Award-winning Cuban writer José Miguel Sánchez Gómez, known as “Yoss,” has two works of sci-fi out in English so far: A Planet for Rent and Super Extra Grande (both from Restless Books). In this interview, I asked him about his craft, his pseudonym, sci-fi, and what he thinks about the recent thaw in Cuban-American relations.
translated by Daniel Gavidia
Rachel Cordasco: What first drew you to write sci-fi, and how do you get ideas for your stories?
Yoss: I think every author writes what he would like to read… or to have read. Although I suppose that some write for other authors, critics, or for that elusive “posterity.” I have loved science fiction since my childhood, when I discovered that, if Earth was almost completely explored and discovered, only space (I apologize to Star Trek, time and parallel universes too) could be the last frontier. What I like the most and I still like about the genre is its symbolic capacity, its quality for creating universal metaphors: telling a story of the many I see every day from my window in the Havana neighborhood of El Vedado is easy… but many outside of Cuba would not understand it. Then, to transform it into more general fable without any frontiers is a way to reach more readers. Of course, many ideas for sci-fi short short stories or novels come to me by reading and watching other novels, stories, films or cartoons of the genre: it is a feedback system that is never too prudent. Which, among other things, always helps one to not waste time doing something that another person already did a long time ago. Although sometimes, even though an author wasn’t aware of stealing, he could still do a better job… In any case, reading a lot is the best way of stimulating a writer’s imagination. Unlike digestion, in which the more one eats the more shit one produces, in literature, if there is to be a minimal level of quality, it tends to be the other way around. Luckily.
RC: What are your thoughts on the recent thaw in Cuban-American relations, and how do you think it will influence the literatures of both countries?
Y: After 55 years in which the United States was our worst enemy… at least officially, the opening of relations of December 17, 2014 was truly the event of the century. And the artists of the island can’t be—in fact, we aren’t!—divorced from these new circumstances. In little more than a year and a half, Cuban authors have written a lot about the consequences of this new happening and unexpected thawing. And I’m talking about the good and the bad. And more so for us who dedicate ourselves to sci-fi and fantasy: dystopias in which Cuba, taken by the British in 1762, is never given back to Spain and becomes independent alongside the other thirteen American colonies. Or stories in which our national hero of independence Antonio Maceo does not die in combat against the Spaniards, but becomes the first governor of the State of Cuba… it’s a base that makes the imagination fly, wouldn’t you agree?
Concretely, I think it will only get easier for Cuban authors to visit, give conferences and sell books in the U.S. Even though it is currently still quite complicated… And the Americans doing the same by coming to our island, something unthinkable just five years ago. Geographically and idiosyncratically our nations are very close to each other, so why maintain this separation like if we were in opposite corners of the world? Especially considering that, in this post-Soviet era, ideologies are no longer an obstacle to convergence: for example, China, which still proudly proclaims to be socialist, looks more and more like the U.S. and the rest of the West. Let’s hope Cuba can follow a similar path. To have their millionaires and their markets… while still being Cuba. Because, even though the leading gerontocracy of the Communist Party would like to incinerate me for speaking my mind, the truth is that I don’t see another future for this country, especially after the imminent collapse of Chávez’ social experiment in Venezuela, which used to be our main commercial partner and our source of cheap oil.
RC: How do you see Cuban sci-fi developing in the near future?
Y: I think this answer is a continuation to the last one, clearly. Cuban sci-fi authors always worry a lot about tomorrow: if during the time of the U.S.S.R. and CAME it looked like (and heaven help whoever wrote the opposite) that the future belonged entirely to socialism, and that capitalism only had a few months left to go, authors wrote many utopias more or less ridiculous in which Moscow was the capital of the world and Cuba the country of maternity, where pregnant women were sent to wait for labor, the years post-Berlin Wall unleashed a profound skepticism of socialism, in spite of the curious Chinese experiment of doing capitalism under the command of Mao’s Party.
Nowadays, Cuban authors oscillate between painting a dark future of misery for our little island, considering it a future U.S. state, next to Puerto Rico (and I apologize to all my stubbornly separatist Puerto Rican friends, but in their case this looks more and more inevitable to be the case, even if it hurts) and even more catastrophic visions. Of course, it is not that we believe in such a future… often the purpose of sci-fi is to warn so that these sinister visions never happen.
With a lot of cyber, bio and steampunk in these conceptions, with more writers centered in the Espacio Abierto Literary Workshop, with the doors of the collection Ambar de Gente Nueva open to their creations, and more awards, like the Hydra, the Juventud Ténica, the Calendario, and the revamped David and the biennial La Edad de Oro, Cuban sci-ci today enjoys exceptional health. We have already surpassed the quality and quantity of the eighties, the so called Silver Age, so I like to say that we are living in the Age of Platinum, the genre’s third spike since its apparition in 1959 almost alongside the Revolution. Now, besides myself, there are about two or three other Cuban authors publishing and winning awards in other countries, going to conventions, being included regularly in Spanish and English anthologies… and the best thing is that our native readers, those within Cuba, consume everything published in our country in this genre… and still ask for more. So when the law of the free market barges into the Cuban book industry, at least we will be guaranteed a public. Which is enough… and it is also quite a challenge to not disappoint our followers, right?
RC: I have thoroughly enjoyed A PLANET FOR RENT and SUPER EXTRA GRANDE, especially the sardonic humor. In what ways do you think that humor or irony enhance a work of speculative fiction?
Y: If someone were to ask me what is the formula of Cuban sci-fi, what makes it special, I would say that it is one third ethical inquiry, like the best Soviet sci-fi, like that of the Strugatsky brothers; another third goes to a love for gadgets, physical action and exotic and fascinating characters, like in the good cyberpunk thrillers and American space operas… but also another third goes to irony, absurdity and other types of humor, without leaving black humor aside. It’s only logical; it’s part of our idiosyncrasy to make fun of everything. And twice so, for being Latin Americans and islanders. It’s a logical and necessary mechanism of survival for a small country that always felt like a soccer ball in a match between the global superpowers of the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.: laughing at everything, looking at everything with disbelief, the double morality of believing and pretending to not believe or vice-versa. An innocent cynicism, to give it a name.
And we need it too. Many of the great canvases of sci-fi lack humor, a sense of parody… I think that now and forever it will be important to laugh. Magnificence, operatic grandiosity, and overwhelming settings can be very majestic and draw whistles of admiration… but laughter is also an inescapable part of setting. Next to superheroes and super villains, there will always be common people that will find a way to mock them in other to reduce them, at least symbolically, to human heights. That’s why I think that humor brings so much to sci-fi. After all, great authors like Robert Sheckley, Douglas Adams, David Langford and even the justly celebrated George R. R. Martin (yes, with his “The voyages of Tuff,” a little jewel of humor in sci-fi) have set the foundation of their fame in the genre by using, totally or partially, humor.
RC: Favorite writers?
Y: This is one of the questions that can’t be missing from an interview that respects itself. So, because I have practiced answering it, now I tend to make three lists, each with ten authors: sci-fi and fantasy, worldwide mainstream, and Spanish-language. Here they go:
Sci-fi and fantasy: Alfred Bester, Robert Heinlein, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (brothers who always wrote together), Brian Aldiss, Ursula K. LeGuin, David Gemmell, George R. R. Martin, John Scalzi, Andrewzj Sapkowski (the Pole that wrote the adventures of the wizard Geralt of Rivia).
Mainstream (of all time and of all tongues except Spanish): Joseph Conrad, Thomas Pynchon, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Henry Miller, Curzio Malaparte (Italian), Amos Tutuola (Nigerian), J. H. Rosny Ainé (French), Gunther Grass (German) and Fyodor Mikailovich Dostoyevsky (Russian).
Spanish: Alejo Carpentier (Cuban), Mario Vargas Llosa (Peruvian), Arturo Pérez Reverte (Spanish), Gabriel García Márquez (Colombian), Juan Miguel Aguilera (Spanish, writes sci-fi and fantasy, but…), Lucía Etxebarri (Spanish, Leonardo Padura (Cuban), Michel Encinosa Fú (Cuban and writes sci-fi and fantasy…) and Manuel Mujica Lainez (Argentinian).
But there are so many left! How to forget Ted Chiang, Dan Simmons, Dante Alighieri, Julio Cortázar and Jorge Luis Borges (Argentinians), Carlos Fuentes and Fernando del Paso (Mexicans), Herny Sinkiewicz (Polish) and Serguei Lukianenko (Russian)? Every list is, by force, an unforgivable omission… and being 47 years old I am always open to reshaping my priorities: I still read with passion, and more each day.
RC: If you’re willing, could you tell us what you’re currently working on?
Y: Recently (two weeks ago) I finished a novel, a military space opera, a project I had been caressing for sixteen years: it is called “The Fallen, Step Forth” and it is loosely inspired by a famous book on American submarine crews of the Second World War that I read as a kid in a condensed version in Reader’s Digest and which impressed me a lot: “Run Silent, Run Deep,” about the frigate captain Edward L. Beach. Many years later I read the original in English… and liked it more. Now, my version that takes place at the end of this century, at 165 pages, is still a novella; I will let it sit for a few months to then give it a final revision. I have already sent it to some friends and colleagues and they have given me comments… some good, and others not so much. I hope to keep what caused the former and changed what caused the latter in the final version.
Right now I’m writing an article about the ships and weapons of the seventeenth century Caribbean, for a new translation and critical edition and profusely annotated version of the five books of the Emilio Salgari’s saga on the Black Corsair which should appear next year in Venezuela… if Nicolás Maduro and the chavizmo allow it, of course.
After said article, I will write a children’s version of “The Gold of Rin,” the first part of the tetralogy “The Nibelung Ring” (I am a big Wagner fan), for the interesting collection Tesoro-ballet, of the Cuban editorial Gente Nueva, specializing in books for children and young adults; the idea is to take to the public the stories of famous ballets and operas, which they have trouble deciphering because they do not dominate the original languages, despite the music fascinating them, given that music is a lingua franca that talks directly to the soul. This year I already published another book in this series.
I am also working on a four-hand short story with Anglo-Latvian writer Tom Crosshill, with which I recently published in Locus a brief history of sci-fi in Cuba. I won’t give out any spoilers… but I will say that it has to do with Cuba and parallel universes.
But I’m guessing that the article and the two short stories won’t bring me much… so the true work that remains for this year is finishing my fantasy novel trilogy untitled “The City of Salt.” The first installment, “The Mercenary and the Desert,” finished years ago, should appear here in Cuba in 2018… but I still have to make some last-minute edits that have come to mind while I wrote the second in the series, “The City and the Tournament,” finished not long ago… and I hope that the third part, “The Warrior and the Wizard,” doesn’t stay out… because I still have 75 pages left to go to finish it, but I’m not waiting until 2017! It’s because I started the project back in 1993… and it has rained a lot and I have published a lot since then.
Of course, while I write this trilogy I will surely write another short story… for example, one about pawn shop owners in the American Midwest, which I will write four-hand with a young Cuban author, Malena Salazar Maciá.
RC: Why “Yoss”?
Y: My real name is José Miguel Sánchez Gómez… and I’m not ashamed that is sounds 200% Latino. But it turns out that it’s been decades that no one calls me anything but Yoss: only my mother, my father and some of the few friends that met me before 1980. Because that year I had a P.E. teacher (I won’t say her name here… she died already, unfortunately, but know that I thank her alias) that had a defect in her palate, and when she called my name, she transformed by name José into something that sounded like Ioss. So everyone, with that fondness for mockery that teenagers have and hopefully will have forever, started calling me that way, so I became Ioss or maybe Jhozz for more and more people. When I was 17 I started sending the texts that I had started writing since I was 15 to writing contests, and many asked for a pseudonym… so looking for one, I had to learn how to write that sound… and I chose Yoss. And not because it sounds more Anglo-Saxon, let it be known. From then on it has been my pen name, except for my first sci-fi short story book “Timshel” in 1989, in which the editor, José Rodríguez Feo—friend and patron of José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera in their time, as well as a glory of Cuban letters by right—declined to admit “such a strange pseudonym with you having such a gorgeous name, beautiful boy” (sic) so he insisted in publishing it with my full name.
But since then I have also been Yoss in literature, and I also find it fair and comfortable. Even though every once in a while someone with that nickname will show up on YouTube or in some blog (I already know of two women, a Mexican and a Peruvian, but so far no men), I think it is brief, catchy, and pretty distinctive. And well, it prevents uncomfortable incidents, like the one that happened back in 1989 when “Timshel” was published: Diosdado, a friend from judo (I’m a black belt and still go to the tatami every now and then) that is 6’2 and weighs 220 lb, showed up at my house, put the book on the table and told to help him “beat up that scoundrel who has published your stories under his name.” It was a pretty embarrassing moment, imagine: he had read some of my stories, but only knew me as Yoss… it took a couple of minutes to convince him—my ID came in handy—that José Miguel Sánchez Gómez was also me. So, since that day, and in other things since I have followed his sound advice, my books only feature the name that everyone knows me by…
Many thanks to Yoss for taking the time to answer these questions! And thanks as well to Daniel Gavidia, Nathan Rostron, and Restless Books.