As part of Bas Bleu’s 2016 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus material about our Bluestocking BAM selection to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)
Veteran readers know the power of a good story. We allow ourselves to be carried away every time we open a book, yielding our own realities to the events and emotions brewing between the pages. So it’s no wonder Bas Bleu’s March selection, The Distant Marvels, captivated our reviewer from the very beginning, when a gathering storm forces strangers to become allies, and a skilled storyteller is the only one capable of calming their fears during the crisis. Thus unfolds narrator María Sirena’s epic tale of growing up as the daughter of revolutionaries in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Cuba. Recently, author Chantel Acevedo took a break from her teaching schedule at the University of Miami to discuss her novel’s take on the Cuban War for Independence, her family’s storytelling legacy, and her childhood affection for Anne Shirley.
Bas Bleu: The Distant Marvels is (pardon the superhero terminology) María Sirena’s “origin story.” But what is this novel’s origin story? How did you “meet” María Sirena?
Chantel Acevedo: The first character I “met” was actually her son, Mayito. And before he was a character, he was a child in a 19th century article I read about an orphaned reconcentrado child who was “purchased” by an American soldier and brought to the United States. I tried fruitlessly to find evidence of this boy in archives, but history seems to have swallowed him up. So, my novelist mind went to work trying to imagine his story. María Sirena came alive after that.
BB: During a night filled with fear, with death literally lapping at the door, María Sirena manages to unite and console a disparate group of people simply by telling a story. What role has storytelling played in your life? How do you explain the power storytelling holds—and arguably has always held—in the human experience?
CA: My grandmother, who also happens to have a double name that starts with María, is a terrific storyteller. Every lesson she had to impart came to me as part of a story, and when she calmed my own childhood fears, it was through stories of her childhood, and the difficulties she faced, and how she overcame them. You are right in suggesting that stories have always had power in the human experience. One need only to look at the cave paintings in France to understand that in those drawings there is already tension and drama, suffering and victory. We are wired for narrative, definitely.
BB: Without giving the plot away, we can say that much of María Sirena’s life is lived beyond her control. Yes, she makes choices, but usually while trapped within a very confined sphere of existence. How does finally telling her story allow her to take (some) control over her life narrative and make peace with the past in her final days?
CA: Part of what traps María Sirena, more than the patterns of history, is her own misplaced guilt. Her mother, Lulu, is a great contrast to this. Lulu is nearly impossible to contain throughout the story, and only when her own fear and sense of failure takes over, does she succumb. María Sirena feels failure quite keenly. In telling her story, she comes to realize that despite the guilt she feels, others see in her a reason to love. She isn’t free, truly, until she loves herself.
BB: Although Agustín, Mario, and Aldo Alarcón all play key roles in María Sirena’s story, hers is a tale dominated by women: from her indomitable mother Lulu to Blanca Lora to the strangers and former friends she shelters with during the storm. In a world controlled by men, it is other women whom María Sirena most often relies upon to survive. Why?
CA: In terms of the plot, María Sirena depends on women for survival. The women in the tallér, for example, rally in a time of war, protect one another, and also provide for the men on the field. While the men run off to fight, Lulu, who would be very happy wielding a machete on the battlefield, stays with her daughter and protects her. I find it interesting that the stories of war in the human narrative are always seen as the stories of men. What could they have accomplished without women? Precious little, I think. Who sewed their uniforms, protected the livestock and the harvest? Who made sure there was a home and hearth to protect? Who provided for the children, so that there might be a generation to remember that fight? Women. All women. And so, the story of war is tragic and powerful and, ultimately, the burden was carried equally among the genders.
BB: For those of us who grew up during a time when Cuba was virtually cut off from the United States, existing only in news stories about the Castro regime, The Distant Marvels offers a glimpse into the country’s past. While no single book can encapsulate an entire nation and generations of its people, what do you hope your readers will learn about Cuba from The Distant Marvels?
CA: Part of the reason this story enticed me was that I realized that I knew very little about the Cuban War of Independence, despite the fact that I’m Cuban-American. The images in my head were of Teddy Roosevelt, the Maine, the Rough Riders, and the “splendid little war” that McKinley waxed on about. In truth, this war was three decades long by the time America became involved. This book only gives readers a tiny slice of those years, but I suspect that for American readers at least, it’s a look into a conflict they have not encountered before.
BB: Aside from your own titles, which books are you quick to recommend to other readers?
CA: A seminal book for my own development as a writer was Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban. I recommend it all the time, and it’s one of the few books I reread. As a writer of historical fiction, I am enamored by reimagined classics, and Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lavinia, which retells the last books of the Aeneid from Lavinia’s perspective, is absolutely gorgeous and important.
BB: Which book(s) from your childhood helped to shape the person you are today?
CA: More than any other book, it would have to be Anne of Green Gables. I discovered Anne (with an e!) as an adolescent, at a time when my thoughts turned gloomy and when my self-esteem took a dive. In Anne Shirley, I found this awkward, writerly kid with a hopefulness that was tempered by her own “depths of despair.” I remember keenly that moment when she recites “The Highwayman,” and how I nearly cried because it was a poem that I had partly memorized for fun, and I had felt like such a nerd for having these inclinations. We could have been “kindred spirits,” Anne and I. She felt so real to me, and most likely, she’s the reason I fell in love with the late 19th/early 20th century as a moment in time.
BB: What future projects can readers look forward to seeing from you?
CA: I am currently working on a novel loosely centered on an impetuous infanta of Spain, back at the end of the nineteenth century. I’ll let your readers try to guess which infanta!
BB: Our thanks to Chantel for giving us a glimpse “behind the scenes” of this extraordinary novel!