Leslie Blanco has been a resident of Blue Mountain Center and Centrum Center for the Arts. She has an MFA from Warren Wilson College. She lives in Southern California with one husband, two dogs, and triplet daughters. When said triplets are finally old enough for school, she hopes to continue work on An Epidemic of Lust, a novel based on the “unofficial” history of the Cuban Revolution of 1959. An excerpt from her story “Mi Amor, Mi China, Mi Delirio” can be found here. It appears in the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Mi Amor, Mi China, Mi Delirio”?
“Mi Amor, Mi China, Mi Delirio” started off as a series of prose poems I wrote sixteen years ago, after a painful divorce. At first, I joked that I was writing a manuscript entitled “Screw You: Angry Divorce Poems for Women.” It was therapeutic. I was getting all the anger out. I didn’t get very far with it, and I didn’t intend to. But when you’re getting divorced, you become a magnet for the divorce and break-up stories of your friends, friends of your friends, and random people you happen to sit next to at writing conferences. I was living on a friend’s couch in New York City at the time, and I spent many a late night at Anyway Cafe, a Russian corner bar on the Lower East Side, pretending I could drink vodka like the rest of my cohorts and listening to their thinly veiled stories of rage: of what their significant other had said or done, of what they wished they had said or done, of the petty ways they had gotten their revenge. Their memories had simmered over time, the anger either intensified or cut back, in the retelling, for comic effect. I wrote some of those stories too, always in short little snippets a paragraph long, because otherwise the material was too painful for me to sit with.
I put the manuscript away and went on with my writing life. Some fourteen years later, happily remarried and with young triplets that made the short form a necessity, I picked the manuscript up again. I sent a few of the “poems” for feedback to my poet friend Ross White, who edits Inch. He told me unequivocally that these were not prose poems, they were flash fiction. I’ve never been comfortable with the vulnerability of memoir anyway, so I took his advice and started reworking the material as fiction. Three of those short-short stories were published in December of 2015 in PANK, as a connected trio under the umbrella title “Divorce for Cuban Dummies.” Another appeared in January of 2015 in Oblong.
“Mi Amor, Mi China, Mi Delirio” was born unexpectedly not long after that. I was revising another batch of the flash fiction pieces when I noticed certain commonalities of theme. I realized that I could group the short-short stories into three longer storylines. It happened in a frenzy. Instantly, magically, the stories reorganized themselves and Yanet, Lola, and Ofelia materialized on the page. By the end of the afternoon, I had a first draft of a twenty-page short story. It’s really exciting when something like that happens. I wish it happened every day.
When did you choose to direct this story to Chicago? The way you twist the opening of each section from a fond tone (“Chicago, city of crabgrass and gleaming lakeshore”) to admonishment (“City of dead-end streets, city of second chances, do you miss them?”) is one of the most compelling aspects of this piece. What inspired you to try this? Did you try directing earlier drafts to Cuba, the place the women miss most?
I never tried directing the story to Cuba, and I’m a little embarrassed to say that directing the story to Chicago didn’t happen as part of my original intention for the story. The piece that opens the story had originally, as a prose poem, contained a direct address to Chicago. Fairly late in the revision process, I picked up the story to do my day’s work and stopped short on the direct address in the first line. You idiot! I thought. You put in a direct address to Chicago and you never brought it up again! And I pulled it through the rest of the story.
My first writing mentor at Vanderbilt, the late Walter Sullivan, once said that 90% of writing is unconscious, therefore writers should accept all hidden meaning, symbolism and metaphor attributed to their work whether they intended it or not. Once I saw it, the projection onto Chicago of seduction, malevolence, refusal to provide safe harbor, and indifference, seemed a perfect metaphor for how I began to feel as my marriage unraveled there. It also seemed a perfect metaphor for how new immigrants feel almost anywhere, something else I know a little about. Chicago has found its way into my work repeatedly, in ways that surprise me. I loved Chicago when I lived there. And yet underlying its vastness, its corruption, its crowded commutes—my God, its endless, brutal winter!—I always unconsciously felt a sinister, inhospitable undertone of danger there. I always felt small, as if any second I could be crushed by an elevated train or impaled by an icicle falling off a skyscraper, and that feeling intensified—unconsciously—as my marriage fell apart. Eventually, as I worked and reworked the metaphor, Chicago became a kind of deity. Not the kind of deity who knows the words love and mercy, but the kind who makes you prove your valor by cutting the heart out of a dragon.
Are Yanet, Ofelia, and Lola characters you’ve chosen to write about in other works?
I have not written about Yanet, Ofelia, and Lola in other works, but I’m not precluding the possibility. Ofelia in particular tempts me, and I find that the theme of a partner cruelly and obsessively trying to control a woman’s weight and appearance is recurring in several of the stories I’m working on right now. Perhaps it’s especially relevant with Cuban-American characters, because about the worst thing a Cuban can say to you is “you look thin.” In Cuban immigrant culture, the pressure placed on a woman’s appearance is just as strong as in American mainstream television, but in different, sometimes precisely opposite ways. Something about it fascinates me, and enrages me. I keep telling myself I’ve adequately explored the topic, but my unconscious obviously feels differently.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I think I have to say my triplet four-year-old daughters. Before them, and during my pregnancy, I was working on an 800-page novel about the Cuban revolution, which needless to say, is still unfinished. After them, I had only ten minute snippets of time and even then my brain was filled with feeding schedules and the impossibility of coordinating naps. If they hadn’t been born—and let’s add, all at once—I might never have gone back to the prose poems that became flash fictions, and I certainly don’t think I would have written any short stories. I resolutely considered myself a novel writer before my girls were born, and I only turned to short stories out of necessity. The short story, which at first I considered a detour, has been a deeply gratifying experience. I’ve learned a tremendous amount about structure, and a certain urgency has entered my writing, probably because of my limited time. I think that urgency serves the stories. Now that the girls have started preschool, my short stories are getting longer, approaching novella length, and another episode of learning begins.
What projects(s) are you working on now, or next?
I have been working on a series of interconnected short stories about children who were sent to the United States in the early sixties without their parents, on visas provided by the Peter Pan Project, a joint project of the CIA and, unlikely as it sounds, the Catholic Church. Some of the stories are set in Cuba just after the revolution. Others are set more or less in the present day, and the main characters are the children of those Peter Pan Project children. The characters are related by blood, and also by Marilyn Monroe. Some of these stories, however, are the ones approaching novella length, and since they are interconnected, I think they might eventually find their way into a novel. Other stories, especially those that were inspired directly by flash fictions in the “Screw You” papers, are stubbornly staying short, and I fear (for myself) that they may eventually group themselves into an entire collection on the theme of second-generation Cuban women and their break-ups. For now I am just focusing on finishing the stories. Later I will figure out how they fit together.