February 8, 2004

Talking with Ana Menendez

Rebel Love

A writer imagines a delirious affair for an iconic Cuban revolutionary

By Dan Cryer
Staff Writer

When Ana Menéndez was growing up in Tampa, Fla., she believed that Fidel Castro had supernatural powers.

Like God, he could tap into your innermost thoughts. Like the Devil, he was a nasty creature. Such was the powerful hold of the Cuban dictator on the imagination of many Cuban-Americans.

Even so, Menéndez, a fiction writer and former journalist, emphasizes that the experience of Cuban exiles and their offspring is "actually very layered."

Only a small portion is about loathing the man who stole their country and longing to liberate it from him. Her generation, notes the 33-year-old, is just as likely to
poke fun at the nostalgia implicit in that world view as to take it seriously.

Similarly, in her fiction Menéndez is determined to shun any role of ethnic spokeswoman. Her aim is not so much to "illuminate a culture" but to re-examine social
myths, "the way we form ideas and stories about the past that are often gorgeously detailed but untrue on many levels."

That is not to say that her Cuban heritage is off- limits as material for fiction. On the contrary, she mined it for a well-received story collection published three years
ago, "In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd."

Her parents' homeland also plays a central role in her just published first novel, "Loving Che" (Atlantic Monthly Press, $22).

The story opens in contemporary Miami and then circles back to the early years of the Cuban Revolution. A young travel writer has for years been searching in vain
for information about her birth mother, a mystery woman who remained in Cuba after dispatching her baby daughter to America, for unknown reasons, to be raised
by a grandfather.

One day, after the baby has grown up to be the travel writer, she receives a package containing a manuscript titled "Loving Che." It is a lyrical paean to a brief but
delirious love affair with Che Guevara, Castro's legendary sidekick and roving revolutionary who was killed by Bolivian soldiers in 1967. The implication is clear:
The author of this account is her mother, Teresa, and Che is her father.

Yet Menéndez is unwilling to leave the story there. "Loving Che" is the kind of novel that leads to more questions than answers, as the past recedes into a
shadowland of half-truths.

For six years after graduation from Florida Atlantic University, the author was asking questions on behalf of newspapers. She reported on Little Havana for the
Miami Herald and on education for the Orange County Register in California.

Menéndez met her future husband, Dexter Filkins, at the Herald. They are now a bicontinental couple. Since he's been covering Iraq for The New York Times, they
have apartments in both Miami Beach and Istanbul, a convenient haven from Iraq's turmoil.

Journalism's daily grind eventually proved unsatisfying to Menéndez. So she enrolled in New York University's graduate fiction writing program. There she was
mentored by Breyten Breytenbach, the South African novelist, and Edna O'Brien, one of Ireland's reigning literary lights.

Equally important to her development were a storytelling grandmother, who would spend 10 minutes in a supermarket and return with a one-hour story, and an
uncle, Dionosio Martinez, who was a poet.

The Martinez influence is clear in the langorous, romantic voice of Che's lover, who narrates the novel's middle section. "In the long night that followed," one
sentence begins, "the stars spun and his voice sang from the mouth of a shallow stream."

"I grew up," Menéndez explains, "around the sort of phantasmal quality of writing, elevated almost beyond reality. He gave me Carl Sandburg's books when I was in
kindergarten. To me, poetry is neither pretentious nor inaccessible nor strange. It's a very normal part of life. So, yes, I always wanted to write like that."

The Che who inhabits Menéndez's novel will surprise some readers. He's not the iconic revolutionary emblazoned on leftist posters since the '60s. He'd rather make
love than make war. Gentleness, humor and personal magnetism transform him from guerrilla fighter into an irresistible Prince Charming.

These are some of the same qualities, one can't help noticing, that Fidel himself has employed to seduce his own countrymen. Since he's not been martyred, like Che,
it's easier in his case to pay attention to the brutality of his prisons and firing squads.

Teresa's memoir shuts its eyes to this bloody version of events. It seems to avoid politics in favor of love's fire. Yet neither does it condemn the regime. So
Menéndez makes us question the narrator's reliability.

"What is Cuba?" Menéndez asks me, rhetorically. "Is it the way that it's been described by the nostalgic exiles? Is it the way it's been described by the nostalgic
revolutionaries within Cuba?

"Teresa's view is very much tinged with nostalgia. There's very much a sense of falling in love with the revolution. In any case, the Cuba that Teresa describes,
whether it was ever true or not, certainly is no longer in existence."

When we bid memory to speak, Menéndez suggests, we should be wary of the answers.

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