Cecile Pineda was born in Harlem, the daughter of a scholarly Mexican father, and a Swiss-French mother. Her language of origin is French.
After some twelve years of producing and directing her own experimental theater company, Pineda began to write fiction. Her novels have been critically acclaimed, with Face winning the Commonwealth Club of California Gold Medal--a record for first fiction, the Sue Kaufman Prize, and a National Book Award Nomination. Her picaresque novel, The Love Queen of the Amazon, written with a NEA Fiction Fellowship was named a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times. Other critically acclaimed novels include Frieze, set in 9th century India and Java; Fishlight, a fictional memoir of childhood, and two mononovels, Bardo99 in which the 20th century passes through a bardo state; and Redoubt, a meditation on gender. Her play, "Like Snow Melting in Water," set in contemporary agrarian Japan, centers on themes of displacement and ecological collapse. Productions of this play are planned in 2012 for India and Thailand.
Pineda has been an anti-war activist from early life. More than ever, she has turned her attention to issues affecting the sustainability of the planet. Devil's Tango: How I learned the Fukushima Step by Step is Pineda's anguished dissection of the nuclear industry seen through the lens of the industrial and planetary disaster now unfolding at Fukushima Daiichi. A crazy quilt of multiple voices, pieced together day-by-day, it reflects her attempt to come to terms with Fukushima's catastrophic consequences to the planet.
The nuclear cycle has been a persistent theme in Pineda's fiction writing from the start. Her debut novel Face carries this epigraph from Jonathan Schell:
The meaning of extinction is. . . to be sought first not in what each person's own life means to him but in what the world and the people in it mean to him.. . . When that community is all mankind, the loss of the human context is total, and no one is left to respond. In facing this. . . we will either respond to it before it is done, or. . . pass into oblivion.
--Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth
In that novel, her protagonist experiences a recurring dream in which he notices a newspaper floating just under the surface of the water. The headline reads: "AN UNCLEAR ACCIDENT HAD HAPPENED TO HIM."
Pineda's fifth novel, Bardo99, takes her protagonist through a Chernobyl-like dreamscape describing such an accident. The epigraph is attributed to a fictional Kyril Chernenko, whose date of death suggests he may have been one of Chernobyl's victims:
It was a place the local folk called Prypiat. When we came there at first, many people told us that sometimes, when it stormed, they could hear cries of battle in the night. After the surveyors shot the grades for the new city, we went in with the bulldozers. I was the foreman of one crew. We began turning over the ground. Arms, legs, hands, feet, skulls, the great rakes of the machines turned them all up. One dismembered hand still clutched the image of a woman. There must have been thousands and thousands of skulls. We had uncovered a World War II battleground. We couldn't dig enough trenches to bury them all. We called the new city Chernobyl after the exterminating angel. It was the angel whose name is Wormwood.
But writing Devil's Tango came as an unforeseen surprise, in response to an invitation extended by a dying friend:
Now, he says to me, now you, Ceil, you always have things to say about life on the planet; you need to write a book, The Book of Life and Death. Will you do that? Thirteen days after his death, Fukushima exploded, scattering its deadly fallout over the entire planet. (from Devil's Tango: How I Learned the Fukushima Step by Step)
"AN AUTHOR OF POWERFUL IMAGINATION AND INTELLECT, CECILE PINEDA HAS ALREADY BEEN COMPARED TO CORTAZAR, BORGES, MARQUEZ, CAMUS, LAGERQUVIST AND KAFKA. SHE HAS BECOME ONE OF THE MOST DISCUSSED UP-AND-COMING AMERICAN NOVELISTS AROUND." --The San Antonio Light
"Writers, readers, teachers, and creative writing classes, take note: Cecile Pineda is an American original, literary treasure, and her prodigiously inventive and important work, finally returning to print in a landmark and long-awaited reissue, deserves a place in the forefront of American literature." --Jeff Biggers in Bloomsbury Review
Bloomsbury Review InterviewPineda Unbound: An Interview with Cecile Pineda, by Jeff Biggers
Synecdoche and Responsibility: On reading Cecile PinedaBy Professor Marcus Embry, Read HERE
An Interview with Cecile PinedaFrom the San Antonio Express-News, July 18, 2003
By Michael Soto
Before La Sandra or La Julia, novelist Cecile Pineda was setting the standard for Latina fiction writing.
Born and raised in New York, Pineda has for most of her career lived in the San Francisco Bay area, where she founded the avant-garde performance company, Theatre of Man. San Antonio-based
Wings Press, which published Pineda's spare and gripping tale BARDO99 last year, is currently reissuing all of Pineda's work in a uniform edition, with cover art by San Antonio photographer Kathy Vargas.
Pineda's recent semi-autobiographical novel Fishlight: A Dream of Childhood (Wings Press, 2001) has been described by Publisher's Weekly as "a gentle, beautiful book, a rare and poetic song from an exquisitely melancholy childhood." The Chicago Tribune hailed The Love Queen of the Amazon (Little, Brown 1992; Wings Press, 2001) as a "brilliantly drawn portrait of .. .. . one of the few great Latin heroines not created by the male imagination." (The central character is a Peruvian woman with a complex personal life, to say the least.) The New Yorker magazine calls her novel Frieze (Viking Press 1986; Wings Press 2003), set in ninth-century India and Java, a "singular, absorbing book."
Pineda will be in San Antonio this weekend (July 17-19, 2003 as the Latina Letters conference wraps up at St. Mary's University. She and other Latina writers will read from and sign their works at a presentation at 7 p.m. Saturday july19 in Room A of the University Center. The event is free and open to the public.
The latest installment in the Wings Press reissue series is Pineda's award-winning debut novel, Face about a Brazilian man who, after a tragic fall, must come to terms with facelessness available in print for the first time in almost two decades. (It was originally published by Viking Press in 1985.) In a new foreword for the book, South African novelist J.M. Coetzee describes Face as "an extraordinary achievement," and in a new introduction, literary scholar Juan Bruce-Novoa refers to the novel as "an exquisite allegory of the human condition," a "seductive text that ensnares the reader through the measured flow of its language."
Here's an excerpt from an interview conducted last week.
Q: Which writers inspired you as a girl? Who inspires you now?
A: The writers I read compulsively as a child were Conan Doyle and Rafael Sabbatini. I read the Book of Revelation at the age of 10. I couldn't sleep for months. But now, looking back, the books which inspired me were a series of biographies about women who had led interesting lives: Schumann-Heinck (the Wagnerian contralto who used to nurse her umpteen children in the wings before venturing out on stage), bad girl Lola Montez, etc. I don't remember the author's name. And, although there must have been women whose interests ranged widely, it is the women who were artist-performers that I remember. I don't know that writers inspire me so much as claim my deep respect and admiration: Kafka, of course, Joyce and Beckett, Juan Rulfo, Sadegh Hedayat, J.M. Coetzee, Alan Paton, Agotha Kristof, Dino Buzzati, Kobo Abe, Bruno Schulz, Gerd Hoffmann, S.G. Sebald, Ingeborg Bachmann nd Clarice Lispector, to name a very few of my favorites. And of the poets, Kazantzakis and Lorca, and St. John Perse especially. I find filmmakers particularly inspiring, especially Andrei Tarkovsky. This list does not include the names of the many students over the years whose work has left me utterly dumbfounded.
Q: At what point did you realize that becoming a professional writer making a living doing what you do - was within the realm of possibility?
A: "Making a living!" I wonder if any serious female writer of fiction presently makes a living in the Total Security State. I began to write fiction because 1) when the Great Communicator came to power my experimental theater company's funding was cut off at the pass, and 2) my godmother was in her last days, and I looked for a way to try supporting her.
Q: While you haven't written the obligatory "artist comes of age" novel, many critics - and I tend to agree with them - have suggested that the protagonists of your novels are nevertheless artist figures. Why have you foregone the usual route and instead written more obliquely about the artist's place in society? What is the artist's place in society?
A: The coming of age novel probably needs to be written closer to the time the writer begins drying behind the ears. I came to fiction in my maturity because I had had a previous career as a director of experimental theater, which allowed my ears to dry while having a fairly good run of it. Some of my protagonists are artist figures; certainly that applies to both male protagonists of Face and Frieze, and to the female protagonist of The Love Queen of the Amazon, who is an explosion in a Viagra factory. But I seem to have abandoned the artist-as-protagonist in the last series of three novels, Fishlight, Redoubt (forthcoming from Wings Press) and BARDO99.
I seem to be interested predominantly in politics, society and culture, which is probably why politics, society and culture appear to be foregrounded in my settings. Historically, and in most countries with the exception of the present one, the writer's role has been one of outsider, of observer, of social critic, and political gadfly. Authors in other situations, not the present, seem to have accepted, even relished, the challenge of being the conscience of their age. (One is reminded of Portrait of the Artist, for example, from which the previous is nearly a verbatim quote.) To be really interesting, a writer needs to remain outside of society schmoozing with a bunch of other folks outside society. Schmoozing out there can be a lot of fun!
Q: You've also avoided, for the most part, writing directly about the community in which you live. Excepting Fishlight, how have the places you've known entered into your writing?
A: Although I have not avoided its details, I have managed to avoid writing about the "community" in which I seem to live 1) because it's an imagined community which 2) comes short of appealing to me. But disguised as it may seem, each work reflects on the here and now. The one exception would have to be BARDO99, an apocalyptic encounter with the twentieth century, which is as close to my own "community" (or the present day) as I care to come.
Every single day of my life from my earliest years seems to be inscribed in my memory, and it is from this imaginary shoebox that I draw for detail. How the light played; how sound traveled in the waning summer afternoon; how fireflies shot through the darkness like incandescent chaff on the threshing floor-all that. Intuitively I must have known that when metal strikes stone it produces sparks.
Following the publication of Frieze, I traveled for two months in India. I was actually able to observe the carvers working in the stoneyards of Mahabalipuram, much as they had for millennia. I asked them if they protected their eyes from the sparks and the chips. They assured me there was no risk. I watched them move a block of granite-measuring some three meters long, one meter high, and one meter wide-clear across the stoneyard using saplings as crowbars. They did it chanting to verse and response, one inch at a time. They say God's in the details. Details are what give fiction its authenticity; they are what permit the reader to trust the writer.
Q: Much of your work belongs to a category that was once called the "novel of ideas." Would you agree? Or is such a category no longer possible these days?
A: I write only what I see, whether in my memory, or my mind's eye. My novels are not so much novels of ideas as novels of image. But I can't see why the novel of ideas might become outdated so long as there remain writers and readers who like to think. It's just that I like to write for folks who like to mix a little feeling in with their thinking.
Q: You mention in your preface to the new Wings Press edition of Face that you took the contours of the plot from a newspaper article. What drew you to the story - was it the plot elements suggested by the article, or the wealth of ideas suggested by the condition of being faceless? A: Much of what intrigues me comes to me through the daily newspaper. Primarily I am unconcerned with plot. I leave that to successful writers. Rather, I am interested in what events say about people, and about living life in the present world as we imagine ourselves to live it.
Q: I think that any writer would enjoy being compared to, for instance, Garbiel Garc a M!rquez, as you have been since the publication of Face. But are you comfortable with being called a "magic realist"?
A: Good gracious! Magic realism is a term invented by a wise-ass critic. If there's one thing that rubs against my grain, it's to be pigeonholed or to have the work pigeonholed. It does both a disservice. I write about all kinds of things, not only extraphenominal events. in fact, in The Love Queen of the Amazon, I parodied a certain famous Latin American writer by miraculously resurrecting one of my heroines through the Van Allen Belt! I'm interested in moths (they appear repeatedly in my work in one devious role or another); I'm interested in animals and insects; I'm interested in politics, and especially people. Reviewers (as opposed to critics) feel the obligation to warn readers what to expect a work is like and here they fill in the blanks: Garc a M!rquez, Par Lagerqvist, Franz Kafka. That particular phenomenon just indicates a critic grasping at referential straws. A good work is like itself.
Q: Speaking of labels, what do you think of the loosely defined movements known as the "boom" in Latin American and, more recently, U.S. Latina fiction?
A: I truly believe that starting in the '50s, Latin and Central American writers have blazed a unique and colorful trail, awakening much of European literature from its post-Edwardian stuffiness. Certainly a novel like Pedro Paramo (by Juan Rulfo), although written before much of the so-called "boom" reached critical mass, is a novel which still now surpasses all the contemporary literature that gets promoted as exemplary.
Q: Your work will receive much attention at the upcoming Latina Letters Conference in San Antonio, with academic presentations bearing such titles as Failed Matriarchy in Love Queen of the Amazon and Pineda and Coetzee: Critical Geographies at the Fin de sicle. Do you like to attend academic panels about your work? Have you gained anything from them in the past?
A: And don't forget Cecile Pineda: The Literary Time-Space Continuum! I deeply respect many of these scholars-people who have made the effort to compose papers, who have come from afar to present them here in San Antonio-whose work I happen to know, and whose opinions I happen to find interesting. Of course I will listen to them with careful attention just as I would hope that my listeners would listen to my readings, especially the one dealing with "The Body Revisited" scheduled for Saturday evening at 7:00 p.m. on the second floor of St. Mary's University Center. In general, I find reactions to the work a source of surprise and delight. Often readers will offer interpretations that I could never have come up with even though I may have conned myself into believing I left no stone unturned.
Q: Where do you see "Latina letters"-I mean the writing as a whole, not just the conference-headed in the near- and long-term future?
A: Latina letters will be with us for a very long time, as long as there remain folks who refuse cultural homogenization, who celebrate their diversity. Hurrah for that! People will continue to write. Some of them, besides writing about yummy sex and yummy food, will actually address the political and sociological challenges of our age admittedly a very interesting one. The best of them may even offer new insights as to how best to conduct our lives in devastating times.
Q: How do you plan to spend your spare time while visiting San Antonio?
A: During my all-too-short time in San Antonio, I hope my leisure time will be occupied by eating, sleeping, and schmoozing with a bunch of renegade, fun-loving folks, but not necessarily in that order.
( Michael Soto is an assistant professor of English and interim director of African-American studies at Trinity University).
Email Cecile Pineda
Titles Published by Wings Press:
- Bardo99: A Mononovel
- Fishlight: A Dream of Childhood
- The Love Queen of the Amazon
- Redoubt: A Mononovel
- Devil's Tango: How I Learned the Fukushima Step by Step