“More than a place, exile is a literary genre”: An Interview with Reina María Rodríguez
In 2001, I was wandering around the rooms in La Cabaña, where the International Havana Book Fair is held, when all of a sudden, I walked over to where I could hear a voice that was both sweet and raspy coming from. I think I remember that the poem was about apples and New York, or maybe I made that up later. I read all of the books that Reina María Rodríguez had published at the time and then the ones that came after, again and again. I would speak to her and she would respond to me long before this interview, in my diaries or poems. During those readings, connections with friends and strangers, life and travel projects, a thesis, email conversations with her, and this interview—which I wish had taken place in Havana but that is still happening there despite real and virtual distances—were all woven together.
Eilyn Lombard: I remember that a part of me wanted to understand and experience maternity just like you, and Otras cartas a Milena [Other Letters to Milena] often became a manual where I could find my fears and mistakes, or a possibility for me to recognize my own daughters in that girl in the blue skirt who danced in a park. From those readings, I understand and imagine that you experience motherhood in the same way you experience reading and writing. What have those processes been like?
Reina María Rodríguez: I wouldn’t want to do any interviews, because I’m tired of representing myself. But, I’m grateful to you because I’ve been reminded of “that girl in the blue skirt who danced in a park”—my daughter, Elis, when she was three—and of the situation we were in because of scarcity and misery, so much of it! But she danced in front of a statue of three women made out of white marble that emerged from the water in a fountain in Prado as though nothing real was happening. And I was writing Otras cartas a Milena to remind her of what was going on as I asked for more time to resist and watch her grow.
Motherhood, like writing, is impossible. There is no manual for how to do things, and you can’t get better at it, just like you can’t improve your writing. Motherhood and writing: they both are and lead to constant mistakes and failures. In contrast, you can pick out what you read. Even if in recent years I rewrite books that have already been published, they won’t improve. Right now, I can’t be that person I once was, at some other point. This is why I have always considered myself to be more of a reader than a writer. An imperfect daughter and a scribbler, as I’ve said before. With time, I tried to get better at both things, even though my mother always said that a poorly-fitted sleeve cannot be fixed, even with Christian Dior as the stylist.
After presenting my books, I would catch a fever and let them go, giving them away so they could be like children released into the world, because these are also births. And when choosing what to read, I’ve always taken a route full of twists and turns, like a winding rollercoaster I keep riding and trying to cling to in an amusement park, because with time I’ve become increasingly thematic. For example: whenever possible, I like to read everything by an author, follow them, inhale them until I feel like we’re melding together and I can no longer tell where they end and I begin. This happened to me when I found Roland Barthes. My closeness to him, and not only to his books, was what gave me multiple paths to go down, not only trying to understand him but trying to do in my books what he asked for in his—setting aside the differences in talent and the fact that I am not a critic, of course. That’s how I wrote …te daré de comer como a los pájaros […I Will Feed You Like the Birds], for instance, with the idea of creating a book with everything that happened, everything I felt, everything that would fit into it—like he wanted to do. I am not embarrassed to name these instances: the “hidden tenants,” as Dubravka Ugresic calls them, because the fact that I have chosen them as I go down my path demonstrates my attachment and admiration for them.
E.L.: On my own bookshelf, you sit next to Virginia, Sylvia, Marina, Anna, the renowned dead women. It’s the same on other friends’ bookshelves. Did you ever imagine yourself as one of them? I’m also curious to know, given that you’re a great reader, what is your relationship like with your readers? What do you think you and your work mean to others?
R.M.R.: I’m embarrassed to be sitting on your shelves next the renowned dead women. I’m well aware—and more so as time goes on—of what I can’t achieve. It isn’t about the things I can see for what they are, but about what I can’t touch with my fingertips and turn into a part of me. I know what the impossible is, the limits of the ceiling above me. I feel very ashamed about these comparisons because I believe in hard work and effort, but having the willpower to become the writer I want to be isn’t enough. As a friend always says, the first thing is what the fairies grant you at birth, what you always bring with you like a loaf of bread tucked under your arm—the unavoidable. Then comes the evil of what you put into it. My life has been literary, because literature became my only religion: my center and my faith. I am a parasitic plant on the page, and despite the bookish life that maybe strips me of what little real life there is, I love feeling “literary” when I find that place where I can live in a poem that I call a waiting place to transcend time periods with stories, always looking to become “her”: the artist reflected on a screen, as I’ve said before in some texts.
E.L.: Going back to that idea of reflecting yourself, for your own self and for everyone else…more and more, your work is being awarded, translated, and studied. What is your relationship to the knowledge that you’re “studied?” Does it influence you or your writing?
R.M.R.: In the beginning, I needed a you to reaffirm the me, its prison. I don’t have that “you” anymore, nor am I able to invent it, so I work without that distance that would give me a certain anticipation as I tried to find it. Farther and farther away from wishes and vanity, I cling to denial, to deconstruction, and I’ve stopped seeing myself in the interpretations and translations—as though they were separate texts going down their own paths. Because of this, my relationship to knowing that I’m “studied” is minimal. I barely realize it, I don’t search for those detachments from my texts that often increase my feelings of failure. Even so, I am very grateful for them, and some criticism even excites me—as though it was directed to her, the other artist on the screen—and it allows me to see flaws or achievements that help me see my work from a different perspective, because I’m extremely critical of myself and understand the limitations of an octave I will never be able to play.
E.L.: With “Azotea” and “La Torre de Letras,” you built a profound relationship with young people. Recently, I’ve seen your interactions on social media—that place where, as strange as it is, you can be with other people. During the tumultuous days of November 2020, I perused Facebook with anguish, searching for news of a friend of mine who was on a hunger strike in order to reclaim dialogue and liberty with her companions. And then, I came across a poem of yours, “Lágrimas negras [Black Tears].” It read to me as though it had been written precisely for those days, like the confirmation of a fear that is beyond us. Three days later, a much larger group of young people with diverse political, social, and artistic concerns went to the Ministry of Culture to reclaim their right to have rights and call for poetry and love. I feel connections between the willingness to dialogue today and the efforts of “Paideia,” Naranja dulce… Do you see those connections?
R.M.R.: I wrote the poem “Lágrimas negras” in November 2017, when I was in Havana. I was very ill: I had Zika, dengue, and bronchopneumonia. And there is a group of poems from that time period that make up the unpublished book Achicar [Shrink]. Meaning, these are poems that precede the recent events with the young people of the 27N Movement. Regardless, when I saw the woman waiting outside the gates of the Ministry of Culture—any woman—I was her, too. That’s what I felt. Perhaps because, when I was young, I hoped for the impossible: to be able to move some of those immovable pieces I stumbled on when it came to culture, artists, and the country with the projects “Padeia,” Azotea,” and “Torre de Letras.”
It’s awful that despite how much time has passed, a systematic “no” is the only answer to so many demands. It’s even worse when violence is exerted, like what happened in November and January. When I heard the recording inside the bus where they forcibly held all the artists in order to beat them, I remembered that recording during the crash of the Cubana de Aviación airplane: “Felo, get close to the water!” and then, silence. I felt the terror of those people who were plummeting into the abyss, their hopes sinking. It’s horrible, and it’s embarrassing. Even if I’m no longer that girl who is still fighting to change something from behind a gate, she and I feel the same.
E.L.: And despite the systematic no, that lack of mobility, your writing is made up of movements. I still recognize myself in your idea that the journey is the objective…However, you refused to move from Ánimas Street several times. How do you understand that displacement, the journey, what does and doesn’t go in the suitcases, between Havana and Miami?
R.M.R.: When it comes to the space between the island and Miami, I write poems to find another space in writing where I can approach both places. I have been making that trip, both mentally and physically, for many years, placing an umbrella in the middle of that sea to protect my daughter and to protect myself. But that umbrella—which I talk about in my unpublished poem “Umbrellas”—doesn’t protect us. My life is divided, split, broken. Always looking for some place—more than a place, exile is a literary genre. That wears you down. Sometimes, not acting and letting time pass as I settle into it doesn’t change the pain, because pain can’t be changed. I often think about Lorenzo García Vega, who lived here for years and carried his loneliness and merchandise in a Publix cart while creating a tremendous literary work.
I miss spending time with all of my scattered children and grandchildren. I miss conversations with friends who are also scattered around the world, the smell of saltpeter, seeing the ocean from the streets without having to look for it because it is within reach of my eyes. I miss the buildings’ elephant backs that would cast a shadow while dropping a stone that could maybe kill us: a planter, a star, a word. But when I return, I know I couldn’t survive there. So, whether it’s on one side or the other, there is no peace. You live waiting for those calls, for the news, as though the events on the other side of the tunnel are what bring you that life you need, and that doesn’t shelter us underneath an umbrella with permanent nostalgia.
E.L.: Throughout this year (or is it more than a year now?) of confinement, when you told me that you’ve spent months with your bags packed and ready to go to Cuba, I immediately recalled the bags that were packed and unpacked for the trips that were never taken in …te daré de comer como a los pájaros…
R.M.R.: When I was going to Vienna the first time I was invited, for example, my luggage traveled alone. I didn’t go. I remember that everything I had to wear was packed into that bag that made it back some time later with a different smell. My clothes traveled, I didn’t. And this happened several times. These were the years of the “Special Period,” and not traveling was crazy, because it was the only way to bring some food and money back to the island, the only way to buy books and milk, to move around in real spaces. But for many years, I didn’t want to travel, and I even got off some flights. I was known for doing this with Iberia and other airlines. I thought that if I left my rooftop to go around the corner, some buildings would have crumbled, my children would have deteriorated and become emaciated. Essentially, I believed that by being there, I was holding them up in some way—the buildings, my children, friends, and, above all, my writing. Because my mother would say that if she moved her sewing machine to a different place, her dresses wouldn’t come out well. Even when they invited her to France to set up a boutique, she didn’t go. We didn’t understand relativity.
But much later, I was forced to confront the world, to smell, touch, and see. I felt like I was confined inside myself. Even so, I couldn’t confuse or trick the firmness I had learned from my mother and Lezama Lima. And although, finally, I was able to travel without as many mental disturbances and I even deposited myself somewhere else, my journey to an endpoint—carrying luggage that contains the reserves of a shipment that is what I own, all that I own—has happened in books more than it has in the changing locations. I’m still fixated on that memory of a light that comes in through a window, yellow, pink, and blue when it falls on the page, here or there, even if blue “is the color of lies,” as I wrote in a text.
R.M.R., Miami, February 22, 2021
Translated by Isabella Corletto
Isabella Corletto was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She graduated from Wesleyan University in 2018 with degrees in English and Italian Studies and currently works at Indent Literary Agency. She speaks Spanish, English, Italian, and Portuguese. Her translation of Amalia Andrade’s Things You Think About When You Bite Your Nails is forthcoming from Penguin Books in the fall of 2020.
Eilyn Lombard (Cuba) is the mother of Alejandra and Reina Lucía. She is currently in the doctoral program in the Department of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at the University of Connecticut, where she researches Latin American and Caribbean poetry written under authoritarian regimes about the city/space. She has published the poetry collections Las tierras rojas (2019), Todas las diosas fatigadas (2011) and Suelen ser frágiles las muchachas sobre el puente (2005). Her next book, Bienvenido a Facebook, is forthcoming from Editorial Letras Cubanas. Along with three other women, she is a founder of Candela Review. She can sometimes be found at suelenserfragiles.com.
Reina María Rodríguez is the author of more than thirty books and won the Pablo Neruda Ibero-American Award for Poetry in 2014. Among other prizes too numerous to list, Rodríguez holds two Casas de las Américas Awards for Poetry (1984, 1998), the Alejo Carpentier Medal for Cuban literature (2002), and Cuba’s 2013 National Prize for Literature. France named her Chevalier in its Order of Arts and Letters in 1999. Recent publications include Luciérnagas (U. Autónoma de Querétero, 2017) and The Winter Garden Photograph / La foto del invernadero (bilingual; Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019). The Princeton University Library holds her papers.
In our eighteenth issue, we feature the work of beloved Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez alongside that of João Cabral de Melo Neto, renowned Brazilian poet and third Latin American winner of the Neustadt Prize. We also highlight Latin American women poets, indigenous literature from Brazil, new works in translation, and a return to the essay through the words of Mariano Picón Salas.