Article published on January 22, 2018.
After reading Havana Libre, the latest thriller starring Dr Manolo Rodriguez, Paul Burke was keen to know a bit more about author Robert Arellano:
Robert Arellano is Cuban American; an author, musician and educator (I may be selling him a bit short there, he seems to have a lot going on!). His new crime novel, Havana Libre, is the second outing for Dr Manolo Rodriguez. It is a thriller that works as a standalone but it is worth catching up with the previous novel, Havana Lunar, if you get a chance.
I really enjoyed Havana Libre, a combination of original and insightful writing and respect for the traditions of Cuban culture. The publisher, Akashic, identifies the novel as Cuban Noir and it left me wanting to know a bit more about Arellano and his interest in Cuba. He was only too happy to oblige:
Paul Burke: Would you tell us a little bit about yourself; I know you have several strings to your bow and you also write graphic novels, is it all part of the same creative process for you?
Robert Arellano: Muchísimas gracias for reading Havana Libre and for inviting this conversation! As a very young child, I was already creating stories across multiple platforms. My best memories are of drawing pictures of original monsters (the Ooka Malookas) and writing legends of a hero (Jimmy Jet) who battled them with weapons we invented. My schoolmate John Sweeney (Ralph Rocket) and I got our hands on a boombox, and we recorded our audio performances complete with song and sound effects. Years later at Brown University, I studied hypertext fiction with Robert Coover and film/video with Leslie Thornton and Tony Cokes. By my mid-20s when I met Akashic Books’ publisher Johnny Temple, I thought of storytelling as archery, and I could select from my quiver any medium — or media — to hit the target.
Paul Burke: It’s obvious from reading Havana Libre that you love the country and its people, something that transcends the political. There is a real understanding and empathy that comes out in the novel. Is it in your blood or is it something that grew on you when you arrived there as a young man?
Robert Arellano: I would have to answer ‘yes and yes.’ Identidad con los cubanos was always in my blood, but it was awakened — with a shock that felt exhilarating — on my first trip in 1992, and it broadened and deepened during 10 subsequent visits over the next ten years. That said, I do not believe that one need have Cuban blood in order to experience such kinship with Cubans. I tell my friends, “Go to Cuba, and you’ll feel it,” and over the past 25 years I’ve known dozens who’ve told me they do.
Paul Burke: You manage some very complex issues around blame/responsibility for the state of the Cuban nation and the relationship with America in Havana Libre. Is it fair to say you take a very even-handed impartial approach? It must be very difficult given the novel is set during a dire economic crisis for Cuba?
Robert Arellano: It is a challenge to maintain equanimity, but I try drafting my stories the way a journalist might report the news to create representations that let readers frame their own interpretations. In many passages, my characters are parroting what I heard Cubans — close friends as well as people on the street — saying during the “Special Period” (Fidel Castro’s euphemism for the economic crisis). Noir, with its cold objectivity, is the perfect genre for their narratives.
Paul Burke: Have you ever wondered what your life would have been like if you had been born and raised in Cuba? Lived the life of the people you portray in the novel?
Robert Arellano: Every day. And the paediatrician Manolo Rodriguez is me in a dark and slightly distorted mirror. My eldest sister Ana Maria always told me I was always supposed to be the doctor in the family.
Paul Burke: My reading of Mano Rodriguez is a flawed but decent man. He is trying to make the best of a bad world. He steps up when the bombing campaign comes close to home. Is there anything of you or wish fulfilment in his character?
Robert Arellano: Yes, in fact, when I started writing Havana Libre in 2015, I was reluctant to try addressing terrorism at novel-length. I didn’t even want to think about it. But I had to be honest: since I was setting the book five years later than Havana Lunar, and 1997 was the summer of the bombings, I would need to look the monster in the eye. My three-year process of moving from ignoring the horror to actively resisting its agents is reflected in Mano’s three-day change of heart, when the bombs get too close to the cocoon that he has made for himself.
Paul Burke: Cuba is fertile ground for thriller writing but too much of it is romanticised and black and white (us good/them bad). There is a gritty realism to Havana Libre, it’s grounded, the characters seem like real people. Does it matter how fiction portrays Cuba?
Robert Arellano: Yes. While there are some very good mystery and crime writers who have set a book or two in Cuba over the past several years, their stories feel at some remove from the reality, and after their tour the authors move on. That’s the world of the “international” thriller writer, isn’t it? Stick “Havana” or “Cuban” in the title, and your book has got instant, sultry appeal. But I and others who have long-term relationships with Cuba are drawn to the naturalistic grit. My advice to readers is, for every novel you read by Nelson DeMille or Martin Cruz Smith, you should also read one by Leonardo Padura or Arnaldo Correa. You’ll notice the difference, even in translation (and they have both been superbly translated into English).
Paul Burke: The extraordinary plot about the bombing campaign in Cuba portrayed in the novel is based on real events. I understand that you were in Cuba at the time, what was it like to be caught up in the nightmare?
Robert Arellano: It was a little like walking around an American or European city today. Horribly, Cubans had become somewhat numb to it. The attitude was: keep your distance from the tourist places if you can help it (which in Havana was not easy — especially if you were trying to get close to someone with dollars during the doldrums of the Special Period).
Paul Burke: As much as you have written a noir thriller that really works there is another aspect to the novel. The heart of Havana Libre is the people in their social, economic and political setting. Was it important to you to represent the ordinary people of Cuba in a positive light? (Stoical, just like us in hard times.)
Robert Arellano: It is important, and it’s not difficult. I think this connects well to your earlier question about impartiality. Cubans have such an enormous capacity to absorb the absurd — such as the U.S. embargo and its impact on their quality of living — that all I have to do is cultivate a dispassionate eye for details, an ear for cadences.
Paul Burke: I love Gutierrez and Padura and I was bowled over when I first read Arnaldo Correa. Are there any novelist you would recommend to BookNoir readers and the readers of your novels?
Robert Arellano: I would add to your favourites Daniel Chavarria and José Latour, both who have novels on Akashic and elsewhere. Also, for a broader grounding in darkness and light that’s not necessarily noir, Reinaldo Arenas and Virgilio Piñera. And your man Graham Greene gets an honorary mention for Our Man in Havana.
Paul Burke: You are not a prolific writer, perhaps doing so many other things limits your time, but do you have any plans for a new novel and is Dr Rodriguez coming back?
Robert Arellano: Yes, the Rule of 3’s requires it. Please give me five more years.
Paul Burke: I hope you don’t mind a few political questions. I think you have said in the past that your parents were pretty ardently against the regime in Cuba. How was that for you growing up and did it change when you went to Cuba?
Robert Arellano: Travelling to Cuba seems like an impossibility growing up in a family of exilados, but when I was 21 and told them I was going, my parents — after getting past the shock — took a real interest in the chance to see photos of our lost home, the family business, and other places they still considered their Havana. Their friends in Miami, however, continued to disapprove, and gave them heat for “letting” me go.
Paul Burke: How has your attitude towards Cuba and the Castro regime changed with the defrosting of relations? Do the attitudes of Miami Cubans help or hinder a democratic change?
Robert Arellano: Unfortunately, the Cold War seems to be refrosting. As I mentioned recently to a reporter for the Miami New Times, it seems at odds for Cuban Americans to maintain the embargo, because it’s not creating the conditions for democracy to occur.
Paul Burke: Do you think Americans make the distinction between Cuban people and the communist regime?
Robert Arellano: We’re getting better at it, but we still don’t distinguish as well as the Cubans do between the American people and the totalitarian regime.
Paul Burke: The relationship between Cuba and the US is complex (part of the American psyche). Things finally changed for the better under the Obama administration but the Trump administration has started to roll back reforms and relaxations and cut back programmes like the people to people exchange. How do you think this has impacted on Cuba? Can we be positive about the future?
Robert Arellano: Unfortunately, I’m not sure. I recently wrote in the Oregonian that, although people-to-people exchanges attracted thousands of Oregonians to Cuba over the past three years, two months ago the Trump administration put an end to the opening. A friend of mine said, “The embargo: we’re used to it. We had to get by like this in 1968, and we’ll keep doing it in 2018.”
Paul Burke: I really got into the music of Cuba after the Buena Vista Social Club in the late 1990’s, although I’m not a musician like yourself, there was a purity and unspoilt quality to the music because of the years of isolation. Is there still that unique quality and is the music scene thriving?
Robert Arellano: Yes, search for Cuban heavy metal and rap, both well represented on YouTube and in social media. And personally I hope to hear more of folkloric songs like the punto guajiro, which the late Polo Montañes had such international success with 20 years ago. And I believe Cuba will survive the pernicious influence of reggaeton (although I occasionally enjoy a good Daddy Yanki song). The role of music in Cuba is so integrated with everyday life that you literally can’t poison the waters.
Our thanks to both Robert and Paul for this excellent Q&A.