Friday, November 09, 2007

Interview with Karla Suárez

Fabiola Santiago interviews Karla Suárez.
Like some of the characters in her short stories and novels, Cuban writer Karla Suárez is a nomad.

She is a rising literary voice in a generation of irreverent creators who were raised within the Cuban Revolution's confines but are breaking out of its totalitarian mold by roaming the world and making music, literature and art.

What makes Suárez and her thirtysomething contemporaries different from previous waves of intellectuals who have fled Cuba -- novelist Zoé Valdés, poet Raúl Rivero, essayist Rafael Rojas, for example -- is that they are not willing to break their ties to the island.

''I can't consider myself an exile because that would be disrespecting the real exiles, the people who cannot return to their homeland,'' Suárez says. ``I have too much respect for them to call myself an exile. I consider myself an emigrant because I wasn't forced to leave. I chose to leave, and I can go back.''

Visiting the capital of Cuban exiles for the first time, Suárez on Friday brings to the Miami Book Fair International her latest novel, La viajera (The Traveler, Rocaeditorial), the story of two women whose lives parallel that of Suárez and other Cubans dispersed around the world.

Born in 1969 Havana, Suárez studied classical guitar at the conservatory level, sang Nueva Trova music in underground gatherings in the city center, graduated with a degree in computer engineering and became a fiction writer.

All that before Suárez married an Italian psychologist and left for Rome in 1998 -- as she was about to launch her first short story collection, Espuma (Foam), on the island, and her first novel, Silencios (Silences), in Spain.

Divorced five years later, and now an Italian citizen, she moved to Paris, where she has lived the last four years.

''I am terrified by the idea of staying fixed in one place,'' Suárez, 38, says in a telephone interview.

In The Traveler, Circe and Lucía leave Cuba, using Brazilian contacts they met on the island to get themselves the required invitations before they can travel. Their adventure begins in Sao Paulo, and once the feisty Circe is basking in freedom and new experiences, she wants to shed the leftist Brazilian woman when the organization of ''solidarity with the Cuban people'' insists that the women give a conference on Cuba.


''I don't allow anyone to turn me into a puppet,'' Circe says.

Circe and Lucía live in a gritty building brimming with immigrants, but they later separate ''to find their place in the world.'' One ends up in Paris, the other in Rome.

Life as odyssey is the leitmotif.

''She's considered one of the important writers of that generation,'' says Alejandro Ríos, one of the coordinators of the book fair's Spanish-language program. ``She's one of the Cuban writers setting the standard.''

Suárez and her characters are the literary counterpart of musicians like the Habana Abierta ensemble, known for its ''rockason'' fusion and bold-lyric songs that have become anthems to their generation.

In Suárez's novel, Circe buys a Habana Abierta CD in Madrid.

''I love their music,'' says Suárez, who met some of the members when they were all in their 20s in Havana.

The Madrid-based group performed at several venues in Miami last week, their third time in town, and they have played in Havana as well. Their lyrics are critical of the Fidel Castro regime, yet they refuse to be pigeonholed into camps, singing about being tired of the ''trips in circles'' of the right and left.

The feelings, lingo and experiences of Suárez's characters are reflective of the reality espoused in Habana Abierta's lyrics -- marrying foreigners to leave the country and to legalize their status abroad, for example. In The Traveler, Lucía marries the Italian businessman she meets in Sao Paolo. Circe travels from country to country, using the people she meets along the way as trampolines to her next adventure.

''¡Legalízame!'' Boris Larramendi croons in his new song, Horizontal Mambo, about a Spanish woman yearning to sample a Cuban lover.

Both music and books address the nostalgia for the Cuba left behind -- or the lack of it.

Circe ''leaves Havana, and she no longer feels that Havana is her city,'' Suárez says. ''It no longer speaks to her, and she has to find a new place where she can feel she belongs.'' But Lucía, who remains in Rome, spends her days brooding.

''Lucía is always dying of nostalgia. I created the characters with opposite experiences because we Cubans are extremists, and I was searching for equilibrium,'' Suárez says.

Which one of the two is she?

``When you emigrate, you change, the country changes, and when you return, you feel like you are in a state of limbo. That happens not only to Cubans but to all immigrants. Me, I am always ready to travel, with my bags packed.''

Suárez's first novel, Silencios (Lengua de Trapo), is the coming-of-age story of a contemporary Cuban woman who discovers the lies that precariously sustain her family.

''It's very autobiographical, but that is not my family,'' she says. ``It's the story of 20 years in the life of a Cuban woman who was raised in the '70s. Her mother is a foreigner, an Argentine who moves to Cuba in the '60s with illusions about the Cuban Revolution. Her father is a military man, and the novel deals with issues such as racism, and it culminates with the Special Period of 1991-93. I wanted to tell the story of the Havana I lived, the Havana of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll.''

It was only natural that she, the daughter of a professor of literature, would end up a writer, Suárez says.


''I loved to make up stories from the time I was a child,'' she says.

But Suárez also loved math and sciences and studied computer engineering in Cuba's Instituto Superior Politécnico, doing her thesis on electroacoustics. The technical school hosted a literary workshop, and Suárez enrolled and began to write her first short stories. She also participated in amateur music festivals, singing country music with troubadours.

Something else inspired her: French. She took lessons at the Alliance Francaise in Havana, dreaming of someday living in Paris. But she went to work at the official Cuban Book Institute, working on its website while continuing to write. She won literary contests in the '90s and published her stories in the official magazines Revolución y Cultura and Caimán Barbudo.

''The first stories were pretty surreal, philosophical. Everything was a question, you know, the way one is in the early 20s,'' she says. ``I was influenced by Cortázar, Borges, Kafka.''

The state imprint Letras cubanas (Cuban Letters) published a selection of her stories, Espuma, in 1999 after Suárez had left the island -- an unusual move for a government that most of the time bans or ignores artists and writers when they leave. By then, Suárez was living in Italy and had been chosen to be part of an anthology of new Latin American writers under 40, Líneas aéreas (Airlines), published by Lengua de Trapo.

She later published in Colombia Carroza para actores (Floats For Actors), a short story collection about ``disastrous couples.''

Her writing has taken Suárez to Mexico City, Bogotá, Berlin and the island of Guadeloupe. Next month, she plans to participate in a literary festival in Haiti. She wants to spend time in Lisbon and live at least a year in each of Latin America's capital cities.

She has never been in Miami. She wanted to visit longer to see the city and meet exiled family, but she was booked only for 2 ½ days for her presentation. Ríos says the fair lacks the funds to keep writers in town beyond their appearance date. But days later, Suárez happily reported that she was able to extend her visit. Like the wandering Circe in The Traveler, she located a friend with whom to stay.

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