Author. Playwright. Visual Artist. Vanessa Garcia is many things, but she’s an ABC first and foremost — an American-born Cuban. It’s a phrase Garcia didn’t coin, but it’s come to be used so often in her work that the phrase has been mistakenly credited as her own. The New Tropic sat down with Vanessa to talk about the phrase she actually created, her recent trip to Cuba, and her latest novel White Light.
You’re obviously interested in a lot of media. Which one is your favorite?
I don’t put genres into boxes at all. I never have. I think the work you want to create finds its way to a medium, and sometimes the medium that calls is writing and sometimes its painting, or a collaboration between the two. I don’t really see them as divided, and I think more and more people are joining those two together because of the digital age.
So what’s your favorite piece you’ve worked on?
I feel like that changes. The thing I’m most obsessed with is whatever I’m working on at any given moment. It constantly changes. It’s not as much favorite as what I’m obsessed by. Right now, I’m working on writing the most, whether its nonfiction, theater, it’s calling to me the most and what makes the most sense right now. But when I write for the theater, its so visual and there’s so much happening, that it’s all very much drawn from my painter brain.
Tell us about your new novel, White Light.
It’s about a painter, a Cuban American visual artist who’s about to make it in the art world by having her first show during Art Basel, but her father dies suddenly. So then she’s driven by a double drive of loss, mourning, and creation. It’s a coming-of-age story in a way — the character is in her late 20s. The book takes the structure of the visual pieces the artist is creating, so it has a lot of color and non-conventional form and structure.
Is this a work of fiction?
Totally fiction, but as with everything we’re influenced by things that happen in our lives. The impetus was around the time my father died, and as a painter I know the art world and there are things that I draw from, but it’s not my story, it’s fiction.
You may not have coined ABC, but you did create another well-known phrase.
Yes, the familial embargo. I think people who are not Cuban or Cuban American always have a hard time understanding why I hadn’t been to Cuba. I was constantly trying to explain why family got in the way, about how they didn’t want me to go and how it was a common thread, so I made this up. There isn’t just an economic embargo, there’s a familial embargo, too. Your family culturally infuses you with everything about Cuba and gives you all those beautiful gifts and anecdotes about your country and then says, “But you can’t go.”
But you finally did go to Cuba.
I did. As I started to write about Cuba, I felt like there needed to be a conversation, and that had started happening when all the [Cuban] dissidents were allowed to come to the U.S. without an exit visa. I felt a real responsibility to go because I was writing about Cuba so intimately and I felt like I couldn’t continue doing so without going. I told my mom I was going and she ended up coming with me. And that’s a huge part of what [Cuban Routes] the book I’m writing about is now — the breaking of the familial embargo — which I felt had to be broken because of the change in generation and influence. I think now there’s a general dissolution of intensity against going back, but the older generation feels its too hard, so how can we all go back?
What do you think about the normalizing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba?
We need to have a great responsibility. But I think any kind of conversation with the outside world will inch Cuba towards normalcy and away from the isolation they’ve been living in for so many years. It’s deeply unfair to treat Cuba like a closed off tiny satellite. Any aperture will be good for the Cuban people.
How do you think American born Cubans of our generation can help to assuage the transition?
I think it’s unbelievably important and it’s absolutely our responsibility as American born Cubans to be a bridge of understanding, because we’re inside and outside both cultures, which gives us a perfect point of view from which to speak to both sides and sort of bridge both sides. There’s a certain faction of Americans who have come to a particular notion of what being Cuban is because of what they see on TV, and there are so many variations and so many opinions and so many complications and complexities to the Cuban story that I feel like our generation understands. But we’re also Americans, so we speak a particular language and we’re also separated from it somewhat, though it does stir us in a real way. We have a great power and great responsibility and I feel like we have to push to get our voices out there. There’s a point of view from the American Born Cuban that definitely has to be involved in this conversation at a very high level.