Life on the hyphen: Christina Garcia navigates dual identities

When writer Cristina Garcia was 2.5-years-old, in 1961, her family fled Cuba and settled in New York City. Outside, she was surrounded by New York’s predominantly Irish, Jewish and Italian communities, but at home, she was immersed in Spanish and her parent’s stories of a bygone Cuba.

In 1983, she went back to Havana and reconnected with her abuelos, tios, y primos who had stayed. They showed her the culture and helped her reconnect to her identity. Nine years later, she published her first novel, the highly celebrated “Dreaming in Cuban,” which tells a multi-generational story of the Cuban diaspora, starting in Cuba but circulating through Brooklyn and Coral Gables.

“Dreaming in Cuban” offers a lens into this “life on the hyphen” that so many immigrants and children of immigrants know well, what it’s like to occupy two cultural worlds. The title is a reference to Garcia’s sense of familiarity with the island despite not growing up there.

Last week, Garcia read an excerpt in Miami from her yet-to-be-released novel about Cubans in Berlin at the Escribe Aqui Festival hosted by The Betsy Hotel, a celebration of Iberoamerican literature. We picked her brain about all things identity, exile, and exactly how many Cubans are there in Berlin.

Growing up as a Cuban-American in the northeast, how do you relate that exile community experience to what you see happening here in Miami?

My family wasn’t really part of the community up there, it’s not as concentrated as it is in Miami. My Miami cousins all have fewer issues with identity than those of us who are more Diasporic, by that I mean outside of Miami as well.

I think in many ways, Miami and Cuba are part of the same atmospherics. I like to say that a thunderstorm that erupts over Havana in one hour is coasting Miami the next. The sensory details are the same and there’s an intensity to being with one’s gente that you don’t get when you’re growing up as an isolated Cuban, or well, relatively isolated Cuban immigrant.

How did that experience affect your own sense of identity as a Cuban-American?

I think it necessitated me tackling identity in a very formal way through the writing. Exploring all that nuance, hyphenation, sense of belonging and there’s still no real answer. It’s not like you land: boom, this is who I am. It’s constantly evolving, even today I was feeling pretty Cuban walking around with the heat, the accents. There’s something about being in Miami that feels like home.

There’s something innately political about being Cuban-American. How has the normalization affected your relationship to the country or sense of identity?

I haven’t been to Cuba since 2011, and I don’t have any family there anymore. So the last time I went to Cuba, I went as a tourist. I stayed in a hotel, which was weird. I was in culture shock. I felt that a place that I felt was an extension of family, I felt suddenly like an outsider, like I was looking into an aquarium.

So, I think it made a huge difference to be there with family, to hear about the politics, the issues, the deprivations, everything through the very personal lenses of my family.

What is the significance of sharing stories about identity?

I think it’s important cultural emotional terrain, and as someone who grew up downwind of parents who felt the loss of Cuba acutely, I was in the wake of their dislocation, their exile, their trauma. I feel in many ways now a part of my cultural obligation is to try to capture some of that territory before it disappears, some of that terrain before it’s gone.

I think as a writer, you go where your obsessions go, where they lead, and sometimes they’re closer to home and others they’re far.

Why did you decide to set your next novel in Berlin?

I went for a multitude of reasons, but work-wise I went because I wanted to see what was left of Cuba’s long association with the Eastern Bloc. I had an uncle who studied in eastern Europe in Russia directly from Cuba, a first cousin I had never met who lived in Moscow, so there’s family there. I was curious, all these years and what was left? Could I track down these stories? Were there any material evidence narratively that I could gather? I thought it would be a triptych of Cuba’s adventurism around the world, in Asia, in Eastern Europe but I never got past Berlin.

Did you end up finding a strong connection between the two countries and cultures?

Shockingly, no. It’s not there anymore. So, I made a lot of stuff up because I’m also interested in not necessarily what happened but what possibly could have happened given the circumstances.

When was the last time you dreamed in Cuban?

The last time I was in Cuba. I went with my daughter in 2011, and she’s fluent in Spanish, but since we were there as tourists, we used to do this thing so we wouldn’t be hassled. We were in old Havana and there’s the big hustle, so we would start arguing in Cuban accents going through the streets and nobody bothered us. So we would argue all day and laugh and ramble. She and I normally communicate in English but since we were speaking Spanish, I began to dream in Cuban.