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A Cuban Odyssey : It Took a Trip to Havana to Piece Together Cristina Garcia's History and Literary Quest

August 30, 1992|CYNTHIA ADINA KIRKWOOD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES Kirkwood is a San Francisco novelist

Every day Cuba fades a little more inside me, my grandmother fades a little more inside me. And there's only my imagination where our history should be.

--Cristina Garcia, author of "Dreaming in Cuban"

Three floors over Wilshire Boulevard's late-afternoon traffic, a writer's open deck door ushers in the pealing of church bells and the soft sound of a ball bouncing on the asphalt near a swimming pool.

Inside the door, apricot-colored sunlight bathes the peaceful sanctuary of Cristina Garcia. In the art-filled West Los Angeles apartment she shares with her musician husband, Scott Brown, and English bulldog, Garcia muses about her novel "Dreaming in Cuban," published last spring by Alfred A. Knopf. The book was hailed by a New York Times reviewer as a "dazzling first novel" in which "Garcia has tackled the large historical theme of political and spiritual exile."

"Dreaming in Cuban" tells the stories of three generations of Cuban women and their passions for men, magic and politics or, as Garcia says: "It's about four crazy Cuban women."

Their settings include the glittering corrupt Havana of the years before the revolution, the Cuban community in New York City in the 1970s and early '80s and the Havana of today.

"My family provided the structure and inspiration" for the novel, she says. "As in the book, my family was divided by the Cuban revolution."

Garcia, 33, was 2 when she, her parents and brother and sister immigrated to New York. "All of my mother's family stayed in Cuba by choice. My mother was the only one who came. All of my father's family decided to come to the United States. My mother joined my father's camp. So we were politically polarized. My mother's family was very pro-Castro, pro-revolution--many of them still are. My father's side is virulently anti-Castro, anti-Communist. I grew up in the middle of this black-and-white extreme situation."

Garcia takes no public stand on Cuba. She calls her novel "an exploration of the very different ways you can be Cuban."

"I could never reconcile what I was being told at home with the existence of all this family who had remained in Cuba and what I'd read and saw for myself. . . . How can you reconcile such extremes? . . . I was very much at odds with my family, just trying to find my own way."

In her search, Garcia studied political science at Barnard College in New York and at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, where she received a master's degree in 1981.

Three years later, she and her sister, Laura, went to Cuba for the first time since they had left as small children. "I rediscovered half my family" and felt "a tremendous sense of loss, of what might have been," she says.

"When I got down to Cuba, it was almost as if 23 years hadn't passed. I was completely embraced by the family from the first moment we set eyes on each other. It was wonderful. All the warmth and love I felt from them in those two weeks made me realize how much I had been missing by not having that family in my life," she says.

She especially mourns not growing up with her maternal grandmother and her "store of family history and lore and stories of comfort and sympathy. The only thing I did have--besides stories, skewed as they were, from my parents--was my imagination."

After graduating from Johns Hopkins, Garcia, who spoke Spanish in her parents' home and had studied French, German, Italian and Russian and "picked up a little Portuguese," rejected a lifelong ambition to become a diplomat.

"I couldn't see myself defending Reagan's policies," she says. After a short "disastrous" marketing stint in Germany, Garcia "fell into journalism." She spent most of her seven-year career as a reporter at Time magazine's New York, San Francisco, Miami and Los Angeles bureaus.

On a five-month leave of absence from Time, Garcia, "always an avid reader," took a women writers course through UCLA Extension and unknowingly began writing "Dreaming in Cuban." She came away from the three-month class with the opening of her novel--"a strong image of an old woman, all dressed up with drop pearl earrings, wearing makeup and her hair done. It was the middle of the night. She had a pair of binoculars, and she was searching the sea for invaders. And I said, 'Who is she?' "

Garcia eventually surrendered to the task of answering the question by writing the novel that had become "a deep obsession." After returning from her leave, she quit her job and worked at a "feverish pace" for nearly two years. She finished "Dreaming in Cuban" in Hawaii, where Scott Brown, then her boyfriend, was on a fellowship at the University of Hawaii.

"During the final month, I was working 18-hour days on the book," says Garcia. "I was totally frazzled. The night before I sent it off (to the publisher), I was up round the clock."

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