The Latina Book Club congratulates author Jon Marcantoni on his first Spanish-language novel, TRISTIANA. We were happy to learn all about the novel and what is happening with La Casita Grande.
Darío: When you look at my body, what do you see? You see muscles, chest, arms and legs, my sex? Or do you see skin that is destined to decay? Bones destined to be picked apart by insects until what remains is grinded into dirt. Do you see a walking death that fights to stay within this body? You see my inevitable end, and the hole it will create in the lives of those who love me? What you see if a passing thing, like a memory. And I am alive, I live within your mind, because my destiny is to be buried, and in truth the ground is where this body desires to be above anywhere else. When I look at my children sleeping under the mosquitero, I see a piece of my Isabella and I, a piece which will suffer when we die. The time is coming. Even though in the city everything is at peace, I know that our time is coming. I read the news. I read about La Sombra Negra, and Varela, and El Chapín. I know enough about history to see what will happen next. I am not naïve like my kids, who laugh and play, and kiss us sweetly every night with all the confidence in the world that in the morning, we will be around for them to kiss again. One day, closer than not, they will wake up, but they will not be able to find us. They will not be able to kiss us, or be held by us, or hear our voices. One day, closer than not, my wife and I will be nothing more than shadows in their memories.
----Excerpt from TRISTIANA
LATINA BOOK CLUB: Tell us about TRISTIANA. What is the story? who are the protagonists?
JON MARCANTONI: The story of TRISTIANA is the story of Latin America, a land that is both sovereign and at the mercy of foreign interests, where the gap between rich and poor is enormous, yet also where the government is very much an active one, impressing itself on people in a way that, even when they are right wing, is the antithesis of what we would see as Republicanism in the United States. So, there is a lot of lip service to serving the “people” in a very populist sense, even though in practice, the rich are the only “people” being truly catered to. Tristiana is an island that embodies a huge swath of Latin America, with a government who was “freed” from Spanish rule by the United States yet is still beholden to the whims of that country in a neo-colonial relationship. The story takes place during a time when two groups of rebels, one led by a man named Varela and the other by a foreign interloper, El Chapín, who join forces to bring about a Marxist state that will overthrow the capitalist and colonialist government. While in the capital city, we follow the lives of a group of artists and intellectuals, Joaquín, Darío, Amelita, and her father Antonio, as they become increasingly aware of and involved in the rebellion.
LBC: In your novel, Tristiana is a beautiful corner of Latin America, but no stranger to violence; a lot like Puerto Rico, our homeland. A big part of the novel deals with the debate of justice vs politics; assimilation vs diversity; conquistadores vs slaves. The novel seems very timely given the current political climate on the island and across the USA. Are the debates in the book a mirror of current political debates on prime time and/or are the debates like carnival mirrors with distorted portraits of the hidden ugliness of man?
JON: The book takes the ideas behind revolutionary politics and either deals with them directly or deals with them through a funhouse mirror, particularly in the portraits, where a couple of them show scenes of the wealthy in all their decadence or as monstrous distortions of their actual selves. The topics you mentioned and others are shown in a variety of lights, some humorous, some allegorical, some in very barebones, logical terms. We see multiple angles of how the events in the book are perceived, and while the story has a distinct message, it allows room for those alternate views. Ultimately, the story is a sort of Socratic dialogue that begins with two revolutionaries discussing the potential futility of their actions, and ends with a person ruminating on that futility, and all the things one must lose in fighting for something that isn’t even guaranteed. Everything in between those two scenes investigates all the factors that contribute to societies being the way they are, and humans being the way we are, and asks the reader if any other way of achieving a just society is even possible. I’ve done my best to leave that question open ended, because I most certainly don’t have the answer.
LBC: You mention in the book, and you have also stated it in some of your blog posts, that the saving grace of mankind -- and art! -- will be women. However, you also point out that for woman to get rid of man, she may have to become just as cruel an animal as he or worse. Is this correct? But then we have to wonder, what happen to past matriarchal civilizations and why did they not survive? how did man conquer them? If woman is the savior, how and why did she become victim? Can woman rise again?
JON: I think that, as much as we’d like to think that putting a woman in power changes things, if they are operating within the power structures as they already exist, then change, if any, will be minimal. You have seen, also, with politicians like Margaret Thatcher, where a woman in power can be used to further entrench patriarchal practices. With Obama, you saw how difficult it is for even the most skilled and well-meaning politician to change the structures they are working within. So changing gender or race does very little to effect change. Perhaps I’m just cynical, but there are enough examples of revolutions changing one level of bureaucracy while everything else remains the same. Marx warned about it, hence his attacks on the petit-bourgeoisie (the middle classes who seemingly support revolutionary change but who inevitably fall back on the attitudes and structures that were already in place. In other words, they become the new aristocracy, stifling any long-lasting reforms), and Mao’s attempts to reinvent Chinese society every five years. The thing about change is it must be ever changing, a status quo cannot be settled on or else the revolution was meaningless. But because humans prefer stability to chaos, even when a massive change occurs, like the Bolshevik Revolution, society will settle back into the behaviors of its past, much like the Soviets became the new tsars and the Soviet Union became little more than the Russian Empire under a new name.
My cynicism, then, is fairly justified, so while it would be great to change society into a matriarchal one, I have difficulty believing it’ll mean anything other than women will be the ones starting wars and implementing social policies that oppress some group of people, much like men did before them. Even in a society of supposed equals, someone will feel left out, or feel like equality is restricting, and they will lead a new revolution to return to a more hierarchical system. That appears, from countless historical examples, to be the way humanity works. Otherwise we never would have started organized societies. To have order requires there to be winners and losers, and so far, no society has demonstrated that an alternative is possible. That is not inspiring, I know, and as full disclosure, TRISTIANA is perhaps the most depressing book about revolution imaginable.
LBC: What do you want readers to come away with after reading TRISTIANA?
JON: On a story level, I’d want it to be a book people will want to discuss with others. Discuss the various stances the characters take, and discuss how activism and concepts like revolution are used in the modern sense. I hope it forces readers to look hard and long at their belief systems and question who they are as people, and what they would be willing to sacrifice to make the world in their desired image.
On a stylistic level, I hope the book is inspiring to people who want to tell stories in a non-traditional sense. Tristiana is a hybrid novel, which is beginning to pick up steam in the avant garde world, especially in regards to mixing poetry and narrative. Here I use film, painting, theatre, and classical narrative to create a story that is, in many ways, a dialogue with the reader, a lived-in experience that can be consumed in a number of ways. I would hope that readers finish the book and see how expansive the possibilities of literature are, that you don’t have to write in any one way. That is a key component to visualism, which is the movement I place Tristiana in, a story that relies on visceral techniques to capture a reader’s attention. To practice visualism, you very consciously reject the dominant models of literature as archaic and outdated.
LBC: What is the meaning of the cover? Is that a Taino warrior on the cover? Is that one of the murals in the story? another mirror?
JON: The cover image was made courtesy of my good friend Taylor Kelsaw, who shared it with me when I was looking for the right cover to embody the conflict between man and nature that is the overarching theme of the book. I responded to the way in which the human figure is prostrated before the sky, and that the sky is foreboding yet beautiful, magnificent, dominating the human. Throughout the book, the characters speak of how we are really on Earth as guests, and that a time will come when we are no longer welcome and there is no turning back the clock. The image embodied that reverence and fear. It also captured the portrait sequences of the book, where I create images using language designed to imitate specific artistic styles.
LBC: TRISTIANA is written in Spanish. You did that purposely. Why was that important to you? Is there a Spanish reading market? How is that Latino Spanish reading market different from the Latino English reading market? Will there be an English translation?
JON: It has been my dream, since I was a teenager, to tell stories in Spanish. I didn’t become fluent until I was in my early twenties, and my love of the language only heightened the desire to do so. This particular story felt like it couldn’t be in English. I was taking a point of view and attitude that is very Latin American. The book is unapologetically Marxist and militant, which is frowned upon in the U.S. Even so-called progressive literature in the U.S. is very tame and adheres to the U.S. structure of government and what is acceptably leftist, which is very passive and more about being morally superior than it is about changing society in a more inclusive manner. In Latin America, leftist politics is much more aggressive and chaotic, as well as more educated. Latin Americans are more sophisticated politically, if you read the literature and the news and speak with people there, they have a real understanding of, say, the differences between socialism and Marxism and capitalism, whereas in the United States, politics are very much simplified and generalized. I knew that to tell a story as complex and as dense as this one, a Latin American audience would appreciate it the most. And this was confirmed for me when my first few readers were Latin Americans, and every single one felt that it wasn’t a story that would appeal to Americans because of how deeply it invests in the Latin American worldview.
As for the market in Latin America, all I’ll say to that is that the city with the most bookstores in the world is Buenos Aires, and Mexico City has a larger publishing industry than New York. We are not an illiterate people.
Latino readers in the U.S. I think would have mixed feelings about the book. The more educated they are in Latin American history and U.S.-Latino relations, the more they would appreciate it, but the Latino community is also largely pro-United States, and this book is decidedly anti-American. There is even the line, said by a military commander in battle: “We fight for the highest honor, and the highest honor is not to kill a Yankee, but to kill a piti-Yankee (Latino who supports the U.S.), for they are the true traitors of Latin America.” That character is not a villain, by the way. I have a hard time imagining these Latinos who push so hard to be accepted by U.S. culture enjoying a book that decries the very thing they want to be a part of.
The only way an English translation will happen is if there is enough demand for one, and/or somebody else does the translation.
LBC: Aside from being a writer, you are also editor of La Casita Grande publishing. How is LCG doing? what new authors have you discovered?
JON: LCG is doing very well. Our second book, Spanish Coffee: Black, No Sugar, had its book launch at Word Up! Community Bookshop in NYC, and they not only sold out of copies, people had to order copies online when they ran out. Our Lounge blog has run two successful series this summer, thanks to our wonderful intern Sydney Joy Boryga. Our blog has attracted enough material that we are publishing new pieces four to five times a week, with the weekends being used to highlight recent posts. We also are consistently receiving book submissions from all over Latin America and the U.S. Our other fabulous intern, Heather Gutekunst, has been a major help to me this summer in picking out new and exciting books.
We have discovered some really phenomenal talents. Most recently, a trifecta of writers from Cuba, Elaine Vilar Madruga, Laura Domingo Agüero, and Eric Taylor Flores, have been published in the Lounge. And Elaine and Laura both will be doing books with us as well. In October, Puerto Rican author Carlos II Ocasio Díaz will premiere his supernatural thriller Mateo, and 2018 and 2019 will offer books set in Japan and Australia, a story collection about mental illnesses, a feminist magic realist book, a YA fantasy novel, and an experimental novel that captures life in 1980s Chicago through different musical styles. We have been running a series called Meet the Author where readers are introduced to each of our writers and learn more about their books. You can check out a few here, here, and here.
LBC: Please share your website and social media addresses with your fans.
JON: Visit LCG Press here
Visit the LCG Lounge here
Follow LCG on Twitter @lcgeditores and on Facebook here
TRISTIANA was launched on August 5 at the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico. ###