Dreaming in Cuban

By Cristina García

Original Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Current Publisher: Ballantine Books 

Tiphanie Yanique writes: 

In the Caribbean the sea and shore are vital to the community and to the individual. The beach is a place of healing and a place of peace. It is a place of danger and a place of revelry. No matter what the illness, the sea is a curative. And this is not only something of our past, but something of the Caribbean now. The beach is where one goes to run, do yoga, celebrate a class reunion, get married. The beach might be a place of solitude, or a place to open the car doors, turn up the car radio, and have a party. Politicians have their campaign fundraisers at the beach; believers are baptized at the beach. And yet this vital role of the sea in Caribbean society is often invisible to the outsider—what with the prevailing images of tourists swathing the beaches in their bikinis. And it is also true that the Caribbean’s dependence on tourism has often meant that native beach culture is displaced by the tourists who come primarily for the beaches. In some cases the beach culture is disappearing.

Despite the importance of the sea, it has often been absent in Caribbean literary fiction, perhaps because it feels like a cliché to those of us who are weary of the tourist reader. There are many, many things I love about Cristina García’s exquisite and essential first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, but this is the one thing that I am most grateful for—she reveals the sea. 

Many of the characters in Dreaming in Cuban suffer from social or mental illness. The family in the novel is a deeply dysfunctional one, and at least two characters might be classified as full-blown schizophrenic, with others suffering from delusions and depression. In the opening scene we find Celia on the shore, where her dead husband is speaking to her from the sea. In response Celia throws herself into the ocean fully clothed and shod. Later, when Celia’s daughter, Felicia, has a mental breakdown, Celia repeatedly pushes her to take herself and son to the sea. Felicia’s promise to do so makes Celia feel confident that her daughter’s “intolerable season is over.” 

Mental illness has its own red streak in my family and the sea has quite often been a place of turmoil for us. My favorite aunt threw herself into the sea attempting the impossible journey to a neighboring island. But it has also been a place of great peace and joy. An early positive memory I have of my mother, brother and I all together was on the beach—when my mother still lived with us. It was my brother’s first time in the ocean. Though I write about the Caribbean ocean in my own fiction, I have written very little about mental illness. I think this might be because I haven’t yet figured out, as I believe Cristina did in this book, how to write the truth of such unbelievable confusion and pain while still respecting my family.

Celia’s lines to her granddaughter sum up some of the sea’s role in this family, in mine, and in Caribbean society: “For me, the sea was a great comfort, Pilar. But it made my children restless.”

Tiphanie Yanique is the author of How to Escape from a Leper Colony, published by Graywolf PressHer writing has won the 2011 BOCAS Prize for Caribbean Fiction, Boston Review Prize in Fiction, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship and an Academy of American Poet's Prize. She has been listed by the Boston Globe as one of the sixteen cultural figures to watch out for and by the National Book Foundation as one of the 2010 5 Under 35. Her writing has been published in Best African American Fiction, The Wall Street Journal, American Short Fiction, and other places. Tiphanie is from the Virgin Islands and is a professor in the MFA program at the New School in New York City. (Photo: Moses Djeli)

Fiction Finalists That Year:

Fiction Winner That Year: Cormac McCarthy for All the Pretty Horses

Fiction Judges That Year: Leonard Michaels, Toni Cade Bambara, Philip Caputo, John Leonard, Joy Williams

The Year in Literature:

  • A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
  • Derek Walcott won the Nobel Prize for literature.

More Information: García was born in Havana, Cuba in 1958. Dreaming in Cuban was her first novel.

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