Floored Genius

From high-minded to hype-crazed, book fairs have a rich tradition of coaxing out reclusive authors. New Times was fortunate to get a rare audience with the person redefining writing, M.M. Pascal-Paul.

Hundreds of writers, book editors, and other denizens of the publishing industry are descending upon Miami and environs this week for the Miami Book Fair International. The list of renowned authors is pretty impressive: Michael Cunningham, Joan Didion, Robert Antoni, Margaret Atwood, Terry McMillan, Jonathan Kozol, Dava Sobel, Amy Tan, and more. The roster also contains a few debut novelists whom we might not have read — or read about — but who already stand at the threshold of the pantheon of contemporary literary gods, or are at least ploughing their prose-field a safe distance from the bottomless pit of self-publishing.

To do justice to all the marvelous writers sharing the limelight in this year's book fair would be an impossible dream, to be sure. Instead we focus our little lens on M.M. Pascal-Paul, a rising star in the night that enshrouds the world of every unknown author. We selected her, in part, because she hails from a land she herself calls "a black hole," a place whose writers are conspicuously absent from this year's book fair. Yes, we're speaking of that fabled island only 120 miles to the south — Cuba. But Pascal-Paul is also interesting because she is an anomaly in contemporary letters. She is neither suspense writer, magical realist, diarist, nor historian. Indeed, her work defies categorization and challenges our most basic assumptions of what literature actually is.

But beware. Pascal-Paul is not for the feeble-minded. She is Candace Bushnell sans the sap but with tout le miel. She has all the gravitas of a young Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the fiery poetess of seventeenth-century Mexico. Were Pascal-Paul in the wings, a Camille Paglia lecture would come off like The Jerry Springer Show. So complex is Pascal-Paul's cultural background that one journalist described her as "a veritable cornucopia of ethnicities and national origins."

Those of you who are semiliterate or clinically illiterate might best skip over these pages and continue glancing at the photos, ads, and listings. Because you might not be able to take what's coming.


NT: I suppose we should begin with the sex stuff, to get everyone's attention.

MM: I think we should talk about that further along in the interview. Make them wait for it.

Okay, we can do that. But let's just give them a taste. You're about to publish something about the sexual precociousness of young people in Miami.

Okay, it's a little treatise entitled Miami Ménage à Trois: Theory and Practice.

And there's something specifically Miamiesque about the ménage à troises here? Okay, okay. I can wait. So, what else is on your mind?

Well, I just had lunch at Sir Bread.

Sir Bread?

Yeah, you know, Don Pan.

And?

I mean what hope is there really for a civilization in which the $4.99 Don Pan French combo — that's a turkey and cheese croissant, Pepsi, and a cortadito — is a viable proposition? Come on, a Pepsi and a cortadito? Isn't that just like a recipe for protracted mass suicide? That's what you call cross-cultural coronary convergence. There's really nothing French about it of course. I would just expect Europeans to set the bar a little higher.

The Don Pan people are Europeans? I thought they were Venezuelans.

The owners are Spaniards who grew up in Venezuela. They started the business in Caracas, then moved to Miami in the mid-Nineties, if I'm not mistaken.

And your point about the French combo?

I mean, this is the fundamental issue of our time, isn't it? The blurring of reality and fiction, actually, the elimination of fact. I mean, human beings have always struggled with truth and lies, clarity and confusion. But we — our civilization has taken it to a higher level. I mean, we invented disinformation, for God's sake.

Examples?

There are so many. Where to begin? Take the fashion industry. Those models are shockingly beautiful in the photographs. I mean, some look damn amazing at their worst, too, but the point is there is this disconnect between image and reality. But people think the image is reality. Look at television soap operas. You wonder why there's so much drama in the real world? Look no further than your TV set, cariño. But this is nothing new. It's just like what Plato said about the people in the cave watching the shadows dancing on the wall and thinking they're real, when in fact the real dancers are shakin' it over by the fire. This is all to state the obvious, but in this day and age there is so much obfuscation taking place that you have to state the obvious repeatedly, or reality will disappear altogether. Facts will disappear. In our civilization you have to be on television to be real.

Speaking of obfuscation, M.M., what do your initials stand for anyway?

Well, the first M stands for Marjorie. I mean, Marjorie is okay. But Martí? Supposedly we're related to José Martí, through my mom, and my mom was hell-bent that I would be a poet and a statesman. Stateswoman, I guess I should say. My dad pushed for Marjorie because he was really into River of Grass, the famous book about the Everglades, which was big when they moved to Miami in the late Sixties.

Ah, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.

Yeah, that cracker lady. [Laughs] Seriously, it's a very important book. The other part of the story is that my dad was an early Rod Stewart fan, when Rod Stewart was still a rocker. So my dad also liked the name Marjorie because then he could call me Maggie when I was little.

Oh, as in the song "Maggie May."

Yep. Which, as you know, is about how an older chick lured the young Rod to move in with her. Anyway, my dad is a mutt. He's of French-Portuguese and West African descent. His mom was from Toulouse and his dad was from Senegal. He was born in Haiti, because his parents went there with the United Nations just after World War II. He grew up in Port-au-Prince, the Azores, and Paris, then moved to Montreal to go to college. And believe it or not, my mom's dad was Estonian. He moved to Cuba after the Spanish-American War. My mom's mom's family migrated to Cuba from Asturias, Spain, in the 1930s after Generalissimo Francisco Franco came to power. My parents met in Montreal in the Fifties.

So you're pretty well covered, ethnically speaking.

That's right, cracker boy.

Martí is quite a name to be saddled with. Is he an influence?

Saddled is right. But it's become, dare I say, a comfortable saddle. After you wear one for a while, you get used to it. Was it Borges who said writers invent their influences? I'm not sure that José Martí is one of mine, though I'm sure I've probably thought about him more than I otherwise would have because of this intimate name connection. Besides, I think he was drunk or on drugs half the time he was writing. "The pen soars when it has great things to narrate but plods along heavily when it must, as now, give an account of brutal things that are devoid of beauty or nobility. The pen should be as immaculate as a virgin. It twists away like an enslaved woman, lifts from the paper as if trying to escape and droops in the hand that holds it, as if there were some iniquity in describing iniquitous things. Men charge at each other like bulls here." That's from a piece he wrote on boxing. I've often marveled at how some Cubans, ideologues I guess you could call them — be they exiles or communists — lay claim to Martí and appropriate his writings into their respective dogmas. Did you know that Martí also wrote something called Tributes to Karl Marx, Who Has Died?

I did not.

You don't hear much mention of that in Miami. Like over at the Plaza of Cuban-ness in Little Havana there's a sculpture consisting of palm trees. And there's a plaque with a quote from a José Martí poem: Las palmas son novias que esperan. The palm trees are girlfriends who are waiting. It is easy to imagine that in Little Havana, at least outside the [militant anti-Castro group] Alpha 66 headquarters, which is adjacent to the plaza, one predominant interpretation would be that the novias are waiting for their boyfriends to return from a commando raid against the communist regime. In Havana the interpretation would more likely be that the novias are waiting for their revolutionary guys to return from overthrowing Batista.

Or to return from Miami with a pile of money and clothes.

[Laughs politely] Borges is also famous for writing about the power of context. You put the same words — or in this case the same palm tree sculptures — in two different contexts and you'll get two different meanings. I'm thinking of Borges's hilarious short story "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote." The story is based on how in the 1930s Menard supposedly wrote the same exact book that Cervantes wrote in the early 1600s. And Borges writes that it is a revelation to compare the two Don Quixotes. To make the point he selects a passage: "Truth, whose mother is history, who is the rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, example and lesson to the present, and warning to the future." Then Borges notes how Cervantes easily handles the Spanish of his time, while 300 years later Menard struggled to write in the archaic style that was second nature to Cervantes. Then Borges contrasts the seventeenth-century faith-based notion of history being the mother of truth with a more skeptical twentieth-century notion of history as a kind of a phenomenological construction, as he puts it; history is not what took place, only what we think took place. But then this guy Menard comes out with this astounding statement that, no, history is the mother of truth.

And what does this have to do with Cuba?

Well, Menard is kind of like an ideologue. Hardliners here and on the island tend to have a very inflexible view of truth and history. But obviously not all Cubans are ideologues, just as not all Saudi Arabians or not all Israelis are. Or Palestinians. It just so happens that those in power tend to be. One of my favorite metaphors of Cuban authoritarianism is the John Lennon statue that's in a park in Havana. People now call it Lennon Park. As opposed to Lenin. Which is highly ironic because the Beatles were considered counterrevolutionary by hard-core Castristas back in the Sixties. And now there's a park named after John. Go figure. I mean, you can just imagine the central committee or whatever back in the day deeming the lyrics "Baby you're a rich man, baby you're a rich man, baby you're a rich man too" to be a corrupt entreaty for everyone on the island to become a greedy capitalist pig. Over here it was the opposite. That song was from the Magical Mystery Touralbum, 1967.

So you spend part of the year in Miami and part of the year in Havana? Isn't that illegal or something?

Well, no. I have a Canadian passport, because I was born in Montreal. We lived there until I was about eight months old. But others who deserve to come can't. Leonardo Padura Fuentes. Or the so-called Cuban Bukowski, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez. Lisandro Otero, who was living in Mexico but is now back in Havana. Pablo Armando Fernández, Miguel Barnet, Lorenzo Luna, Amir Valle. The list goes on. They probably can't afford to come. But maybe next year I'll organize a seminar around such writers, who, one, can't get visas to get into the United States and, two, even if they did, couldn't afford the plane ticket. But the situation is even more absurd than this. I was recently surfing the Web and I came across something truly shocking. This is going to sound apocryphal, but a translation was embargoed.

Huh?

I'm not kidding. There's a very experienced translator; her name is Esther Allen. She's the current chair of PEN's translation committee, and she translated a Penguin edition of selected writings by José Martí. Her translation of an essay by Alejo Carpentier, one of the most acclaimed novelists of the so-called boom period in Latin American literature, was embargoed! The essay is about architecture in Havana. Photographs were going to accompany the text. It was supposed to be a nice coffee-table-like book. Editors at the Smithsonian Press were hot to trot, until its executives met with people from the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the U.S. Treasury Department. The OFAC folks said in order to go ahead with the project, the Smithsonian would have to apply for a special permit. So they dropped it.

Incredible.

And that's not the only example. OFAC put the kibosh on the publication of a field guide to birds in Cuba, a book about Cuban archaeology, and the history of a slave revolt. All because there were Cubans living in Cuba involved in some way in the publication.

Wow. That sucks.

I have a girlfriend in Havana who writes occasionally for the online magazine Salon and Granma's online English edition, and she is experimenting with a sort of radical approach to print. She'll put in certain keywords — like Shakira or iPod or Paris Hilton or Jermaine Dupri — so that when people are Googling for those, they might just come across her article. Kind of a guerrilla marketing approach.

So, back to you. How lucky — fluent in four languages. But is it confusing, as a writer? How do you decide which to write in?

Well, it's not that hard to decide. First of all, Kreyol is a dead language. Not like Latin is dead, but dead for all intents and purposes. I mean, who's going to buy a novel in Kreyol? It's important for Haitian national culture to have people writing books in Kreyol. And as a development tool. You could use audio books in Kreyol in conjunction with an iPod scheme to, you know, educate the masses. But it is virtually dead, for a serious writer. Your audience, readership, just isn't extensive enough. You could wait for your novel to be translated into English or Spanish or Arabic or Chinese. But why not cut to the chase and just write in English to begin with, if that's an option? I suppose you could create some kind of vodou mystique about how a novel was originally written in Kreyol and therefore has some kind of authentic quality that would be missing if the original was in English, but how many people are going to get all excited about that? I mean, the novelist writing in English could just say that the original was in Kreyol. You know, like in Don Quixote.

What? Cervantes said Don Quixote was supposedly translated from Kreyol into Spanish?

No, mi amor, from Arabic into Spanish. The narrator, who is not necessarily the author, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, at some point explains the scribe who has documented the delusional gentleman's adventures was a Muslim and thus wrote in Arabic. So, of course, that means that someone had to translate the scribe's chronicle before the alleged narrator took it over and presumably altered it again. In part two, the narrator increasingly weighs in to relate that the translator had made notes in the margin of his translation questioning whether certain events being written about actually occurred.

Fascinating. And frightening.

So here we are in 2005 — 400 years after the publication of book one of Don Quixote in 1605 — and now there's a new English translation of the novel. Part two was published in 1615, a year after another writer published a fraudulent sequel.

Dizzying. By the way, this new translation is being featured at the Miami Book Fair International this year. Any idea what's new about it?

No idea. It's gotten great reviews, though. I think it just puts the narrative into a more contemporary style of good ol' American English — as opposed to those stilted translations the Brits put out sometimes. Which is cool. I recently skimmed the introduction by Harold Bloom, and he writes some shit about how Don Quixote's madness is self-inflicted and deliberate. Hey, whatever — express yourself, dude. That's not how I read it. The guy just went insane because practically all he did was read books of chivalry — romance novels. That's like people today watching TV soap operas or even, quote, reality shows. Reality? Hah. And then Bloom goes on to say — and this I remember vividly — he says, quote: There is a clear sublimation of the sexual drive in the knight's desperate courage. End quote. Gotcha, Harry. Anyway, I prefer to read Don Quixote in Spanish, the language it was written in.

Oh, so it wasn't penned in Arabic?

[Laughs] Of course, a new Spanish edition published by the Real Academia Española came out earlier this year, with a prologue by Mario Vargas Llosa. It's on my reading list. The prologue, that is. I'm a little behind on my reading because of the deadline for this book I just finished. I had titled it Around the Baseball in Eighty Worlds, but the publisher wanted a one-word title. So I went with Dictation.

Well, let's talk about the new book. Are you exploring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction again?

How did you guess? It's an obsession that I first fell into with my master's thesis, which I was fortunate to convert into my first book, a little something I called La Muerte de la Muerte de Artemio Cruz(The Death of the Death of Artemio Cruz). It's essentially about how I'm tired of these novels that supposedly capture what's going on in a dying man's head. But the upshot of that book is that I coined the term non-nonfiction.

I see. So give us a hint aboutDictation. It's non-nonfiction. I'm guessing it might have something to do with Cuba. You were living in Havana while you were writing it.

Well, yes and no. I was going back and forth from Havana to Miami and New York. The book is as much about life in the United States as it is about life in Cuba. For most people in the United States, Cuba is like a black hole, out of which pops a baseball player or a salsa band every once in a while. And all the U.S. government does is shoot barrels full of audio and video into the black hole from various types of aircraft, the latest being a very expensive C-130 transport plane. Those barrels, produced by TV and Radio Martí, cost tens of millions of dollars to fill every year. It would be much less costly and more effective if the State Department just started handing out free Nano iPods to people in Cuba — iPods loaded up with any number of cool things. Anything but Radio Martí. As a matter of fact, if I were the U.S. government and wanted to win hearts and minds in the world, I would be saturating Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Somalia with iPods and red, white, and blue checkered soccer balls.

Okay, so you're here, visiting from the black hole, and you've got a new book coming out, but you're not participating in the Miami Book Fair. You're not on the book fair's author list.Pourquoi?

Um, because I wasn't invited?

Is that how it works? You have to be invited?

Well, yeah, basically. But if you have the marketing team at a major publishing house pushing your book, that helps a lot to get you in. Even if you don't want to be in. Plus it's just a big marketing event, really. I'm not that interested in spending my time at a trade show. I'm taking more of a word-of-mouth, Tipping Point kind of approach. Have you read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell?

Of course.

My strategy is to get my book into the hands of a fairly limited number of people, connectors, who really know literature. And there's an Internet prong to the strategy. I'm just doing my thing, and if it ends up creating a conversation or even just being anywhere near a conversation, I'll be ecstatic. But I think I'm going to go the J.D. Salinger route — right after this interview.

You mean go hide out in rural Vermont?

No. Iceland.

Hey, we never talked about your ménage à trois treatise.

Oops. Maybe next time.


From Dictation, by M.M. Pascal-Paul The soon-to-be-famous literary genius shares an excerpt from her forthcoming masterpieceContemptible times, these: when the only art that prevails is that of piling one's own granaries high, sitting on a seat of gold and living all in gold, without perceiving that human nature will never vary and the only result of digging up external gold is to live without gold inside! Contemptible times: when the love and exercise of greatness is a rare and outmoded quality. Men today are like certain young ladies who are much taken with virtue when they see it extolled by others or exalted in sounding prose or winged verse, but who, after embracing virtue, which has the shape of a cross, throw it off in horror as if it were a corroding shroud that would eat away the roses from their cheeks and the delight from their kisses and the necklace of vivid butterflies that women like to clasp around their throats. Contemptible times: when the priests no longer deserve the praise or reverence of the poets, but the poets have not yet begun to be priests!

To the poets of today neither the lyric nor the epic mode comes naturally and calmly, nor is any lyric acceptable but that which each person draws from within, as if his own being were the only matter of whose existence he had no doubt, or as if the problem of human life had been addressed with such courage and explored with such eagerness that there could be no theme better, more stimulating, or more conducive to depth and grandeur than the study of oneself. No one nowadays is certain of his faith, and those who believe they are deceive themselves. Those who write the word faithgnaw at the fist they write with, tormented by gorgeous, savage inner beasts. There is no painter who succeeds in coloring the luminous aureoles of virgins with the novelty and transparency of other times, no religious cantor or preacher who puts unction and a tone of certainty into his stanzas and anathemas. All are soldiers in an army on the march. All have been kissed by the same sorceress. In everyone the new blood boils. Men can tear their innermost selves to shreds, but intranquillity, insecurity, vague hopes, and secret visions remain, famished and wrathful, in the most secret recesses of their beings. An immense, pale man dressed in black, with gaunt face, weeping eyes, and dry lips, is walking gravely across the earth without rest or sleep — and he has taken a seat in every home and has put his trembling hand on every bedstead. Such a pounding in the brain! Such fear in the breast! Such demanding of things that do not come! Such unawareness of what one wants! And in the spirit, such a sense of mingled nausea and delight: nausea for the day that is dying, delight for the dawn!

There are no permanent works, because works produced during times of realignment and restructuring are shifting and unsettled in their very essence; there are no established paths. The new altars, vast and open as forests, have only just been glimpsed. The mind solicits diverse ideas from everywhere, and those ideas are like coral and like starlight and like the waves of the sea. There is a constant yearning for some knowledge that will confirm current beliefs and a fear of learning something that will alter them. The formation of new social conditions makes the struggle to earn a living uncertain and hampers the fulfillment of daily duties that, not finding broad roads, change form and direction at every instant, spurred on by the fear that arises from the probability or proximity of poverty.... Only in an era of stable elements, a general and established literary type, and well-known and established channels, when individual tranquillity is possible, is it easy to produce those massive works of ingenuity that, without exception, require such a conjunction of favorable conditions. Hatred, which hoards and concentrates, may still be able to produce this kind of work, but love brims over and flows out all around, and these are times of love, even for those who hate. Love intones fleeting songs, but because it is a vehement and climactic emotion whose tension is wearying and overwhelming, it does not produce works of unhurried inspiration and painstaking labor....

Before, ideas stood silently in the mind like fortified towers, and when they arose, they were seen from afar. Today they emerge in clusters from the lips, like golden seeds that fall on seething ground; they break open, radiate, evaporate, come to nothing — oh, beautiful sacrifice! — for the one who creates them; they dissolve into glowing sparks; they crumble. And hence the small, shimmering works of our time and the absence of those great, culminating works that are intense, sustained, and majestic.

Editor's NoteOwing to technical requirements of the editorial process, New Timeswas unable to note earlier that the above passage was, in fact, not written by M.M. Pascal-Paul. Rather it is an excerpt from Esther Allen's translation of Prologue to Juan Antonio Pérez Bonalde's Poem of Niagara by José Martí (ca. 1880). See José Martí: Selected Writings (Penguin, 2002). Like her book Dictation, author M.M. Pascal-Paul is fictitious. The Don Pan French Combo, the quote from Martí's Tributes to Karl Marx, Who Has Died, and the embargo of Esther Allen's translation of an essay about architecture by the late Cuban author Alejo Carpentier are real.

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