Dreaming in Cuban (1992) is a hallmark of Latino literature and it’s been on my to read list for years, but it took a student’s undulating praise of it during a Novel class I taught last spring that pushed the novel to the top of my list this summer. And my word, I can see why she loved it so much!
In an interview with Andrew Lynch at The University of Miami:
“I have an affinity for language. For me everything is text. Everything is telling me a story. Whether it’s coming at me purely visually or through sound or nature, it’s all a text. I always feel like I can run my hand over something, almost braille, and read the stories.”
The images are crystallized and beautiful. They create the mirror world where people commune across shores, across the borders between death and life. Three pages into the manuscript, you get scenes like, “She paces the shore, her arms crossed over her breasts. Her shoes leave delicate exclamation points in the wet sand.”
The novel focuses on three generations of women. A grandmother, Celia, who remains a passionate communist and writes but doesn’t send love letters to a former love. Several of her children, especially Lourdes, who moves to the U.S. and becomes an equally passionate but deeply conservative counterpoint to her mother. Pilar is her care-free passionate daughter, the balance between two politically all-or-nothing forces. By nourishing her gift for painting, Pilar creates a human space for herself typified by imagination, playfulness, and a joyful nearness to the world. One of my favorite moments was Pilar painting the Statue of Liberty with a safety pin through its nose and her mother’s surprising reaction. Celia and Lourdes’ sections are in the third-person, as if their staunch politics keeps them from speaking from the heart for themselves. Pilar, meanwhile, has the freedom to set down new patterns of thoughts. García portrays her in the first person, and she sharply characterizes others, especially Lourdes: “Mom says ‘Communist’ the way some people say ‘cancer,’ low and fierce…. Mom’s views are strictly black-and-white. It’s how she survives” (26).
The timelines for each women beautifully builds on each other. We sees Lourdes enormous weight gain or less and feel the trauma behind the dramatic fluctuations; pity Celia and her unbearable mother-in-law who loves whitening creams, her good-enough marriage.
By orchestrating past and present storylines, using Celia’s letters, García reaches a cinematic, surprising, and inevitable conclusion that will stay for me for a very long time. The novel says and then rather than either or; it’s welcoming of ambiguity as that more closely approximates the strange reality within and across people, mirrored and more complicated with close relations.
For the 25th anniversary of Dreaming in Cuban, Garía wrote about her intent with this first novel, which reflected her own departure from Cuba as a two-year old and upbringing in Brooklyn:
I longed to tell their stories in ways that defied and evaded any one pervasive “truth” but instead permitted them to compete, legitimately, for their own narratives and subjective emotional experiences. Writing these women’s stories, too, enabled me to consider the infinite ways one could be Cuban and Cuban-American, and to accommodate, fictionally at least, radically divergent refractions of reality. It broke, for me, the stranglehold of history’s officialdoms and proclamations and paved the way for more complex, nuanced approaches to storytelling.