Between the Darts Q&A With Cuban Crime Novelist Jose´ Latour
José Latour is a Cuban writer living in Havana. Akashic Books is putting out his new novel, Outcast (217 pages, $13.95). Publisher Johnny Temple asked me if I wanted to interview him. My only experience of Cuba was when I lived in Miami, where we lived above this Cuban restaurant. Outside there were always small groups of men sitting in their white stained undershirts and shiny pastel pants, their Spanish flying like the cards they threw down onto wobbly folding tables. I'd sip 50-cent cups of steamed chocolate with ice cubes in the cool recesses and watch. Every 15 minutes one of the men from outside would toss his cards down in disgust, storm into the restaurant, reach into a small wastebasket that sat on a side table. He'd grab out a fistful of darts and throw, his entire body moving with his arm as if he were performing an out-of-water breaststroke. The darts would hurl into a man's face pinned to the wall. The face was covered with so many dart holes his nose looked like he was a victim of a hunting accident. I was haunted by that face; it seemed like the man on the wall knew nothing would ever touch him. He stared out with a stern, almost bored expression. Five darts in the eye were nothing. His expression implied you needed to pray he would never climb out of the picture and get his turn with the darts.
When I asked a waitress who he was, she told me Castro, a dictator, then she spit. Her family was still there. Trapped. So close to Florida you can get there in an hour in a speedboat. But she couldn't go there. They couldn't come here. Sometimes you would even see them, not in speedboats but in dilapidated dinghies, washed up on the beach, not resisting as INS men wearing thick rubber gloves hauled them away in handcuffs.
I was intrigued to interview a writer who was there, in that country that made my waitress spit. We had to do the interview by e-mail. I first off asked all these political questions like, "Do you have the freedom to write what you want?" Temple then informed me that all e-mail to Cuba passes through the government's server, so I had to be careful. We constructed questions that were okay, that maybe would artfully extract some of what is trapped behind a censor's black pen, between the dart holes.
Latour is coming to New York Monday, Oct. 18, for an Outcast release party at Tonic, 6:30-9 p.m. He'll give a brief reading.
Please describe the story of Outcast.
Outcast's story is a reflection on one of the darkest sides of human behavior: Greed leads to scheming for profit and some individuals won't stop at anything to achieve their objectives. It is also a tale on how social environments shape the lives of the book's characters, maybe mirroring the outlooks, joys and sorrows of millions of people in Cuba and the U.S.
As a writer of Cuban crime fiction, who and what are your major influences?
First of all, the giants in universal literature. Authors like Cervantes, Shakespeare, Balzac, Dostoevsky. There are also great writers in this century who influenced me: Alejo Carpentier, Jorge Luis Borges, Mika Waltari, John Steinbeck. How these masters dissect human nature never ceases to amaze me. In the 1950s, as a teenager, I read hundreds of crime books in English: Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, Richard Prather and Mickey Spillane come to mind. From 1961 on, Cubans were prevented from acquiring new books by Western writers when trade between the island and most capitalist countries was severed, although I presume that with the turn that events took they wouldn't have been imported anyway, for ideological reasons.
From socialist crime fiction, one Russian writer made a lasting impression on me: Julian Semyonov, sort of an East-bloc John Le Carré. The foundation of the International Association of Crime Writers (IACW) in 1986 made it possible for Cuban crime novelists to reconnect themselves to Western crime literature. Among Spanish-speaking writers, I came to know the works of Manuel Vázquez, Rolo Diez, Ricardo Piglia, Paco Taibo, and many more. In America I discovered, among others, Don Westlake, Joe Gores, Elmore Leonard, Larry Block, Martin Cruz Smith, Joseph Wambaugh, John Grisham and Carl Hiaasen.
In Outcast, when Elliot Steil is lost at sea and is saved by a family on a raft, the scene is very vivid. Have you known anyone that has made the trip from Cuba to the U.S. on a raft or did you just use your imagination for that scene?
It's a mixture of other people's real-life experiences and my imagination.
Your chapters in Miami are also very realistic. Have you spent some time there?
Although I traveled extensively through 28 states of the Union as a teenager, the only American city I can say I know a little is Miami. I was 14 years old the first time I spent a month there. I went back in 1956 and 1958. Then, for 34 years I was unable to visit. When I finally returned in 1992 I found a completely different town. But to write acceptably about a city you don't know well, research is the name of the game.
Do you think that many Cubans who come to the U.S.?as with some of the characters of Outcast?are forced to look for work in the black market or in illegal businesses?
No, I don't. Nevertheless, "many" is a highly imprecise term. Most Cubans who immigrate have relatives and friends that lend a hand and they manage to land positions in legal businesses. Those who out of necessity or by choice turn to illegality are a minority.
You are the vice president of the Latin American Division of the International Association of Crime Writers (IACW). What defines a book as a work of "crime fiction" and not just "fiction"?
We live immersed in cliches and surrounded by artificial boundaries, many of them the result of market forces. Crime literature, which is a broader concept than crime fiction, is as old as literature itself. Crime probably preceded language. Some people argue that The Odyssey could be construed as crime literature. Debatable? Yes. Don Quixote has many chapters dealing with crime. What about Crime and Punishment and Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth? Almost everybody I know agrees that Chandler's essay "The Simple Art of Murder" and his novel The Long Goodbye are first-class contemporary literature.
All this leads me to believe that good crime literature becomes just literature and, returning to your original phrasing, good "crime fiction" becomes "fiction." Perhaps if the generic concept "literature of adventure" is admitted, what is now considered crime fiction, science fiction, children's fiction, war fiction, etc., could be unified under it. But the market has been segmented to better target readers. Among works of crime fiction we have the whodunits, thrillers, police procedurals, spy novels, etc. And what about the term "fiction" itself? Many fictional titles are firmly rooted in reality. I presume that right now some American author is writing a book about teenage crime in an American school. Fictional? Give me a break. Even in some of the wildest science fiction, basic human nature is projected realistically.
Some of the main female characters in the book are feminists. Is this true of many Cuban women?
I would estimate that among educated, professional women between the ages of 20 and 40, the majority believe they should be allowed the same rights, power and opportunities as men, and be treated in the same way. This is an important social group; around 60 percent of the highly qualified workforce in Cuba are women. Between 41 and 60, those who share that conceptualization are the minority. After 60, the percentage of feminists is low. But among less educated women, most of whom are housewives economically dependent on husbands, lovers, fathers or brothers, the number is extremely low.
Is it difficult for Cuban writers to get published in the U.S.?
Extremely so. The insurmountable hurdle seems to be language. American publishing houses won't even open a manuscript by an unknown writer in Spanish. It's practically impossible to find a good translator willing to risk that his work may not yield him a penny. So I am a privileged person for being able to write in English.
Is being a writer a satisfying profession for you?
Absolutely. My only regret is the time lost. Sometimes I look back to the many years I spent in an office poring over figures, submitting reports which changed nothing, and I wish I had been writing fiction instead. By now I would have produced twice as many books. But it was impossible to earn a livelihood from writing only.
Are you able to support yourself as a writer, or do you have to work other jobs as well?
Very few writers in Cuba, maybe in all Latin America, are able to support themselves and their families just by writing. Most have to juggle other jobs and become journalists-translators, salesmen-office workers, editors-interpreters, what have you. I am not the exception to the rule.
In your response to an earlier question, you said that the book was in part about how "social environments shape the lives of the book's characters." How do you think your writing?subject matter, style, etc.?would be affected if you lived in the U.S. instead of Cuba?
As regards style, which in literature is more a matter of form than of substance, I guess I would be open to new influences, fresh ideas. Languages are incredibly beautiful and building a book word by word is esthetically very pleasing to me, after I have dealt with essence. As regards subject matter, I don't know. Like all other mature people, I have developed a set of principles and beliefs that probably wouldn't vary. I am against injustice, political repression and arbitrary rule in any country; against terrorism, war and discrimination by reason of politics, sex, race and religion; against any economic order that shows flagrant disregard for the underprivileged. My writing would always be determined by these and other convictions.
Your publisher Johnny Temple told me that you have worked with American writers while they were traveling in Cuba. I saw that you are acknowledged in Martin Cruz Smith's new novel, Havana Bay. What sort of work do you do with these writers?
I would prefer the term "collaboration" to "work." Work implies collecting money for what you do; as a matter of principle I have never charged a cent to American colleagues visiting Cuba. Usually I interpret for them, suggest books for reference purposes, tell them the most relevant facts of Cuban history, drive them around, act as a guide, have them over for drinks and supper, that sort of thing.
You're coming to the U.S. to visit family and promote Outcast. You also mentioned that after 1958 you were not permitted to visit the U.S. for 34 years. Is it difficult to get a travel visa these days? Was it frustrating to have your travel be so limited during those years?
Excuse me, but I didn't say I wasn't permitted to visit the U.S. I said I was unable to. There's a difference. I never applied for a visa during those years. In fact, I had a nonimmigrant visa valid for unlimited applications for admission into your country until Dec. 28, 1962. After diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. were severed, it was extremely difficult to travel to America, particularly if you were a young or middle-aged government bureaucrat who just wanted to visit and return. Many relatives I love left Cuba permanently. Some of them passed away while living in Miami or California. I wanted to attend their funerals, of course, but it was impossible to get a Cuban government permit or a U.S. visa on the usual short notice that escorts death.
Since 1990, when I became a full-time writer, it has been easier to get a visa, even though it's a lengthy process that takes a couple of months. A letter of invitation from some American institution is the first step. Next the Cuban government has to issue an exit permit. Then a form has to be filed at the Consular Section of the U.S. Office of Interests in Havana. This form is sent to Washington and three or four weeks later the person learns if the visa has been granted or not.
At the end of Outcast, Steil has food, clothing, shelter and possibly a small fortune. Do you think he is therefore living the American dream?
Define American dream. If it is limited to the material side of life, yes. But I suspect that this dream includes spiritual values too. Martin Luther King had a dream and it was not materialistic. I know people in your country who, materially speaking, have everything a human being can hope for. Yet some of them long for spiritual values that, in their perception, are fading in America. I don't know; I don't live there. But if your dream encompasses cultural assimilation, I doubt that a man of Elliot Steil's background and age would live the full American dream.
Outcast takes an evenhanded look at Cuban and American societies. In the novel, set in 1994-'95, Cuba is economically starved, with ideologically rigid authority figures. The U.S. seems to be drowning in materialism. Is there a middle ground?
I am not well-traveled enough to answer this question. Let's give the floor to Fidelia, who in Chapter Four of Outcast asks: "I wonder if there's a human settlement on this planet where you can live a normal life. Sweden? Switzerland? Maybe it exists in one of those countries you almost never hear about, like New Zealand, Norway, or Denmark?a place where you can make a decent living, own a little house, and speak your mind without fearing reprisals. It would also be a place where you are properly educated in your youth, decently cared for in the end, and get taxed for it all in between. If you don't pay taxes for what you are given, you become either a parasite or a slave to power-hungry demagogues and faceless bureaucrats."
Tensions between the U.S. and Cuba have been easing. They talk about "baseball diplomacy." Are you optimistic about the relationship?
Not in the next 10 to 15 years. I am too far removed from the centers of power in both countries to really know. However, I suspect there is no such thing as "baseball diplomacy" between Cuba and the U.S. This is just a meaningless term coined by American journalism. From where I sit, it looks as if neither side wants to budge. One advocates a multiparty political system, a free press, a strong private sector. The other is implementing exactly the opposite and postulates that no foreign power has the right to tell another how it should rule itself. Both nations have changed enormously since 1959. Both have made serious errors. It's a very complex issue that, like all major problems, needs to find a middle ground, a compromise.
Economically speaking, for Cuba to be denied access to the biggest single market in the world, which is only 90 miles away, is extremely harmful.