Interviews

Interview with The Charleston Gazette, August 1990

 

The Charleston Gazette

Sunday Life

AUGUST 26, 1990

Colleen Anderson

CARLOS RUBIO – Martinsburg writer distinguished citizen of the country of writers

His voice bears a musical remnant of his native Cuba, yet Martinsburg writer Carlos Rubio has spent more than half of his 45 years in West Virginia.

Conversely, although he has attended college, married, raised his family, and written his books in the Mountain State, the majority of his published work is in Spanish. He admits that he sometimes wonders where he truly belongs.

Add to that the effect or a writer’s necessary companion, solitude.

“One of the things literature has done to me is that every day I become more isolated,” said Rubio in a telephone interview. “I can only relate to other writers. I told this to a friend of mine, also a writer, and he said, ‘You are a citizen of the country of writers.’”

Rubio cerently became a much more distinguished citizen of that country. Earlier this year, his novel Quadrivium won the annual Nuevo Leon International Award for Novels, sponsored by Ediciones Castillo, a major Mexican publishing house. With its publication this month, Rubio enters a considerably larger community of writers and readers. The award also earned him a cash prize of $7,500.

“It was really very exciting,” said Rubio. “This is an international competition. They had 78 entries-from South America, France, Cuba, Mexico and the United States.

“When I went down to Mexico to receive the prize, I took my 16-year-old son with me. He had never been out of the country. I wanted him to see that the things I do are considered important, not just by me, but by other people.”

Rubio worked on the winning work for six years. “It is the story of four women. One is a Chinese magician, one is an American prostitute, another is a Brazilian choreographer, and the fourth woman is a Cuban singer of boleros. The opening and closing chapters take place in Miami. The four women are sitting around a hotel pool, drinking and talking. They tell their stories. The novel ends in the same hotel, that night.”

The book’s theme has to do with the nature of illusion. “These four women, you see, they are all masters of illusion.”

Part of the satisfaction of writing the story was Rubio’s awareness that all of it was framed by another illusionist, a male novelist speaking in the voices of four women. “Writing from a woman’s point of view, yes, it was very challenging. But it’s not my first experience.”

Nor is the role of magician. In Rubio’s short story Xinef, the Eternal, the narrator is a sort of supernatural P.T. Barnun, purveyor of the fabulous and fantastic that includes invisible clowns, wireless trapeze artists, and a mirror that reproduces the unrealized dreams of those who look into it. This story also won an international prize, from the National Hispanic Honor Society, and it was subsequently published in the journal Entre Nosotros.

In a 1980 interview with critic Sharon Magnarelli, Rubio said, “Writing in Spanish while living in an English-speaking community is essentially an act of rebellion… 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.”

But Rubio cannot be classified as a writer in exile. His most recent novel, Orpheus’ Blues (currently under consideration by New York publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux), is about a quintessentially American subject, jazz.

“I have many passions; I have many interests, and they are reflected in my writing,” said Rubio. “This is the novel I have dedicated completely to jazz. It is the American music, and at the same time it is the most ignored music.

“If you want to be a jazz musician, you need your head examined, you know? There’s such a rich legacy of jazz in this country. People are working day after day after day -not for money, but because they love it. These people devote themselves, like writers, to their art. If you want to make money, you go into heavy metal.

“The novel is not just about jazz, but about a man finding his own, what I call his center of gravity. The scenes in the novel shift from the character’s adulthood in New York City to his childhood in southern Virginia. So it’s a kind of point-counterpoint, which is a device used in music. I was very, very happy with the way it turned out. And I’m happy that it’s finally off my desk.”

One of the greatest compliments he ever received, Rubio says, was from a reader of the manuscript of his new novel.. “That person asked me what instrument I played. I am a frustrated musician. I can’t play anything. The only thing I can do is write about playing.”

In addition to Orpheus’s Blues, Rubio has written two short stories about jazz. A Day of Rest and For My Sins. Music also figures heavily in another of his English novels, Secret Memories.

Writing in any language is hard work, Rubio maintains, but writing in English is very different for him than writing in Spanish.

“There are really two sides to my writing, two extensions of my personality. When I write in English I am more serious, more somber. In Spanish, my prose is lighter, but more elaborate. I will give you an example. With Quadrivium (Spanish), I laughed . There were times with that book when I laughed so hard that I collapsed on the typewriter. With Orpheus’ Blues, the final scene always makes me cry. Every time I read it, it makes me cry.”

Rubio knew from an early age that he would be a writer. Growing up in a small town about a hundred miles west of Havana, he learned his love of the arts from his parents.

“My mother was a poet. My father was a criminal lawyer. You would not believe that house. We had access to all kinds of interesting people. I remember, as a child, staying up late, listening to recitals. That house was just like a magnet for musicians, for poets. I was just very fortunate.

He reveres the memory of his mother. “Right now, downstairs in my house, I have all her poems. She was a tremendous influence for me. My most-prized possession is her pen. The final draft of all my books is written with her pen. The pen is not mine, I’m just using it for the moment. Someday, someone-perhaps my daughter, or my niece-witll pick it up and carry on the tradition.”

Rubio left Cuba in the early 1960’s, but did not come to West Virginia until 1965. “It was an accident. I was living in Delaware, and then I decided that it was time for me to get on with college. A friend of mine mentioned that there was a college in West Virginia, in a placed named Athens. I chose it because it was so remote. And, you know, some of the happiest years of my life were spent at Concord College.”

After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Concord, Rubio earned a marster’s degree in Latin American Studies from West Virginia University. He has begun work on his doctorate at the University of Maryland, but has no plans to leave West Virginia. “Believe it or not, when I go away, I miss Martinsburg. My family’s here, my children were born here, and here is where I have made my life.”

He leads a busy life. He teaches Spanish at Musselman High School, continues to write novels and short stories, and circulates his unpublished work without the help of a literary agent. Not that he woldn’t like to have an agent. “I’ll tell you, it’s a Catch-22 situation. You approach a big publisher, and they say, ‘Have your agent contact us.’ And you try to get an agent, and they say, ‘Well, where have you been published?’”

Of Rubio’s five novels and a short story collection, only Caleidoscopio, a collection of short stories in Spanish, has been published in its entirety. Many of his stories have been published individually, however, and sections of several novels have appeared in anthologies. He has been the subject of interviews in a number of publications, including The Miami Herald, El Mundo (New York City), and La Nacion (Mexico City).

He believes that the Nuevo Leon Award, and the publication of Quadrivium, will advance his writing career. “Doors will open. That is true.”

But years of working in relative obscurity have taught him that the true reward of writing is in the writing, not the publishing.

“I love writing. I have tried not doing it, and it’s almost like an addiction. I feel that if a day goes by, and I have not written something, that day is wasted. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

“Well, maybe I would trade it for one thing. Being a jazz musician.”

Anderson is a writer and graphic artist in Charleston.

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