What a privilege to interview Brenda Sparks Prescott, author of HOME FRONT LINES, and Dariel Suarez, author of THE PLAYWRIGHT’S HOUSE. Both novels probe into a dialectic of historical and fictional narrative and blend socio-political critique with compelling fictional characters. In this regard, I’d like to include (from a previous interview with Tim Weed) a quote from Dariel:
I will also add that there’s a tendency in the U.S. to want to separate politics from fiction. This is why so much of renowned white American fiction, especially in the last few decades, largely ignores or miserably fails at portraying race, class, and BIPOC immigrant culture, even though these things are not only prevalent in this country, but at the core of its identity. It takes vast amounts of privilege and naiveté to ignore them, to hide behind some dictum that we must remain neutral as artists. To my mind, this position makes fiction so sterile and insular as to render it almost irrelevant.”
Both Dariel and Brenda portray race, class and BIPOC immigrant culture, and in doing so integrate politics with fiction.
Lee Hope with DARIEL SUAREZ about his novel THE PLAYWRIGHT’S HOUSE
A brief summary of your novel: In Havana, Serguey Blanco, estranged from his nuclear family, must deal with the arrest of his father a famous Cuban playwright, and confront repression and possible arrest, as well as his own past demons, in an attempt to free his father and family members.
Lee: To what extent did immigrating from Cuba at age fourteen, and your family’s stories of that country, affect your choice of plot? You do an expert job of blending the arts with the politics of communism, the security police, the prison system, poverty, and the church, all woven seemingly seamlessly into a narrative of family estrangement and reconciliation. Did you consciously work on crafting to avoid “data dumping”?
DARIEL: I knew going in that I wanted to write a political novel. I wanted to capture aspects of Cuban life that outsiders don’t really get to see: the tension between arts and the state, political prisoners, social media activism, etc. I definitely drew from personal experience in terms of places and the overall sensibility of the book, but I also had to do vast amounts of research and educate myself on the layers of repression there because I didn’t get to witness all of it while there. Ultimately, I did my best to filter it all through the characters and their plight. The more one attaches socio-cultural and political context to who the characters are, what they must contend with, and the stakes in confronting certain realities, the easier it is to have it all coalesce into a singular yet complex world for the reader.
Lee: What prompted you to choose the paradoxical, haunted Serguey Blanco as your primary point of view character? He feels, “He was a walking plague.” Why not, for instance, Victor, the physically strong, audacious brother with the bravado? Is the choice partly because Serguey is the reflective one, who consistently criticizes himself and the Cuban society?
DARIEL: Victor seems to be a lot of people’s favorite, and he’s absolutely one of mine too. But he’s more set in his position from the beginning. There isn’t as much of an arc available for him, in my opinion, though his relationship to Serguey does evolve as the story progresses. Outside of his father, Serguey arguably has the most to lose. Given his position at the start of the novel, he has the most potential to be challenged, both socially and personally, and he provides a direct connection to additional characters whose roles are crucial to the narrative, such as Anabel and Alida. He doesn’t have the charisma others do, but I find his journey incredibly compelling and to some extent tragic, so it made sense to have him be the central lens.
Lee: In your novel, as in Brenda Prescott’s novel HOME FRONT LINES, set partly in Cuba, various characters deal with the fantasy, or the reality, of escaping their country. What do these dreams and plans of escape mean about your vision of this novel?
DARIEL: When I was growing up in Havana in the 90s, the question of leaving the country was ever-present. We were in the middle of an extreme economic crisis, and the tension between staying and going was part of daily conversations, even sometimes among us kids and teenagers. Cuba has a very large diaspora in the United States, but really all over the world. For the characters in my novel, this reality is no different, especially when you throw in a political prisoner and the possibility of exile into the mix. For Cubans, the notion of leaving the island is sometimes economic, sometimes political, sometimes moral, sometimes a promise of hope. I wanted to show the layers behind these types of decisions and how not every Cuban will see or experience it the same way.
Lee: THE PLAYWRIGHT’S HOUSE takes a strong, political stand against the Cuban communist regime, at the same time that your main characters feel a love of country, especially of family. Serguey says, “One often saw the same people in Havana, like ghosts ensnared in a looping afterlife.” Yet he must decide whether to escape or to stay. In general, is extended family more central to Cuban society than to North American culture? To what extent and with what effect?
DARIEL: From a cultural perspective, family is undoubtedly central to Cuban society. It’s also a matter of necessity, though, since folks are often forced to live together for lack of means. Even within the same family, the relationship to Cuba and its government can vary. It’s easy to paint things as black or white, but truth is Cuba’s history and social evolution after the Revolution has many layers, and though the regime is absolutely oppressive and has done terrible things, not every Cuban engages with that reality in the same manner or from the same perspective. I’m hoping that comes through in the book, which I don’t necessarily see as taking a stand against the regime (though I do so in my personal life), but simply showing the reader a darker side the government doesn’t want anyone to see.
Lee: In this suspenseful plot, two sisters, Alida and Anabel become main characters although the primary focus is on the two brothers. Serguey, the educated lawyer, must face up to his failures as a physically courageous man, again in contrast with Victor, his strong, delinquent brother. To what extent does courage have to do with machismo? Without giving away the extraordinarily moving ending, does Serguey discover in himself other strengths as well?
DARIEL: Yes, machismo drives many of Serguey and Victor’s decisions, as well as other elements in the novel. In my opinion, this attitude is prevalent in Cuban society, though younger generations are moving away from it somewhat. Alida and Anabel are a foil to that, in that they look to assert their own strength and individuality, regardless of what the men around them think or do. Serguey does begin to realize his own shortcomings and the hubris behind his male-centric perspectives. But there’s always tension there, which I hope gives energy to the narrative and complicates it every step of the way.
Lee: Do you see the present unrest in Cuba as confronting similar pressures as the time of your novel? Briefly, could you state a few socio-political aspects that make present-day Cuba distinct?
DARIEL: My novel is but a sliver of what’s taking place now, though it can help offer some context. At the time I was writing it, a lot of the oppression, abuse, and conflict between people/artists and the state remained largely unseen because the government tries to control information both inside and outside the country. They’re very good at distorting the truth and going after dissenting voices or even those who simply report the truth. The expression “political prisoner” is not even something they consider a reality. I wrote my novel in part to push back and give voice to the people who’ve been impacted by all of this. I also wanted to move past nostalgic, romanticized, or exoticized narratives about the island. The current protests are much more crucial because real people are being harmed and silenced. My one urge for those outside of Cuba is to listen to the voices coming out of there without making assumptions or imposing your own political views.