An Interview With...
Luís Felipe Díaz Galeano
When you were a little boy, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Lot's of things! I remember wanting to be a Fireman, a Taxi Driver or a Soldier. As I grew up I became more selective and, perhaps, more mistaken. Sometimes I wonder if I might have been happier with a less complex profession.
Why did your family relocate when you were a boy?
It was a curious situation. My father was about to be promoted to an important position in the company he worked for. We were at the time residing in Cuba, my place of birth. Castro's Revolution and the radical social changes he made ended in nationalizing all foreign and private investments and speeding up my dad's promotion. All of the sudden, I found myself residing temporarily in Detroit, Michigan.
Did you miss your homeland?
I've never had the sensation of a missed homeland. Upon arrival in Detroit I found innumerable obstacles demanding my full attention. I had to learn a new language, face behaviors that were totally different from mine, new habits, people... I didn't have time to worry about the past. A new world was developing, in all its greatness, right before my eyes creating a deeper impression than the feeling of nostalgia. Shortly afterwards we landed in Spain where customs were similar to the ones I had known in Cuba and I began to feel quite secure again.
What were some of the advantages or disadvantages of growing up with children of different nationalities?
The biggest advantage is finding new situations and points of view you would never have thought existed. It leads you to think that, perhaps, you are not in possession of the truth. You find other positions and reasonings, equally valid and different from yours, that focus on situations in a way you would never imagine or would consider non applicable in your environment. You learn to become more tolerant, more understanding and develop an attitude of consensus in which you give up part of your righteousness to accept that of others. This is a difficult exercise. It requires addressing the issues broadmindedly and with a great deal of respect. Being democratic is not enough, you have to be more than that and give a lot of yourself not expecting anything in return to accomplish an understanding.
Disadvantages? Personally I believe there are none. The issue does not reside in the differences but in how they are approached. If we allow for racism, intransigent religious beliefs, envy, hate and greed to interfere, then we will never be able to learn and profit from all the benefits of being different. We will just be cardboard characters without an intellectual or spiritual depth.
Did you have any difficulties learning English? When did you first start to learn English?
It was very frustrating in the beginning. My knowledge of English was scarce and limited to a few words and sentences. Furthermore, no one in Detroit spoke Spanish and they were unable to help me. Fortunately, I was ten years old and anyone at that age can learn a language in three months, at least that was my case and I learned it as a baby learns from his mother. Nowadays I'm incapable of translating from one language to the other because I learned them independently.
What were your favorite subjects in elementary school?
Math and Literature. With the rest I always maintained a ferocious fight against boredom.
When did you first realize that you enjoyed writing? Did you have a natural talent or did you have to work hard to perfect your skills?
I started writing "seriously" at the age of seventeen. I wrote a lot of poetry that I would compile in small notebooks which I still keep and read from time to time. Later I started writing small essays and short stories. I even started writing a play. Unfortunately, they remained as mere literary exercises because I lacked the skills and techniques that would allow me to make any progress. Someday I guess I'll come back to them to see if I can obtain something worthwhile. Talent? Talent is a hidden gene no scientist is capable of detecting. It manifests itself as an unpolished diamond. If you do not invest in studies and work on it constantly, it will never develop and shine in its entire splendor. Reading a lot of books and writing at the spur of the imagination is not enough. Imagination is only the fuse. You have to come back to what you've written and spend endless hours reviewing your work. The grammatical construction, how the characters spoke, the words that were popular at a particular point in time... You must reconsider if what was written conveys the meaning it was meant to express. Writing is a full time job in which inspiration only accounts for fifteen or twenty wonderful minutes. The rest is highly complex work eliminating redundant or unnecessary adjectives, scratching out paragraphs, eliminating superfluous ideas and rewriting what we obtained in our sweet moment of inspiration. This does not imply that geniuses were not capable of writing without the strain. They simply wrote more effectively and, consequently, the time employed in reviewing was shorter. The difference is not the amount of imagination. If you read the biography of famous writers you pretty soon discover that the majority experienced prolonged moments of sterility and that their major works took years to fully develop into a great novel.
What kinds of books did you read when you were a young boy? Did you watch very much television? Why?
Jules Verne, Walter Scott, R.L. Stevenson, Dickens, Salgari, Rice Burroughs... the normal reading youngsters would read in any country. I used to watch a lot of television when programs were worthwhile. Back then television used to program a lot of plays and classic movies and, in general, shows were, at least, entertaining. Nowadays that doesn't exist anymore so I just limit myself to watching the news or a sport event and very little else. I guess the excess of advertisements, junk programs and reality shows are drawing me away from television. What's more, I have a lot of books waiting to be read and innumerable gratifying things to do to waste my time with television.
How did your interest in literature evolve?
I think it was a lucky combination of sorts. On one side I had wonderful teachers. Teachers who enjoyed the subject and suggested more than ordered what would be the books or the authors I should read. On the other hand, I had the opportunity to meet and talk to several writers about writing and its implications. I learned that anyone is capable of writing if he wishes to do so and applies himself. I was, suddenly, challenged to demonstrate to myself that I could do it. Obviously, and this is important, my family always cherished the pleasure of reading and writing. I still keep at home several poems and short stories my grandfather wrote and sent to me as a pleasantry.
Do you have a preference for reading in Spanish or English? What's the difference and why the preference, if any?
None. The difference or the preference resides in my knowledge of different languages. This advantage allows me to read an author in his own words. No matter how good a translation may be, nothing is comparable to listening to the words as conceived by the author. However similar, the words and the grammatical construction do not convey the same meaning when translated. You always lose something. The subtleties, the cultural environment and the particular intentions of a certain idea could be lost in a translation. It is very similar to music. The same piece could be interpreted by two different musicians but we will always wonder how the composer would have interpreted it. This interview if read in English and Spanish, provided you mastered both languages, are different although they express the same ideas.
Did you participate in any sports or extracurricular activities at school? How did you make the basketball team since you were not very tall?
Youth is bold! No, truly, I've always had a passion for sports. I love team sports where intelligence plays a big part. It is also true that nowadays team sports have become very physical but I've never practiced them at the professional level so that leaves room for those of us who do not meet the requirements. My participation in school was due basically to the spirit of comradeship more than anything else and to the atavism of belonging to a group. With that attitude, I also played in the soccer and baseball teams.
What did you like best about participating in school plays? Did you prefer plays in English or Spanish? What type of plays did you perform in?
I cannot stress enough the fact that participation in extracurricular activities are due to the spirit of comradeship and to the illusion and interest teachers devote to it. If they also produce pleasure and, let's not kid ourselves, boost the student's ego, you have a passionate response. Language was irrelevant to me. Nothing could surpass the overwhelming feeling I had every time I set foot on a stage. The nerves crawling all over you, performing, feeling the audience react, the drowsiness of success... I couldn't care for anything else. I did comedy, drama, the Classics, contemporary. Theatre is universal and the type or the periods are just resources of the author, not of the interpreter. The interpreter has to adapt to the resources just as any citizen abides to Law.
What did you like to do outside of school?
I would like to answer with something sublime like the many hours I spent at the Prado Museum or that I would never find the time to leave the National Library but that would not be true. I used to do the things all schoolboys of my age did back then. Play football, plan for trips, go to parties or to the movies and, from time to time, do something which was not totally acceptable. What I certainly did not do was to waste my time in idle activities with no personal value. It is sad to see youngsters today turning to alcohol and drugs as a form of evasion. I think we should all feel responsible and find the way to turn this situation around. We should encourage healthy past times and facilitate youngsters with the opportunity of visiting all the wonderful things they can find and feel proud about in their vicinity. There is something very sad that you find everywhere in the world. People in a city hardly ever visit the museums and the monuments. It's much easier to find a person from Japan who has visited the MOMA (Museum of Modern Art, in Manhattan) than a New Yorker, or a Spaniard who has been to the Chinese Wall than a Chinese.
What are some of your favorite authors? What do you like most about their work?
I don't have favorite authors. I think all have something intelligent to say. We may not share their points of view but that's a problem the reader has, not the author. Furthermore, it's very interesting to compare styles. Some are dense and complicated, others are lighter and direct... As you begin to discover each of them you start making a selection of which you relate to the most. If that could be called favorites, then I have quite a few but I don't necessarily read all their books. In fact, if you do, you'll discover that not all are good nor create the same interest. Having said that I ask myself: Is that a valid reason for not being a favorite? I don't think so.
Do you prefer writing in English or Spanish? What types of things do you write?
I tend to write much more in Spanish. Personally, I believe it allows for more subtleties due to its richness and variety. English is less subtle and more allegoric in its search for richness. It may, also, be that I can express myself better in Spanish. Frankly, I have never stopped to consider why. I simply write in one language or the other because inspiration came that way. As to the type I feel most comfortable writing novels. My style requires that I write the width and length of the paper. I use a large number of characters and I tend to thicken the stories with various collateral plots. My short stories lack the freshness required. I'm incapable to describe the World in two pages whereas O. Henry could do so in two paragraphs.
When did you become interested in art?
All my life. I was fortunate to contemplate the work of the great artists and architects of the world from a very early stage. At the age of twelve I was exposed to Gothic Art, at fourteen I had visited the Sistine Chapel and had touched with my hands Michelangelo's Moses and seen his David. I have been to the Parthenon and to the Louvre and to the Prado museums. I have dwelt in Versailles and in Stonehenge... The list could be endless. My last experience was visiting Dracula's castle in the Carpathian Mountains.
What sparked your interest in writing stories about famous paintings?
I came across a rather peculiar magazine cover which was announcing Goya's tribute to women in a collection of paintings at the Prado museum in Madrid. After reading the cover, I felt the urge to write about Goya and his famous Maja Desnuda. I showed the story to Luisa Masó, a good friend of mine and daughter of one of Spain's most important film producers. We discussed the story and after a while I had two other stories already bouncing on my head. A month later I decided to produce a collection around a few overriding rules. I would restrict to Spanish painters throughout history, choose a representative painting and write the story of the event that sparked the painter to do the chosen painting. Obviously, I had to respect the time and place but could change certain things to come up with a story that could be neither refused nor asserted. Later on in the process I incorporated less known painters as a contribution to disseminate their art into the public in general.
What activities do you like to do in your spare time as an adult?
I go horseback riding with my children very often.
Do you have any advice for children or adults who have to deal with major changes in their life?
To think very carefully all the important things that they are about to do and do it with courage. It's preferable, within certain limits, to feel sorry for what you have done than to repent for something that you should have done but didn't.
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
Innumerable. However, the other day I came across a quote that impacted me quite strongly. It stated: "One of the snares of Life that I discovered was to place my dreams in the hands of nostalgia, to believe that time had stolen what I never had and the sensation that plenitude is always attached to a feeling of loss. To live in fear is the worst of miseries and the greatest sin against Life."
- 31 January 2004
31 January 2004
© 2004 - Imagiverse Educational Consortium