Can you talk about the genesis of Here in Berlin?
The idea began as an inquiry into the human fallout from Cuba’s long association with the Soviet bloc. I wanted to find the interesting stories from this globalism—the relationships and children, complications and dislocations—that always accompany political upheaval.
Was Berlin your only, or primary, destination?
Originally, I thought of doing a book in three or four parts with stories set in Berlin, in Chile, in Vietnam, and Angola—all places where Cubans have studied, were politically involved, or fought wars. Berlin was my second stop, after Chile, and I couldn’t get enough of the city. I knew pretty quickly that it was where the whole novel would be set.
How much time did you spend in Berlin?
Literally, just over three months in the spring and summer of 2013. But I felt like I inhabited the city for more like three years via reading, obsession, and, of course, the writing of the novel.
The book is unconventionally structured—not quite a novel, not quite a short story collection. How did you come to this?
The material itself dictated the structure. The voices came in a fury, all battling for primacy. I had to be a kind of referee, at first, then a conductor, making sure the voices worked well individually as well as in chorus.
And then there’s the matter of photographs in the book?
I’m a huge fan of W.G. Sebald and always impressed by his use of photography and other historical ephemera that gave his novels a sense of historical authenticity. It seems to me that these “evidences” permitted Sebald great maneuverability as portals to tell the stories that illuminated the times he was writing about.
This idea of exploring the political through the personal is not new for you. In fact, you’ve done this in all your books, whether they’re set in Havana, a hotel in Guatemala City, or Las Vegas.
It’s definitely an ongoing theme in my work. That, and the possibilities for reinvention that such upheavals provide for those who get caught up in political circumstances beyond their control.
What surprised you most about Berlin?
The city was utterly destroyed at the end of World War II. Germans called it Jahr Null—Year Zero. There was literally nothing left, all was rubble and ruin. And so Berlin rebuilt a new version of itself—it’s an extraordinary place to view contemporary architecture—and yet the past, and its ghosts, remain. And it was their whisperings that beckoned to me, that incited me to descend into the archaeology of the place and excavate the stories buried by design and neglect. Nothing in the book is literally true and yet every single sentence stems from a combination of history and imagination.
CRISTINA GARCÍA is the author of seven novels, including: Dreaming in Cuban―a Finalist for the National Book Award whose 25th Anniversary edition is coming in March 2017―The Agüero Sisters, Monkey Hunting, A Handbook to Luck, The Lady Matador’s Hotel, and King of Cuba. García has edited two anthologies, Cubanísimo: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Cuban Literature and Bordering Fires: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Mexican and Chicano/a Literature. García’s work has been translated into fourteen languages. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University, and an NEA grant, among others. García has taught at universities nationwide. Recently, she completed her tenure as University Chair in Creative Writing at Texas State University-San Marcos and as Visiting Professor at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas-Austin. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.