Between Memory and Forgetting: An Interview with Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes

Photograph by Brittainy Lauback

Photograph by Brittainy Lauback

I’m lucky to have known Gabrille Lucille Fuentes for several years now– we both live in Athens, GA and attend the same PhD program, and we co-curate a reading series together at our local indie bookstore. The first time I got to hear Gabrielle read her work aloud I was spellbound– not only was her prose riveting, but her ability to embody the work as she read it made for a thrilling listening experience. I knew she was a serious workhorse when it came to writing– working on several novels at once, and more diligently than most writers I know– and brilliant to boot, so it would only be a matter of time before her work began to enter world as books. Fuentes’ first novel, The Sleeping World, is out tomorrow (9/13) from Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, and it is ferocious, a book hot with searching and loss, tension thrumming constantly at the periphery. Per the jacket copy:

“Casasrojas, Spain, 1977. Military rule is over. Bootleg punk music oozes out of illegal basement bars and fascists fight anarchists for political control. Students perform protest art in the city center, rioting against the old government, the undecided new order, against the university, against themselves. At the center is Mosca, an intelligent, disillusioned university student, whose younger brother is among ‘the disappeared,’ kidnapped by fascist police, missing for two years, and presumed dead. Spurred by the turmoil around them, Mosca and her friends carry their rebellion too far and a violent act sends them spiraling out of their provincial hometown. But the further they go, the more Mosca believes her brother is alive and the more she is willing to do anything to find him.”

You can feel this novel in your bones– when the characters are sore and tired, sweatily roaming through Spain and France, your body meets the book in feeling. I was excited to ask Fuentes some questions about her writing process, the seeds of the book, and much more.

Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes is a writer and teacher. Her first novel, The Sleeping World, will be published by Touchstone  (Simon & Schuster) in 2016.  She has received fellowships from Yaddo and Blue Mountain Arts Center and was a Bernard O’Keefe Scholar in Fiction at Bread Loaf. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in One Story, Slice, Pank, The Collagist, Tweed’s, NANO Fiction, Western Humanities Review, The YokeSpringGun, and elsewhere.

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Gina Abelkop: What and when were the first seeds of this novel planted? Where were you living? Did it begin with a plot, character, or an emotional impluse?

Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes: Song lyrics often start stories for me. I’ll become obsessed with a song—especially one with a scrap of narrative and want to enter into the world of the song through my writing. Or the song will provide entry into a world I’ve carried but didn’t yet have access to. The Sleeping World began as a short story I wrote while listening to The National’s song “Runaway.” I was living in Boulder, Colorado and had just started my MFA. Boulder is a surreal town—it’s surrounded by gorgeous mountains but the town itself like a play-land created by Patagonia and Disney. Very new, very expensive, very white. The initial story came quickly, transported by a few of the lyrics. I wanted to communicate a tension between forgetting and memory, and when I went back to the story, I found that I was writing my own, despite the distance between me and the narrative. My brother had recently passed away and writing was a way for me to grieve, to speak to the dead and carry him with me in the living world.

GA: What drew you to the landscapes of Spain and France, and 1970s Spain in particular?

GLF: When the first story came to me, it came with that setting. I lived in Salamanca, Spain in 2007 and I was really struck by the contrast between the young people–many of whom considered themselves anarchists–and the older generations who had lived under and sometimes supported the dictator Franco. I’m Cuban American and had wanted to study abroad in Cuba, but it wasn’t possible because of the embargo. I chose Spain instead because another Latin American country felt like a sort of betrayal. Cubans have a complicated relationship with Spain—to say the least—and there’s a great deal of connection even now between the two cultures. Though I didn’t realize it at the time of my writing, Spain was a lens through which to understand and relate to Latin American and U.S. histories. I think the violences of colonialism move both ways. In some ways, our contemporary moment is a great deal like the late 1970s. There’s an intense sense of both optimism and dread—and a feeling of utter distrust in our power systems. Many really important movements today are looking to great writers/thinkers from the 1970s (Lorde, Baldwin) and adapting them for contemporary needs.

In a certain sense, The Sleeping World is a ghost story. Spain is a haunted country. There are more mass graves there than any other country except for Cambodia. The 1970s was a period when people were deciding how to reckon with that haunting—the government chose to completely negate it, to silence it. I mean this literally, there was a law called The Pact of Forgetting that forbids the investigation of crimes committed during the Civil War or dictatorship. In the last few years, those ideas have shifted and there’s a movement towards memory, towards uncovering. This tension created the necessary setting for a book exploring grief.


GA: Radical politics and punk are both performed and lived in this novel; how do those two elements fit into your life, as you define them?

GLF: My politics are most present in my writing and my teaching. I’m still challenging myself to become more involved in politics in ways that are deeper than voting with your dollar, voting, going to protests, etc. I primarily teach writing by people of color and intersectional feminists—none of which should be radical, but of course is. James Baldwin wrote in “Many Thousands Gone”: “That artist is strangled who is forced to deal with human beings in solely social terms” and I’m constantly considering the balancing act between personal artistic impulses and the desire for political change. In my courses, I ask how to balance these forces, how they might serve and strengthen each other.

I’m not really cool enough to be punk, though I love Patti Smith. I’m drawn to punk ethos—challenging authority, figuring things out for yourself, creating communities that are emotionally (and otherwise) sustainable. I like thinking about punk as a movement that has reoccurred throughout history. The Shakers were a kind of punk. It’s about making something from anger and grief, even if that something is a mess.

GA: There is so much talk of the “unlikeable female character” in American media culture, and I wonder if/how you see Mosca and La Canaria fitting into notions of (non)-likeability and improper femininity?

GLF: The idea of a “likeable female character” has always utterly perplexed me. Likeable is so boring. I love Elizabeth Taylor’s book, Angel—which I believe you recommended me, Gina!—because the main character is so awful. She’s egotistical and cruel and an awful writer and a delight to read about. I’m trying to think of a “likable” character that’s meant anything to me. [Blank face.] It’s certainly not the first or fiftieth word I would use to describe the characters I love.

Some of the very early reactions I received about this work was that Mosca was too jaded and she kept her reader at a distance. I was like, well, almost her entire family has disappeared and may have died violently due to a fascist regime that infects every aspect of her existence and will probably never end but only change forms. Her character was an emotional and formal choice—the walls around her tightly-crafted self-presentation start disintegrating at the very start of the book. I don’t think that type of distance would be questioned as much with a male author because there’s the idea that a male author knows what he’s doing and is making choices rather than mistakes. Personally, I really like Mosca and La Canaria—perhaps because there’s so much of myself in both of them, though they are braver and more daring than me. I also really like watching Cersei Lannister sipping her wine while dressed like a medieval David Bowie, but don’t like reading florid prose from the p.o.v. of a serial rapist (cough, Humbert Humbert, cough, cough). There’s no accounting for “taste.”

GA: Your prose in this novel is both muscular and beautiful, a kind of fuck-you-elegance that both holds the world firmly in place and, particularly in the second half of the novel, blurs its edges. Did you find yourself shifting your writing style at all to meet the emotional needs of the narrative? What writers did you look to, if at all, for references in regards to style?

GLF: Thank you! About 150 pages in, I reached a point in the novel where I couldn’t write any further. Mosca’s voice didn’t seem to make sense to me, it couldn’t carry the story by itself anymore. Very luckily, I went to hear Selah Saterstrom read and she spoke about how at a certain point in her novel-writing process, sitting down to write felt like sitting in a chair that was on fire. I sat up because, yes, I felt that way. She said at that moment she switched forms and I allowed that of myself and that’s when I wrote the ghost narrative. I had to change the voice and the means of telling the story because as the narrator descends deeper into chaos and memory, she couldn’t have the type of control she’d previously had over the narrative. In the second part of The Sleeping World the form starts to break down and shift and it’s totally changed by the end. This felt less like a choice than a necessity for the story to continue.

I’m extremely influenced by Toni Morrison and I gape in wonder at her ability to shift forms/perspective/expectations from one paragraph to the next. Tonally, this work was also really influenced by Laird Hunt’s Ray of the Star, especially in terms of evoking a murky European underworld above ground. As for structure, I was influenced by Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming In Cuban and Selah Saterstrom’s The Meat and Spirit Plan.

GA: If you could cast any living actors for a film version of your book, who would you cast in the roles of Mosca and La Canaria, and why?

GLF: Dream question and yet, am I failing as a viewer or being failed that I can’t think very many films with characters like these women? When I was writing, their characters took shape from Alberto García-Alix’s photos and my own memories of women I knew in Spain. I think of Alaska in Almodovar’s Pepi, Luci, Bom as La Canaria in the flesh—though I wrote most of her scenes before seeing that film. Obviously, such a what-if-million-years question but I think Dascha Polanco would play an amazing La Canaria because she could capture the sadness lurking behind her tough façade. Sheila Vand (I loved her in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) for Mosca.

GA: As a reader I was really susceptible to feeling the exhaustion, cold/heat, and dirt that your characters were experiences. What part did you hope this visceral embodiedness might play into the narrative (if at all)?

GLF: I did theater for many years, so the body is really important in my writing. I start from voice, a sort of monologue that occurs first in the gut and then on the page. Though I wasn’t aware of it at first, in the editing process I wanted the sense of physical degradation to be reflected/embodied in the form of the prose and the structure of the narrative—as if the story is being starved as well as the characters. In Northern Spain, during Semana Santa (the week before Easter) there are parades in all of the small towns. They are very serious, very religious. People carry these huge, heavy floats on their backs with different scenes from the Passion. They walk barefoot and at certain points swing the floats so that they bounce and land painfully on their shoulders. For Mosca, she’s on a sort of pilgrimage, choosing sacrifice in hopes of redemption, though from a different god.

GA: Finally, I know you’re working on (two!) new novels now; can you tell us a little bit about them, and in what ways working on a second and third book feel different than crafting your first?

GLF: My second novel is set on an imagined religious commune in the Upper Midwest during the Great Depression. It reimagines Wuthering Heights and tackles the race, gender, and environmental aspects of that work from an American perspective. In writing it, I felt I got to leap forward in time, because I was aware of certain blocks I’d had to chip away at for months and months with The Sleeping World. I made specific formal choices at the beginning which allowed a complex plot (that I hadn’t quite figured out) to unfold. The work is really different from The Sleeping World because it takes place over a much longer period of time and the narrator’s voice felt like a spiritual possession rather than a winnowing/concentration of my own voice (as I felt with Mosca). My third novel is in the works—I’m deep in the muck—but I can say that it’s set in contemporary Northern Wisconsin and began with the combination of a true but unbelievable story and my fury over Twin Peaks. I remember talking with you, Gina— and reading your awesome poem on the subject in I Eat Cannibals— about the “sexy dead girl” as an infuriatingly repetitive plot mechanism. I started thinking about this occurrence and from that exploration I was able to take a short story I’d written and start developing it into something larger.

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