Worcester Polytechnic Institute
LIVING “ON THE HYPHEN” AND BEYOND:
AN INTERVIEW WITH GUSTAVO PÉREZ FIRMAT
From: Alma cubana: Transculturación, mestizaje e hibridismo, ed. Susanna Regazzoni (Frankfurt: Vervuert, 2006), 191-201.
Gustavo Pérez Firmat was born in Havana, Cuba, and raised in Miami, Florida. He taught at Duke University from 1979 to 1999 and is currently the David Feinson Professor of Humanities at Columbia University. Pérez Firmat has been the recipient of numerous fellowships including: the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Mellon Foundation, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. In 2004 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
A poet, fiction writer and scholar, he is the author of many books and over a hundred essays and reviews. His books of literary and cultural criticism include: Idle Fictions (Duke, 1982), Literature and Liminality (Duke, 1986), The Cuban Condition (Cambridge, 1989), Do the Americas Have a Common Literature? (Editor; Duke, 1990), Life on the Hyphen (Texas, 1994; author’s Spanish version: Vidas en vilo, Colibrí, 2000), My Own Private Cuba (Colorado, 1999), and Tongue Ties (Palgrave, 2003). He has also published four collections of poetry in English and Spanish: Carolina Cuban (Bilingual Press, 1987), Equivocaciones (Betania, 1989), Bilingual Blues (Bilingual Press, 1995), and Cincuenta lecciones de exilio y desexilio (Universal, 2000); a novel, Anything But Love (Arte Público, 2000); and a memoir, Next Year In Cuba (Doubleday, 1995; rev. ed. Scrivenery, 2000; author’s Spanish version: El año que viene estamos en Cuba, Arte Público, 1997). A new collection of poetry, Scar Tissue, will be published by the Bilingual Press in 2005. He divides his time between New York City and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife and two children.
In this interview Pérez Firmat shares his personal thoughts on the condition of exile, hybridity and getting past the feeling of nostalgia that haunts many from his tribe of Miami Cuban-Americans. Witty and sometimes melancholic, Gustavo Pérez Firmat reveals his most intimate battles with personal loss and illness that have taken him to places he had never been and never really left, in–between cultures. In the final pages of this conversation we are granted a sneak preview of his latest work and the challenges presented by a “life on the hyphen”.
Manzari: Could you tell us a little about your personal history, how you came to this country and your motivation for leaving Cuba? I know that in much of your writing you talk about this aspect of your life to help situate your place in the “hybrid community” discussed in this collection.
Pérez Firmat: I was born in Cuba but was made in the USA. I came to this country on the cusp of adolescence, when I was 11 years old, after the Castro regime had confiscated (a fancy word for “stolen”) my family’s food wholesaling business. I grew up in Miami longing for Cuba and now I’m growing old in Chapel Hill longing for Miami. As it says in Life on the Hyphen, I belong to the “one–and–a–half” generation, those Cuban Americans not old enough to be completely Cuban (like the first generation) but also not young enough to be absolutely American (like the second generation). So I’m both and either or neither Cuban and/or American –un hombre híbrido–, a condition I tend to lament rather than celebrate, because it’s difficult to find community in hybridity. Someone asked me the other day whether Cubans living outside of Cuba were “diasporic”. My reply was that I was sporadic rather than diasporic: sporadically Cuban, sporadically American, and –to anticipate another question– sporadically a writer.
M.: But even if you had remained in Cuba, with all that is Cuban and its heritage, wouldn’t you be part of another type of “hybrid” community?
P. F.: Well, yes, but it would have been a residential, monolingual hybridity. Arguing that there is a long–standing tradition of Cuban-American (and Spanish-English) hybridity, I have tried to convince myself (and others) that Cubans have always lived on the hyphen, that Cuba is the “nation” inside “hyphenation”. Thus, as natives to a hyphen–nation, to an inter–state, Cuban Americans have been raised to experiment with hybridity. Problem is, I haven’t succeeded in convincing myself yet.
M.: Why is it that you haven’t convinced yourself and, if not, how can you feel comfortable writing about it?
P. F.: I write about it as a way of convincing myself. The idea of a “life on the hyphen” is a kind of fiction, something to think with and live by. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Life on the Hyphen captured a specific moment in Cuban American culture, it represented a generational prise de conscience: ¡Llegamos!; Here we are! It even inspired a magazine called Generation Ñ done by young Miami Cubans who found that the book spoke for them. But if I were to do that book today, I’d be less sanguine about the upslope of the hyphen and more sensitive to its downslope. Something of this comes across already in the Spanish version of the book, which I wrote several years later and whose title is Vidas en vilo: Lives up in the air, suspended lives (in both senses). For me, and for reasons that may not be shared by my generational peers, the straight line of the hyphen has broken up into the infinite sequence of dots of the ellipsis, what in Spanish are called puntos suspensivos. And maybe that’s what it always was.
M.: Is it possible that other ethnic groups reside inside the hyphen or is it a space solely reserved for Cubans?
P. F.: Although I write only about Cuban American culture in Life on the Hyphen, the set of circumstances that generated the hybridity of this culture is of course not unique to Cubans. Other ethnic Americans live their own versions of a life on (or off) the hyphen. In spite of the huge differences in political persuasion and personal histories, Life on the Hyphen has a lot in common with such books as Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands, Cherríe Moraga’s Loving in the War Years, or Juan Flores’s Divided Borders...
M.: Is it possible that the Cuba in your books is really a “Cuba of the Mind” invented and dreamed up by a certain generation of Cubans?
P. F.: Yes, but I would go further: the Cuba in my books is even more personal than it is generational. That’s why I called one of my books My Own Private Cuba. I distinguish among three different ways of viewing Cuba: as país, as pueblo, and as patria. Not living among Cubans (el pueblo), and not having returned to Cuba (el país), the Cuba I am closest to is Cuba as patria, a personal possession, an imaginary homeland, a country I cannot leave or lose. This Cuba goes with me wherever I go. It grows old with me. It gets sick with me. It laughs with me. It dreams with me. It gets angry when I am angry. It gets sad when I am sad. And when I die it will die with me.
M.: To what do you attribute your passion for writing?
P. F.: Passion may be too strong a word. When I was younger, I dreaded having to write. I would find every possible excuse not to sit down at the typewriter (this was a long time ago). As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to enjoy putting sentences together, though I still believe that writing, unlike sex, is always better after you’re through. My writing, such as it is, grows out of my sense of discolation, I mean, dislocation. Having lost my place, I write to find my place, or to find once again that I have lost my place.
That I write both in Spanish and English, though usually not at the same time, complicates things. Sometimes I think that every single one of my English sentences takes the place of the Spanish sentence that I wasn’t willing or able to write. And other times I think that every one of my Spanish sentences locks me into a world from which I would like to escape. I can’t write in English without missing the Spanish that is missing, and I can’t write in Spanish without missing the English that is missing. These are the sorts of “tongue ties” I’ve tried to unknot in a recent book. They too are a symptom of unhousedness; in Spanish, desamparo.
M.: I can’t help noticing that in many of your writings and interviews you seem to suggest that writing and sex are intrinsically linked. Am I reaching for something or are you constantly suffering from atraso?
P. F.: Well, I’m certainly not the first to connect writing and sex. Plus, all use of language is erotic. Just reciting the alphabet –slowly, deliberately, with gusto– can be arousing. It works for me, anyway.
M.: Which authors and critics do you believe have had a hand in your formation as a writer, a critic and a professor?
P. F.: I’m not sure. Since I make a living by teaching literature, I have to read for my classes and some of the literature that I teach finds its way into what I write, even if I’m not aware of it. A few years ago I published a novella called Anything But Love. Some time later I was teaching El túnel, a book by Ernesto Sábato that I had taught many times before, and was surprised by all the echoes of Anything But Love in El túnel (actually the other way around). I should also say that I’m not an avid reader. I’d rather write than read, and I’d rather watch ESPN than write. Growing up in Miami –a mall city, rather than a book city– I read hardly at all. The nuns in the parochial school I attended used to punish me by making me come in on Saturday mornings to read. I had to sit in the library for two hours. The only thing I remember reading was a biography of American patriot John Paul Jones and I’m not sure how much impact that has had on my career.
Some of the writers whose writing I have admired, loved or envied throughout the years: José Ángel Buesa, Roland Barthes, Jorge Mañach, John Updike, A.E. Housman, Heberto Padilla, Borges, Octavio Paz, Henry James, Jane Austen, Turgenev, Cynthia Ozick, Leo Spitzer, Scott Fitzgerald, Lezama Lima, George Steiner, Alejandra Pizarnik, Oscar Hijuelos. As I write the names that pop into my head, I realize what an arbitrary, chaotic list this is!
You didn’t ask, but it also occurs to me to tell you about one the most wrenching moments I’ve had in a classroom, an incident that may be the reason I became a professor of literature. When I was a freshman at Miami–Dade Community College, I took a survey of Spanish literature with a bitter little man appropriately named Dr. Funke, who made it clear that teaching at a community college was beneath him. The class was boring, a lifeless recitation of names, dates, titles. Except for one afternoon, when Dr. Funke was reading a poem by Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, the nineteenth century Spanish poet, about the loneliness of a corpse that stays alone in a funeral parlor after all the mourners have left. As he read the poem, Dr. Funke began to get teary-eyed. When he reached the last line, he could barely speak. By way of apology, he explained that he had a son who had passed away when he was our age and that this poem reminded him of his son. I found out two things that day: that Bécquer’s poem is about the loneliness of the living, not the dead; and that literature gives expression to experiences that would otherwise remain namelessly painful.
M.: So, an appropriate question would be to ask what it is you love most about teaching. How has it affected your life and your writing?
P. F.: I am a loner by nature, and then I’m a writer, which makes me twice a loner. Teaching is my most reliable form of human contact. I love the opportunity to speak Spanish (which I don’t do at home), the give-and-take with students, the surprises. One day you think you have the goods for a sensational class and it bombs. The next day you have nothing and the class turns out splendidly. They’re very mysterious, the dynamics of the classroom. Also, I enjoy telling students what I think I know, and what I know I think: lessons in life masquerading as literature lectures. Usually at the beginning of each semester I write on the board a phrase by Virgilio Piñera: La literatura no es estilo sino respiración. Literature is breathing. I teach literature the way someone else might teach First Aid.
M.: Would you say that each time you teach, you breathe new life into your students? Or, are you just resurrecting the dead?
P. F.: Neither. If anything, the students resurrect, breathe new life into bad old me. What I mean is that literature is “equipment for living”. Frank Sinatra once said that he was for anything that would get him through the night, be it booze or religion. He forgot to mention literature. I’m happy if students come away from my classes with one poem or one story or even one sentence that will help them live their lives, a sentence that they will remember as I just remembered Frank Sinatra’s.
M.: Are there any North American authors that have influenced you more than Cuban authors?
P. F.: I don’t do well with these influence questions, because if I were to be frank –guess I’m about to be frank– I’d say that the biggest influences on my writing have not been writers but composers of pop music, singers, movie actors, comedians, TV personalities. My writing reflects my sensibility and my sensibility was shaped and continues to be shaped not by poets and novelists but by people like Armando Manzanero, a Mexican composer of boleros, or Willy Chirino, a Cuban-American singer. Switching homelands, I could mention Desi Arnaz, the co-star of the fifties sitcom I Love Lucy, or Dean Martin, or Brian Wilson of the Beachboys. For me the path to the literary goes through the non–literary. For this reason it surprises me that I am a writer, or that people speak of me as a writer. I’m flattered, but I don’t quite believe it.
M.: What authors would you recommend that our readers avoid?
P. F.: I would avoid writers who use such words as “problematize,” “hegemonic,” “subaltern,” “intervention,” “performativity”.
M.: I find it curious that you recommend our readers avoid things that suggest the postmodern, but you seem to love many of the things that define pop culture and the postmodern, in a certain sense. Willy Chirino and Desi Arnaz are perfect examples of popular Cuban/American and their stage presence is what I find to be most interesting about their work. Do you find yourself constantly performing for your audiences or students? Is any of what you say an act?
P. F.: What I was recommending was that the readers avoid bad writing. Of course I perform: for my students, for my readers. I’m performing for you right now. I shape what I say, how I sound, how I look; but this doesn’t mean that my performance is not reflective of who I am. A good performer finds himself in performance. He catches himself in the act, as it were. So, yes, everything I say is an act and therefore an act of self-discovery.
M.: In other interviews you divide writers into two categories: dumb and smart. In the dumb category you place Hemingway, and in the smart, Fitzgerald. You also list yourself as one of the “smart” writers. What do you mean by this?
P. F.: I also say that being a smart writer doesn’t make you a good writer. There’s obviously a difference between talent and intelligence. And it may be that at some point intelligence begins to impinge on talent, or talent on intelligence.
M.: I have to ask, poetry or prose, which do you prefer as a medium for expression?
P. F.: I have no preference, but I think that prose prefers me.
M.: Do you find that your profession demands you produce so much criticism that it stagnates your creative spirit? I believe once I heard you say that we, professors, were “paid to bitch about literature,” would this be the case?
P. F.: That doesn’t quite sound like me, but sometimes I say things that don’t sound like me. I wouldn’t make such a sharp distinction between literary criticism and creative writing. It’s true that they require somewhat different skills, a different frame of mind, but it’s not true that the same person can’t write both, and even do it at the same time. Plus, a good work of criticism is as exciting as any novel.
M.: Riddles of the Sphincter: Another Look at the Cuban Choteo has always appeared to me as one of your most interesting critical studies. Apart from the fact that there are few intelligent studies of Mañach’s work, yours seems to reveal more about the “Cuban–American” experience than it does the Cuban. Perhaps because of my own fascination with the Cuban choteo as well as your own personal style of writing, I believe you have truly captured the essence of the choteo and incorporated into your writings at all levels. Can you tell us a bit more about your own perspective regarding choteo.
P. F.: That essay was the first time I was able to write about something that mattered to me personally, that was part of my everyday life. As you recall, the discussion of choteo uses some “texts” by a Cuban comedian named Guillermo Álvarez Guedes, who was very popular in Miami at the time. I remember writing that essay –this was back in the early eighties, before the fashion devenu fetish of cultural studies– and wondering what people –or rather, my colleagues– would think, but I was having such a good time analyzing these jokes and songs that finally it didn’t matter whether anyone else was interested. So what’s important to me about that essay is less the theory of choteo than the fact that by writing it I realized that I could bring my life into my work in a way that enriched my work and made my life more intelligible.
M.: Hybridity has become a very popular topic among academics, critics, scholars etc., and I might even say we have reached a point of overkill with regards to the topic. How do you feel the Cuban–American fits into this concept?
P. F.: Cuban Americans, or at least some Miami Cubans, have spent several lifetimes already trying to stop or stall hybridity. But studied avoidance of hybridity is itself a symptom of hybridity. Besides, what Cuban isn’t hybrid? Cuban culture is a mulatto culture; it’s driven by hybridity, what Fernando Ortiz called transculturation. But you’re right that the concept of “hybridity,” valuable though it is, has become something of an all-purpose salsa. Maybe we should add that word to the not-to-read list.
M.: “Life on the Hyphen” or “Life in the Hyphen” which is it? Shortly after your Cuban Condition, Ilan Stavans published The Hispanic Condition. Are the two concepts that similar or that different?
P. F.: My book is called Life on the Hyphen. I guess Stavans didn’t want to repeat my phrase word for word and so he changed it in his book, somewhat in the way that The Hispanic Condition is a variation of The Cuban Condition.
M.: Your latest book is a collection of prose and verse entitled Scar Tissue: tell us about it and how it helps us understand the person you are now.
P. F.: A couple of years ago two things happened that changed my life, were my life susceptible to changing: my father passed away in Miami after 40 years of waiting to return to Cuba and I was diagnosed with prostate cancer, a disease that he also had. Because the two events occurred within a couple of months of each other, they bundled together in my mind and out came Scar Tissue, a follow-up to Next Year in Cuba and Life on the Hyphen, where I write about coping with losses of various sorts (de padre, de patria y de próstata), about enduring illness in a foreign language (Spanish, I found out, is the only language my body understands), about what happens when hyphens turn into scars. I always knew that hyphens hurt, but I didn’t realize how much!
In this book –its informal title is Knife on the Hyphen– I also try to talk about prostate cancer, a common but unliterary disease, with the same candor and even ardor with which others have written about breast cancer or AIDS. Kafka says somewhere that a book should be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. After the surgeons took a scalpel to my belly, I took an axe to my entrañas, my insides. What was left was Scar Tissue.
M.: One of the things that tires scholars of Cuban–American letters is the fact that much of it is dominated by the metaphor of nostalgia. Will we ever get away from this and how might things Cuban be looked at in a different light?
P. F.: But the light of nostalgia is so warm, H.J.! Not at all like the luz fría of the present. Young Cuban American writers –Ana Menéndez comes to mind– don’t feel the same nostalgia, or at least write about it with a detachment that is unavailable to people my generation and older. The original title of Life on the Hyphen was “Transcending Exile” because I wrote that book in an attempt to get past the nostalgia that was my daily pan cubano when I was growing up in Miami in the 1960s and 70s. I don’t think I succeeded. The irony is that when I was nostalgic, it’s not for the Cuba of my childhood but for the Miami of my adolescence, though I have to say that very recently –post–Scar Tissue– both Miami and Cuba have become less present, or maybe less pressing. It could be that my exile, and hence my nostalgia, expired with my father.
M.: Nine years ago I lost my father to cancer. Perhaps that is why I am here today in Italy trying to recover, or better yet, hang on to what little is left of my family here. But can we suppose that with death, there is a complete disconnect with the past? Hasn’t your most recent experience forced you to look in other directions, for the moment, as a way to confront the “scars” within?
P. F.: I don’t know about that. My father’s death took me to a place I had never been and a place I had never left. In his absence, I’ve had to rely more on myself. A poem from Scar Tissue on this subject:
Green in the grip of autumn
the plum tree in our yard
resists fading, falling
when all around it collapses
in flurries of reds and yellows.
First to bloom, last to shiver,
the plum tree battles barrenness
with obstinacy, its only fruit.
It’s the unseasonal will
not to budge, to stand still,
to hold on to itself against
the mounting evidence, that moves
me. I hear it muttering in the drizzle:
stick, trunk, leaf, root, bark, sap;
stick, trunk, leaf, root, bark, sap.
My branches! My branches!
Darkness comes, December threatens
and still it clings, greens blazing.
I’ve been told: be like water.
But no. Water wears the weather.
My plum plum plum tree
wears nothing but itself.
M.: Since much of your personal life dominates your writing, are you ever turned off by fiction? I read once that you hated science fiction and preferred things written based on reality. Are you a fan of reality TV?
P. F.: I read fiction all the time. It’s true that I don’t like fantasy or science fiction. I like “realistic” novels, particularly those in which nothing much ever happens. My favorite chapter title, from a novel by Trollope: “Nothing to Tell”. The TV watching is mostly restricted to sports events, old movies and news programs. Since I read “reality fiction,” I have no need for reality TV.
M.: I wanted to ask you about Cuban authors living outside of the U.S. such as Eliseo Alberto, Zoé Valdés and the late Jesús Díaz. Do you believe that they share the same feelings of nostalgia and exile felt by the Miami Cubans? Miami is a very special place and I wonder if living elsewhere would generate the same sense of loss or living “life on the hyphen”?
P. F.: But the idea of a “life on the hyphen” was intended as an offset to the sense of loss. I wouldn’t identify the hyphen with unmitigated nostalgia: it’s about nostalgia, but also about expectation, experimentation, newness. It’s about taking chances, literarily and otherwise. Besides, writers like Zoé Valdés and Eliseo Alberto are in their own way just as nostalgic as old–time Miami Cubans (of whom there are fewer and fewer, by the way). Zoé Valdés has a novel entitled Café Nostalgia; Jesús Díaz has one entitled Dime algo sobre Cuba; and Eliseo Alberto has a book of essays, Dos cubalibres, whose subtitle is, “Nadie quiere más a Cuba que yo”.One big difference, though, is that unlike most Cuban American writers, Eliseo Alberto, Zoé Valdés, and Jesús Díaz were already writers when they left the island –and they all left relatively recently– so that the writerly issues raised by cultural and linguistic hyphenation don’t apply to them. Theirs is a very different situation from that of Roberto Fernández, Pablo Medina, Virgil Suárez, Ricardo Pau-Llosa, Cristina García, and other Cuban American writers who left Cuba as children and grew up in the United States.
M.: What are you working on now and what plans do you have for the near future?
P. F.: I can’t begin a new book until the last one has been published. In a few months from now, when Scar Tissue comes out, I’ll begin working on something, perhaps a sequel to Anything But Love where I find out whether Frank Guerra, the protagonist, actually killed his wife. But this project makes Mary Anne, my wife, understandably nervous, so I may write something else instead. Every book I think will be my last one because after finishing I have the sense that I’ve said all I have to say, but I always seem to find a new way of repeating myself.
M.: In an interview you once said that when you die you would like to be buried with a copy of your CV and a copy of Willie Chirino’s greatest hits. Doesn’t this strike you as a bit odd? Is there one song in particular you would like played at your funeral?
P. F.: No, it doesn’t seem odd at all. Does it seem odd to you? But I’d rather not talk about my funeral, if you don’t mind. There’s a Cuban saying: Bicho malo nunca muere. Loose translation: The good die young but the wicked live forever. It seems to apply to Fidel. I hope it applies to me.