The Daily Heller: A Normal, Terrifying Childhood

Posted inThe Daily Heller

Cuban born illustrator and graphic commentator Edel Rodriguez began writing and drawing ideas for a potential memoir about 10 years ago. After interviewing his parents, he created a rough mockup of what such a book might look like. He traveled back to Cuba several times over the past decade and gathered additional details, which added to the overall narrative. In 2016, he turned his attention to the U.S. presidential race, cornering the periodical field with anti-Trump images, and put the book on hold.

When the country returned to a quasi-normal state, Rodriguez returned to his memoir, titled Worm: A Cuban American Odyssey (Metropolitan/Henry Holt). I asked him to discuss the emotional and aesthetic underpinning of the book.

“I feel that Cuba is not very well understood,” he says. “It’s a country and a people that are often depicted in broad and romanticized clichés about music, dance, revolution, etc. Real life in Cuba is far more complicated and intriguing than how it is depicted at times. I wanted to write a book that delved deeper into the daily life of a Cuban family and the difficult decisions that went into leaving their country behind. We often speak of what immigrants want from America, but we don’t try harder to understand why they left their homeland and what they sacrificed to come here. I wanted to tell that story.” Read on …

Writing a memoir is hard enough, but creating a visual vocabulary and consistent flow is doubly difficult. How did you marry text and image?
Before I started writing the book, I began making visual notes. I painted the title “WORM” on a brown paper bag back in 2013. That exact lettering appears on the finished book cover. My family in Cuba and in Miami use old cigar boxes to store letters, photographs and personal items. I wanted the book to feel a bit like one of these old cigar boxes, a vessel that reveals secrets and untold stories when opened. Each chapter opens with a symbolic vignette illustration that is framed by a decorative border, reminiscent of the label design of a cigar box. I maintained a consistent flow by using a limited color palette throughout the book that would not distract from, but accentuate, the narrative. I wanted to create a graphic memoir that brought the reader into the story, with visual details that connect as the story unfolds over 300 pages.

I was very aware of Cuba from two perspectives—the pre- and post-revolution. My parents were those “ugly Americans” who frequented Havana hotels and casinos and made their final trip right after Castro came to power. Did you have any sense of pre-Castro Cuba from your parents or relatives, and how did that manifest in your story?
My family lived on farms and villages in the countryside, so they’d share small-town tales about working on the farm, their jobs in the tobacco fields, and cultural events like local dances. They sometimes spoke about their way of life before the revolution and how things changed dramatically afterwards. There’s a perception that the revolution improved the lives of workers and farmers, but that wasn’t the case for many. Some of their experiences, especially my father’s, who was a teenager in the 1950s, are woven into the story.

The most striking image was you as a young Fidelista. What was he like in your imagination? What did Fidel mean to you?
I was a bit scared of Fidel Castro; he was very menacing and intense. His speeches and military parades were regularly broadcast on television, along with parades beamed in from Red Square in Moscow. As a kid, I was more fascinated by the uniforms, the tanks and missile launchers, the marching soldiers, the choreography of it all. Castro spoke of the enemy, but as child I didn’t understand who the enemy was. I remembered his slogans; the one he usually ended his speeches with and which was plastered on many billboards was “Fatherland or Death, We Will Win!”

On the same television that showed Fidel, I watched Soviet cartoons and “Aventuras,” a live-action series with characters like Robin Hood. Our school was covered in posters and murals of Che Guevara and other fighters of the revolution, like Camilo Cienfuegos. I found them more appealing than Castro. We stood for the national anthem every day in the yard at the center of our school and sang lyrics about combat, battle and death. We were given uniforms and told that good students were revolutionaries like Che. We went along with everything we were told because we didn’t know any better and didn’t have any choice in the matter. Becoming a revolutionary and being trained as a future fighter for the revolution was part of the daily routine.

There are times in the narrative where I was afraid to turn the page, and yet you did not render a horror comic. What was the plan as you organized the structure of your story?
As I developed the book and charted out the chapters, I came to realize that the structure of the story worked very well as a sequence of events, with some references to past events and asides. I start by introducing the setting, time and place, move on to the main characters, spend time delving into their lives, and then slowly show how things begin to fall apart. The events and images that go along with them carry a sense of drama on their own; I didn’t need to embellish the imagery. I spent many nights in Cuba sitting on the porch with my family, listening to their stories, and likely learning from the way they told them. This book feels very much like the storytelling I experienced as a child.

For me the most upsetting was your time in the camp waiting for your boat. As you recreated that for the memoir, what were your feelings?
That was a very tense and stressful time for my family; it felt like anything could happen. Those are the moments I’ve played through in my head time after time since I was a child, so it was a bit cathartic to write them down. I wanted the reader to understand the tension felt by my parents, but also be able to see the events from the point of view of a child. We went through many difficult circumstances, but I also found ways to be a kid in the midst of it all.

You returned to Cuba as a young man. Do you retain any nostalgic feelings—real or imagined—that did not make it into the book?
Cuba is a place that is stuck in time, so it is very easy to feel nostalgic when I visit. My friends and family still live in the same houses and drive the same cars, so I suddenly revert back to my childhood when I’m there. I am the most nostalgic about my relationship with my grandparents, and some of that is in the book, along with many memories of the places I frequented. 

You have spoken about how the Cuban experience changed your life and made you the artist you are. But for this interview can you elaborate?
There are many experiences growing up in Cuba that influenced my life as an artist.  I worked with my hands from a very young age. We were inventive and frequently made our own toys and musical instruments with gourds, seeds, bottle caps, tree branches and scrap wood. I was surrounded by hardworking carpenters, craftspeople and farmers. I lived much of my childhood outdoors, which made me much more in tune with things found in nature: textures, colors, birds and animals. I was influenced by the symbols and objects of the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion and the revolutionary billboards that dotted the countryside. I became interested in political art in America because I grew up in the maelstrom of the Cold War battles between these two countries. Having grown up in a dictatorship made me very aware of the first signs of possible tyranny in America. I don’t think I would create the political work I do in this country if I hadn’t grown up in Cuba.

So much of your well-known work has been acerbic polemics or cautionary satiric. Would you classify yourself as a political animal?
I became interested in politics when I first started taking civics and social studies classes in this country.  I was fascinated by the idea of having rights, something which we didn’t have back in Cuba. I went on to work at my college newspaper and later at TIME magazine, which added to my interest in politics. I don’t consider myself to be a political animal in the sense that I’m on top of every law that’s being debated in Congress, like a daily political cartoonist, but I do keep an eye on what’s happening. If I were a political animal, it would be one who’s very alert and then pounces when they feel they can make an impact.

Your humanism comes through in the memoir. But in your narrative, is there anything that you held back?
Everything is in there; that’s why it was so difficult to write. Many friends and acquaintances had harrowing tales to tell, but I wanted to stay focused on my family’s story and my life in Cuba and America.

Do you intend to do another memoir? Or have you exhausted yourself emotionally and physically with this?
I did feel exhausted when I finished this book. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.  There were so many threads and personal stories to tie together that I felt I needed a break after I finished.  However, once you have written a book, you immediately get ideas for others. I don’t know if I’ll write another memoir, but there may be other worthwhile life experiences to put together into a story. I do want to write about Cuba again, perhaps about the current situation in the country, or a fictional story that brings multiple narratives together. I’ve been making notes again and waiting to see if they gel into something. For years, I’ve been moved by the experiences of my wife’s Jewish family in Prague under Nazi occupation. Now that my memoir is finished, I may start exploring that story.

Posted inThe Daily Heller