Jorge Enrique Lage: "I've Never Been Interested in Realism": A Conversation with Lourdes Molina
Lourdes Molina: You have a degree in biochemistry, but you’re a fiction writer. How did you start writing? How does your science background inform your creative process?
Jorge Enrique Lage: I never worked professionally as a biochemist. When I was in college I started participating in workshops and writing contests, that’s how it all started. My professional “training” is almost nonexistent, but science, as such, is something that I’ve always been interested in. I read a lot of science publications. I’ve always been drawn to the possibility of combining (and recombining, like DNA) scientific themes in my work, to bring in information that is otherwise foreign to or distant from the “literary” field.
LM: How has your writing developed? How would you describe it?
JEL: I’m not the appropriate person to describe what I have done, which isn’t much, but I have done it the best I way I knew how. I wanted to tell the stories that I wanted to read. I used certain forms and undefined styles that, at the time, were attractive to me and it was the best I could do. That’s it. I don’t see any development in that. It was more of a struggle with my own limitations, which are many.
LM: There are many dimensions to your work. What has inspired you? What were the main influences?
JEL: Reading inspires me. Books and authors, styles and stories inspire me. But the way in which of all it takes shape and converges into the different dimensions that you mention, I’m not interested in decoding that. A writer, someone said, publishes summaries of what he reads. That’s it. Let’s leave it at that.
LM: What are your favorite works of literature? Your favorite writers? What are you reading now?
JEL: My tastes and preferences change over time, they’re always mutating. At first, I read a lot of science fiction and dark fantasy, like Lovecraft and Stephen King. I also read a lot of crime fiction. At different times, for different reasons, I was interested in books by folks like Raymond Chandler, Douglas Coupland, Bret Easton Ellis, Ray Loriga, Alberto Fuget, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, J. G. Ballard, David Foster Wallace, Roberto Bolaño, Mario Bellatín, Álvaro Bisama, and an etcetera that could be infinite.
From Cuba: Miguel de Marcos, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Lorenzo García Vega... among others.
Like everyone else, I went through a Julio Cortázar phase, and before that, a Jorge Luis Borges one. I always keep coming back to Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo.
LM: Which works/writers are you most excited about right now?
JEL: Lately, perhaps it’s César Aira’s literary design that I find most interesting. Right now I’m reading a very good novel by Antonio Orejudo: Los cinco y yo [The five and I].
LM: From what you’ve written, what is your favorite piece?
JEL: From what I’ve written, my favorite is my latest short novel, unpublished, which I just finished. As one might expect.
LM: What are you working on now?
JEL: Rest and relaxation. As I mentioned to you previously, I have two unpublished books. Maybe they will never be published, neither one, so it may be time to focus on something else. Seriously.
LM: What would you do if you were to abandon writing?
JEL: I’m not sure what I would do. I guess anything that would support me and would give me more time to read. I am a reader, that’s what I am.
LM: Tell us about the process of writing La autopista: The Movie. How did you come up with the idea for that novel?
JEL: Two lonesome characters in a devastated landscape—Havana—where an absurd situation then manifests. That was the original idea. From there, I wove together a series of stories and encounters in the form of short stories that started to operate as chapters. That’s how it happened.
LM: How would you classify it?—(if it were even possible to classify it…)
JEL: I wouldn’t classify it in any way, I did enough by writing it. If I had to call it something, what occurs to me, redundantly: a false mockumentary. Or a scrapped script.
LM: The plot of La autopista takes place in a somewhat dystopian Havana. Why did you choose to represent Havana in the mid-21st century (and not in the present, for instance)?
JEL: I’ve never been interested in realism. I have an affinity for the fantastic, the surreal, for which futuristic scenes, to call them something, seem to be the most appropriate. Besides, I don’t aspire to “represent” any kind of Havana; I want to unravel it, to invent it.
LM: You live in Havana but it’s clear that you know and understand (have mastered) US general and pop culture—perhaps even better than a typical “American.” What is your relationship with the United States? How do you consume its culture?
JEL: North American pop culture has always been my culture, too. It’s part of the culture in half of the world. I don’t think I have a particular mastery or knowledge of it beyond that which any other consumer might have, except that it penetrates Cuba more slowly. But it does penetrate, of course, one way or another, and it imposes itself forcefully. It always has. Ever since I was a teenager.
My relationship with the US: excellent. I wish the inverse were the same.
LM: This novel is saturated with references to US pop culture. How do you think this invasion of pop culture works?
JEL: The thing is that it’s not an invasion, it never was, it never has been. I don’t see it that way. It is something that is in the air that you breathe, global oxygen. One of the goals of the novel was, in fact, to be intertextual, and what I did was simply turn to certain elements that were very familiar to me.
LM: Emily Maguire has written about the special temporal experience, the “temporal palimpsest,” that appears in the writing of Generation Zero. This experience seems manifest in the ubiquitous presence of (US pop culture from) the 1990s in La autopista. Why the 1990s? Why is this context so central in Havana in the mid-21st century?
JEL: I don’t know. I suppose that those 90s references in La autopista—Kurt Cobain, certain books, etc.—were an active part of the literary circles I participated in at the beginning of this century, when I started to write. In any case, it is something that refers to me, as the author, to something biographical, and in no way means that that context, that decade, is especially powerful and much less something critical to understand 21st-century Havana. At the very least, the 90s don’t help me to understand it.
LM: The characters in the novel… they are familiar (historical and/or ordinary) but also foreign, strange; it’s as if they provoke an uncanny experience. How did you come up with these characters? What did you want them to portray?
JEL: I only created two: the narrator and El Autista. Maybe they’re one and the same, if that’s how you want to see it. The rest of the characters appeared without a plan. Honestly, I didn’t mean to “portray” anything through them. I only wanted to give them a voice to move the story along until the end. If the reader has the experiences you mention, then I think that’s fantastic.
LM: A central theme of this novel is the experience of limbo, of aimlessness. What triggers this situation for the characters and in the general context of the text?
JEL: I don’t make that distinction, or at least I wouldn’t know how to establish it now, because I saw it all in a compressed way, integrated: that limbo with those characters. It isn’t something that triggers something else; there is a symbiosis, the characters depend on the context, and at the same time, they produce it. But, anyway, that’s only my understanding, which is inevitably biased and perhaps a bit obtuse.
LM: Does La autopista: The Movie aim to be prophetic? What do you imagine Havana, or Cuba, to be like in the next 50 years?
JEL: No, not prophetic at all. That’s not what it’s about. I don’t like that claim. In 50 years I would like to be in a Havana where we can say: “It’s incredible how modernized Havana has become in the last 50 years!”
LM: Gilberto Padilla Cárdenas writes that Cuban literature from the past few decades suffers from “una invasiva patología viral, de una enfermedad sistémica” (an invasive viral infection, a systemic disease) that employs “‘lo cubano’ como tótem” (the idea of being Cuban as a totem). Maguire argues that writers from this “generation,” to which you belong, reject this. With this in mind, does La autopista: The Movie aspire to represent the Cuban condition or to represent a more universal experience. I ask because, on the one hand, the novel resists classification and temporality, but on the other, it is very much grounded in a specific time and place. How would you classify it?
JEL: Again, I don’t aspire to be representational in any way. It’s more modest: make things up, assemble a story, make a cocktail of references (literary, pop), if you’d like. But I’ve never had the contemporary Cuban condition in mind. Place it and consider it within (or beyond) those coordinates, read it (or not) from there, that’s perfectly legitimate, but I don’t care to and I don’t like to be a socio-literary critic of my own work. That’s why I never know how to respond to these kinds of issues.
LM: What is the responsibility of the Cuban writer? Of Cuban literature?
JEL: I think that the Cuban writer and of Cuban literature has the same responsibility everywhere: only with the language and with the tradition. Everything else, the extra-literary, is up to the individual and their personal criteria.
LM: You live and write in Havana, have published in “dissident” publications, and you are also the editor of Editorial Caja China—a State publishing house. You are also, in a way, a “radical” writer, given that you are part of a group of writers considered iconoclast and rebellious. Is there a conflict with your role as an editor and the “rebellious” quality of your work and those with whom you associate?
JEL: There hasn’t been any conflict yet. It turns out that I am a state-employed editor and writer at a very small, very marginal, institution that’s on the periphery of the periphery of the Ministry of Culture. But I’m sure that a conflict would take no time to develop if I were to take a position at the Instituto Cubano del Libro (Cuban Book Institute), for instance, or at a more important, more central publication or publishing house with more influence.
LM: How does living in Cuba (the political, the social, daily life) affect your writing?
JEL: Living (surviving) in Cuba: writing is secondary to this. The trauma of my country has affected me and, as such, it inevitably affects everything that I am and everything that I do. But, on the other hand, I have always lived in this country, so I have no experience writing outside of the Cuban experience. I have no way of comparing these different contexts.
LM: Readers and scholars tend to insist on categorizing, defining, literary trends and work—perhaps it’s just a human tendency. You have mentioned before that it isn’t possible to define Cuban literature. Having said that, there now exists a group of writers, Generation Zero, of which you are part. I am not suggesting that the writers or its art is monolithic, but there are certain connections, as many have already observed. What can you say about this “new” generation of Cuban writers? Are they really creating a newrrative—could it be a literary tabula rasa? If you resist the idea of defining or categorizing Cuban literature, do you also resist that label? What do you think about participating in this group or about any other defined group?
JEL: That’s an issue for the critics. As I mentioned to you earlier, I don’t like to delve into what I write. What I can tell you is that the label, as such, doesn’t seem inaccurate. Brown University invited me to an event, a panel, about this so-called Generation Zero. Perhaps I would have never set foot there, had it not been for that label. Don’t you think? Maybe they would’ve never invited me. The anthologies that feature the work of Generation Zero create a readership base, which then fosters opportunities to publish in other places. These practical matters, for me, are the positive ones regarding the label: when it functions as a catalyst or simulant. How could I be against that?
LM: Along the same lines as the previous question, if your work could be classified, how do you think it has evolved in the last few years? Is there a common message, style, or idea?
JEL: I would like to think that in the last few years I have become less naïve and a more effective writer. But that’s probably just a delusion. The only common denominator that I can see in my work, I think, is persistence. Not the persistence to write for the sake of writing, but writing as a continuation of reading. I’d like to think that in the last few years I have become a better reader.