Interview with Carlos Rubio
(This interview appeared in September of 1980 in the literary journal Verbena.)
SM: I would like to start by asking you about your recently published volume of short stories, Caleidoscopio. The book is comprised of ten diverse stories with a variety of themes and styles. Some of the stories seem to be what the Cuban novelist Cabrera Infante, has called “exercises in nostalgia” in that they focus on relatively personal moments and memories of Cuba (e.g. “Una tarde en Costa Blanca”) while others, on the contrary, such as “Xinef, el eterno” (which won a 1974 prize from the National Hispanic Honor Society) , seem to be talking about literature itself. My question is why did you choose the title Caleidoscopio (Kaleidoscope), which etymologically means an instrument for seeing beautiful forms, but which today is simply a child’s toy which uses mirrors to reflect continually changing forms? And, what is the significance of the cover, a collage of newspaper clippings regarding insane aylums?
CR: The stories in that volume, as you point out, deal with a variety of subjects and themes. They constantly shift, not unlike the images in a kaleidoscope. I was also the reader’s first look into this chaotic series of events which I call reality, or rather, my interpretation of reality.
The cover of a book is like a door the reader must open to enter the world of the author. My perception of life, as I have just said, is a chaotic, disjointed one: a collage of unforeseen events. I believe the cover is rather appropriate.
SM: The novel you are currently working on, Quadrivium, is your third. You have also written Saga, in Spanish, and Secret Memories, in English. You seem equally comfortable in both languages. How do you decide in which language you will write any given novel?
CR: The decision is not a conscious one. It depends on the theme of the novel, on the mood I want to achieve. I find that as a rule I am a great deal more serious, somber, when I write in English. My prose in Spanish is lighter, but more elaborate (more charged with meaning) from a linguistic point of view.
SM: You have been away from Cuba for almost 20 years. Living in Martinsburg (West Virginia), you are virtually isolated from the Cuban community in the U.S. , and, yet, you continue to write in Spanish, going so far as to call Quadrivium “A Cuban-American Novel.” Writing in exile, that is distanced from one’s native land and native tongue, must present its own form of linguistic schizophrenia. What are some of the particular problems which have presented themselves as a result of writing in Spanish while living in the U.S.?
CR: Writing in Spanish while living in an English-speaking community is basically an act of rebellion. If you look closely at Saga, you will notice, above all else, the purity of the language. It all comes down to a question of identity: language is one of the few things, perhaps the only thing, that I have left of my cultural heritage. By writing in Spanish, I am making a statement about myself. Ironically, though, when I write in English, I deny all my assertions in Spanish. It is a paradox that I do not fully understand myself.
SM: One of the most salient characteristics of your prose, particularly as evidenced in the novel you are working on and in Secret Memories, is a certain terseness, a brevity of sentence length, an economy of words (in spite of the baroque quality of the words themselves). To what do you attribute this?
CR: Your question takes me back to the summer of 1968. I had gone to a club in the outskirts of Philadelphia, and there I saw for the first time a show done with strobe lights. The spasmodic quality of the motions, the freezing of the moment intrigued me a great deal. The movements, of course, were fluid; we just did not perceive them that way.
This is what I am after: to capture with words the instant in which the light is on.
SM: I notice in all of your novels, but most specifically in Secret Memories and Quadrivium, a distinct predilection for the oriental. How do you explain this emphasis on the Eastern world and oriental artifacts?
CR: I don’t believe that I have a predilection for the oriental per se. The exotic would be a better word. I am a neo-baroque writer, so my writing is very ornamental. This ornamentation includes everything that is considered exotic: an opium pipe; a sandalwood fan; a solstice celebration in a Hindu temple; oriental writing itself. Keep in mind that all these things are not exotic in themselves, but because we know so little about them. They are not part of our immediate experience; I place them on a different , in this case, literature.
SM: And, finally, what are your plans for the future? What will you do after finishing Quadrivium?
CR: I am not quite sure. I have two other books in mind, Dias grises, noches tristes, a collection of short stories, or “exercises in nostalgia,” as you would say. I also have many ideas for another novel in English, Orpheus’ Blues, which will take place in New York and New Orleans, the jazz centers in the United States. And, of course, I continue to work mentally on Purgatorio, that work which I still do not feel mature enough to undertake.
SHARON MAGNARELLI is an American-born critic who specializes in the contermporary Spanish-American novel. She is Assistant Professor and Chairwoman of the Department of Foreign Languages at Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Connecticut.