“A LIFE-TRANSFORMING NOVEL! SUBERB!”
PRINCESS PAPAYA weaves santeria, transgender
identity, and the resistance struggle in contemporary
A WELL-WROUGHT URN, A MASTERFULLY TOLD TALE THAT LEAVES EACH ONE TO PONDER A NEWLY-MINTED QUESTION: AM I MY BROTHER’S KEEPER?
240 pages, Trade Paperback
ISBN 1-55885-436-3, $12.95
A thrilling novel intertwining one Cuban-American Jewish family’s personal tragedy with the contemporary struggle in Cuba
Roberto Lobo receives anonymous calls in the night. Voices whisper threats in his ear. His fear drives him to seek the help of Ideliza Mercado, Princess Papaya and Priestess of the Barrio. Roberto hopes Princess Papaya’s powerful knowledge of santería will end his torment. Hiding in the shadows is Ideliza and Roberto’s deaf-mute son, Bembé. Across the city, Victoria Lobo, a Jewish, Cuban-American poet, mourns the death of her husband, Francisco, until a chance meeting with Bembé brings her closer to her brother and the disappearance that has plagued her family for twenty years.
From this web of characters spins an intense story of desire and intrigue, forging the lives of Roberto and his sister, Victoria, Ideliza Mercado and her son, Bembé, and Cooper, a mysterious stranger who is more involved in their stories than they may guess. A unique cast of characters populate this rhapsodic, magically real tour de force: a hydrocephalic child with uncanny spiritual; a doctor whose greed precipitates a descent into his worst nightmares; a grieving poet struggling to regain her muse; and a man who fights to survive torture and the neglect of his family.
Taking us from the 9-11 tragedy in
“Princess Papaya is really a ‘rhapsodic, magically real tour de force.’ The writing is so compelling and the story is so passionate and intense as to be life transforming. The novel is filled with suspense, intrigue and human pathos. I’ve never read anything so real and yet so out of this world. Novas is an extraordinary writer.” Philip Moon, The Avid Reader
“Princess Papaya is an extraordinary novel. Himilce Novas
is a poet who has just come into her own.”
--Guillermo Cabrera Infante
REVIEWS OF OPRINCESS PAPAYA
An unfolding mystery changes the lives of three siblings in lyrical 'Princess Papaya'
Reviewed by Roxana Popescu
October 3, 2004
Sometimes a novel is so delicious that it reads like a cookbook
graced with a plot and characters. M.F.K. Fisher details seductively simple
dishes from her visits to
Arte Publico Press, 240 pages, $12.95
On par with this tradition of literary gourmandise is "Princess Papaya," a novel by Cuban-American novelist and cookbook author Himilce Novas. Though not about food in any proper sense, it relates a mystery where grief, belief, betrayal, cultural and gender identity, and the redemptive power of forgiveness, are all seeped in the salves and spices of Jewish and Cuban cuisines.
Novas' recipe goes something like this: Take one scheming obstetrician and mix with a Cuban curandera, or healer, with pendulous papaya breasts, to get a deaf-mute boy with milk-chocolate skin. In a separate bowl, mix a vanilla-sweet widower and an olive-skinned Sept. 11 widow who met on the Internet, to get a pungent romance. Finally, add a bitter missing brother or two and a dash of revenge. Serve cold.
This is the story of three Lobo siblings, Jewish-Cuban
exiles born in
Meanwhile, David, the oldest sibling, has escaped from
Novas has a slightly off-key take on reality; coincidence,
kismet, mysticism, mitzvah and prayer are equally plausible explanations for
how unlikely things come to pass. For
There is no better gatekeeper to this uncanny world than Bembé, the deaf-mute son of Roberto and Princess Papaya, a "spontaneous sage-artist with the milk-chocolate smile, who could render his eyes transparent at will and see all things at once." He cowers in a niche when Roberto and his wife make love, and he joyfully watches affection blossom between Victoria and Cooper.
Bembé consecrates everything with his silent and unflinching gaze, suggesting that the unspoken and the oblique are as important as what is stated aloud.
[…] Novas writes with unbridled lyricism. Romancing
By Himilce Novas
(Arte Publico Press, $12.95)
A touching, quirky novel that takes the reader to all levels of mourning, love, politics and sexuality among the Lobos, a family of Cuban-American Jews.
At the center of the family’s tangled sea of secrets and nostalgia is Ideliza Mercado, the Princess Papaya of the title and a fortune-telling santera.
[…] Novas brings her love of food to this novel. The read contains an array of descriptive smells and colors that will lead Latino readers to memories of walking into a botánica or Cuban kitchen. But beware — there’s an overkill of descriptive filler, which will probably prove tedious to some readers.
ISBN 1-55885-436-3. paper. $14.95.
In the world that Princess
Papaya creates, the reader comes to expect the unusual. The
hydrocephalic child is an artist and a computer whiz; the priestess of Santeria
carries her gods in her luggage. Himilce Novas' novel is funny and poetic at
the same time, yet rides on a current of violence and fear. This novel is the
most recent in a series of works by Novas, including another novel and a book
on Latino history. Novas has taught literature and writing at such universities
as Tulane and
One of the most intriguing elements of Princess Papaya is the mix of ethnicities and religions. Victoria Lobo and her brothers Roberto and David are Jewish Cuban Americans, with an unidentified ancestor who gives some of the family members aquamarine eyes. This startling anomaly is explained in the family lore by the phrase "a pogrom is a pogrom," meaning that bloodlines are confused by systematic rape.
the novel, we enter several points of view, although the central one is
novel crosses multiple borders-of heritage, of religion, of gender. One of the
most empathetic of the characters is a man who had been raised as a girl, had
even gotten pregnant, but who always understood himself as male. Born as
hermaphrodite or more correctly, to use the Native American term he adopts, as
a berdache-this man understands gender as no one else can. He is in direct
Intricately plotted, graphically erotic, written in modes as diverse as e-mail and personal journal, Princess Papaya gives an unusual view of the Latino/a experience. The novel ranges from scenes of violence in a Cuban prison and an abortionist's clinic to a magical realist vision of God, making the reader question what reality is. Kathleen De Grave
REVIEW OF PRINCESS PAYAYA IN THE MULTICULTURAL REVIEW
Novas, Himlice. Princess Papaya.
2004. 240 pp. ISBN 1-55885-436-3, $14.95 (pb).
Ideliza Mercado is Princess Papaya, a priestess and a spiritual counselor. She wasn't expecting to see Roberto Lobo again in her botánica until the first of the month, but Roberto has been receiving threatening phone calls. Someone is telling him his days are numbered and that he's going to pay for what he's done, so he desperately needs Princess Papaya's help. Thus begins Novas's second novel. Besides the seven African Powers, some of the characters in this novel include Bembé, Ideliza's hydrocephalic son, and Victoria Lobo, Roberto's sister, whose encounter with Bembé allows her to face her personal grief. Princess Papaya takes the reader from post-September 11
Novas broaches the transgender subject
entirely outside the political fray, as it touches two people who didn't send
out for it but nonetheless are caught and ultimately blessed by it. "In
the same non-polemic vein that I believe is part of my voice as a novelist, I
have addressed the subject of political prisoners in
Recommended for anyone interested in
the nooks and crannies of the Cuban psyche.
PRINCESS PAPAYA By Himilce Novas was Finalist for
Book of the year in
A Novel by Himilce Novas
Arte Publico Press
Paperback: 213pp; $14.95
WRITER HIMILCE NOVAS
ne imagines that being part
of a prominent literary and intellectual family in the exiled, 1960's-era,
Cuban-American community of
MP When you sat down to write Princess Papaya, what came to you first: A character? An image? A scene?
HN One sees (or perhaps I should speak only from my own experience and say "I see," although it is arguable that there is a common denominator to all writers, and thus when I say “one sees," I probably mean "I see and I think the writer sees") a character against the backdrop of a situation, a life unfolding in a particular corner of a world. Then, to that character other characters accrue. These become the "cast" of the story that is being told, hummed, and droned inside me and which I'll eventually decal onto the written page.
I should clarify that that original character around which the story unfolds is ultimately not necessarily the "main" character in the written story--at least not to the naked eye. She/he is perhaps the heart or vena cava, but the work itself depends on the equipoise, gestalt, synergy, and interplay between the characters, their lives, their compounded fate, and their aggregated substance.
MP One of your characters is Victoria Lobo, who has lost her husband in the events that unfolded on 9/11. Since 9/11 has dominated political and social conversation and thought in the US and abroad for four years, I wonder at the challenge it poses as a subject of fiction. Was there anything you felt you had to represent with regard to survivors? Was there anything that you insisted you would not represent?
HN 9/11 was metaphor and catalyst to depict the violent and unexpected loss of a loved one. It gave me a prism for Victoria Lobo to see her husband's life immolate before her on the TV screen. I could have equally chosen a different random act, such as a traffic accident or a drive-by shooting along some anonymous highway. But by choosing the plane en route to NY from Boston crashing into the WTC tower, I chose a collective grave, a grave in the collective unconscious, a funeral larger than life that all readers had already attended and considered and mourned. That is, I drew the reader to a familiar ground zero. However, the 9/11 attack itself was not part of the story.
For me, the random act of Francisco's sudden death and deconstruction was the point--i.e., the seeming senselessness of the accidental victim and the impact it had on the attending characters, particularly Victoria. I guess one thing my choosing 9/11 certainly did not represent was a political message. It was the personal message, the lives lost and the lives shattered as a result of a senseless act that I was after. Of course, politics and the broad flux and efflux of human actions impact the individual, so in that sense politics was the silent presence in the story.
MP Your father, Lino Novas Calvo, is one of the most acclaimed short story and novel writers in Latin America and the Caribbean. Do you see his fingerprint in your own work?
HN We each have our own highly individual voice and I cannot say that his writing directly influenced mine, either stylistically or thematically. Also, I am an American writer writing in English and one cannot underestimate language and cultural point of view when looking at a writer's work. But my father did teach me a lot about literature and about the craft of writing itself. He also taught me how to read and write by reading me his translations of Faulkner, Joyce, and Hemingway (among many others) before I was 4 years old. Most of all, he taught me that a writer writes.
I also think that his sense of honra and his fairness and his humility and his compassion for those who are unjustly treated and persecuted helped shape my own view of life and ergo my literary compass. Both he and my mother, Herminia del Portal, were seminal in that sense, as well as in the most fundamental sense. I learned from both and miss them terribly.
MP I'm interested in how language interacts with the stories you're telling. Obviously, there is the issue of a writer's facility with language that comes into play, but for someone like you who is bilingual, are there any other conscious decisions that inform you writing in English? Does it change you as an AMERICAN writer?
HN I am actually quatrilingual: English, Spanish, French, and Italian. I have translated works from all four languages (art books, articles, etc) and write and speak all fluently and "natively." I learned all four at the same time. However,my innermost language is English. That is my ready-think voice, my knee-jerk, and my writer's pen. I don't have to think about language when I write. (I do not write in translation, after all!) It thinks me, and you cannot tell the dancer from the dance. As Alexander Pope said about Newton: he lisped in numbers for the numbers came. I am an American writer who writes in English, the same as Emily Dickinson was an American writer who wrote in English, or Dos Passos. Language to me is the same as air you breathe. I take it in, and I release it. Then I suck it in again, and by virtue of this simple exercise, I stay alive.
MP How do you think it affects the characters when their lingua franca is English (their dialogue, their thoughts), Do you think it changes who they are?
HN If I write about characters whose language is English, there is no language question in terms of language per se, but there are questions vis a vis the characters' social class, intelligence, regional provenance and so on, which, of course, always inform speech. That goes for characters that think in Spanglish, Cajun-English, or any other linguistic hybrid. I must tell it as it is, the way an actor must do a perfect accent and not a mockery of one or a soprano must hit that perfect c over high c and nothing in between. I hear it, I know it, and I do it.
If I write about a character whose English is wanting and/or speaks in translation, then that is reflected in how his/her speech pattern is expressed, and it is up to my artistry to convey that.
If I am writing about a character who is speaking in, say, Spanish, I convey that with my own linguistic sleight of hand and may pepper his/her sentences with Spanish words for sazon and coloratura. You can find an example of this in Chapter 5 of Princess Papaya with the character named Dolores, a Cuban living in Cuba, who is forced into prostitution as a means of survival but ultimately uses it as a private weapon against the Castro regime.
If you are asking me whether language changes the way people think, the answer is both no and yes. No because underneath all language is the universal human language. Yes because each culture has a predetermined set of values and its own singular weltanschauung, which informs both linguistic meaning and intent, as well as what you say and what you don’t say.
It is up to the writer's own art and genius to modulate all that within the text and context of the novel itself--never letting it stick out like a thesis, as that would not be literature. In the end, one's work must be a seamless garment, and the reader should understand and discern the story intuitively, not be expected to dissect it like a frog.
MP How do you feel about translations of your own work? Do you play an active role, or do you view the translation as a separate artistic product?
HN I do not like to translate my own work at all. It would be like saying something twice and second-guessing myself in the process. I'd rather spend the time working on something new. However, I do like to check for accuracy and fidelity with a fine-tooth comb.
MP Your characters occupy a very real and familiar environment, and yet they witness magic in their daily lives. Is that your view of the world or is this something unique to the Cuban American communities you're depicting?
HN I suppose the same way my left brain interacts with my right brain. The one needs the other. I don't know that life through the magic lens is unique to the Cuban-American experience per se. Perhaps it has more to do with the artist's eye--or this artist's eye.
MP Do you privilege fiction or non-fiction? Do you think either is more powerful or more apt to tell a particular story?
HN Do you mean prefer or lean more to one or the other, like favoring the right leg over the left? Well, in any case, the two are not related at all. Writing fiction is the same as composing music. The artist is born. I did not choose it. I just am. There is no preferring there. A writer writes. No sense asking the mocking bird why it sings.
MP Is your work autobiographical?
HN My fiction is not autobiographical. Perhaps some day I'll write my memoirs or some memoirs and that will be autobiographical. As I said before, I write what I live, feel, see, know, remember, and touches my human heart. And, to borrow from Whitman, I contain multitudes. I weep with those who weep, and I am not alien from the human condition.
MP All of your work very much weaves in the intersection of society's mores and values with the lives of individuals. In this novel, several of your characters represent people that are often critiqued by mainstream values: the doctor giving abortions, the curandera, couples engaged in forbidden affairs, the hermaphrodite. Are you drawn to these characters?
HN Yes, those characters clamor for a voice, long for grace, understanding and transcendence. I'm interested in considering the whole of them from an independent lens. I ponder their contradictions and complex humanity away from the myopic eye of prejudice or condemnation or society's expectations.
MP I recently saw a film by a young filmmaker about Cali, Colombia. She said that she
wanted to focus on a positive depiction of Cali since everything she'd seen was negative. Do you feel pressure to represent a particular community? Are you concerned about negative depictions of that community?
HN No, I don't feel any pressure to represent any community. I am not interested in propaganda or morality plays where characters stand for things or ideas or, worse, ideals. I don't want to spin anything, good or bad. It's both song and knee jerk reaction. It is, ultimately and fundamentally, poetry. Robert Lowell said, "It's not what a poem means but how a poem means." That's what my literature is about, how.
MP I had a professor who argued that the tradition of the public intellectual critiquing the American lifestyle in newspapers and essays was dying. You're a scholar, a fiction writer, an essayist, and a radio commentator, which puts you in a wonderful space to comment on the culture around you. What do you think are the responsibilities of intellectuals today? Do they have a place in the community at large?
HN I do agree that, certainly, the bully pulpit as literary genre where the thinker/essayist lambastes injustice seems to be defunct--but the advent of the blog is perhaps filling the void that your professor identified, though not entirely.
I believe everyone is called upon to speak out against unfairness and to relieve human suffering in one measure or another. And, of course, from whom much is given, much is expected. So, if a writer can articulate the wrong and the right and point the way to solutions, then he/she must speak out, write and shout and say "ouch!" for as long as it takes in as many venues as possible. To stand by silently and let oppression rule in any guise is not acceptable in my view.
MP And the dreaded question: Are you working on anything new?
HN I'm working on a story (a novel) about destiny/providence. I'm also drafting a lot of letters in defense of same sex marriage and undocumented immigrants these days.
Buy Books by Himilce Novas:
NO PORTION OF THIS WEBSITE MAY BE REPRODUCED UNDER PENALTY OF LAW
CREATED AND DESIGNED BY SUPERNOVAS
THE PAGES OF THIS WEBSITE