May 16, 2003

Monkey Hunting: Asia meets Latin America in a novel

The newest novel by Cuban-American writer, Cristina Garcia, narrates the story of five generations of a Chinese-Cuban family

By Pablo De Sainz

What do you get when you cross thousands of years of Chinese dynasties with the sugarcane plantations of 19th Century Cuba and the rhythm of the African slaves? Well, in addition to an exciting travel in time, you get Monkey Hunting (Alfred A. Knopf, 2003) Cuban-born Cristina Garcia’s latest novel.

“This was the hardest thing I’d ever written because it was so far from my own experience,” Garcia said in a recent interview with the independent paper, LA Weekly. “I had to keep fighting off self-inflicted charges of ‘Fraud!’ every working day of it. Basically, my main character is a 19th-century Chinese male. Need I say more?”

That man is named Chen Pan, a failed farmer who left China after signing a contract to work “beyond the edge of the world to Cuba.” But as soon as he arrives at the island, he’s sold to slavery and forced to work in a sugarcane plantation. The novel spans five generations of the Chen family, including Chen Pan’s granddaughter, Chen Fang, who’s raised as a boy in China, and Domingo Chen, Chen Pan’s great-great-grandson, who after the Revolution migrates to New York and ends up in Vietnam.

Many characters in the novel are memorable. Even though not all members of the Chen family have the same weight in the book, Garcia said she dedicated the same amount of time to develop each of them.

“All of thee characters were hard (to write). The easiest was probably Chen Fang [the granddaughter raised as a boy in China] because she was literary and female and out of place. Even though she was so far removed from my own direct experience, with her it was mostly a question of cutting down and distilling her character. Chen Pan [the patriarch] was the hardest. For years, I didn’t know what was happening with him. After the early drama [when he comes to Cuba and escapes his indentured servitude on the sugar plantation], he actually settles down to a regular middle-class mercantile existence, and rendering that in a compelling way was difficult.”

Garcia describes Monkey Hunting in one sentence: “It’s a 120-year dialogue between Cuba and Asia.”

The idea for the novel came when Garcia became interested in mixed ancestries.

“The seed for Monkey Hunting probably came from my first visit to a Chinese-Cuban restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, circa 1965,” Garcia told LA Weekly. “‘You mean I get to order the black beans and the pork fried rice?’ That blew my mind. Later, I got to thinking more seriously about compounded identities. My own daughter, for example, is part Cuban, Japanese and Russian Jew, with a little Guatemalan thrown in on my paternal grandmother’s side. Traditional notions of identity don’t work for her. I don’t think they work for a lot of people anymore. I wanted to explore this.”

One of the major themes in Monkey Hunting is slavery. Here in the United States we have excellent literature (such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and inspiring films such as Amistad) about the institution of slavery in the original colonies. Monkey Hunting gives us a great opportunity to learn about slavery in the Caribbean.

“The legacy of slavery is everywhere. Cuba, as we know it, would not exist without slavery’s harrowing history. I did an enormous amount of research and reading on the topic for Monkey Hunting. I went to Cuba and spent a lot of time at the university research library. I read a lot about colonial Cuba and came across historical records — oddities like a pamphlet called Requiem for Havana’s Chinatown — that were weirdly useful. Reading Chinese poetry in translation was enormously helpful for that distillation of culture that poets do. Then I put away the books, and tried to tell a story.”

The Atlantic Monthly states: “García combines her gorgeous writing with a relentless view of history and a fierce understanding of the degree to which the individual life is at the mercy of larger forces.”

Publishers Weekly published that “Though Garcia ranges farther afield here than in previous works, her prose is as tight and polished as ever. Garcia’s novel is a richly patterned mini-epic, a moving chorus of distinct voices.”

Monkey Hunting is written with a beautiful rhythm. Garcia accomplished this in only 250 pages. She said this is due thanks to the influence poetry has had in her work.

“Poetry has spoiled me for any other kind of writing. What I love is the music of a sentence, the jarring juxtaposition of unexpected images. If I didn’t read poetry, I couldn’t write at all.”

Cristina Garcia was born in Cuba and raised in New York, after her family left the Island after Castro’s Revolution. She has published two other acclaimed novels, Dreaming in Cuba (1992) and The Agüero Sisters (1997).

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