During Writers and Readers Week at the New Zealand International Arts Festival, AMY BROWN talks to Caribbean novelist and short-story writer, Mayra Montero about morals, fear, translation and la verdad de la mentira.

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MAYRA MONTERO, born in Havana in 1952, is not only one of Cuba’s best-loved novelists but also a highly acclaimed journalist at Puerto Rico’s El Nuevo Dia and a political activist. Her author photo in the front of The Captain of the Sleepers shows a woman in her late forties with beautiful eyes, long hair and a cat on her lap. The novel itself is impressive. Weaving confidently between a small boy’s impression of his parents’ relationship during the 1950s nationalist movement in Puerto Rico, and the boy’s adult self, in the year 2000. Montero’s description of the political climate is clear and immediate, like a surprisingly vivid memory, but this is overshadowed by the quality of her characterisation and her ability as a story-teller.

Of her 10 novels and collections of short stories, the three which I most keenly wish I’d had the opportunity to read before the interview are The last night I spent with you, In the palm of darkness, and Montero’s most recent, Dancing to “Almendra”. From the reviews and synopses I’ve read, it sounds like the ambitiousness of their subject matter is matched by the skill of their execution. The first, structured like a bolero, dances erotically between the past, present and different points of view of a middle-aged couple’s marriage. The second, set in Haiti, follows a local hunter and a foreign scholar, both of whom are searching for the endangered Haitian blood frog; science versus religion, cultural politics, biology and voodoo are all explored. The third, set in 1950s Havana, is about a young journalist who finds a connection between an escaped hippopotamus and a mafia murder, and has been described by the New York Times as “a flawless little book”.

I meet Mayra Montero in the lobby of the Museum Hotel. The English cricket team are chatting and drinking coffee at the front of the foyer, so find a secluded corner at the back, next to a bizarre sculpture of white ceramic men, which John Campbell comes over and peers at.
‘What are they?’ Mayra asked, later in the interview.
‘I think it might be art,’ I said.
‘Pequenos hombres,’ she replied. ‘Little men.’

As we have only half an hour – Mayra is in a Writers and Readers Week panel in an hour, and needs time to get dressed and put on some make-up – I launch inelegantly into my questions, which Mayra has seen and prepared answers for.
‘Do you think novelists have a special moral responsibility?’ I ask.
Mayra reads her answer carefully. ‘I don’t think that writers have a moral responsibility; I think that the writer has a responsibility to write in the best way possible. If the writing has a moral or aesthetic consequence, that’s another thing. But, when you are going to write a novel or a short story you are not supposed to think about moral responsibility because the author or the writer is not a priest or a kindergarten teacher.’
I deviate from the prepared questions for a moment to discuss something Edith Grossman, Mayra’s English translator, has said about a “sense of moral order in the universe to which we have to conform” which is implied by many of her novels.
‘I think, I think, there is an order, in my books, a moral order, but, again, it is not deliberate. If there is a moral order, it has come directly from the story. My main concern is the story itself, that it is well told.’
‘You certainly manage to tell a story well,’ I gush, ‘your novels are genuinely exciting, and the subjects you deal with are substantial.’
Mayra agrees silently to my praise. I ask her if there are any taboo subjects, which she wouldn’t touch in her fiction, hoping that she will reveal some ethical boundary or writer’s angst. Her answer is admirable. ‘If I like the subject, if it inspires me, I don’t have any problem writing about it. In my novels, I’ve written about biology, voodoo, different religions, love affairs between men and women and between men and men...’
‘You’ve tried a bit of everything.’
‘Mm, everything, everything.’
Surely she’s not fearless? I don’t think I’ve ever met, or heard of, a fearless novelist, certainly not a fearless poet.
‘Does anything frighten you as a writer?’ I ask. ‘Is there ever a time, while you’re writing, when you feel nervous?’
This is not one of the prepared questions, so Mayra thinks before answering. ‘I have never had the sensation that I am frightened and don’t want to write something. Never. So far. I don’t know about tomorrow. I have never been a frightened writer; I think I can write about any matter that inspires me and gives a good story.’
I ask her if she has ever experienced writer’s block.
‘Writer’s block?’ She asks.
‘When you have an idea that inspires you, but, despite this, you can’t quite get it down on paper – you can’t bring yourself to begin writing . . .’
‘Ah! Si, si, si. I have a notebook and I always make notes. If somebody tells me that their father used to kill chickens in a certain way, I will write it down and make a note of a possible character who might kill hens.’
I’m not sure if she misunderstood my explanation, or if the note-taking is a means of warding off the fear of the blank page. I decide on the latter.

“I have never had the sensation that I am frightened and don’t want to write something. Never. So far. I don’t know about tomorrow. I have never been a frightened writer; I think I can write about any matter that inspires me and gives a good story.”

‘What place do you think politics has in your fiction?’ I imagine that this is a question she’s been asked many times, but curiosity overwhelms my desire to avoid boring her.
‘I think politics is very important in my fiction,’ Mayra begins reading—this is another of the prepared questions – ‘but not because I look for political issues. I think that I look for the verosimilitud – a word which means what Mario Vargas Llosa called la verdad de la mentira, the truth of the lie. So, when I am writing a story, the characters are not alone in the world they are contextualised in the story by the things that happen. And, mostly, those things have to do with politics; hopefully in a subtle way.’
Politics appears to come inevitably with the settings Mayra chooses for her novels and stories. I ask her about how her own setting, in Puerto Rico, influences her writing.
‘I think a writer’s environment influences their way of assimilating light, sounds, rhythm. I think we who live and write on islands – we have different islands, different languages – but we share a way of capturing the light, of seeing the sea. The sea is very important. It gives a sensation that you can go to any place on the island without a plane. You can go in a car, or by walking over the earth. It is this island condition that affects the writer’s way that she conceives the world.’

‘Have you ever made yourself a character in a novel?’ I ask, relaxed now, and deviating further from the original ten questions.
‘Yes, for the first time in Dancing to “Almendra”,’ Mayra says, apparently pleased to be asked. ‘There is a mention of a little girl who saw a crime. She is me. She witnesses a murder, and, for this reason, the dedication to my grandparents is at the end of the book. When you read about the little girl, then read the dedication, you will immediately make the connection that the girl is me. There are many hints of me throughout the novel – of films, movies, actors, actresses. You see, I am a cinephile. Is that how you say it in English?’
‘Yep, film lover.’
‘By the way, on the plane when I was flying from LA to Auckland, I saw a beautiful New Zealand movie – Rain.’ She’s not just being polite; there is a great deal of sincerity in her voice.
‘It’s brilliant isn’t it?’
‘I really loved that movie. It had a special sensibility. The director is a woman.’ She emphasises woman, making it sound like the reason for the film’s value.
‘That’s right, Christine Jeffs.’
‘And I read that the producer is a woman too. It’s a very sad film. And that young lady is a very great actress.’
‘She is,’ I say, wishing I could somehow segue from Rain to one of Mayra’s novels – to make an insightful connection. But I can’t.
‘I have a question about the structure of your novels; you tend you use multiple narrators, for instance in Captain of the Sleepers and In the Palm of Darkness, which creates a sort of dialogue between characters who misunderstand each other,’ I ask abruptly.
‘Sometimes, yes, sometimes. For example, in Dancing to “Almendra”’ – perhaps because it’s her most recent book, Mayra seems most willing to talk about this one – ‘I tried to use not multiple narrators, but two voices which reflected the reality of what was happening in Cuba during those years just before the triumph of the revolution. I needed an alternative point of view because the main character, the journalist, has strong opinions and ideas. I needed a different voice to give the readers another view of the journalist – of his immaturity and arrogance. He’s 21, working at his first newspaper and he’s arrogant. But his character changes; his view of mafia life shocks him.’

I am interested in Mayra’s journalism, how it feeds, or distracts from, her career as a novelist, so I ask her how the two mesh together.
‘Journalism has given me the training to organise information. When I do a great deal of research, I need to be able to decide which information to use. I’m not writing an essay or a book of history, I am writing a novel, fiction. You have to filter the information. For example, when I sat down to write Dancing to “Almendra”, I had hundreds of pages of information from the New York police and others. I think my experience as a journalist helped me. There is a great temptation to put everything in, but you have to take care. I like to think I am amphibious – amphibian or amphibious?
‘Amphibious, I think.’ For a moment I’m afraid I haven’t been listening properly and that Mayra’s talking about the blood frogs in In the palm of darkness.
‘Yes, amphibious, because I am the same writer, with the same passion, when I write for the newspaper as when I write a novel. I can move from one to the other very easily.’ It is a good word to describe what seems like a wonderful ability.

“It is very difficult to say anything other than: I want to improve my syntax or my vocabulary. As an author, you just don’t know. You’re looking for the best story told in the best way possible. This is the pursuit of happiness in writing.”

‘How do you find the process of having your fiction translated?’ It’s getting near the end of the interview. From what I’ve read online, Mayra enjoys talking about her translator, Edith, so I hope this question pleases her.
‘It’s a good thing,’ she says, ‘but it is a bizarre sensation when you see your name written in another language, Czech for example. In Czech my name is Mayra Monteroba. In English and Spanish it is Montero but in Czech is has to change.’
I consider asking why, but I don’t want to break her stride.
‘What is a very strange thing is that some translators never call me to ask for help with a word or a context of the novel. If a novel is translated into Chinese or something, I worry because I think, this person, this translator never called me. From working with Edith Grossman, my English translator, I know that even the most brilliant translators have doubts and questions. If the translators don’t call me, I wonder if my novel is still my novel when it has left their hands.’
‘I think you’ve described reading Edith Grossman’s English translations of your novels as being like looking in a mirror, and that you can still feel the spirit of your novel beating like a heart in the translation.’ I say.
‘Edith Grossman has a formidable intuition for all my novels and stories, especially those set in the Caribbean landscape. She is also the translator of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. She has an intuition for South American writing in general, but she is especially good at Caribbean. I like to think that she is an artist, a creator. She is very respectful. As we work, she makes a first version . . .’
Mayra is uncertain of the word. ‘A draft?’
‘A first draft.’ She carries on without missing a beat. ‘And while she’s working on this she doesn’t call me. When I get the first draft we talk, sometimes for hours, on the phone.
‘How long would you say the translation process takes, with Edith?’
‘Maybe two months? If she is available and dedicated exclusively to the novel, then two months. She is very fast.’ Mayra clicks her fingers.

My Dictaphone says that we’ve been talking for 28 minutes. Another hotel guest stops to examine the Pequenos hombres.
‘I’ve read online about the writers you admire. You mentioned Edgar Allen Poe and others . . .’
‘Yes, Alejo Carpentier. Alejo was probably the most important Cuban writer. One of his novels, El siglo de las luces – it means in English “the century of the light”, but it has another title; you’ll have to look on the internet – is my favourite novel. It is the novel that I read and reread. Also, American writers like Faulkner and Steinbeck, translated of course. When I first read Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hemingway it was in English translation. Now I can read in English, but back in my childhood I was educated by Spanish nuns . . .’
‘Nonce?’ I’ve clearly misheard.
‘Yes, nuns. Let me write it.’
‘Oh, I see.’ I let her carry on.
‘They spoke only Spanish. I lament that some of my friends were educated by English nuns, and I was not. After the revolution I had to learn English when I came to Puerto Rico.’
There are many things I want to ask her about the revolution. About her political activism, but I suspect that reading her other novels would provide answers. I don’t want to waste her time.
‘Is there anything in your writing that you’d like to improve?’ This is the last prepared question. Mayra looks for her prepared answer but has left it in her room. Delicately she begins to answer impromptu.
‘Any writer will admit to any journalist that he has to improve anything in his writing. But, I think that we writers don’t know what we have to improve, because this differs from one short story or novel to another. You might think you have a beautiful story, and a critic might tell you, no, you need to improve this or that. It’s very subjective. Subjective?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘You know, there is no rule, as when you make a dress or a cake. It is different and incomparable. It is very difficult to say anything other than: I want to improve my syntax or my vocabulary. As an author, you just don’t know. You’re looking for the best story told in the best way possible. This is the pursuit of happiness in writing.’
‘That’s a good answer. Thank you very much for your time.’
I turn off the Dictaphone and wish Mayra luck with her panel discussion.

Before taking the lift up to her room to get changed, she writes her email address in my notebook. If I have any questions, I am to get in touch. And, when the interview is finished, I must send it to her. And, finally, if I’m ever in Puerto Rico, I should give her a call.