Leslie Blanco’s short story “A Sane Person Doesn’t Do Something Like That” appears in Southern Humanities Review 54.2, and follows married couple Hector and Yvelis as they navigate childlessness, gambling addiction, and the splintering of their marriage against the backdrop of the Cuban Revolution. In the following interview, Blanco discusses how the revolution pervades, not just Hector and Yvelis’s marriage in this one story, but the larger story of her life as a writer.
Caitlin Rae Taylor: Your short story “A Sane Person Doesn’t Do Something Like That” examines the strain in the marriage of Yvelis and Hector during the Cuban Revolution. How did you decide when and where Hector and Yvelis’s story would take place, and why did you construct it to coincide with this critical point in Cuba’s history?
Leslie Blanco: My father was born in Cuba in the 40s, and he was sent away by his parents in 1962, under the auspices of the Peter Pan Project, a joint venture of the CIA and the Catholic Church. These unlikely bedfellows worked together to airlift the children of political dissidents and those in disfavor with the Communist government to safety in the United States. My father was not reunited with his family for seven years, and the reunion happened “in exile.” All of this transpired well before I was born, but for the Cuban family that raised me, the Cuban revolution was, and in many ways continues to be, the central tragedy. It was the definitive point of our before and after. It was the measure against which our lives gained or lost purpose, meaning and happiness, all in a strangely predetermined dance of fate and destiny maddeningly beyond our control and inextricable from the joys and tragedies of life beyond politics.
“A Sane Person Doesn’t Do Something Like That,” came out of a discarded section of my first attempt at a novel. The novel was set before and during Fidel Castro’s revolution of 1959. Though magically realist, full of historical coincidence and highly fictionalized, the novel was set in my father’s hometown of Guanajay, Cuba. In my head, all the invented characters of the novel had a real-life corollary. Yvelis was a version of my grandmother, who loved to gamble, secretly, with funds my straitlaced grandfather never knew about. When she died, we found several thousand dollars in cash hidden under her bed. Surely gambling winnings, lottery winnings, dog race winnings. I suspect that in my grandmother’s day, she and her sisters may have placed great faith in Clavelito, even while making fun of those who believed in Clavelito’s miracles. In a way, all my stories set within the framework of Cuban history are an attempt to understand a family, a history and a culture dramatically different than the one that surrounds me as a hyphenated American. And even though I did not experience it, the Cuban revolution of 1959 is and always will be the moment of my before and after, and accordingly, it haunts my writing, cropping up again and again.
CRT: In the same story, Hector professes that all people in his country belong to three “equally gullible” camps: “the ones who swallowed the endless story of the next ‘honest’ politician to save the country, the ones who believed a gambling win would end their financial woes, and the ones who believed that a glass of water placed on the radio and blessed while Clavelito spoke would cure them of illness and vice.” Yvelis, his wife, belongs to the two latter camps. Why was this important to her character and to the broader story? How do you envision Yvelis becoming disillusioned after your story’s ending, when she both gives birth and loses all of her winnings?
LB: Though he denies it, Hector belongs to the first gullible camp, as well as to a fourth very common camp, those who in their cynicism and disillusion believe that nothing ever changes, that there’s nothing we can do to change how the world “is,” other than settle into apathy or join the corruption they see as inevitable or unchangeable. In the scheme of things, by being with Yvelis, by loving Yvelis and understanding that her yuyú has uncanny political intuition, he did what most of us do in marriages: he allowed her to take on a role that he needed and felt secretly comforted by while telling her and himself that he condemned it. Consciously or unconsciously, in the game of roulette that is life, don’t all of us fall at one point or another into all the gullible categories?
As for Yvelis, yes, it is absolutely inevitable that she will become disillusioned, given what is coming for her. For many decades before the Cuban revolution, and for many decades since, Cubans have suffered from circumstances well beyond their control: political corruption, poverty, criminal elements embedded into the power structure, and political instability so extreme that in many key historical periods, citizens refused to pay their taxes for fear that when a new government took over, they would have to pay their taxes for the year a second time. The Cubans who chose to stay in Cuba, or who were unable to get out, have suffered from material deprivations that are frankly inconceivable to those of us in the developed world. They have also suffered the psychological and emotional strain of living in a society where all friends and all neighbors can easily turn them in for any deviation from an attitude of loyalty to the totalitarian government.
Yvelis, if her story continued, would face the daily difficulties of having to stand in several very long lines a day to put even one meal on the table. There would be shortages of—everything—food, pens, paper, sanitary napkins, any and all common medicines, gasoline—and strange things would happen, suddenly thousands of bicycles would be imported from China and the streets of Havana would fill with traffic jams of bicycles. All of it would be beyond her control. All of it would be more random and maddening than trying to win at roulette. This is why I wanted to grant her a child. I wanted to validate her belief in magic. I wanted to grant her a miracle and a reprieve from disillusionment. If only for a moment.
CRT: Hector seems to believe that he is the exception to these three camps. However, he is not immune to putting his faith in superstition. He believes in Yvelis’s yuyú, that this ghost of intuition will shield him and his wife from the greater impact of the Cuban Revolution. Or that it will at least warn them of impending disaster. How is Hector’s belief in Yvelis’s yuyú a coping mechanism for all of his anxieties about the Revolution?
LB: If you could see me, you would see that I am laughing! I have never met a Cuban, even the half-Cubans like me, who don’t put faith somewhere, somehow, in superstition, or to put a finer point on it, in the mysteries of the divine that arise in the material world, randomly or in response to ritual. Even and especially the Cubans who say they don’t believe in superstition or religion! When push comes to shove, while the rest of the world turns to drink, Cubans consult a Santero or crawl for a mile on their knees to make an offering and ask for a miracle at a sacred site where a relic of San Lazaro is kept at the foot of a life-size statue. My father, for example, is a professed and insistent Atheist, but when my newborn daughter needed an open-heart surgery, he made a “promesa” (a promise) to Santa Barbara to wear her signature red for a year. Guess what? My daughter survived, and for a year, he wore a red cashmere sweater, he put red flowers in the flower vase, he lit red candles. It’s genetic. We can’t help it. As coping mechanisms for anxiety go, it could be much, much worse!
CRT: Underneath all of the political upheaval and civil unrest is the story of a woman desperate to escape her circumstances through almost any means necessary. There is a refrain in Yvelis’s thread of this story: “a head kept down.” Yvelis refuses this ancestral advice, the advice of several men in her life. Is Yvelis’s struggle to change her life futile?
LB: A penetrating question. This, for me, gets to the issue of whether any of us, outside of the circumstances we’re born into, can change our lives if we struggle for change. To have control over one’s life, to better one’s life, to do better than our parents financially or emotionally or morally, is in many ways, in Capitalist America, the definition of “freedom.” This goes for Colonialist and post-Colonialist Cuba as well. In Cuba as well as in America, we’re all born into a fairly strict set of circumstances, and politics, history, wealth, resources, modeling, all of these things are beyond our control. The truth is most of the circumstances of our lives are beyond our control. We have control only over our own actions and reactions. And yet, some of us manage to be happy anyway, to forge a satisfying path anyway, to get around the basic tenet of our powerlessness anyway.
The trick, I think, is to not use up our energy struggling against what we’re not in control of, to identify the open avenues and to invest in the small sliver over which we do have control. On this point of focusing on what we do have control over, see numbers 2 and 3 above: promesas and superstition. Message me privately for advice on the color coding of candles and rituals involving the elements! In some ways, Yvelis’ struggle to change her life is absolutely futile. As a second option, I might add that despite the adversity that Cubans have faced on the island these now 62 years since the Communist revolution, I have faith in Yvelis’ resilience, I have faith in the fierce mother’s love that will arise in her unbidden, I have faith in her ability to be happy despite her circumstances, and I have faith in her yuyú.
CRT: What kind of research did you have to do to tell this story, and what did that process look like?
LB: It started decades ago with historical and political tomes so thick and soporific I wouldn’t wish on them on my worst enemies, but which I would highly recommend for insomnia. I moved on to memoir, firsthand accounts of historical events and of the even more important details of daily life in the Cuba of this particular era. I did interviews of family members and family friends, and then I watched documentaries. By then YouTube had been invented and I went down the rabbit hole of found footage, the compilations of 1950s Cuban television show snippets and popular commercials. I spent a great deal of time listening to Cuban music, because though the historical record is absent from the lyrics, the national soul cannot be missed. I paid special attention to photo essays and photojournalism. This was all, mind you, for a novel and not just for one short story. Back then, before the reality check of getting semi-accidentally pregnant with triplets, I considered the short story a frivolous form suitable only for those with commitment issues. Oh, how time changes the lens.
The truth is, I love research. I love the melodrama of history and the magic of stepping mentally into another time, so I did a ton of research. Even as I type the answers to these questions, a vast “sensory” landscape covers one wall of my office, representing research for a novel set just after the revolution. It is a map of Havana with pushpins in all intersections of significant historical moments, surrounded by photos depicting the everyday people swept up in those events, complete with their glorious beehives or their iconic beards.
CRT: What do you want readers to take away from “A Sane Person Doesn’t Do Something Like That?”
LB: Carpe diem, neither overpay for nor discount the possibility of phones for calling the dead, and don’t gamble unless you are psychic.
CRT: What are you reading right now, and how is it influencing your craft?
LB: Influenced mysteriously by the pressures and deprivations of the pandemic, I have been reading and re-reading and re-reading again The Bad Girl, by Mario Vargas Llosa and Warlight by Michael Oondatje. Both work backwards in the revelation and development of layer upon layer of character and secrets, and both show but don’t tell that politics seeps like a chemical into the groundwater of our most intimate relationships. I’ve also recently read The Overstory by Richard Powers and am working slowly through The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. Surrounded by so much loss, perhaps, both of these books have turned me toward the miraculous in everyday life, unseen and unacknowledged right outside my window. Because I’m feeling a need to move past loss, I’ve also just started reading Isabel Allende’s A Memoir of the Senses, witty and ensnaring not only because it catalogues the entire world history of aphrodisiacs, but because it is proof positive that pleasure of all kinds make life worth living. And waiting in the tall stack of books on my nightstand, gleaned from a successful pilgrimage to Powell’s in Portland: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, Circe by Madeline Miller, and A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan.
CRT: What’s your advice to writers who want to write fiction set against historically significant events?
LB: Do as little research as possible! Otherwise, you risk having the research be more important than your characters, and your work will read like a textbook. Not to mention, it will take you ten years to finish one damned project. What’s interesting to me about historical fiction is understanding why good people, in the right circumstances, might do terrible things, or act out of character and in desperation, and even more interesting, why bad people, in the right circumstances, might do heroic, moral things. So keep it simple, and focus on your characters. Most people don’t know history well enough to notice if you’re getting something wrong, and many will tell you you’re getting something wrong even though they themselves have never picked up a history book. But, you know, make sure you get the year of the revolution right!
CRT: What other projects are you working on right now?
LB: The pandemic has fundamentally altered my schedule (did I mention I have triplets? Did I tell you I became a homeschool teacher last year?), and so by necessity I turned to shorter projects, flash fiction and some strange little snippets that might be poems, all under a potential manuscript titled The Delightful Pandemic. I’m also close to pulling together a short story collection entitled The Reasonable Cuban, which will include “A Sane Person Doesn’t Do Something Like That.” Finally, I’m looking forward to getting back to the novel I had to set aside at the beginning of the pandemic. The working title is The Year of Education, and it’s a coming-of-age story that takes place amidst political upheaval in Cuba in 1961, during the Cuban literacy brigades.
CRT: Where can SHR readers find more of your work?
LB: My short story “A Ravishing Sun” was published by New Letters in May, and a second short story “My Wish for You in the Land of the Dead: a Cuban Sandwich,” won Hunger Mountain’s 2021 Frank Mosher Prize for Short Fiction in July and can be read on Hunger Mountain’s website. My flash piece “Self-Rising” appeared in Calyx last November, and “I Haven’t Forgotten You,” also flash, won Big Muddy’s 2019 Wilda Hearne Flash Fiction Prize and can be found online. Keep your fingers crossed for the short story collection!
LESLIE BLANCO’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in the Kenyon Review, PANK, Calyx, TransAtlanticPanorama, and the Coachella Review, among others. Her story “I Haven’t Forgotten You” won Big Muddy’s 2019 Wilda Hearne Flash Fiction Prize. In 2020, “A ravishing Sun” was selected for publication from among the finalists of the New Letters Robert Day Award for Fiction. Leslie is the recent recipient of a Vermont Studio Center fellowship, a Hedgebrook fellowship, and a Rona Jaffe fellowship. She has an MFA from The Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, and a novel in the closet.