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Birnbaum v.

Ana Menendez

The U.S. understanding of Cuba often begins with embargoes and ends with Castro trying out for the Yankees. A conversation with Cuban author Ana Menendez on Fidel, Che, and fomenting passionate revolutions.

Before the Buena Vista Social Club, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, and Ricky Ricardo there were Beny More and Ernesto Lecuona and Alejo Carpentier and Jose Marti and nearly 400 years of Cuban history and culture. Here in the United States the view of that long and distinguished past seemingly has been obscured by the, at times, larger-than-life shadow cast by Fidel Castro. Slowly, and certainly necessarily, that veil of ignorance is being lifted by American writers like Oscar Hijuelos and Christina Garcia and now Ana Menendez.

The daughter of Cuban exiles, Ana Menendez, who splits her time between Istanbul and Miami, has written a story collection, In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, and recently published her first novel, Loving Che. The novel opens in contemporary Miami, where we learn that the narrator has been searching, without success, for details of her birth mother. All she knows is that her grandfather brought her to the U.S. from Havana with a few lines of a Pablo Neruda poem pinned to her sweater. Mysteriously, she receives a package of photos and assorted writings with which she attempts to reconstruct her mother’s story and the youthful affair she had with the charismatic revolutionary Che Guevara in the halcyon days of the triumphant Cuban Revolution. And with this shift in the novel’s focus and voice we are given a sense of the exciting changes and fears, hopes and mores of those heady and volatile early days of the revolution. Loving Che is a well-crafted contemplation of history and myth, storytelling and memory. The least interesting thing in this novel is the fairy-tale romance of a woman artist with the enigmatic revolutionary hero: for there is much, much more to this story.

 

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Robert Birnbaum: You live in Miami and Istanbul. Do you have any strong feelings about Miami?

Ana Menendez: I do. I suppose it’s inevitable—I didn’t grow up there. I grew up in Tampa—I went there for high school. So, of course, it has all the memories of that time. And my family is there. That makes for a complex feeling for a place. It’s actually a place I love very much. We just bought a condo there in Miami Beach. I love the weather. I love the people. It can be difficult to be there. Just because of political discussions that one gets into with family and things like that. Miami has changed a lot. It’s not really the place that people imagine.

RB: Changed from what to what?

AM: Certainly not the place that people have in their popular imagination about the Cuban exiles, running around being crazy and holding demonstrations. It’s a much more mature place, a much more diverse place. Cubans are not the only Spanish speakers there. There are very large communities of Colombians and Nicaraguans. The new generation of Cuban Americans that has come up is open and tolerant.

RB: Those people—in the popular imagination, the people who are thought of as crazy and fanatical bomb-throwing Jorge Mas Canosa types—still seem to control the political dialogue in Miami.

AM: That’s probably true in the popular imagination. I don’t think it’s true on the ground. It’s interesting, Jorge Mas Canosa’s son—Jorge Mas Santos, who has really taken over the [Cuban American National] Foundation from his father—he went out on a limb to welcome the Latin Grammys to Miami, which always has been a point of contention. So I think he is actually a good example of how the city is changing. We like to hang on to ideas about places for the same reason we hang on to ideas about people—it’s easier. It’s shorthand, and we don’t have to think about it too much. Boston is the snooty place. New York is the rude place. California and L.A. [are] the shallow [places]. And those aren’t necessarily true.

RB: I’d say they were necessarily not true.

AM: Exactly, exactly. They were born out of a cursory reading of a place. I think Miami is like that. Sure, there are people who have very strong feelings and express them in hysterical ways. And I think that’s understandable. These are people went through a traumatic event and have not been able to let go of it. And there has been no—I hate the term ‘closure’—there has been no finish to their story. And so there has been no point where they can start over and get on with it.

RB: I asked Tibor Fischer about Miami recently because he had just come from there. He was very positive and very satisfied, which was a surprise for me because I still have a knee-jerk reaction. Starting back with that ’80s cartoon of Miami Vice. He did note that Miami was a place where people, as in the south of France, were happy to display their ostentatious toys.

AM: Yes that’s true. It infuriates me on many levels as well. Many of those are personal.

RB: I’ve been there exactly twice, once for a NYRB-sponsored Hemispheric Writers Conference. I never left the hotel. But at that time there were all sorts of charges flying about that the First Amendment and human rights were at risk in Miami. Human rights organizations were outraged.

AM: That’s silly. That’s hysterical. Nobody is being tortured for expressing themselves.

RB: There were reports of an art gallery being torched for showing Cuban art, radio announcers were pulled off the air for suggesting that Cuban musicians should play in Miami—like Los Munequitos—

AM: And Los Van Van. Certainly there has been a lot of that. And there are always one or two who will take to violence—as there are in any demonstration. It was true for a long time. That did happen in Miami—little bombs going off. But as I said, it’s a different place now. It really is. It’s become much more diverse and a lot of Cubans have had to adapt to other ideas from Latin America. It’s easy to dismiss when ideas are American but then when you have somebody telling them to you in Spanish it’s a little different. That has been good for them.




Ana Menendez, photo by Robert Birnbaum
Ana Menendez, photograph by Robert Birnbaum


RB: Is the stereotype that Cubans are a particularly fractious ethnicity or culture close to the truth?

AM: What do you mean by that?

RB: Argumentative among themselves. Every conversation ends up in impassioned disagreement. People tend to argue more than looking for consensus. I think of portrayals in novels like John Sayles’s Los Gusanos and Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.

AM: Well. [chuckle] Certainly that’s a stereotype that people have of many different ethnic groups. The Italians are loud. The Jews can’t sit down without arguing. I remember that Jon Stewart used to have this wonderful monologue about ‘What’s this thing about the Jews ruling the world? The Jews can’t agree on anything. They sit down, ‘Oh, who appointed you king?’’ In fact, the Cubans are called the ‘Jews of the Caribbean,’ derisively among Latin Americans because there is this stereotype about them being very passionate and so forth. It is a shorthand way of thinking about a place or people and then moving on. It is true that we are very passionate, and it is true that we argue. That is certainly true in my family. Although we have tried to cut it back. It’s not necessarily a bad way to be. It’s acknowledgment that there is a lot at stake in this life that we have. And that there is a lot to be very passionate about. It’s not a bad thing as long as it doesn’t veer into violence.

RB: Sure, why not. I remember reading a reference in Jim Harrison’s Sundog to the chaos of this large [Latin] family and I thought that is the way people who are related to each other act—frequently unpredictably—

AM: It’s an exuberance. It’s not anything that’s necessarily bad. It’s just the way that family functions in that culture. And if you look at it, that’s the way the political culture is also. The family translates into the political in many ways. That’s part of the problem we have had in Cuba, historically with the political—which is a very paternalistic, no-tolerance-for-the-other-side type of politics. That’s what we have had down the years.

RB: I remember reading a piece on the Chamorros of Nicaragua. In the ’80s, within the family, every political stripe was represented. Violet ultimately became president. Pedro was editor of Barricada and a Sandinista. Another son edited La Prensa and was a Contra supporter. Is there a Cuban correlate? Could that even happen in Cuba?

AM: Castro’s sister lives in Miami. She runs a pharmacy in Little Havana. And there is Diaz-Balart from the first wife of Fidel. When I talk about the political I am talking more about this culture of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong, therefore you have to go to jail.’ [laughs] And that’s something that has plagued us from the beginning of the republic. It’s been a succession—Castro is only the latest and the longest lived. But he is the latest in a long succession of strong men coming in and knowing what’s best for everybody and harassing people who disagree.

People are fascinated by Cuba but seem not to know anything about it. And if they did they would have a rational response to the embargo and a thoughtful policy toward Cuba that did not make it the province of a lot of Yale-schooled spooks and their stooges.


RB: Is there an alternating or fluctuating interest in things that are Cuban? And what is responsible for the non-Cuban interest in Cuba? Why are people fascinated by Cuba? Is it just trendiness?

AM: It’s funny; I was asked that question when the first book came out in 2001. If it’s a trend it’s been going on for quite a long time. I think it has. America has always had a fascination with Cuba. I am tempted to say because of the embargo, because it’s a forbidden place. But it predates the embargo.

RB: Thomas Jefferson had his eyes on Cuba.

AM: Did he? Also Prohibition, because during Prohibition it was a big playground. And it’s the exoticism that people from the North have always had for the tropics. You will find the same thing with Tahiti. The same thing in regards to India and England. This fascination with what’s considered exotic. The two countries are very close and always have been very close historically. One of the reasons the Cuban exiles flourished in America is not just because the exiles drew from an upper and educated class. That’s part of it. Part of it is also because that class was very meshed with American ways. They bought American products, knew about American business practices.

RB: They worked for American companies.

AM: Worked for American companies and were very close to America. My parents when they talk about things in Cuba, it’s the things that are American—canned fruit cocktail, Frigidaire –




Ana Menendez, photo by Robert Birnbaum
Ana Menendez, photograph by Robert Birnbaum


RB: That points to the major schism. Those people are Spanish and white and Cuba is 80 percent or 90 percent African.

AM: Yes, but even the Africans—

RB: Sure, everyone wants Coca-Cola and color TV—

AM: But even—this was something that cut across the color spectrum in the sense of being almost part of America. Baseball, for one thing. And considering the good things to be part of America. This is something that continued in exile. And contributed to a lot of frustration because this same class said, ‘Well, surely America will come and save us.’ And they are still waiting for America to save us. While the class that stayed behind in Cuba was very nationalistic and said, ‘We are going to save ourselves.’

RB: I got a quickie education in Cuban literature in the company of Guillermo Cabrera Infante and—

AM: Wonderful! I am envious of you. He is a great, great man.

RB: He is a fierce man. And he makes no bones about his regard for Cuban literature and culture. Other than Renaldo Arenas, who may be known because of Julian Schnabel’s wonderful movie [Before Night Falls], why are Cuban writers basically unknown—[José] Lezama Lima, [Nicholas] Guillen, [Alejo] Carpentier? Is there even an English language biography of Jose Marti?

AM: Oh, yes. Esther Allen just came out with a book. She came out with a translation and great scholarly work on the writings of Jose Marti. And Penguin just came out with a—

RB: Selected Writings of Jose Marti.

AM: I don’t know what to say when you say nobody knows about José Lezama Lima, for instance. Certainly he is not known as well as Hemingway. But in Latin America, Cuban writers are very well known and respected. In fact, Jose Marti is considered one of the preeminent modernist poets of Latin America.

RB: This is what I am trying to frame. There is alleged interest and fascination with this wonderful culture and magical island and yet such a thin, unintelligent disinterest in the depth of and breadth of that culture. People are fascinated by Cuba but seem not to know anything about it. And if they did they would have a rational response to the embargo and a thoughtful policy toward Cuba that did not make it the province of a lot of Yale-schooled spooks and their stooges. That’s the end of my speech.

AM: Yes, I am trying to find the question.

RB: Isn’t it something of an anomaly that people are interested and fascinated but don’t know much or aren’t curious?

AM: Well that’s certainly not limited to things Cuban. People are interested in a lot of things that they don’t really know about. A part of this novel is the interest in Che Guevara—this mythology of Che Guevara. People don’t really know who the man was and yet have him to project all their desires and feelings onto. And I think the same thing is probably true of Cuba. People have used it as a metaphor more than an actual place. Of course, that brings all sorts of problems with it. It brings a shallowness in regards to the culture. It brings a certain stereotyping of the culture without looking deeper into the cultural roots of it. For instance, with its great writers, with Nicholas Guillen, Carpentier—who even Garcia Marquez said Los Pasos Perdidos was the inspiration for One Hundred Years of Solitude. So you do have this great cultural resource in Cuba and a great cultural history that is not very well known. What’s known is the casinos and this and that of the 1950s Havana, which was just a very small part of what was going in the country. It’s a mythology.

RB: Cuba might be an afterthought in some historical conversations or a footnote, but the world was taken to the brink of disaster because of circumstances connected to Cuba and the U.S. has engaged in other, sometimes nefarious activities because of perceived or real concerns about Cuban policies. I wondered what the American policymakers could be thinking after all this time that makes sense for either Cuba or the U.S. It seems so much in the realm of fiction and myth.

AM: This is a whole other discussion, the embargo and U.S. policy toward Cuba. But I will say that a lot of it is drift. It’s the way things were done 45 years ago and they just have been perpetuated, because there has been no reason to change it. Cuba is so insignificant right now to the world in many ways. It used to be this pivotal—it almost occasioned the end of the world. And now it’s really nothing. It only looms large in Castro’s mind and in the exile mind and very little else.

I suppose there will be people that will think Loving Che is about me. And that’s fine because the voice of the narrator is very close to my own. So I think that people who know me will recognize me as that voice.


RB: I am fond of pointing out that in 1762 the three biggest cities in this hemisphere were Mexico City, Lima and Havana. At any rate, you have written a novel about a mythical figure from a mythical culture. Something about Loving Che, the writing, reminded me of Cristina Garcia’s prose style in Dreaming in Cuban.

AM: Thank you for the comparison. I am a big fan of her work.

RB: You start out with a methodological note about the search for this woman, the narrator’s mother. And then it shifts into the woman’s story of her love affair with Che, while still loving her husband who is a minor literary functionary.

AM: He is a professor of linguistics—

RB: And he writes articles for Bohemia and ends up being thrown in jail. And dying in jail?

AM: Perhaps.




Ana Menendez, photo by Robert Birnbaum
Ana Menendez, photograph by Robert Birnbaum


RB: And, finally, we don’t know who this girl’s father is who is searching for her mother. So many shifts in voice and style—when did you decide that you were going to tell this story this way? Was it clear to you?

AM: It wasn’t clear. I envy writers who start off with a clear idea. I never seem to have one until I get down to the writing. And you are right, it does shift voice quite dramatically. The two voices are very different. And that for me was the main thing I was after more than—obviously it seems like a quest for this woman looking for her mother and obviously has a bit of history, but it’s not a historical novel by any means. I don’t even consider it a romance, for that matter. I had the most fun with these voices, which to me are two ways of being—two ways of approaching history. One with this exuberance—fragmented, dreamt exuberance about ideals. Which is, of course, what Che represents. The other one, very pragmatic; it’s got a narrative structure. It’s calm, and to me these are two ways of being, not just for Cubans but two ways of approaching life.

RB: How much time do you have to waste explaining that this is not your life story?

AM: [laughs] Not much. Well, I always get the question, which horrifies my mother. No, I suppose there will be people that will think it’s me. And that’s fine because the voice of the narrator is very close to my own. So I think that people who know me will recognize me as that voice.

RB: You noted that you have read the three recent biographies of Che but is there any way that would claim that this is a novel about Che Guevera?

AM: Absolutely not.

RB: Did I not read carefully? The narrator brings up her interest in José Marti’s concept of exile. I wanted there to be more about that. Did I miss something?

AM: Yes, a very brief mention. That she studied that in college

RB: You just mentioned it in the book. Can you say more?

AM: I presented a paper on José Marti being the father, creating the idea of, the Cuban exile. Of course, it’s meant to be provocative. It’s not necessarily true. Marti was in a sense our first Cuban exile and he was a very interesting kind of exile. He spent most of his adult life in New York.

RB: In the belly of the beast—

AM: ‘I have lived within the monster and I know its entrails.’ He preconceived the exile we have today because he lived in New York all those years and never assimilated. He didn’t call himself an exile. He called himself a Cuban living in New York. He never became an American. He always wrote about Cuba. He always wrote about its liberation. That was his constant obsession.

RB: He was also a reporter and a consul for Argentina and Brazil and Uruguay.

AM: He wrote. Most of his writings were about Cuba. And he would write letters to the editors about Cubans. And letters complaining about the bad rap the exiles were getting. He, in a sense, taught us how to be exiles in this country, and it’s one of the other reasons we continue to obsessed with Cuba once we are here. Marti was. He did not let it go.

RB: I’m somewhat obsessed with Cuba, and I wasn’t born there.

AM: [laughs]

RB: I had no obvious reasons for that fascination. I am trying to think about other exiles that are similar.

AM: The Irish.

RB: There’s too many of them—assimilation is not an issue when you bring a large party with you. Maybe the Hungarians after ’56 and Iranians in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The Afghans are invisible here.

AM: Great people, the Afghans.

RB: Cubans seemingly have been the most visible and recalcitrant exiles.

AM: In terms of cultural influence, you can’t ignore the Chicano movement. This was a huge immigrant movement. You can’t call them exiles, obviously, but certainly in literature and in politics, a real force and continue to be.




Ana Menendez, photo by Robert Birnbaum
Ana Menendez, photograph by Robert Birnbaum


RB: That’s right. They are not exiles. Many Chicanos would rightfully say, ‘What do you mean New Mexico?’ [laughs]

AM: What principally defines the Cubans in this century in the United States is that they have not been able to go back. Whereas almost any [other] group can. They have been stuck here for 45 years without being able to go back and forth. I often say that the embargo has isolated the exiles more than it’s isolated Cuba. You go to Cuba now and it’s a huge European influence—they’re not isolated from the rest of the world. The embargo has isolated and preserved a mental time for these Cuban exiles. And so they have this idea of Cuba and the revolution both that is 45 years out of date in many cases.

RB: When 60 Minutes did one of its occasional shows on Cuba, Mas Canosa was in his heyday. You could see American CEOs being interviewed saying outlandish things like ‘Mas Canosa is the kind of man we would like to see as president of Cuba.’ So 60 Minutes played a tape of Mas Canosa speaking, for a group of Cubans in Havana, and one of them commented, ‘Why does he hate us so much?’

AM: I don’t think he hated the Cuban people. He was very angry toward the regime. And sometimes that translated into ideas that might have hurt the Cuban people. His principle anger was directed towards the regime.

RB: Was he a democrat, small ‘d’? Or another patriarchal caudillo type?

AM: Again, this is our problem. It’s not just an exile problem and it’s not just an island problem. It’s our problem as a people. Our long contact with American ideas in this country has been very helpful and very good for us. I don’t know how that translated on the island. There is a still a very patriarchal streak to our culture. Just on the family level, ‘Dad is right.’ You don’t argue with that. If you are going to talk about Dad, you have to whisper.

RB: Egalitarian socialism hasn’t managed to penetrate family hierarchy?

AM: No, look at the government. It’s a hierarchy itself—what happened, the government replaced the patriarchal family structure but it expanded it into a national movement and it’s very difficult. This is a problem we have in Latin America, in general. I went to hear Nellie Rosario speak—the Dominican-American writer and she was saying when she grew up, ‘Woman were always whispering in the kitchen and nobody could hear them.’ This is a way of being. It’s very difficult to get past that.

RB: There was a spate of biographies of Che Guevera in ’96 and ’97 and with that an examination in the press of his status as an icon. Swatch had a collector’s item Che watch. Posters of Che in college dorms all over the world, even a show at LA’s MOMA, ‘Che: Icon, Myth, and Message.’ What are you trying to say about Che?

AM: Just that exactly. He has become—he is already a fictional character, in a sense. He has become this image that we layer with our own meaning according to what we wish. And there is very little of the man left, for that reason. Go to Cuba now—I was there recently in the Hotel Nacional, in the souvenir shop, and it was all Che. Che key chains, Che pens, Che T-shirts.

This sort of rapture, being caught up in something huge and wonderful. And everything is great. It’s very much—the first stages of a revolution are very much like the early stages of a love affair.


RB: That took a while—I was there in ’91 and ’97 and there was not a heavy-duty marketing initiative around Che. Cigars were the thing. There were still one peso notes (which had an image of Che) in circulation in ’91. By ’97 they were less available.

AM: Now he is a commodity. In the book, when the narrator finds the people claiming to have known her mother, they are selling off portraits of Che in the plaza to the tourists. Here you have, really, the commoditization of a man who was so anti-capitalist as to almost become a cartoon. And time has come back and hit him on the head with it. What I tried to explore in this book as you mentioned before—it’s not a novel about Che Guevara. It’s not a historical novel. It is about this myth that people have appropriated and that people have fallen in love with in a way that is ultimately destructive, as it is for the narrator, without knowing it. Without understanding exactly [that] he was a man with foibles. When I was researching the book I was reading a lot about Che and someone came into my house and said, ‘Oh, what a great man that was.’ Yes, he was. His ideals were impeccable. But he was a man—

RB: He was a doctor who could kill. That was troublesome to me.

AM: Exactly.

RB: That’s tough to reconcile.

AM: Yes.

RB: On the other hand, in Jon Lee Anderson’s biography, he reported, Che makes his wife take their children to the hospital on the bus even though he had access to a car. And he goes to Africa for his revolutionary ideal and ultimately to the mountains of Bolivia—which clearly was not a lark.

AM: He’s a complex man. And that has been lost in the photograph.

RB: Which one, the death photo or the iconic one, the black beret with a red star picture?

AM: The photograph in general—the photographic image we have of him. Which is the one Teresa [from the novel] has of him. It’s a very flat, untroubled image of a man who is complex.

RB: What explains this blindness to the obvious? Teresa is in love with him; why embellish, and why deify?

AM: Exactly. Teresa’s section for me not only eliminates that but it’s a way of approaching great events. When great things happen they are transforming, and we describe them in much the same way as we describe the early stages of a love affair. This sort of rapture, being caught up in something huge and wonderful. And everything is great. It’s very much—the first stages of a revolution are very much like the early stages of a love affair. There is an excitement that, of course, is doomed—always. [both laugh]

RB: I wasn’t laughing about it when I was 20 and 21. Are you Cuban American—what are you? What is the quick dust jacket description of you?

AM: I don’t know let’s look. [looks at the book] ‘The daughter of Cuban exiles.’

RB: That doesn’t exactly deal with the issue.

AM: I think that is a good description. I am the daughter of Cuban exiles.

RB: Who lives in Miami and Turkey.

AM: That’s right.

RB: People don’t ghettoize you. When you are reviewed or interviewed, you are an American writer?

AM: That’s the bane of ethnic writers in America now. To not be considered American. But it’s not only for ethnic writers; there is a need to categorize and you have Southern writers and you have Western writers. What is Cormac McCarthy? Who is Faulkner and so forth? Certainly, much greater writers than I have been ghettoized in this country, so it’s not anything I spend a lot of time thinking about. Although I will and I have started moving away from the Cuban immigrant and the immigrant theme as my subject matter. That’s one of the things that I tried to do with this novel. This novel is not about little Cuban men playing dominoes anymore. I had originally started the book as a grandmother who falls ill and begins to say that that she had this affair with Che Guevera and then what ensues in the family. It was actually a funny treatment but then I realized I was just writing the same book again—these crazy exiles in Miami. I wanted to explore something else and the revolution itself.

RB: Has it helped you at all to be of Cuban descent?

AM: Perhaps. I wouldn’t like for it to but I can’t say it doesn’t. It’s almost inevitable and maybe it works into this trendiness that we were talking about. My book was sold right after the Elian [Gonzalez] case so certainly that was something that must have come through. I wouldn’t like to think that and I won’t, that’s the only reason. I’d like to think that I have things to say that go beyond immigrant stories.

RB: It was an inelegant question. I really wanted to know if has interfered with something about the creative process for you?

AM: It doesn’t. I put it out of mind. The only thing that I am thinking about when I am writing a book is ‘I don’t want this to be the last book. And I don’t want this to be like the previous book.’

RB: Am I romanticizing when I imagine how nice it is to live in Miami and Istanbul? Is it as good as it sounds?

AM: I hate to tell you that it is. [both laugh] It is wonderful. I am very lucky. Although you know I complain now and then I am always living on a plane. You start to look for a book and it’s not here, it’s somewhere else. These are minor things. It’s very nice.

RB: Can you give me a sense of what Turkey is like?

AM: I moved there last—we have been there a year now. But I have spent a lot of that time in the States. I hesitate to tell you what it’s like because I know so little of it. But I am enjoying myself tremendously there. It’s a moderate place, a very exciting place. Wonderful people and beautiful. We have an apartment right on the Bosporos. So I can look over at Asia. That’s the besotted tourist view of the place—of course, it has its problems.

RB: Why Turkey?

AM: Because my husband is a correspondent based there. He’s in Baghdad now and he was in Afghanistan before that.

RB: He must know Jon Lee Anderson.

AM: I think so. I think they have met. He speaks well of him.

RB: Not a big group.

AM: It’s not. The insane form a small group. [laughs]

RB: I always wonder about the war junkie factor. Why do they want to do this?

AM: It’s great question. Yeah.

RB: Everyone says, ‘No, I’m not a war junkie.’ Well, then who is?

AM: The other guy. [laughs]

RB: What’s next for you?

AM: I am working on another novel based in Istanbul.

RB: Since you are not inviting me to ask more—

AM: Well, it’s in the early stages.

RB: Is this the fulfillment of what you wanted?

AM: Yes, I think so. I always wrote as a child. My uncle’s a poet. I became a journalist because it was a way to write and have health insurance. [both laugh]

RB: It seems that there is a lack of respect for the Grub Street tradition—there is an idea here that if you are a writer that you are either going to suffer terrible deprivation or humiliation of having to make a living. Robert Stone says he started out writing advertising copy. He wasn’t ashamed of it, and he didn’t mind doing any kind of writing. I don’t remember what I was responding to—

AM: [Laughs]

RB: Have you followed the to-do about the Book Review at the Times?

AM: I have heard but I have not followed it very closely because I had been traveling when that story broke. Of course, from what I have heard of it he [Bill Keller] said something to the effect that nonfiction is more compelling.

RB: Better ideas were coming up.

AM: I think it’s a shame that it has to be a zero-sum game. Yes, there are very good ideas coming up through nonfiction but that doesn’t preclude that good ideas are coming up from fiction. I don’t see why there has to be a duality about it.

RB: Apparently that isn’t the way they [Bill Keller & co.] think. They actually didn’t even do the basic science of it. Someone actually analyzed the reviews and—

AM: It’s mostly nonfiction anyway.

RB: Right.

AM: When I was picking graduate schools to go to and wanted to decide between a nonfiction program at Johns Hopkins and fiction program at NYU, both I had been accepted to, I finally decided to go with NYU and I called the John Hopkins people the director there at the time was kind of nasty about it, he said, ‘You look at the New York Times and all they review is nonfiction. So you are never going to get reviewed.’

RB: That was nasty. Good educator, huh?

AM: I thought, ‘Now I really want to go into fiction.’ I had wonderful writers that I worked with there. My first semester was with Edwidge Danticat, who is lovely. I am a huge fan of her work. And then I studied under Edna O’ Brien who was an absolute delight and very smart. And then Mary Gaitskill, and my thesis advisor was Breyten Breytenbach, the South African writer. So I had wonderful group of writers. I was very fortunate.




Ana Menendez, photo by Robert Birnbaum
Ana Menendez, photograph by Robert Birnbaum


RB: Why did you feel you had to go to school to become a writer?

AM: I went to school to get out of journalism. To take a break. [Both laugh] And have something I could tell people I was doing—I wasn’t staying home in my socks. I actually planned to go back to journalism after I was done. I was very burned out. I was only 27 when I left journalism but I felt years and years older and tired and frazzled. It was a vacation.

RB: And now is it that you only want to write novels. Or will you write anything?

AM: I do journalism now and then. It doesn’t really matter to me and a lot of the novel I am working on now has a lot of nonfiction elements to it. Certainly Loving Che has a lot of nonfiction—the narrator’s story is in very reportage style and is drawn from some of my visits to Cuba. Again this goes back to this duality, that we have made this barrier we have put between fiction and non-fiction. How does one classify the works of WG Sebald? Is it fiction? Is it nonfiction? Unless I am starving, which may yet happen, I don’t want to go back to the daily grind of journalism—police briefings and things like that. I do essays now and then. I just finished a story for Latina magazine.

RB: It is a curious historical moment. What is the difference between some fiction and nonfiction? Someone just published a book on the Great Molasses Disaster of 1919, which was a real event that I read about in passing in five or six novels. Finally, there is the so-called real story. Anyway, it’s been nice talking to you and I hope you make your way back to Boston after what we will call the Istanbul novel.

AM: Thanks for having me. A pleasure.
 

biopic

Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum