I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“Look at me, I have an inner life, I think differently, I am different, and yet, I can also reflect back your own thoughts.”
I first met Yoss, a biologist by training, around fifteen years ago through a friend who studied snails. This mutual friend also happened to be a rabid fan of heroic fantasy fiction and predicted, way back then, that Yoss would become something special in the Cuban literary scene and beyond. It wasn’t until years later, though, that Yoss—now an acclaimed sci-fi author, among many other things—and I were able to exchange ideas about the differing ways that Cubans remember the Soviet era. More generally, it’s indeed his ability to examine the human experience from different vantage points that really entraps readers of his work. Fortunately, Super Extra Grande, the 2010 winner of the prestigious UPC award in Spain, was published by Restless Books this past summer, giving English readers another taste of Yoss’s generous fiction.
Jacqueline Loss Could you speak about this current interest in Cuban science fiction?
Yoss Well, Cuba is at a crossroads with regard to its future right now, and sometimes it’s only by contemplating the future that we can understand what’s happening in the present. Two years ago, nobody could have predicted this moment, when Cuba and the US are getting closer and there are so many possibilities. The unimaginable might happen: the first woman president of the United States might be elected, and right after the first African-American was. But it’s important to hear what sci-fi authors think, because, in a way, they can be a nation’s conscience, even though the work often transcends its own historical moment. They worry about the consequences of decisions being made today.
JL You also write realist fiction and heroic fantasy. What are the links between all these categories?
Y When I begin a story I don’t really know what it is until I’m actually in the process of writing it. But these are marvelous times for Cuba’s heroic fantasy. For a long time you couldn’t publish it on the island because it was too mystical and had gods and goddesses, all of which is anti-Marxist and negates dialectical materialism. Then people started writing fantastical things, and they were able to speak about magic, which stopped being so obscure. The moment people can go to church and be babalaos [sages or high priests in Santería] magic stops being a political problem. A generation that grew up with Harry Potter and Japanese manga arrived. It’s a generation that accepts science fiction, too, and this type of literature is one that demands a lot of feedback. It obliges you to have read a lot of sci-fi in order to understand it. But fantasy, the concept of magic, is easy to accept. How does this happen? Now there’s a whole generation asking for heroic-fantasy stories, but not ones that take place in a distant school in England or on a strange planet—rather, stories set here in Cuba that could shed new light on daily life.
JL Junot Díaz has said that sci-fi lends itself to describing his world—that of a Dominican-American. For example, he talks about what it’s like to sit down with family, with his grandmother who grew up in the Dominican Republic in a very distinct temporal and social framework, then his little brother who is a US-born Marine combat veteran. Junot suggests that sci-fi is a mode through which you can describe and empathize with such a reality. Do you think it serves a comparable function in Cuba?
Y Of course I’m in agreement with Junot. He’s onto something I’ve often thought: today’s world is straight out of science fiction. In fact, there are a lot of people living in what, for me, is the future, literally—people with full access to broadband Internet and credit cards, people who can reserve a seat on a plane to the other end of the world only a few minutes before boarding. We know this future exists, but it’s very expensive. We live in our present, but have an idea of this future. But to get plane tickets we have to go somewhere by foot, stand in line, and pay in cash that we often don’t have. And a sizable part of the planet is living in what, for us, is the past. They not only lack the Internet, they don’t even know it exists. They use firewood, eat what they grow, go barefoot, and have a very direct relationship with the natural world, without thinking about whether the Yuan or NASDAQ goes up or down. Of course this real situation, which many find logical, is total sci-fi. Today in Cuba we see how different levels of access to money shape how people live. Nowadays, there are Cubans who can travel whenever they want. They go to Varadero three or four times a year. They’re the ones living in the future. Most Cubans can’t do that, though a huge majority knows it’s possible for others. Cuba is so complicated. Sometimes very elemental things become so greatly complicated that they transcend sci-fi and fall under fantasy, even horror. If Kafka had been born in Cuba, he wouldn’t be an author of fantasy or horror. On the island, his writing would have been merely costumbrismo, chronicles of everyday life. So what if a human being wakes up transformed into a cockroach one morning? In Cuba, cockroaches wake up to find themselves turned into hotel managers or even ministers.
JL I get tired of reading Cuban literature as allegorical because, if writers wanted to always speak about social reality, they could have chosen another path. But it’s also difficult to read your work without thinking of certain realities. In Super Extra Grande, we have Jan Sangan, a biologist and veterinarian who specializes in the largest organisms in the galaxy. At some point, Sangan asks his assistant Narbuk to watch what he says, since they are about to carry out a secret operation. So he says to him, in code, “Wátcha tu tongue, largatija. This is an op oscuro.” Narbuk answers indiscreetly, “Op oscurso, Boss Sangan.” He doesn’t understand his boss, but not because he doesn’t have full use of his language. Rather, it’s because there are “no nuances or shades of meaning for them.” Does the need to speak in code correspond to a particular context? Is it a thing of the past or does it continue to be necessary?
Y The worst cop is the one they’ve placed inside people’s hearts and minds. This is what I’m satirizing. For a lot of Cubans, this is normal behavior, everyday stuff. The questions I want to bring up with Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo and his assistant are: Is this normal? Does one have to think in code all the time? People look at a male sex organ and say it’s a phallus instead of saying that it’s just a penis. Why do we need to keep making metaphorical allusions? I think Cubans are contaminated by metaphors. We’re too used to reading between the lines. Sometimes reality is only what it seems to be—reading between the lines destroys it. A lot of writers, from the ’90s up until now, are trying to write the great novel of the Cuban Revolution, of the Cuban Situation. At the same time, they want it to be published in Cuba, so they hide everything between the lines. They fail to notice that if there’s one thing the state security has learned, it’s to read between the lines! All Cubans are experts at that. The best way to hide things is to place them right before everyone’s eyes. Science fiction, historically, has been an extraordinary way to avoid censure. If they say anything to me, my response is, “Look, I’m speaking about a distant planet, in a distant future, with a non-human species. How can you say I’m criticizing reality? You guys saw it that way?” So this is how I can reach readers interested in finding metaphors, but not those who want to be hit over the head with a load of symbols.
JL In regard to codes, the narrator of Super Extra Grande notices that Narbuk is “as indelicate, undiplomatic and tactless as every other member of his species.” Then in Se alquila un planeta (Planet for Rent) there is a character who everybody at the escuela al campo (schools in the countryside where middle and high school students were sent to study and work) makes fun of for having good manners. How do these categories work in your writing, and what do they have to do with Cuba?
Y The concept of integration is key to understanding Cuban sociology—the notions of difference and belonging. One of the better-known, if unspoken, mottos in Cuba was “Participate, but don’t stand out.” That is, anything that distinguished itself from the masses was suspect. If you knew how to use six pieces of silverware, then you became suspicious for having a bourgeois origin. Then things changed. If you were the descendent of a peasant who didn’t know how to use a fork, you were, so to speak, not eligible for a high-ranking position within the Cuban hierarchy. You couldn’t travel abroad. At some point, there were even finishing schools. But the concept of the “new man” was always tied to the idea of not straying from the median, though you couldn’t be too squarely in the middle either. This is a social stressor that all Cubans have experienced for the last fifty years or so. I express this differently in my various stories—for example, when I say that Narbuk, being a nonhuman, lacks tact. He understands language and customs, but not what’s behind them, or that the lilt in your voice can make them mean exactly the opposite of what they say. He doesn’t understand irony or humor. He doesn’t get what’s implied and only understands things literally.
The protagonist of the story “La tarjeta de Platino” (“The Platinum Card”), which is the last inPlanet for Rent, is an elegant person, with good manners, although everyone thinks she’s strange because she is different. What a person like this does within a group is expose the group’s lacks. As Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” It’s comforting for a group to have its hell. Hell can be the weakest person, or the one who makes all the other ones feel ridiculous. Majority rules.
JL You’ve always dressed as a heavy metal rocker. What’s your relationship to this music and the genre’s relevance to Cuban life?
Y It expresses a rich inner life. I try to shout this to the world, “Look at me, I have an inner life, I think differently, I am different, and yet, I can also reflect back your own thoughts.” That’s part of what’s behind my appearance.
JL Speaking of which, what is the meaning of Jan Amos Sangan Dongo’s full name? He claims not to use it professionally. And he says his mother is proud of her distant Italian forebears. Of course, that’s rooted in Cuban society’s concern with lineage. Can you tell us more about this?
Y Well, in Cuba sangandongo refers to big people, or to anything that’s large. I was struck to discover that in Italy “Dongo” is a common last name. It even appears in Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma—the novel’s protagonist is Fabrizio del Dongo. On the other hand, a common last name in Japan is Sangan, maybe as popular as Suzuki. The Japanese telephone book has thousands. So I thought, Coño, wouldn’t it be amazing if my character’s father were Japanese and his mother a descendent of Italians. He tries to hide behind the very sophisticated name of Jan Amos, taken from John Amos Comenius—the famous Czech pedagogue from the Renaissance. And sangandongo also defines the character’s inability to deal with small things. I came up with this character when I was studying biology, where there’d be very delicate preparations, and there’d always be one or two rough guys who’d break things. “Oops, prof, I broke another!” One of them said to me, “My dream is to one day have an animal so big that I can separate its cells with a shovel, separate its organs with a crane.” And so I began to imagine the possibility of such a situation.
JL Apropos of names, in the novel there is at least one character whose name sounds a bit Soviet or Russian: Junichiro Kurchatov. Writers like Juan Carlos Toledano, Raúl Aguiar, and even yourself have discussed the links between Cuban and Soviet science fiction, and about how in the Soviet Union the genre was a way to resist socialism, a topic that as you know I’m especially interested in. Do you think this link continues to be important to Cuban fiction writers?
Y During the 1970s, practically no science fiction was published on the island. But, conversely, publishing houses such as Mir, Raduga, and Progreso put out a lot of translations of Soviet sci-fi. Among its authors, the brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatski were the best. They wrote adventure, but their prose also had a deep ethical sense and a critique of paralysis, not only under Stalin but also under Brezhnev. That’s how we realized that, wow, science fiction allows one to criticize with a degree of impunity. That, of course, was our perception from afar. We didn’t know the works of authors such as the Strugatski brothers had been heavily censored, or that Stalin promoted sci-fi that only spoke of better tractors and more productivity in the orbital factories of the future. We did learn about ethical concerns, just like those who started writing sci-fi in the 1960s who’d studied the Anglo sci-fi tradition, the North American style, which was seductive to readers. We learned that sci-fi doesn’t deal with technology or scientific discoveries, but rather with the consequences of applying that technology.
So, in that sense, Soviet sci-fi was paradigmatic for us. We continue to make small gestures as homages, such as my naming of a character. “Junichiro” I took from the famous Japanese author Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, but “Kurchatov” is for a nuclear physicist—the father of the Soviet atomic bomb, Igor Kurchatov. Anyway, only later did we find out that the Soviet atomic bomb wasn’t such, that they’d stolen it.
The island went through a period of turning its head against the Soviet Union in the 1990s, when Cuba decided to ignore their past. Now, with a certain degree of nostalgia, one can say: I actually did like the Soviet novels, and also its movies. There’s a restaurant on the Malecón called Nazdarovie. Another one is called Tabarish. These days “Russians” are no longer considered tacky or in bad taste; they can even look like they’re refined and sophisticated. Authors such as Erick Mota write about an alternate world in which the winners in the Cold War were the Soviets, who went into space, and in which Cuba becomes an abandoned Soviet remainder. Other writers present scenarios in which Cuba never broke with the Soviet Union because socialism never fell, the Berlin Wall never came down. And some of us are also trying to rescue the positive sides of socialism. A symptom of this is that we’re still publishing post-Soviet Russian sci-fi writers like Sergey Lukianenko. We published his novels Espectro(Specter) and Borrador (Draft). In other words, our interest in this comes from the fact that we’re still much closer to post-Soviet Russian sci-fi than to Anglo sci-fi—we understand it better.
JL William Gibson said something like, “The future has arrived, but is not available to everyone.” What is the value of the future for a Cuban reader? How is the future woven into science fiction, and what is the place of the past in it?
Y Today, Cubans are realizing that not only is the future not what it used to be, but that Cuba is one of the few countries in the world whose past is uncertain, too. Every week we learn things about the past that contradict what they once told us. So Cuban sci-fi dares to question the past. A new, challenging, contradictory genre is emerging—that of uchronias. They refer to how things could have turned out differently. Two years ago, the first came out in Cuba,Los endemoniados de Yaguaramas (Yaguaramas’ Possessed), which talks about how the 20th century would have turned out if Cuba had triumphed over Spain without the help of the United States. If it had become a republic on its own, if Antonio Maceo would have become president, and an alliance with the US had been established in a secession war that the US couldn’t have won without the help of Cuba. So, I see science fiction as an extraordinary tool to analyze all kinds of possibilities.
JL I’ve noticed that misunderstanding is an important theme in Super Extra Grande. The “English” version is in a sort of Spanglish that is not easy to understand for those without a substantial knowledge of Spanish. It might even cause discomfort for non-Spanish readers. Here’s a phrase: “The tsunami debió haber startled her when it yawned en su cara” (The tsunami must have startled her when it yawned in her face). David Frye did a marvelous translation, which comes with no glossary, a situation which must create deep and intentional confusion for the English-language reader. What are your thoughts on translation proper, and on translation as a theme throughout your work?
Y Yes, this is a constant theme in my work overall. As a reader of sci-fi, I’ve read the Russian or English-language classics in translation. So I have an interest in how much they might stray from the original, or how degraded… though, of course, often a translation can enrich. That’s been the case with my writing here. David Frye’s idea was terrific, but I asked him not to include any footnotes. I wanted the reader to have the disorienting feeling a non-native English speaker often has—to have that sensation that you’re only getting about 10% of what someone’s saying, then from there deduce the rest. This is what I’d experienced when I began reading in English. Take the idiom “it’s raining cats and dogs.” It makes no sense in Spanish. But the Spanish equivalent “está lloviendo a cántaros” (it’s raining pitchers) doesn’t make much sense in English either. Misunderstandings open up opportunities.
JL What about Spanglish attracts you?
Y Of course English is the world’s lingua franca now, but what will happen in a few years if Spanish starts taking over? Maybe American Spanglish becomes the new lingua franca. You see series such as Star Trek or Star Wars in which people speak English in space, so it’s logical to think that English would spread all over the world, but what if they don’t speakcorrect English, but rather Spanglish? Ilan Stavans and David Frye imagined a future full of incomprehensible words. And remember, Spanglish is equally jarring to Spanish speakers. It’s a hybrid tongue, a fantastic tongue, not unlike Klingon, or Tolkien’s Quenya or Sindarin. It’s a futuristic Spanglish.
JL How did you start writing science fiction in the first place?
Y I read a lot as a child. I loved Jules Verne, Emilio Salgari, the expeditions to exotic lands, jungles, and the underwater life. Gradually I became aware of the fact that we knew our country pretty well—almost everything was already explored. Space is the “final frontier” but also the imagination’s frontier. My father would buy me book after book of sci-fi, but one day I’ll never forget, he came home and said, “I’ve gone to all the bookstores and couldn’t find a single sci-fi book you haven’t read.” I was dismayed to think that sci-fi was over, so I made a decision. If there aren’t any more, then I will write the new ones. This is one of the reasons why I’m happy to have grown up in Cuba. Had I been elsewhere, such as in France or the US, where every day fifteen or twenty novels are published, I might have continued to be a passive consumer, a reader only.
Tonight, September 15th, Yoss and novelist Paul La Farge will discuss Havana’s literary culture and metal scene at a special Brooklyn Book Festival Bookends event hosted by Issue Project Room. Yoss will also be joined by a full band to perform his favorite metal classics.
Jacqueline Loss is a critic and translator who teaches at the University of Connecticut. She is the author of Dreaming in Russian. The Cuban Soviet Imaginary (2013) and Cosmopolitanisms and Latin America: Against the Destiny of Place (2005) and has co-edited Caviar with Rum: Cuba-USSR and the Post-Soviet Experience (with José Manuel Prieto, 2012) and New Short Fiction from Cuba (with Esther Whitfield, 2007). She edits the translation section of Cuba Counterpoints and is currently working on a documentary with Juan Carlos Alom entitled FINOTYPE.
Special thanks to Milena Almira and Camino Detorrela. Their efforts brought this interview into English.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee