Cuban-born Pablo Medina is the author of 16 books, among them the poetry collections The Island Kingdom, The Man Who Wrote on Water, Calle Habana, Points of Balance/Puntos de Apoyo; the novels Cubop City Blues, The Cigar Roller, The Return of Felix Nogara, and Marks of Birth; and the memoir Exiled Memories: A Cuban Childhood. In 2015 he published a collection of translations from the Spanish of Virgilio Piñera titled The Weight of the Island, and in 2008 he translated (with Mark Statman) García Lorca's Poet in New York, which John Ashbery called "the definitive version of Lorca's masterpiece." Forthcoming is a new English version of Alejo Carpentier's novel The Kingdom of This World and Soledades, a collection of his poetry in Spanish. Medina’s work has appeared in various languages and in magazines and periodicals throughout the world. Winner of many awards for his work, including grants from the Rockefeller Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, The Cintas Foundation, the state arts councils of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and others, Medina is professor of fiction, poetry, and translation at Emerson College in Boston.
In Cubop City, the narrator describes being surrounded by women as a child, women who nurture and make a fuss over him. As a writer, do you consider yourself a feminist? Does such categorization enter into your considerations? Has being a Cuban in exile enhanced or diminished your understanding of what it means to be a woman in Cuba? And is this something you think about consciously—inside and outside the context of your writing?
As a writer I consider myself a human-ist. That is to say, I consider it my responsibility to understand the human animal, no matter its shape, age, color, or sexual orientation. Since I am a human being, my first responsibility is to understand myself in relation to others, and that includes the female of the species.
Does that make me a feminist? I don’t know!
Being a Cuban in exile has indeed helped me to understand what it means to be a Cuban woman. But it is my sister, with whom I have a very close relationship, who has opened my eyes to what it means to be a woman. Recently retired, she was a professional who raised four boys pretty much on her own, despite what seemed to me, overwhelming obstacles. In her struggles to reconcile motherhood and profession, I saw the struggles women face on a daily basis. That she was successful as both mother and administrator speaks not only to her courage, determination and love, but the courage, determination and love of all women who embark on those paths. My own struggles to raise my son—I was a single father—were crucial in allowing me to see what many women encounter constantly.
What is the role of jazz in your poetry and writing in general? What kind of jazz moves you most?
I love music and I love jazz, perhaps because of is improvisatory nature, its development despite the difficulties many of its practitioners faced—racism, poverty, disdain—and its vitality, which I think springs from the effort of the musician to overcome, and if not overcome, reconcile him/herself with those limits. The best jazz is charged with spiritualism, charged with duende, to borrow a term used in flamenco—another type of music I love.
I have to admit that Latin jazz moves me the most. It brings together two directions or rivers, if you will, of a tradition that goes back to Africa and has been enriched by European tendencies. When the African and European musical cultures came together, sparks flew, and new ways of engaging the world came about.
Latin jazz is the end of racism!
Please describe the difference, if there is any for you, between writing in Spanish and writing in English. Internally speaking, has there been any kind of fusion, or do Cuba and the U.S. remain separate worlds for you?
Spanish is my mother tongue. English is my step-mother tongue. I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that my emotions are embedded in Spanish, while my intellect drives me in English. I have spent my writing life trying to bring the two together, and so far (thank God!) I have failed at it. But I always try—with apologies to Samuel Beckett—to fail better.
PABLO F. MEDINA