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Olga Karman

(photo: Rose Mattrey)

What’s in Scatter My Ashes Over Havana? It’s a story. It’s my story inserted or woven into history: Cuban history and US history; the Cuban Revolution, the Cuban diaspora, my Harvard days in the ’60s, my developing a Hispanic consciousness later on here in the US. It’s the story of a Cuban girl who had American dreams, big American dreams. And those dreams, of course, included everything she had seen in the matinees at the Miramar movie theater.

In Havana. Yes, in Havana. Her idea—my idea—of the US was based, to a large extent, on what I saw on the silver screen. My head was full of that, and I wanted to make that dream mine. My mother was American; she was born in the US, and she had American friends who came to Cuba to visit. They invited me to spend a year in Scarsdale. I was 15 then. That’s where I met the American boy I would marry five years later. And so my story is about life in Cuba both before and during the triumph of the Revolution—the first two years after Castro took power—and then life in the United States and, thirty-seven years later, my first return to Havana.

What will readers find in your book? I think they will find a life. They’ll read about the life of a girl who becomes a woman in the United States and who suddenly finds herself with nothing. Nothing! No family, no checkbook, no clear sense even of where she was, and in a bad marriage. She was 20 years old. What was she going to do? So in that sense the book is very much, I would say, a woman’s book, but also a person’s book; and also perhaps an immigrant’s book. It’s about what it’s like to find yourself uprooted and to have to start from scratch. What does it mean? How do you find a place for yourself? Who are you? Ultimately that’s the question. And I think it becomes much more difficult to answer if you can’t go back to the place where you came from. So the book is also a quest for identity, for a sense of place; but also a story of triumph over adversity. It’s about a dream gone bad and then a dream gone good.

Is that the American dream you were talking about? Oh, no, no! My American dream had no bad parts. My American dream was Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Picnic, Doris Day, Tea for Two. There were no glitches in my American dream. So what eventually developed was very surprising to me, and quite unexpected. I was not prepared. Although, at age 20, who is prepared for anything except dreams?

Many Cubans who came to the US in the wake of the Cuban Revolution consider themselves exiles rather than immigrants. What was the label that fit you when you first came to this country? The label that fit me was bride. I came to this country with my trousseau in my suitcase. I was the person who two weeks later was going to be in a wedding, my own wedding. Of course, it didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t know anybody there, that when I walked into that church in Scarsdale I’d know no one. But this scene was not part of my American dream.

Some people here may ask you whether there are any virtues to the system that Cubans live under at the present time. Well, I tried to make my book not be a political manifesto or an ideological manifesto. I see we’re veering in that direction! When I went back, what were the virtues I saw? The ones that were there before. People obsessed about education. Weren’t we just like that? In Havana, starting in eighth grade, we had three hours of homework on an easy night. When I went to Connecticut College, it was easy. It was in a different language, but it was not hard. Even graduate school. I mean, it was a lot of work, but it was not as hard as high school in Havana! When I went back, I still saw a love for culture and art. But that I learned when I was cutting my teeth in Havana. We all saw Alicia Alonso dance when we were kids. And the music? Hello? Look at the great Cuban music that has been“discovered” now, the Buena Vista Social Club, for example. That was there before—those musicians were from before. That’s not today’s music. The virtues I found were the old ones. What’s miraculous is that they’re still alive.

I remember you once called yourself a Cuban by birth and a Buffalonian by choice. Do you still hold by that? Ah, sure. But I can’t give away my book. So, no comment. Suffice to say, I love Buffalo. I think that if you travel far, you come to love Buffalo even more. No place is richer. Think of the art, the music, the literature; just open Gusto on any Friday, open Artvoice. And yet, you can make a u-turn on Main Street at four in the afternoon. Isn’t that wonderful?

Let’s close by talking about the very title of your book: Scatter My Ashes Over Havana. That sounds like a command, or a request. Is that a true request? And why Havana? Why not Buffalo, where you have lived for so many years? Before I knew that I would return to Havana, and—how old was I? 56 or 57—before I returned, I would ask my daughter Carla and my son Nathaniel and anyone else in the family who would listen to promise me that if I died before having gone back to Havana they would scatter my ashes over my city. They would pooh-pooh me and say that I was being dramatic, but they agreed. And then I went back. Does that need still remain, the need to have my ashes scattered over Havana? I can’t answer that here because that’s the last chapter in the book.

Olga Karman’s new book, Scatter My Ashes Over Havana, is forthcoming from PurePlay Press.