Interview with Ana Menendez
By Grace Cavalieri.
GC: I found you first as a poet. Are you a fiction writer who writes poems or (secretly) a poet who writes stories and journalism?
AM: The highest form of flattery you can give me is to call me a poet. So thank you. Poetry is my first love – I learned to read poems before I learned to read stories. There was Jose Marti, of course. And then my uncle, Dionisio Martinez, who is a sublime poet. I grew up surrounded by his work and the work of his friends, including Silvia Curbelo. My uncle was giving me Carl Sandburg’s books when I was in elementary school (“The fog comes/on little cat feet…”). And all these years later, poetry is the first form I turn to for delight, comfort, disruption. And, yet, I’m not a “real” poet. I do write it, half in secret, but I know I am missing the discipline and rigor of a true working poet. I won’t flatter myself.
GC: In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, was the Pushcart Prize winning story in your collection. What do you think the judges saw in that? Why do you think it won?
AM: I was a member of the jury for the Pen/ Faulkner award a few years ago, and I still can’t say I know how literary prizes work. When it comes to my own writing, I try not to analyze it too much. More instructive than the Pushcart for me was when I gave an early draft of that story to a friend who was not Cuban and she told me she cried reading it on the train ride home. That intimate connection, even if it’s only with a single reader, that’s why I write.
GC: What do you believe is “a Feminist?”
AM: Anyone who has eyes to see and a heart to feel. The only way – male or female – that one can be “not a feminist” is to shut oneself from experiencing the world in all its interconnectedness and mysterious creation. Life is female.
GC: How does a person achieve a sense of identity? Whether an émigré or native born?
AM: “Identity’s nothing but the role we play in public.” That’s David Hinton’s translation of something Wang Wei wrote 1,300 years ago. Nothing’s changed. Identity is performance. And as far as attempts to fix it go, a highly over-rated one at that.
GC: What are you wearing right this minute?
AM: Black pants and a black tank top – both from Target.
GC: Tell us everything you cooked this week that you were proud of.
AM: I love cooking, and I don’t understand why everyone doesn’t indulge. What could be more creative than taking raw, indigestible material and turning it into something delicious and nourishing? Most days I cook or prepare three meals a day. It’s only Tuesday, but this week I’ve already made steak with roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts, a coconut red lentil soup and a fabulous beef and barley stew after a recipe just published in the New York Times.
GC: What triggers a story in your mind? Take us through the process from first idea to character to situation.
AM: Oh man. This is hard. It is not a rational process at all. And each story is different. Most times it starts with a character and a “what if”? Or some emotion that I need to get down in written form. In the case of “In Cuba…” it started with a joke, the final one about the German shepherd.
I’d gone to interview the sculptor Tony Lopez – this was back in the early 1990s—and he told me the joke. I didn’t include it in the profile I ended up writing about him, but I never forgot the joke.
So sad and so funny at once. And when I got into the MFA program at NYU, I decided to try to write a story that ended, like a punch line, on that joke. My first efforts were disastrous. In the early drafts, it wasn’t old men at Domino Park, but young, recent arrivals working in a restaurant kitchen. It just wasn’t working. The sadness of the piece comes from the passage of time. So at some point, I found these other, older characters. And by then I’d written so many versions of the story that this draft seemed to write itself. Of course, there was a mound of failure behind it. That’s what people don’t see. All art, I suppose, rests on mounds of failures.
GC: How hard is it to be a writer?
AM: Not as hard as hauling concrete bricks. Not as hard as working in the sun all day. Not as hard as being a refugee, like my great-grandmother Hannah, who left Lebanon at age 14, already the mother of an infant daughter she would lose to illness a few months later and 7,000 miles from home.
GC: What was one thing said to you, early on, that let you know you were truly a writer?
AM: It wasn’t a word, it was a sound: laughter. And it came from my classmates gathered around the lunch table, delighted with a story I’d just told. I was hooked.
GC: What is sensual in your life?
AM: Running on the beach in the morning, the sound of sand under my feet. Birdsong, the smell of the sea. The variations of green in the foliage. A cup of good coffee. A glass of good wine. New white sheets…As long as I’m alive, the list has no end.
Article courtesy of PoetsArtists Magazine