Christina Diaz Gonzalez Talks with Roger

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In The Bluest Sky, Christina Diaz Gonzalez returns to Cuba — the setting and the characters of her first novel, The Red Umbrella. But it is now 1980, and 1961’s Operation Pedro Pan has become the Mariel boatlift. We talk below about Cuba, family memory, and writing.

Roger Sutton: This is the second time you’ve written about children coming from Cuba to the United States.

Christina Diaz Gonzalez: Correct. It’s been twelve years since The Red Umbrella came out, and I’m revisiting Cuba in The Bluest Sky.

RS: Why do you think you went back?

CDG: Ever since I wrote The Red Umbrella, a lot of people have asked if there was going to be a sequel. I’ve always said no; that story stood on its own. But the story of Cuba, and children from Cuba coming to the U.S., continues. I had this idea about one of the characters from The Red Umbrella. That child, twenty years later, would be an adult with children of her own and would still be facing similar questions and decisions faced by the prior generation, especially during the momentous occasion of the 1980 Mariel boatlift. My parents had come over in 1960 through Operation Pedro Pan, which is what The Red Umbrella was about, but I had other relatives who came over through Mariel. I knew there was a story there, a story that bridged that twenty-year gap. That’s what really prompted me to revisit the universe of The Red Umbrella in a standalone book.

RS: You could go for a third with Elián González.

CDG: That’s actually something I’ve thought of — not so much Elián’s story, but the story of the rafters in the 1990s, the balseros. It’s interesting; in 1960 the children came over by plane. In 1980 the Mariel boatlift brought people over in boats — boats overloaded with people to the point of sinking, but they were coming over in boats. Move forward half a generation, fourteen years later, and it’s not even boats. It’s inner tubes, rafts, whatever people could piece together.

RS: You’d think it would get more sophisticated, but it goes in the other direction.

CDG: Yeah, unfortunately. People are more desperate.

RS: Have you been to Cuba?

CDG: No, I’ve never been to Cuba. Especially for Cuban Americans, that’s a very difficult decision. Of course, I long to be able to go. But out of understanding and respect for what my parents went through in leaving...I hope to one day visit a free Cuba. That’s what I aspire to.

RS: Cuba has always, to me, presented an interesting place in the world of children’s books, in that you have people in our field who are both pro-Castro and anti-Castro. And there are books reflecting both of those positions.

CDG: There’s always, no matter what, the bias of what your own family, friends, and community have suffered under a particular regime. That will color your view and shape your understanding of history.

RS: In college I had a good friend who was born in Cuba but grew up here. She would get into furious arguments — we were all lefties in the mid-seventies, and she was, too, but she wasn’t going to accede to our notion of Cuba as some kind of workers’ paradise.

CDG: When you know what people have lost, the freedoms that are lost and never given back, in exchange for sometimes false promises, it touches home.

RS: I don’t want to give away the plot of your book, because it’s so exciting, but that grandmother — my, oh my! I’m so used to grandmothers in children’s books being the safe spot. Trouble at home? Go to your grandmother. Not this grandmother.

CDG: No. She also appears in The Red Umbrella as a mother — she is the mother of the main character’s best friend. She is a fierce believer in her ideology and believes the ends justify the means. She is of one mindset, and she will not deviate. She’s doing what she does because she thinks it’s the right thing for her grandchildren. She goes to some extreme measures, but she thinks she’s saving them.

RS: It’s clear the grandmother loves her daughter and granddaughter. You really accomplish something there with making a character who is basically an antagonist but at the same time is sincere in her love for the people she’s fighting with.

CDG: The story really encompasses a family, friendships, and how political ideology can alter those relationships and push people to extremes. Even though the story is set in 1980, we’re seeing some of that play out in today’s world. It’s a never-ending story.

RS: Did you know where the story would end up when you began?

CDG: I did. I am the type of writer who knows my ending before I know anything else. I am not someone who outlines or plans out the entire story, but I know my ending, so I use it as my North Star. Even though there may be twists and turns and unexpected deviations, I always make sure I am on that path.

RS: I had a couple of moments of gasping aloud, I was so surprised.

CDG: That is a high compliment. I have a feeling I may know at least one of those moments.

RS: [redacted due to spoilers] What did you know, writing this book, that you wish you had known when you wrote the first one? About writing, about Cuba, about your family, whatever it might be.

CDG: One of the things that I have learned in my writing over the years is something we’ve touched upon, about the antagonist being human. Many times, the villain in a story does not see themselves as the villain, they see themselves as the hero. Even though you’re writing the story from a different perspective, it’s important to keep that in mind. The antagonist usually thinks they are doing the right thing, even though in retrospect, to the outsider, you realize they aren’t. They, at the time, think they are.

RS: They’re not just monsters.

CDG: Exactly.

RS: How do you feel you’ve grown as a writer?

CDG: It’s such an evolution, always. With every book, you learn. You learn, also, from other authors. One of the real privileges is being welcomed into the writing community. Some of my closest friends are authors I respect, who I can bounce ideas off of, who tell me where my story is lacking or could be improved upon. I have been able to grow as a writer thanks to the writers around me.

RS: Like who?

CDG: Just today, I was speaking with two very dear friends, James Ponti and Alyson Gerber. They give me unvarnished feedback and help me brainstorm. Meg Medina is wonderful. I consider her almost a life coach. I go to her about the business of writing, because there’s not only the creative aspect, it’s also a business. How do you speak about your books and promote your books, and how do you continuously move your career forward?

RS: I don’t think I could handle self-employment. You have to be a self-starter in so many different ways to do what you do.

CDG: When you’re starting out, you don’t realize that. It’s complex and involved. It’s more than just sitting down and writing. Besides the actual writing and revision, there’s promotion, marketing, speaking appearances, and connecting with readers in schools and in bookstores. It really is a much larger endeavor than I originally thought with my first book.

RS: Where you could just write and be like: Well, that’s done.

CDG: “Now I hand it over to other people, and it will just magically reach the readers.” No. You have to be an advocate for your story. I’ve been very fortunate with my publishers; they help get the book out in front. But you still have to carry it across the goal line.

RS: Then you have to keep going.

CDG: Yes, exactly.

RS: Do you have a sense of what, say, fifth graders — who I guess are the sweet spot for this book — already know or think they know about Cuba and the United States?

CDG: I usually assume they really know nothing about Cuba besides possibly geography. And even then — a lot of people don’t realize how close Cuba is to the U.S. It’s ninety miles. Some people have longer commutes to work. It’s that close, and that much of a world away. So, I go in with the assumption that readers have possibly heard of it and know nothing else.

RS: It was such a hot button when I was growing up. First grade, I think, was when Pedro Pan happened. So it’s always been a part of my Atomic Age consciousness.

CDG: Absolutely. I think in South Florida, and Florida in general, just because of our proximity to Cuba, most people are aware. But the farther away you get, and the less it’s in the news, the less people will talk about it and know about it — especially young readers. There’s an added responsibility for me to show them a glimpse of Cuba, at least Cuba at the time that I’m telling the story.

RS: Do you ever get nervous that you’ll miss something, since you haven’t been there?

CDG: Oh, absolutely. But the wonderful thing is being Cuban American myself, constantly surrounded by the Cuban exile community living in Miami, I grew up hearing about it. Hopefully The Bluest Sky will resonate as much as The Red Umbrella did, because I’ve had people who came from Cuba through Pedro Pan insist that the fictional town in The Red Umbrella, which I called Puerto Mijares, is real. One gentleman was adamant that it was in Cuba; he thought he knew all the towns, and I had described it so much like a town that he thought he had visited. I pulled from so many different people's stories of their own hometowns, and I had such a visual image from growing up with so many stories. I was fortunate enough to fool him into believing the town actually existed.

RS: Take the compliment, Christina!

CDG: Absolutely. It’s funny — The Red Umbrella won the Nebraska Book Award, and people have complimented me on the accurate portrayal of Nebraska in 1960. They say, “You must have come and done a lot of research in Nebraska.” And I have to admit that I’ve never been there. I did a lot of research, spoke with librarians and other people living there, and then I incorporated my own experiences growing up in a small town (in northern Florida).

RS: Are you in touch with anybody in Cuba now?

CDG: We have extended family who are still there. My godmother, primarily, stays in touch with them. But at this point, most of our family has either passed away in Cuba or we’ve lost touch. There are only a couple of people my family still stays in touch with.

RS: I just wondered what communication was like now, with email and all that.

CDG: It depends. Some people have access to the internet. Limited access, but they do have some. People don’t have free access to wifi — it's not available to everyone. Cuba is still a very state-controlled society.

RS: In the scene where they come to attack the house, I thought, man, this is Twitter.

CDG: It’s a repudiation act, acto de repudio in Spanish. A Twitter mob, but in real life.

RS: With real bricks.

CDG: With real deadly consequences. Just this past summer, when people started coming into the streets and speaking out, any type of protest was very quickly shut down with violence by government agents. It definitely still happens.

RS: I like the way that you captured, again, true believers mixed in with people afraid not to join in mixed in with people who just love to make trouble. Twitter.

CDG: It’s a complex society, where you have to at least appear to be playing by the rules, even though most people know how to circumvent them.

RS: And even though the rules seem flexible, depending upon who’s breaking them.

CDG: Yes. Everyone is supposed to be equal, but some are more equal than others.

RS: So what are you going to do next? For a book. I don’t mean today.

CDG: I am starting to write another action-oriented adventure story. Like Concealed, which came out last year. That book won the Edgar Award, but it’s more of a modern thriller rather than a typical mystery whodunit. Concealed has a lot of twists and turns, and I do love writing books with many twists.

RS: I'll say.

CDG: Whether it’s historical fiction or a more commercial adventure story. I like to go back and forth, so perhaps after I’m done writing the current story — which I won’t say too much about, because I’m afraid of jinxing things until I’m at least halfway through — I may go back to another historical, more literary type of novel. But we’ll see.

RS: Even this novel is an adventure story.

CDG: Absolutely. Again, I try to write surprises — moments that make you gasp, as you describe — in every book. But some are set in the present day and have a more adventurous thriller type of feel to them.

RS: You can be more shameless, in a way.

CDG: I can incorporate assassins and all sorts of things with the modern thrillers.

RS: I’ve asked this question of several authors of historical fiction: how do you remain true to history and tell an exciting story? Sometimes history’s just one thing after another, or something really horrible has happened, so you don’t want to sensationalize it. How do you find the balance?

CDG: For me, if you look at history as just a set of dates or events, it can get monotonous and boring. But when you look at history through what I call the prism of one, and you narrow it down to how these external events affect one person, and you follow that person’s journey, all of a sudden, the story comes to life. Through that one person, the story becomes a look into the events that affected so many other people. I try to keep the focus on this character’s journey when momentous events are occurring around them. That’s what makes it interesting. You connect to the character. The plot can be amazing, but if you don’t care about the character, you’re not going to care about the story. You have to have that connection.

 

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Roger Sutton
Roger Sutton

Editor Emeritus Roger Sutton was editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc., from 1996-2021. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his MA in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a BA from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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