October 07, 2016
Because even when I am talking to myself, I am talking to other people, I asked the writers (my friends) Shamala Gallagher, Kristen Gleason, Prosper Hedges and (my husband) Thibault Raoult for some help. Their questions are interspersed with my own and ones I have been asked in the past, some ordinary, some not.
Your novel, The Sleeping World, just debuted. Since it’s your first novel, the autobiography question must be asked. Is it about you?
Yes and no. The setting and events are very distant from my own life, yet there are emotional parallels throughout the book. The Sleeping World follows four college students during the political turmoil of Spain’s transition to democracy. The narrator, Mosca, is looking for her brother who disappeared two years ago. One year before I started writing the book, my brother fatally overdosed. I kept this loss to myself and wrote through it, instead of speaking of it. Mosca and I are both haunted by our lost brothers. I wanted/needed to explore haunting and how death fundamentally alters one’s world. The desire to be haunted turns ghost into a verb. From that a new space is created, with its own rules, its own realities.
The book is set in Spain, 1977. Why?
I lived in Spain in 2007 and I was captivated by the tensions between generations and the sense that history there was both omnipresent and silenced. After the dictator Franco’s death in 1975, the country was in transition, with different political factions jostling for power, sometimes violently. The more I researched and listened, the more I understood Spain in the late 1970s as a ghost space containing fractured narratives and multiple truths bumping alongside each other. Spain’s youth were forced to create a new space in the vacuum, one that both drew from and attacked their previous culture. This transitional space was also one of grieving, between life and death, mourning not the loss of a regime but all the losses it caused.
Where are you from?
Where are you really from?
Madison, Wisconsin. Oh . . . I get it. Well, my father is Cuban-American (Spanish-African-Chinese) and my mother is from Wisconsin (Irish). Catholicism from both sides. Artists and wordsmiths, more importantly.
Why aren’t you writing about Cuba? Or the U.S.?
Spain was both an essential space on its own terms and a lens to see what I needed to about my own history: through a glass, darkly. On one level, the book is the “new” world speaking back and rewriting the history of the country that wrote us for centuries. Columbus (ridiculously) believed that somewhere in the oceans he sailed was Eden, shaped like a giant nipple, bursting from the sea. Conversely, I rewrite Spain as the land of the dead, an undulating grave, a beloved’s altar.
There are ghosts in The Sleeping World. Is it magical realism?
Like many writers, I’m not in love with that term, mostly because I think it’s a mistranslation (a better one would be “the marvelous real”) that doesn’t accurately apply even to its definitional texts. Ghosts are real—both in that they are part of my beliefs and they are the best means of communicating certain aspects of the incommunicable. They are real as experience and as metaphor. In terms of “magical realism,” both words rankle. Toni Morrison writes that the use of “magical” undermines the work’s basis in reality and its political impact. “Realism” has come to mean something very stilted and very far from its original sources, which were quite innovative and political. I like Ben Marcus’s definition of realism—the attempt to match “the complexity of life” with complex language, form, play. I aim for that realism.
What would you tell a stranger that you cannot tell yourself?
That I will probably never reconcile these poles within me of wanting everything to be in order and wanting to tear it all down. That I have written my weekly schedule on a notecard for years and never once followed it. That I don’t write everyday—that I probably never will—but somehow, the writing gets done.
I haven’t come across an explanation of the title. Now that the book is out and you’ve done a few readings, do you have any new perspectives on how the title agitates on behalf of the work?
The Sleeping World wasn’t the book’s first title, but the more I sit with it, the more I love it. I think of the title as referring to both Spain during the dictatorship and also to the world of the dead or unconscious, the ghosted history, the essential land flickering right outside our sight. Transformation isn’t linear in my reality—there must first be descent—sleep is a code word for it.
What’s the worst question you were ever asked?
Late at night at a bar in Prague a drunk, aggressive man asked me if I was a weer-gin. It took me a moment to figure out that because I wanted him to leave my friends alone, he believed I had not yet been gifted with the bliss of male companionship. The scene descended from there. In my recollection, I chased him into the streets shouting contradictory political epithets. Others might remember it differently.
But truly, once, someone I love, who I did not know yet and so did not love yet, asked me if my life was perfect. It was at a dinner party and the question was sarcastic, as if the answer could only be yes. As if I was only bright and shiny, meaningless days. I thought how terrible I must seem—how flinty this mask of all-is-well and I didn’t want to wear it anymore.
What would you take with you to the underworld?
I just bought a machete for chopping weeds and making my wrists ache and the woman at the register said I looked pretty cool walking up to her in a mini skirt and three-inch-heeled orange clogs and carrying a machete. I thought I was pretty cool. But the problem with the underworld is you can’t take anything with you. I would cheat. I would swallow pages of Housekeeping and Borderlands/La Frontera. By the time I got to the gates, the ink would have done its work.
What’s your favorite nail polish color for a full moon?
This really deep purple—almost black—that a friend wears. It looks like she’s swirling black beans in her hands.
What is your favorite flower and why?
Daffodils. They’d bloom for my birthday in Wisconsin, sometimes covered in snow.
What are your self-care tactics?
Baths of rosemary and salt. Running with my dog in the woods.
What are you reading?
Just finished and loved: Here Comes the Sun, Nicole Denis-Benn; Slab, Selah Saterstrom; The Queen of the Night, Alexander Chee; What Belongs to You, Garth Greenwell. Currently reading: The Black Maria by Aracelis Girmay and Don Quixote. Re-re-rereading: Cecilia Vicuna’s “Language is Migrant.”
You are at a crossroads holding a jar but don’t know what’s in it. When you look in, what do you see? Where do you decide to go?
It is dark at the crossroads and you’re not supposed to look too closely at your feet there. That’s where people throw things they don’t want to see again. And the jar’s dark too, though it’s not empty. It’s full of dirt and bristled in fur. So I don’t go any farther. I dig a den at the crossroads, warm and earthy. I curl up inside. I wait.
GABRIELLE LUCILLE FUENTES’S work has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, Slice, Pank, The Georgia Review, The Collagist, The Coffin Factory, NANO Fiction, Western Humanities Review, and elsewhere. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, Bread Loaf, and Blue Mountain Arts Center. She holds a BA from Brown University, an MFA from the University of Colorado, Boulder and is currently pursuing a PHD at the University of Georgia. She has lived in Spain and France and grew up in Wisconsin.