Heavy Metal and Protoplasmic Pressure: A Conversation with Yoss
In March 2017, George Henson, translator and Translation Editor of Latin American Literature Today, traveled to Havana, Cuba to interview Yoss, a renowned author who is equally at home writing science fiction novels and playing heavy metal in his rock band, Tenaz. Their conversation touched on literary auctions, the pitfalls of the Cuban Revolution, and the legacy of Caribbean science fiction:
George Henson: First of all, can you explain the origin of Yoss? Do you consider it a nickname or merely a nom de plume?
Yoss: It was a nickname long before it was a literary alias. For a long time, the majority of people who’ve known me (since I was 12) have called me Yoss. That’s more or less how my name, José, sounded when it was pronounced by a gym teacher at my high school, who had a speech defect and was always calling on me. By the end of ninth grade, more people knew me as Yoss than as José Miguel. Of course, I had never written it until I started sending submissions to literary contests and needed a pseudonym; I tried several combinations of letters until I found one I liked, and then I stuck with it. As a curious anecdote, I can tell you that, on the insistence of his editor, the famous José Rodríguez Feo (who used to say that my real name was too pretty for me to use such a strange pseudonym), my first book, Timshel, appeared in 1989 with José Miguel Sánchez as the author instead of Yoss. And a friend of mine from judo, who was practicing at the time, came to my house to show me the book in a rage, saying that some José Miguel had stolen these stories he knew I had written in order to publish them under his name, so he was going to find him and break his legs. I had to show him my ID card to convince him that Yoss and José Miguel Sánchez were the same person. From that day on, I’ve made absolutely sure that everything I publish appears under the four letters of Yoss. To avoid confusion… and broken bones.
GH: What was the first science fiction book you read?
Y: It was when I was in primary school, and it was Jules Verne, of course: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. I’ll never forget the wonderful week I spent enthralled by the adventures of Captain Nemo, Professor Aronnax, his servant Conseil, and the harpoonist Ned Land, all on the super-submarine “Nautilus.” Although, since the French author is now considered more of a writer of scientific romances than of science fiction, as it were, I think my first true science fiction was a novel by two Soviet authors, Voikunsky and Lukodyanov: The Crew of the Mekong. It had to do with a very original subject, even today: the interpenetrability of solid objects. I was eight years old when a neighbor who was moving lent me the book… and I still remember it almost word for word. In fact, through Gente Nueva’s “Ámbar” collection, which I work on as a literary scout, we are trying to get our hands on the Russian original to translate and publish it once again.
GH: Did you read Agustín de Rojas?1
Y: Of course. The first work of his that I read, when I was fourteen, was Espiral [Spiral], the monumental novel that won him his second David Prize for Science Fiction in 1980. It was lent to me by Arnoldo Águila, a neighbor, the father of a friend, a friend himself, and a writer above all: years later, he published a magnificent book of short stories, Serpiente emplumada [Feathered serpent]. I’ll never forget his generous gesture, because the first edition of Espiral was very limited and it’s still extremely difficult to find today. That’s why they released a new edition two years ago, revised and with a preface by my dear friend and companion on many a sci-fi adventure, Michel Encinosa Fú.
The second thing I read by Agustín, in 1986, was A Legend of the Future, during the vacation before my first year at university. I still think it’s his best novel, in literary terms; its plot closes with such terrible force.
Then, in 1988, when he was one of the three jurors who awarded me the David Prize, I met him in person and we almost lost our voices talking about a million things on the afternoon when they gave the prize. Since then, every time I’ve gone to Santa Clara, where he lived all his life, I passed by his house. I took him my manuscripts, I’d tell him about my new ideas, he’d lend me books, I’d lend him books. I’ve formed a friendship with his wife, with his daughters… relationships that are still strong today. I’m proud to say I pitched his novels to Restless Books and they were published with my comments on the back cover.
I really haven’t resigned myself to the fact that he died so young, in 2011, a few weeks after we saw each other during a very moving tribute to him put on in his home town, to which he invited me. I still have the manuscript of El espejo oscuro [The dark mirror], which would have been his fourth sci-fi novel, which he entrusted to me so that I could one day finish it myself. He was a biologist, like me, and more than a model he was a teacher, a friend. Of the rarest kind.
GH: Besides being published in English by the same press, both books have been nominated for the same prize, the Best Translated Book Award. What does that mean to you?
Y: I don’t think it’s necessary to add, after what I said in response to your previous question, that it’s a great pleasure to be up for the same prize that was awarded to my master in the genre. He would have felt tremendously proud of both of us for being nominated, I’m sure. Whoever wins wins.
GH: You won an award with Super Extra Grande. Tell us about that.
Y: I really won two. In 2002, the first version of that story, then entitled XXXX...L, won the short novel prize from the Universidad de Carlos II in Madrid. Unfortunately, that version was lost when someone stole my computer’s hard drive (I’m still not sure how) in 2004. So I wrote it again in 2010. I had finished the original version in 1999, recalling my years as a biology student. I submitted the second version for the UPC Science Fiction Prize in Barcelona, after participating in the contest for more than two decades and receiving a mention in 2003. And, finally, the miracle happened… Miquel Barceló and the other jurors liked my novel, gave it the award, and paid me 6,000 euros (I had never seen so much money, and I haven’t since). I went to Barcelona to receive the award, and there I met no less than one of my idols in the genre, Orson Scott Card. It doesn’t get better than that, right?
The bad news is that the year I won was the first when the winning novel was not published as part of the Nova collection by Ediciones B, so I had to wait until 2013 to see my text published, in Cuba, as part of Collection XXI by Gente Nova. Then, in 2016, the excellent English translation by David Frye was published by Restless Books… And, to close the circle, now that Super Extra Grande is a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Prize for best paperback novel published in the U.S. last year, a Spanish press, Apache Libros, in interested in publishing it in Spain.
GH: Super Extra Grande was published in Cuba, but the edition quickly sold out. Now it’s going to be published in Spain. And it’s been translated to English. You could almost say its success has been “super extra grande.” Tell us about the book, and, of course, the title.
Y: Well, I already said a little about the origins of the story, its prizes and its publication. I could only add that XXI is the collection published by Gente Nueva that’s usually reserved for bestselling children’s authors.
The story tells of the adventures of Jan Amos Sangan Dongo, a Cuban veterinary biologist who specializes in gigantic animals, in the Milky Way of the twenty-first century. It tells about his misadventures, how he recovers his wedding bracelet from the wife of the governor of a planet in the intestines of a giant beast called “the tsunami,” his workplace problems with his two secretaries, one human and one alien, and how he gets wrapped up in an interplanetary intrigue related to the lagotones, amoebas weighing millions of tons that are considered the largest lifeforms in the galaxy and that live on the planet Brondinnagg (like the giants from Gulliver’s Travels). I won’t say anymore to avoid spoilers. I had a lot of fun writing it: it’s full of humor, of ironic comments and Cuban flavor, and the version translated by David Frye has some excellent Spanglish for added value.
GH: You were born barely ten years after the victory of the Cuban Revolution. Twelve years later, the “Special Period” began. What does it mean for you to have always lived under the shadow of the Revolution and during a period of such hardship?
Y: Well, I was born in ‘69, and the Special Period began officially in ‘91, so before the shortages I lived twenty-two years of “normality.” Not that we had abundant resources, but comparatively, before 1991, to be Cuban and an artistic creator translated to an obligation to absolute gratitude: “the Revolution gave you everything,” “you owe what you are to the Revolution.” You had to praise the system or stop being Cuban. It was a sort of condemnation to immobility: as if the Revolution, once completed, was untouchable and would not change or keep changing. No basic criticism was accepted. Our parents had done everything in the best possible way, and we could only venerate them, not aspire to perfect their work, much less point out its defects! We always were, and still are, too young for any kind of responsibility: for example, I’m almost 48, and in Cuba I’m still a “promising young writer.” I suppose that’s what I’ll be until I’m at least 60, if they’ve given me the National Prize for Literature by then. We are the lost generation, of which few members remain in Cuba, because we were taught to think and then they wanted to tell us what we shouldn’t think about. And the Special Period, the fall of the socialist camp, proved right those of us who, even before 1991, suspected that things weren’t so perfect in international socialism, much less in Cuban socialism. But many of us had left the island by then.
Since then, those of us who stayed and those of us who left have watched with somewhat masochistic satisfaction how, slowly, our ruling gerontocracy has begun to accept all the things they previously considered anathema in a desperate attempt not to improve the people’s conditions but to keep hold of power: in the case of tourism and foreign investment, private business, Cubans with other nationalities returning to live on the island, etc. Times change, but those of us who said so and were almost considered heretics are still isolated from the decision-making powers. Of course, I know that my education, my health during my youth and adolescence, a great deal of what I am, are owed to the Revolution and to socialism. But I think I have repaid my debt, and that gives me a certain right to think for myself. This means criticizing the system’s defects: economically, as has been shown, the socialist mode of production is inviable. It works pretty well to share the wealth created by the capitalist regime it replaces, but it’s terrible at creating new wealth, and even worse when it comes to distributing it. It’s not supposed to generate social inequalities, but it generates the hell out of them, even if they come less from economics and more from access to powerful political circles.
I’m a child of socialism, but I don’t consider myself a socialist. But that doesn’t mean I’m a hardcore defender of capitalism, not by a longshot. It also has many defects, I know that. I wish we could build a society using the best of both systems, following the model of so-called Scandinavian socialism, for example, and I apologize if I’ve drifted away from the question, as I suspect.
GH: Do you consider yourself a Cuban writer, or a writer who’s also Cuban?
Y: Many people praise my general education, my encyclopedic knowledge of many subjects, from cryptozoology to the history of weapons. But the truth is that I’m a 100% Cuban writer, to the point that I’m not sure if I could live - or write - for long away from the island. More than a Cuban, even, I’m an habanero, a citizen of Havana. For me, this city is a palimpsest of memories, it’s the memory of my 48 years spent in its streets, patios, corners. And without that memory I can’t imagine myself living or writing. As universal as I may be, I always start from Cuban situations, or I come back to them: Cuba is my favorite subject, my obsession, and sci-fi is my way of pondering Cuba’s possible futures, the consequences that its present-day occurrences could have tomorrow.
GH: To what extent or in what sense is your fiction political?
Y: I live in Cuba, a society that’s geriatric, totalitarian, dispossessed of many political liberties and human rights. Of course, all my fiction is political. Politics is too important to be left only up to politicians. In my novels and stories, I speculate about different social models and alternative histories, but always in reference to my Cuba. The Cuba of here and now, and also the Cuba that may be in the future.
GH: Have you ever experienced censorship, or self-censorship?
Y: Like any Cuban author, I’ve been censored. For example, my most famous sci-fi novel, A Planet for Rent, was published in Spain, France, and the U.S. but is still unpublished in Cuba. And not because I haven’t sent it to several presses, but because there are no private presses on the island; all of them belong to the government, so talking about the Special Period (as I do in the book), even in sci-fi terms, can still work against your chances of getting published.
They’ve also delayed my book releases: for example, they pushed back the publication of my collection of realist short stories, W, in 1995, because I had dedicated it to Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who was unmentionable in Cuba at the time. The book didn’t appear until 1998, and without the dedication. I had to compromise.
I never censor myself, I can say that. If what I write can’t be published in Cuba, I send it to foreign presses or journals. Luckily, no Cuban writer has been punished for what he’s written or published since 1997, although writers have been punished for upholding certain political opinions outside of their books, of course. I’m thinking of my friend Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, or Antonio José Ponte, for example, who were completely silenced in Cuba years before they left the country.
GH: In Havana you told me about a reader of yours who was a physicist at MIT and who asked you about a calculation in one of your books. Tell us about that.
Y: It was really funny. I had heard the anecdote of how Larry Niven wrote The Ringworld Engineers after his readers at MIT demonstrated that his famous Ringworld was intrinsically unstable. But after I gave a talk about character development, two MIT students came up to me in the hallway, took out their notebooks, and started asking me if had calculated the ratio between the gross planetary mass of Brondinnagg, the escape velocity necessary for the spores emitted by the immense, amoeboid lagotones to enter orbit, and the protoplasmic pressure necessary for this “launch,” asking if the water could sustain a creature with the dimensions of the tsunami, and I had to admit that, although I’m a biologist, I hadn’t made those calculations and it had all been a rough estimate, because Super Extra Grande is a sort of space opera rather than hard sci-fi. It only has to seem believable, it doesn’t have to be believable to the fourth decimal point.
And the best part was that they understood, and they told me that they had done the calculations anyway and they weren’t that far from reality. That made me feel really good, you know?
GH: You’ve become a sort of cult figure in the U.S. Has the same happened in Cuba?
Y: Well, if being a cult figure means that many people no longer think I’m a trapeze artist but rather recognize me in the street as a writer and regularly invite me to talk on the radio and TV, that my photo appears in journals and newspapers and that I’ve managed to publish six books in the same year, then I suppose so: I’m a cult figure. I’m well known, at least. For a lot of young people, I’m the main living representative of Cuban science fiction and fantasy; a lot of people show up for autographs during my book launches, aspiring writers bring me their manuscripts and (of course) I always read them, remembering that when I was starting out like them friends like Arnoldo Águila and Raúl Aguiar invested their time in doing the same with my first stories.
GH: You’ve been nominated for the Philip K. Dick Prize. What does that mean to you?
Y: Well, to start, it means I’ll be a bundle of nerves until April 14 when I find out if I won or not. But just being nominated, as the first Cuban in history and one of the few Latinos, means I’ve gone further as a science-fiction writer than I ever imagined. Think of it, when I was fifteen, taking my first sorry attempts at stories to my neighbor Arnoldo Águila, I was already dreaming of being up for the Hugo or the Nébula within twenty years… and the Philip K. Dick. So, right now, my dream has become reality! Whatever happens, I feel that I’ve arrived. Now it’s a question of staying.2
GH: Tell us about the book auction you did in the Cuba Pavilion during the Havana International Book Fair. Why was that event so important?
Y: First, ever since the great humorist Juan Ángel Cardi did his funny and memorable book auctions in the eighties, no one has done anything like it. The idea was that various titles that might eventually be in high demand would have a certain starting bid, and from that point the interested parties could bid according to their desires or economic possibilities. The goal was to change that struggle into something amusing, entertaining, a different offering within the frame of the Book Fair.
I directed the auction sessions on the eleventh and eighteenth of February with books from Cuba and elsewhere, ranging from mystery to theatre to sci-fi to physical education. And although not all the proposed books were sold, we sold enough to be sure that next year we can repeat the experience. And I hope it goes even better, I already got myself a gavel and block to give it more of that Sotheby’s style.
GH: Whom are you reading?
Y: Right now, a novel by Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon, in English. It’s complicated and long, but it’s fascinating: the system of characters is complex and captivating, and the prose is incredibly erudite. I hope in my next reincarnation I can write half as well as that.
GH: What questions would you like to answer that I haven’t asked?
Y: What does rock music mean in your life? Because anyone who sees my photo will realize I’m a heavy metal fanatic and the eighties live on in my memory. And what’s more, I sang for nine years in the Cuban rock band Tenaz. Anyone who’s interested can search for our only music video, “El que a hierro mata,” which has been on Youtube since 2015, and feel comforted to know I don’t sing anymore and I focus exclusively on literature. Or feel sorry to know I haven’t been able to balance my two main pastimes. But hey, Stephen King’s in a band too...
1 Agustín de Rojas (1949-2011) is widely considered the dean of Cuban science fiction. His trilogy, consisting of Espiral (Spiral, 1982), Una leyenda del futuro (A Legend of the Future, 1985), and El año 200 (The Year 200, 1990), were published in translation by Restless Books.
2 Ultimately, the Philip K. Dick Prize was awarded to Claudia Casper’s The Mercy Journals.
Translated by Arthur Dixon