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Pineda Unbound: An Interview with Cecile Pineda

From the September 2004 Bloomsbury Review
by Jeff Biggers

Redoubt Cover "The young man or woman writing today," William Faulkner declared in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, "has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat." Addressing the state of writing in 1949, Faulkner went on to admonish future writers to teach themselves the old verities and truths of the heart.

If only William Faulkner could have read Cecile Pineda. Born in Harlem to a Swiss mother and Mexican father, a long-time innovator in the San Francisco Bay-Area experimental theatre world, and the author of six internationally acclaimed novels (including a poetic childhood memoir), Cecile Pineda has raised Faulkner's concerns and conflicts of the heart in the latter 20th century to a new level of dreamlike lyricism and dazzling artistry.

Writers, readers, teachers, and creative writing classes, take note: Cecile Pineda is an American original, literary treasure, and her prodigiously inventive and important work, finally returning to print in a landmark and long-awaited reissue, deserves a place in the forefront of American literature.Cecile Pineda

Beyond the politics of identity – despite the fact that Pineda opened the New York publishing door for Latina writers in the mid-1980s – shattering the limits of genre, few American writers have demonstrated such a bold mastery and originality in the last 25 years. Her awards range from a Sue Kaufman Prize, by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, to a California Gold Medal; one of her novels was selected as a New York Times notable book of the year.

Consider Pineda's novels: FACE, originally published by Viking in 1985, written in a precise and unnerving narrative, depicts a Rio Janeiro man's struggle to come to grips with the irreparable scars of a nightmarish accident. Immediately acclaimed as an existential classic for its broader social implications of place and being, FACE was hailed by Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee as an "extraordinary achievement." Pineda followed with FRIEZE, set in medieval India and Java and described as a slow parable on the resistance of human life, and then published quite possibly her most widely read work, The Love Queen of the Amazon in 1992, a raucous and wildly inventive Latin American farce. At once a satirical spin on the male-dominated fury of magic realism, and a lush tropical saga, The Love Queen chronicles the licentious travails of Ana Magdelana in the vagaries of Peru. Pineda's last three works areFishlight: A Dream of Childhood, a poignant look at a child's erratic parents and her ability to stitch her quandaries and exigencies into her imagination, and Bardo99 and Redoubt: A Mononovel, two experimental novels dealing with Pineda's themes of place and displacement amid the ruins of our times.

Finally, the reissue of Pineda's work has been made possible by the herculean efforts of Wings Press, the best little publishing house in Texas. Led by the indefatigable publisher Bryce Milligan, a true San Antonio hero and literary wizard, Wings Press has ventured beyond its south-by-southwestern borders to launch a series of original publications and reprints that deserve as much national recognition and distribution as possible. Along with Pineda1s novels, Wings is publishing the works of poet Donald Hall and John Howard Griffin, the author of the controversial Black Like Me, including a previously unknown third novel, Street of the Seven Angels. The Bloomsbury Review caught up with Cecile Pineda this spring.


Fishlight: A Dream of Childhood, book cover The compelling dreamlike narrative of FISHLIGHT, weaving stories of angels and insects in the voice of a child, helps to cushion a lot of heartbreak. How did you envision writing the memoir from the perspective of the child, as opposed to an adult looking back, or in fact, do you see all children as story-tellers in their need to make sense of the confusion and harm around them?

And a second question: I was curious how you see your writing influenced by your long-time work in the theatre, especially that of Artaud. For example, some of your work posits an unnerving premise, such as the protagonist's disfigurement in FACE or the ruins of Bardo99, that unfolds into an illuminating and (often hilarious) story. Are there connections with Artaud's theatre concepts of shock and "beneficent punishment"?

PINEDA:My beginnings as an artist go far back into childhood: writing, painting dancing, singing (yes, I trained briefly as an opera singer), music--all these are alluded to in Fishlight: A Dream of Childhood, the faux-memoir of my early years. I say faux because in every work, I favor truthfulness above truth, especially when it comes to the vagaries of memoir. By the time I felt ready to embark on a life in the theater, producing and directing for my own experimental theater company, I discovered that all the pursuits, all the skills taught me by my past came directly into play in creating a theater based on physical movement that would engage the actor1s psyche: feeling, thought, and imagination, drawing on dream and archetype.

Theatre of Man was a poet's theater, an experiment in non-linearity whose central modality consisted of event in contrast to the more conventional notion of dramatic twists and turns. My theater represented for me a search to stop time, and a transfiguration of apparently staged events into moments in which something real occurred, albeit in a circumscribed space, something real say in the exchange of a facial expression, or in the moment of silence which framed such an event, lending it a present and separate verity. (I am reminded here of the line in Genet's "The Balcony" in which the Bishop asks the Penitent if her sins were real.)

Bardo99 book cover I came to my vision of the theater and what it might embody through reading, seeing and experimentation. One of my first student projects was to grapple with Lorca's text from 3Blood Wedding2 in which the Moon speaks. I was not interested in producing a narrative. Rather I was looking for ways in which Lorca's world might appear in the lunar reflection cast by a humble pot lid reflecting the theater's work light – that naked bulb mounted on a tripod which remains lit – much like a sanctuary light when the theater goes dark. Later I was to discover Artaud and to find in his writings a vision akin to my own. Particularly I refer to Artaud's concept of "the plague," by which he referred to existence at the edge of Being. That is where I desired to locate my theater and that is where I locate much of my writing.

To respond to the other specifics of your question, I have deliberately tried to eliminate aspects of shock or sensationalism from my work because they appear to me untruthful in the sense that frequently they are used to mask emptiness.

Certainly with texts like my debut novel, Face, with the resolution of FISHLIGHT, there are moments where punishment seems to yield to some kind of beneficent transformation, but mine are not Judeo-Christian texts: the emphasis I would like to believe is more on transformation than on punishment.

Face, book coverOne of the elements shared equally by theater and literature is Voice in the sense that Voice carries with it the stamp of identity and at the same time provides the vessel, the matrix if you will of any narrative. Change the voice and the narrative becomes other than itself. In my way of seeing, writing chooses the writer, not the other way round; and similarly, the narrative chooses the voice through which it may best express itself.

The child's voice of Fishlight was not a conscious choice, not a question requiring deliberation on my part. There was no other way. I'm reminded here of Arthur Danto writing about Leonardo, "When Leonardo drew a horse, he was a horse." How is it possible to create a narrative of childhood without re-becoming a child? How will you enter such a fresh and surprising mindset in which consciousness is constantly fixed on negotiating the parameters of an external world without donning the small, sashed dress, the clumsy shoes, the knock knees, the vulnerable and trusting eyes, the awkwardness of childhood? That is Torah: the rest is commentaries. What I mean to say with that is that I am trying as much as is in my power to write something in contrast to writing about something. It is the difference between event and story (although narrative in my view may include both).

TBR:Bardo99 and Redoubt are referred to as "mononovels," where the narrative often occurs in a stream of consciousness. How did you happen to select this form for these two books, as opposed to a more conventional novel?

PINEDA: I refer to my later work as mononovels, that is writing that occurs in the singular mind of one protagonist: visions, conversations, happenings, sensations, events--all within one imagining mind. With both BARDO99 and REDOUBT, locating the narrative, casting it, if you will, in the consciousness of one mind was a deliberate choice in the sense that I found the challenge engaging and because to come to some thematic understanding, there seemed no other way.

Much of my Redoubt book coverwriterly impulse comes from answering the question: what's bothering me at the time? What grain of sand irritates me sufficiently that it gives me the momentum to encase it entirely in nacre? With FACE certainly, the question has to do with identity: identity lost, identity found, identity lost again, and found again, and again and again and again (as in life). With FRIEZE my life in the theater with its thankless betrayals, with LOVE QUEEN, the contrasting mustachioed and clean-shaven political caprices of the hemisphere. The change comes with FISHLIGHT.   It was written in a period in which the oppression I was currently experiencing reminded me of the oppressive confines of my childhood. One of my governing tenets working with actors was to urge them to use the pain yielded them by their lives, to consider it a blessing in the double meaning of that word. So with FISHLIGHT, I endeavored to transform my condition into some kind of art.

TBR: In Walter Benjamin's Angel of History views, defined by his experiences betweens the world wars, history is "one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage." This seems more relevant today than ever, given the latest war in Iraq. Yet Benjamin's concludes that a "hermeneutic of restoration" presents a possibility of redemption for our future. Do you feel your work shares elements of Benjamin's vision? Do you find our own history and politics have provided your stories with a redemptive possibility?

PINEDA:For some time, I had been contemplating the 20th century. I puzzled how all its grief, horror and mayhem might best be encountered, how they might provide the sandgrain of the century as I experienced it both personally and painfully. It occurred to me that the 20th century must be BARDO99's protagonist, and what better name to lend him than Viek, meaning one hundred years. Early in the course of the AIDs pandemic, I had attended the bedside of a dear friend and actor in my company. Every day I observed his eyes – comatose, yes – but charged with the wonder and immensity of his dying hallucinations. That revelation gave BARDO99 permission. Additionally, FISHLIGHT had shown me how to enter the fever dream visions of childhood. It was the transitional work which made BARDO99 possible.

TBR: Your work is occasionally compared to the questions and ideas-soaked novels by Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino and Carlos Fuentes, often presented as a male-dominated club. Your meditative REDOUBT, though, grappled with questions and ideas of gender and consciousness, of living without history, asking "what is the place of Woman in such a consciousness?" Have women and women writers been left out of the literary dialogue in this respect?

PINEDA: I have wanted to disclaim identification as a novelist of ideas (the Kundera/Calvino/Fuentes axis) but rather as a novelist of image because more than anything, it is the life of the senses that carries me as the narrator. But I remember as a child arguing with the mad father of FISHLIGHT who claimed, against my better judgment, that ideas possessed no emotive component. It seems to me that although the male axis may lay claim to the novel of ideas, those ideas so constituted are devoid of the necessary humanizing estrogen required for any fully realized idea to take root.

In my work in the theater I had first discovered the hazards of taking a director's role. In 1972-73, my company created a theater piece ("After Eurydice") based on sexual role expectation through which I began to address questions of gender, problems I have consistently experienced in my condition as woman.

For a long time, and certainly supported by my experiences of pregnancy, I have held the idea that people are already who they are, even in the womb. Life is simply an elucidation of that first principle. It occurred to me that in the moment of birth, the first awakening, woman is pure Being in the same sense that man is pure Being, that is free of any of society's gendering strictures. Redoubt attempts to come close, to touch the essence of that first moment of life in the first drawing of breath, in the first perception of light.

TBR: In the twenty years since Face was published to great acclaim, a new generation of writers has emerged as chroniclers of the Latina/o experience. Marveling at the literary intelligentsia in South and Central America, novelist Alfredo Vea noted in an interview in The Bloomsbury Review that Latino writers in the States have "allowed ourselves to applaud the provincial in literature. That time is over. The artistic bar of literary fiction has been set for our time by Nabokov, Bellow, Faulkner, et al. We should study that bar – aim at it with every intention of leaping over." Do you share Vea's admonition for Latino writers?

PINEDA: I am in agreement with Vea's notion that Latin letters have too closely hugged the margins of a provincial shore. But by contrast, I would set the bar past the province of Nabokov, Bellow and Faulkner (another male axis) to encompass the great ocean of letters, Gaia split into many continents: Frame of New Zealand; Abe of Asia; Coetzee and Breitenbach and Achebe of Africa, Beckett and Joyce of Ireland (a literary continent unto itself), Schulz and Bachmann of Europe, Lispector of South America, Hedayat of the Middle East, and that greatest prestidigitator of all, Juan Rulfo (of Mexico) who discovered the possibility of creating a novel devoid of any of the traditional locators, depending only on the signature phrases of each character1s voice, as if to say: "Look, Ma, no hands!" because hands may not be required except by outdated literary conventions at all. Which is to suggest that art must occupy itself breaking barriers, upsetting comfortable mythologies, whether of content or form.

TBR: Inevitably, your work is also placed aside Latina/o writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez, in some respects due to the great acclaim and success of THE LOVE QUEEN OF THE AMAZON. Do you see your work as part of this legacy in contemporary Latina/o writing, or part of another arena of contemporary writing?

PINEDA: I know I am viewed by people eager to claim me as a Latina writer, and this acclamation certainly makes me proud. But it is not entirely representative. My mother bore me. She was as mired in the notions of the Old World, in its rationalities, its explanations, its conventions, its certainties, its Protestantism – as my father was a product of his Catholicism and of his own colonial past. Perhaps in the tension between the two I managed to find a voice. But more than mere genetic or cultural considerations, I claim necessity. I live in a world in which 40 men control wealth equal to that of nearly 80 countries, where to maintain their hegemony, countless acts of mayhem and massacre must occur every day. This is the reality that forms and reforms my days as it does those of all the people on this hapless planet. I do not think any more that writing – mine or another's – can change the world. Perhaps in their small way, writers can answer for those who are voiceless in their extreme deprivation and suffering, but at best, in the very smallest scheme, writing can provide a moment of grace, both for her who writes and him who reads, in a very dark world.

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