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Garcia, Cristina 1958–

Garcia, Cristina 1958–

PERSONAL: Born July 4, 1958, in Havana, Cuba; immigrated to the United States, c. 1960; daughter of Frank M. and Hope Lois Garcia; married Scott Brown, December 8, 1990; children: Pilar Akiko. Education: Barnard College, B.A., 1979; Johns Hopkins University, M.A., 1981. Politics: "Registered Democrat." Hobbies and other interests: Contemporary dance, music, travel, foreign languages.

ADDRESSES: Agent—Ellen Levine, 15 East 26th St., Suite 1801, New York, NY 10010.

CAREER: Journalist and author. Time (magazine), New York, NY, reporter and researcher, 1983–85, correspondent, 1985–90, bureau chief in Miami, FL, 1987–88.

MEMBER: Amnesty International, PEN American Center.

AWARDS, HONORS: National Book Award finalist, National Book Foundation, 1992, for Dreaming in Cuban; Hodder fellowship, Princeton University, 1992–93; Cintas fellowship, 1992–93; Whiting Writers Award, 1996.

WRITINGS:

Dreaming in Cuban (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1992.

Cars of Cuba (essay), created by D.D. Allen, photographs by Joshua Greene, Abrams (New York, NY), 1995.

The Aguero Sisters (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 1997.

Monkey Hunting (novel), Knopf (New York, NY), 2003.

(Editor and author of introduction) Cubanismo!: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Cuban Literature, Vintage (New York, NY), 2003.

Dreaming in Cuban and The Aguero Sisters have been translated into Spanish.

WORK IN PROGRESS: Poems and novels.

SIDELIGHTS: A reporter and correspondent for Time magazine during the 1980s, Cristina Garcia published her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, in 1992. Inspired by Garcia's Cuban heritage, the book was highly acclaimed and became a finalist for the National Book Award. Reviewer Michiko Kakutani remarked in the New York Times: "Fierce, visionary, and at the same time oddly beguiling and funny, Dreaming in Cuban is a completely original novel. It announces the debut of a writer, blessed with a poet's ear for language, a historian's fascination with the past and a musician's intuitive understanding of the ebb and flow of emotion."

Dreaming in Cuban chronicles three generations of a Cuban family. The matriarch, Celia, falls in love with a married Spaniard and writes him letters for twenty-five years. Despite this long-distance affair, Celia marries a man she does not love, and the couple has two daughters, Lourdes and Felicia, and a son, Javier. Celia also becomes enamored of the Cuban Revolution and its leader, Fidel Castro. Lourdes, however, is raped by a revolutionary, and carries her hatred of the revolution with her when she moves to New York with her husband and opens two successful bakeries. Felicia stays in Cuba with her mother, but she marries a sailor who gives her syphilis, and she eventually meets a tragic end. Javier becomes a scientist and immigrates to Czechoslovakia, only to return a bitter alcoholic. As for the next generation, Thulani Davis explained in New York Times Book Review, "Celia's grandchildren can only be described as lost and abandoned by the obsessions of the parents. Of these, Lourdes's daughter, Pilar Puente del Pino, a would-be painter and student in New York, becomes the secret sharer, a distant repository of the family's stories and some of its demons." Pilar is also the one who reunites the family, dragging her mother along with her on a trip to Cuba to see her grandmother.

In detailing this family history, Alan West observed in Washington Post Book World, "Garcia deftly shifts the narrative from third to first person, mixing in a series of Celia's letters to her long-lost Spanish lover, Gustavo. Likewise, she shifts from the past to the present, from Brooklyn to Havana, from character to character caught in the web that blood and history have set up for them, often with cruel irony." Richard Eder, writing in the Los Angeles Times, called Dreaming in Cuban "poignant and perceptive," noting that "the realism is exquisite." Davis concluded in New York Times Book Review: "I have no complaints to make. Cristina Garcia has written a jewel of a first novel."

Garcia's second novel, The Aguero Sisters, tells of two Cuban sisters, Constancia and Reina, who have been separated for thirty years. Constancia and her husband, who has recently retired from his cigar business, have moved from New York to Key Biscayne, Florida, and she has become a successful businesswoman and entrepreneur with her own line of homemade, natural body and face creams made from such ingredients as overripe peaches and avocado pits. Heberto, though, disappears from the main plot as he embarks on a new career as a counterrevolutionary, embroiled in a Bay of Pigs-like plot to overthrow the Cuban government.

Reina still lives in Cuba as a traveling electrician, and she has been nicknamed "Companera Amazonas" for her voluptuousness and free-spirited sexuality. While Constancia is somewhat prudish and has only had two lovers in her entire life—her two husbands—the uninhibited libertine Reina relishes the pleasure men provide her. As Garcia describes her, "Often, Reina selects the smallest, shiest electrician in a given town for her special favors, leaving him weak and inconsolable for months. After she departs, black owls are frequently sighted in the Ceiba trees." Washington Post Book World editor Nina King noted, "The sudden appearance of those ominous black owls is typical of Garcia's stylistic shifts from reality to myth to the heightened reality of 'magic realism.'"

According to Time reviewer Pico Iyer, "Both Aguero sisters share something deep as blood: a matter-of-fact commitment to the magic of their island of honey and rum. Constancia makes spells for women in the form of the 'luscious unguents' she markets; Reina casts spells over men." This is typical of a mystical parallelism that runs throughout the novel; for example, at approximately the same time Constancia elects cosmetic surgery that inadvertently leaves her with her mother's face, Reina is struck by lightning and must undergo experimental skin grafts—her skin becomes a patchwork contributed by friends and family.

As Kakutani commented in a New York Times review, "In Cristina Garcia's haunting new novel, The Aguero Sisters, a strange scar is handed down generation to generation. Blanca Aguero, the clan's ill-fated matriarch, receives the mysterious mark on her heel while swimming in Las Casas river during her honeymoon. Years later, while escaping from Cuba to the United States, Blanca's daughter Constancia leaves a similar mark on the foot of her daughter, Isabel, while trying to revive her from heatstroke. Isabel, in turn, eventually has a boy named Raku, who is born with a red birthmark on his foot in the same place as his mother's wound."

When the two sisters are reunited in Miami, they work to strip away the lies that constitute their lives. By the novel's denouement, their respective daughters, the artist, Isabel, and former volleyball coach-turned-prostitute, Dulce, are united, as well. The primary element that connects all four women, aside from their kinship per se, is the quest to learn the truth about the death of Constancia and Reina's mother, Blanca Mestre de Aguero. Blanca and her husband were both ornithologists, documenting the endangered wildlife of Cuba when her estranged husband, Ignacio, brutally murdered her. The reader is told, early on, the nature of her fate, but the protagonists must untwist truth from lies.

Ruth Behar noted in Chicago's Tribune Books that "Garcia offers an even more gorgeously written, even more flamboyant feminist vision of Cuban and American history, women's lives, memory and desire" than her previous novel, Dreaming in Cuban. The critic added, "Constancia and Reina, the feisty and rebellious Aguero sisters, are strong female protagonists whose meditations on men, sex, power and longing are among the great joys of Garcia's novel." Kakutani noted "the force of Ms. Garcia's powerfully imagined characters" and "the magic of her prose." In Nation, Ilan Stavans mentioned Garcia's "astonishing literary style and dazzling attention to telling detail," and deemed her "an immensely talented writer, whose work … is renewing American fiction." And, describing Garcia as "a wise and generous storyteller," Iyer praised the novelist. "Garcia has crafted a beautifully rounded work of art," the reviewer noted, "as warm and wry and sensuous as the island she clearly loves."

With 2003's Monkey Hunting, Garcia tackles another multigenerational saga with a twist: this time, the family she follows is of mixed Chinese and Cuban descent. The story begins with Chen Pan, who travels from his homeland in China to Cuba in the 1850s, where he is at first enslaved and forced to work in the sugarcane fields. However, Chen surmounts this challenge to become a successful Havana businessman who falls in love with a mulata named Lucrecia and finds happiness as a family man. The story then follows his descendants, whose experiences vary widely: their son Lorenzo becomes a physician; his daughter Chen Fang lives in China, where she becomes a teacher and counterrevolutionary; and, finally, her son Domingo Chen, ends up in New York City, where he encounters racism and ends up a soldier fighting in Vietnam. Critics delighted in Garcia's deft handling of shifts in time and point of view in a novel that is relatively short, given the expanse of years it covers. For example, Mary Margaret Benson, writing in Library Journal, called Monkey Hunting "a brilliantly conceived work—and it's also delightful reading." And although a Publishers Weekly reviewer wished that Gar-cia had taken more time in her story to develop the characters further, the critic praised the author's third novel as "a richly patterned mini-epic, a moving chorus of distinct voices." New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani, however, felt that Monkey Hunting "lacks the fierce magic and unexpected humor of Ms. Garcia's remarkable debut novel." Jennifer Schuessler, in New York Times Book Review, expressed a similar judgment, noting that, though the novel "leaps sure-footedly between the branches of a bushy and far-flung family tree," it does not convey the "spark of life that allows the Chen family to survive and transcend its forced march through endless war and revolution." Margot Livesey, on the other hand, observed in Atlantic Monthly that the novel combines "gorgeous writing" with extraordinary empathy and understanding.

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 76, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.

Contemporary Novelists, 7th edition, St. James (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Notable Hispanic American Women, 2nd edition, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1998.

PERIODICALS

Atlantic Monthly, May, 2003, Margot Livesey, "Time Travel," p. 123.

Boston Globe, May 25, 1997, p. N15.

Entertainment Weekly, March 27, 1992, p. 68; March 26, 1993, p. 74.

Globe and Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), March 21, 1992, p. C9.

Library Journal, March 15, 1997, Barbara Hoffert, review of The Aguero Sisters, p. 88; April 1, 2003, Mary Margaret Benson, review of Monkey Hunting, p. 128; June 15, 2003, Ron Ratliff, review of Cubanismo!: The Vintage Book of Contemporary Cuban Literature, p. 71.

Los Angeles Times, March 12, 1992, p. E10.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 19, 1995, p. 11; June 8, 1997, p. 8.

MELUS, fall, 2000, Katherine Payant, "From Alienation to Reconciliation in the Novels of Cristina Garcia," p. 163.

Nation, May 19, 1997, p. 32.

Newsweek, April 20, 1992, p. 78-79; April 28, 1997, p. 79.

New Yorker, June 1, 1992, p. 86.

New York Times, February 25, 1992, p. C17; May 27, 1997, p. C16; June 24, 2003, Michiko Kakutani, review of Monkey Hunting, p. E6.

New York Times Book Review, May 17, 1992, p. 14; June 15, 1997, p. 38; May 18, 2003, Jennifer Schuessler, "Fantasy Island," p. 11.

Observer, August 10, 1997, p. 15.

Publishers Weekly, January 13, 1992, review of Dreaming in Cuban, p. 46; March 10, 1997, review of The Aguero Sisters, p. 48; April 7, 2003, review of Monkey Hunting, p. 48.

Review of Contemporary Fiction, fall, 1997, Jane Juffer, review of The Aguero Sisters, p. 243.

Time, March 23, 1992, p. 67; May 12, 1997, Pico Ayer, review of The Aguero Sisters, p. 88.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 8, 1997, section 14, p. 1.

Washington Post Book World, March 1, 1992, p. 9; July 13, 1997, p. 1.

World Literature Today, winter, 1998, Ana Maria Hernandez, review of The Aguero Sisters, p. 134; winter, 2000, Rocio G. Davis, "Back to the Future: Mothers, Languages, and Homes in Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban," p. 60.

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