negra for the capital.

In Havana, an entirely new way of life, post-revolution, is writing itself out like a surreal poem. Navigating black markets, communist censorship, and a love affair with a flamboyant poet, Elena embraces the city, and her new position as an official poet of Cuba until she finds herself on the wrong side of the regime. Full of outlandish humor and insights into a contradictory and Kafkaesque world, the novel brings to life a transitional Cuba in 1960.

What is the Cuban Revolution?

Please include just one excerpt and include page numbers as reference.  This one excerpt can be as short or as long as you prefer. (Pages 8 - 10)     Elena’s world was divided into four parts. To the east were the mountains where a revolutionary war was raging. To the south spread a salt-encrusted marsh, thick with the refuse of the past. To the west under an arrogant sun that never set was the world of the capital, the urban splendor of art and poetry and politics. To the north, beyond the hills and plains, was the desert of the sea, and a day’s boat ride away, the American dreamscape of concrete and hope.
     When Elena looked to the east, she saw columns of black smoke and flashes of multi-colored lights, thunderous and beautiful. Toward those lights the young men of the town went on horseback, by bicycle, and on foot. Once, early in the morning, she’d seen a tall, lanky boy on a unicycle with an old hunting rifle slung across his shoulder. On another occasion she watched a group of schoolboys stepping briskly along, singing revolutionary anthems. Most, however, passed by the truckload. They went to prove their valor before bullets and bombs, join the ruckus, feed the fires of rebellion. Those who returned came back without legs or arms. Many were missing an eye or blinded altogether or horribly disfigured or riddled with shrapnel scars or bearing deep psychic wounds that never healed. A large number were never heard from again. That’s what happened to her two brothers, Eugenio and Fermín, who went to fight in the revolt with great enthusiasm, screaming out, ¡Viva fulano! and ¡Viva mengano!, carrying rusted weapons they’d found behind sacks of potatoes in the larder of the ancestral family home. The town soon emptied of able young men, and the only ones to be seen on the streets were the disabled, the cross-eyed, the transvestites, the dim-witted, and the cowards, who made believe they were dim-witted so no one would blame them for not fighting.
     Twelve months after her two brothers marched off, a man came to the house dressed in a light beige suit. He had a funerary look in his eyes and a stern, thin mustache across his upper lip and brought with him two small boxes containing the remains of the two brothers. He expressed his condolences to the family and added that Eugenio and Fermín had died heroically in service of the cause. Elena’s mother Cándida crossed herself; Elena’s father Fermín José stared at the man and asked how, and the man repeated, Heroically, in service of the cause. What cause? Fermín José asked and the man answered, The fight against oppression. Oppression, Fermín José said. They’d never felt oppressed except by the summer heat and the autumn rains. The man stayed for coffee and then went away. Cándida murmured a prayer and Fermín José returned to the back of the house where the sun never shined and where, when he wasn’t at work distilling the milky firewater that he sold at five pesos a bottle to the broken veterans, he played a chess game with himself that had started the day his two sons went off to war.
     At the age of seventeen, soon after the man’s departure, Elena took to writing verses. They were simple poems at first, filled with flowers and trees and Pipo the Pig and Cantaclaro the Rooster and a benevolent God and ecstatic angels, all the things her mother loved and Elena thought she loved as well. Then in one poem Elena recited to her mother, a cat devoured a frog, and in another a god forced his disciples to eat his son’s flesh and drink his blood. Cándida went to Fermín José and said, The plague of death has come down from the mountains and infected our daughter. Without looking up from the complex geometries of the chess game, Fermín José responded, That girl was been infected with something more terminal than death.
     “And what is that?” Cándida asked.
     “Poetry,” Fermín José said, moving a black rook and checking himself.

Why is this excerpt so emotional for you as a writer to write?  And can you describe your own emotional experience of writing this specific excerpt? Emotion must always be kept in check when writing a novel. You don't want to slog through the bog of sentimentality. Once I developed the character of Elena, I began to care for her and gave her as fair a chance to live her life as God himself would, and God feels no emotion though religious zealots would try to convince you otherwise.

Were there any deletions from this excerpt that you can share with us? And can you please include a photo of your marked up rough drafts of this excerpt. I don't remember the deletions, and in any case I would never reveal them even if I was tortured. I destroy my marked up drafts. There is little of value in them.

Other works you have published?  The Kingdom of this World by Alejo Carpentier (translation from the Spanish). New York, NY: Farrar Straus & Giroux, November 2017.

Soledades (poems in Spanish). Madrid, Spain: Editorial Betania, 2017.
The Island Kingdom (poems). New York, NY: Hanging Loose Press, May 2015.
The Weight of the Island: Selected Poems of Virgilio Piñera (translations from the Spanish). New Orleans, LA: Diálogos, Lavender Ink, 2014.
Calle Habana (poems and photographs, with Carlos Ordoñez). Stroud, England: PhotoStroud, March 2013.
Cubop City Blues (novel). New York, NY: Grove/Atlantic, Inc., June 2012.
The Man Who Wrote on Water (poems). Brooklyn, NY: Hanging Loose, 2011
Arabic Edition of The Floating Island. Amman, Jordan: Dar Azmina, Fall 2008.
Poet in New York/Poeta en Nueva York (translation, with Mark Statman). New York, NY: Grove/Atlantic, Inc., January 2008.
El forjador de puros.  (Spanish edition of The Cigar Roller) México City: Patria Cultural, December 2005.
The Cigar Roller. New York, NY: Grove Press/Atlantic Monthly, Inc., March 2005.  (Paperback, 2006).
Points of Balance/Puntos de apoyo. New York, NY: Four Way Books, March 2005.
Puntos de apoyo. Madrid: Editorial Betania, April 2002.
The Return of Felix Nogara.  New York, NY:  Persea Books, September 2000.  (Paperback, 2002).
The Floating Island.  Buffalo, NY:  White Pine Press, 1999.
Les lumières de Felicia (French edition of The Marks of Birth).  Paris, France:  Nils éditions, 1998.
Das Schattenparadies (German edition of The Marks of Birth).  Berlin, Germany:  Rutten & Loening, 1995.  (Paperback edition in 1996.)
The Marks of Birth.  New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994.  (Paperback, Persea Books, August 2003).
Arching into the Afterlife.  Tempe, Arizona: Bilingual Review/Press, Arizona State University, 1991.
Exiled Memories: A Cuban Childhood.  Austin, Texas: The University of Texas Press, 1990.  (Revised paperback edition, Persea Books, 2002).
Everyone Will Have to Listen: The Poetry of Tania Díaz Castro.  Translator, with Carolina Hospital.  Princeton, New Jersey: Linden Lane Press, 1990.
Pork Rind and Cuban Songs.  Washington, D.C.: Nuclassics and Science, 1975.

Anything you would like to add? Thank you for this opportunity. It's all about the music.

Pablo Medina is the author of nineteen books, among them the poetry collections Soledades, The Island Kingdom, The Man Who Wrote on Water, and Calle Habana; the novels The Cuban Comedy, Cubop City Blues, The Cigar Roller, The Return of Felix Nogara, and The Marks of Birth; and the memoir Exiled Memories: A Cuban Childhood. In 2015 he published a collection of translations from the Spanish of Virgilio Piñera titled The Weight of the Island, and in 2008 he translated (with Mark Statman) García Lorca's Poet in New York. His English version of Alejo Carpentier's seminal novel The Kingdom of This World was published to critical acclaim in 2017. Medina’s work has appeared in various languages and in magazines and periodicals throughout the world.  Winner of many awards, including fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and others, Medina is professor emeritus from Emerson College and teaches at the Warren Wilson MFA for Writers. 


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