Cristina Garcia is the author of the new novel Here In Berlin. Her other novels include Dreaming in Cuban and King of Cuba. Her work has been translated into 14 languages, and she has taught at various universities. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Here In Berlin?
A: It came about unexpectedly. I went in search of different kinds of stories…looking for Cubans’ relationship with the Eastern Bloc. I didn’t find much, although I tried really hard. I got despondent. I had rented an apartment [in Berlin] for three months!
Then I just got seduced by the city, the archaeology, and its ghosts, people in the interstices of history. It became its own thing. It evolved very slowly. It became a crazy historical excavation though it takes place in the present time.
Q: The novel features a visitor in Berlin and the various characters she encounters. How did you choose the novel’s structure?
A: That was another huge problem! You’re hitting every long night of despair I had! I just kept collecting these stories, finding them in little airholes of the history books I was reading.
At one point there were over 100 of these voices and I then started organizing them. I started ranking them. It was like a Busby Berkeley routine. Then I ended up choosing the ones I was personally interested in.
Q: What do you think the novel says about Berlin, and about the impact its history has on the city?
A: It’s just in the air everyone breathes. They’re acutely aware of Berlin as the capital of the Third Reich. There are stolperstein [memorials to Holocaust victims] everywhere—In this home seven people were taken away to Auschwitz.
But there also are other stories that fascinate me—what happened to the Russians who made it to Berlin? What happened after 1990? What happened to all those Stasi agents?
I kept trying to resurrect fictitious people who would have lived under these circumstances. I was trying to complicate an already complicated history.
Q: Did you need to do any particular research to write the book, and did you learn anything that surprised you?
A: Probably the story that got me going the most initially—my friend Alfredo, who I refer to as “A” in the book, he told me the story of the Blue Division of the SS, made up of Spaniards. Even the fascists were multicultural. You think of it as one type. I felt I was onto something there. I was following those threads.
I was also imagining the overlooked person sitting on a park bench. They became the notes I later amplified and distorted. Basically, I went wild.
Q: What role do you see your character the Visitor playing in the book?
A: There are a few possibilities. She became in a sense not so much a guide because she’s so bumbling, but someone with whom the reader might [identify with] as she starts traveling around Berlin. By the end, as she feels Berlin has revealed itself to her, so it is to the reader. That would be my ideal situation.
Also, outsiders are always interesting. She could never belong in Berlin. I’m fascinated with the anthropological notion of full participation. As readers and writers we are a step or two, or maybe miles, removed from full participation, but we’re always watching. When something happens, the drift begins, the story is here.
She is in that position because she has nothing at that point…I guess you could say it’s a protracted midlife crisis. She plays the role of the stranger.
Q: What are you working on now?
I’m working on theater right now! An adaption of King of Cuba. It’s going to be produced in Berkeley. And I’m working on an adaptation of Dreaming in Cuban.
In the back of my mind when I go back to my cave, I have another World War II thing in mind, set in Stockholm. It’s focused on two artists. One was a poet, Nelly Sachs, and one was a Swedish painter who was discovered posthumously. I’m thinking of something with these two women.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Cristina Garcia.