Cristina García is a Cuban-born American journalist and novelist. After working for Time magazine as a researcher, reporter, and Miami bureau chief, she turned to writing fiction. Her first novel, Dreaming in Cuban, was a finalist for the National Book Award. She has since published four more novels—The Aguero Sisters, Monkey Hunting, A Handbook to Luck, and, most recently, The Lady Matador’s Hotel—and edited books of Cuban and other Latin American Literature. She teaches creative writing at Texas Tech University.
Set in a Central American hotel, The Lady Matador’s Hotel tracks six characters during their week-long stay in the establishment. In many ways, the tapestry of their individual lives could not be more different: the main characters include a Japanese-Mexican-American matadora, a Cuban poet, an adoption lawyer with Germanic heritage, a suicidal Korean businessman (ironically lodging in the honeymoon suite with his pregnant adolescent mistress), a barbaric colonel, and an ex-guerilla. But as the novel unfolds, the characters’ very disparate lives manifest kindred attributes, and the spaces where binaries cross—when interest bleeds into obsession, victims turn into predators, and confidence yields to insecurity—connect the vertebrae of the novel’s six-spined backbone.
[A]s the novel unfolds, the characters’ very disparate lives manifest kindred attributes, and the spaces where binaries cross…connect the vertebrae of the novel’s six-spined backbone.
When I asked García for three words she’d pick to describe her novel, she jokingly said she was tempted to echo the character Suki’s mantra: arrogance, honor, death. “But I’m not gonna do it,” she countered. “I’ll let you pick those three words.” My mind immediately turned to the book’s gorgeous cover of Suki in her hotel room, nude, seemingly paused from the act of dressing or undressing to look in the mirror. This image captures so well the interior privilege hotels offer—for anyone who wants to hide, transform, or misbehave, the anonymous and identical rooms of a hotel are a permissive sanctuary. Hotels promise to forget. They agree to exist in a provisional space outside of memory: after you check out and the room is cleaned, your ties to the space disappear.
This is why the novel’s depersonalized backdrop of a hotel is so integral to the book. For each character, this expectation of privacy is compromised, both within the book’s events and by the reader having intimate knowledge of the characters’ lives. In getting to see behind the walls, the reader also sees behind facades and personas: characters entering their rooms behave much like actors on a set once the film stops rolling; pretense is dropped and vulnerabilities emerge. For my three words, I’ll pick the fabulous triad of modalities so many of the characters—but particularly Suki—slip in and out of: private, public, performative.
Alissa Nutting: The main character, Suki, is a fascinating mosaic of race and gender: masculine, feminine, Mexican, Japanese. I love the way she eludes categorization. How did you come to develop her character?
Cristina García: She herself was rather elusive even to me. She was as fun to write as she is on the surface—she’s very high-gloss. I didn’t feel like I knew her as well as the other characters, ultimately. She remained a bit of a mystery. But I think it’s all the time I spent in Los Angeles, where these kinds of hyphenations are actually quite common. It’s a special fascination to me, beginning with my novel Monkey Hunting, where I explored the presence of the Chinese in Cuba. I’m very interested in the migrations of the Asians to the Americas over the last couple of centuries, and so I knew that I wanted a multiply hyphenated character for this role. And I also knew from my own experience dabbling in flamenco over the years how fascinated Japanese women are with this style of dance. So I took it one step further—you go to any flamenco seminar and half the women are from Japan. They have a sort of love affair with all things Spanish, extending even to bullfighting. So I took a little bit of a leap, and then the place where bullfighting is most entrenched in the Americas is Mexico. So it seemed like a fun and plausible combination for her to be from Los Angeles, and for the bullfighting and the obsession with that to make sense. I don’t know which came first, but I think I knew pretty quickly that she was going to be Japanese-Mexican. It was an intuitive choice that I came to better understand later on.
AN: It’s obvious from reading her that she was a lot of fun to write.
CG: Yes—I think I have this thing for Amazonian women; there are a lot of them rampaging through the pages of my books.
AN: Ha! What do you think that’s about?
CG: Well, I don’t know if it’s that I’m this little 5’1″ wanna-be Amazonian or something…I think I’ll leave that one up to the psychiatrists.
AN: Tell me about your decision to be playfully vague with the novel’s location—setting it in an unnamed Central American capital as opposed to a specific country or city.
CG: I definitely had Guatemala in mind, but I also didn’t feel like I wanted to limit it to a specific place, and I didn’t want to worry about whether this street intersected with that street [in real life]. I wanted it to be a little bit of Everyplace, Central America. A sort of archetypal place where there’s been civil war, a place that’s been traumatized and is in the wake of that trauma. There’s no shortage of that throughout the Americas. Originally I had the novel set in 2003, and at the very last minute I pulled the dates out, too. I wanted it to kind of hover in time with as few specific geographic or time markers as possible. Even though there’s a lot of specificity in the book, I didn’t want it tethered to reality in a way that would limit its scope.
AN: I thought it such a nice choice, because really no character in the book is limited by place—either because of multiculturalism or because of travel for work and business. Each seems to resist being pinned down to one particular home.
CG: Exactly, and then they’re navigating this temporary space—a hotel is not meant to be permanent either. So they’re negotiating this kind of liminal space anyway, and dealing with issues of identity and belonging in the hotel’s strange, westernized space as well.
AN: Did you set the novel’s time span as a week because of the transience of a hotel?
CG: That was something I knew fairly early on. A week just seemed like the right amount of time for a story like this that’s so compressed. It also seemed like a reasonable amount of time in terms of a military conference and in terms of the adoptive parents coming to visit. I thought a much longer time would slacken the tension of the piece. At the very beginning of writing it, I had all these grandiose ideas about working on a creation myth at the same time, and so I was also thinking seven days in the biblical way of making and remaking the world. But that plopped off during week two of writing the book. There was enough to juggle.
AN: Yet with so much going on, you handle grave topics like suicide with impressive dexterity. Because of the heavy subject matter, I was pleasantly surprised at how funny the novel often is. After reading the novel’s summary, which mentions guerilla warfare, I didn’t expect to be laughing out loud too much. What role do you feel humor plays in the novel?
CG: I think of the book as tragic/comic. Especially in the news sections of the novel. These served a number of purposes, one of which was to point out some of the absurdity in what passes for news—the strange bedfellows and juxtapositions and so on. I think also it was a bit of a respite from the intensity of the novel. You need to kind of escape a little bit, which people do—escape from the more serious things in life through reading or watching nonsense. It was also a way of refracting the public obsession with Suki Palacios, showing the mirrors that are on her. And it was the way other characters could come to know about her or make assumptions about her. So it was the public and private in combat.
AN: Did you feel those news briefs could access a voice or a tone that the narrator couldn’t? Were these areas you wanted to explore that didn’t feel right for the narrator’s voice? Or were they included for different reasons?