José Miguel Sánchez Gómez, whose writings appear under the name of Yoss, is one of the most renowned Cuban science-fiction writers. Born in 1969 in La Habana, Yoss dedicated himself to writing in the 1980s and entered into the Cuban literary landscape in 1988 when he won the David Award with his debut novel, Timshel. Since then, he wrote over 20 books, including A Planet for Rent (Restless Books, 2015) and Super Extra Grande (Restless Books, 2016), his only novels published in English. Yoss received several awards, including the Ernest Hemingway and the Luis Rogerio Nogelas in Cuba, and the UPC Award from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, in Spain. He was also recently nominated for the 2017 Philip K. Dick award.
Although he has been published in Spain, Italy, Argentina, and France, Yoss’ work was previously unknown to anglophone readers prior to 2015, when Restless Books began to translate and publish his work in the United States.
This interview was conducted in 2016, while Yoss was on tour across the United States.
Question: Hello, Yoss. Thank you for answering our questions. American readers mainly know you through A Planet for Rent (Restless Books, 2015) and Super Extra Grande (Restless books, 2016). Can you tell us a bit about your writings, the political aspect of your novels, and what are their relationship to Cuba?
Yoss: I wrote many books, and all my books are dedicated to Cuba. My characters are Cuban, my stories are Cuban, my references are Cuban, simply because I am very proud to be Cuban and I love my country. I have no shame in saying it. My book A Planet for rent is very equivocal: the main character of the first story is named Buca, which is a very transparent name for Cuba. She’s a prostitute that choose to leave Earth and abandon everything she knows to follow a rich foreigner.
A Planet for rent is a book of pragmatic realism, a novel about the day-to-day life after the end of a dream. What dream? The fall of communism. This novel is a metaphor for Cuba in the 1990s and I have been trying to understand what happened in my country after the fall of the Soviet Union. It was written from the anger, the desillusion, the lost of the sense of future. It is a book about the fall of a dream, about the loss of hope, about the loss of every kind of illusion or perfection, about a flawless tomorrow. It is a book about the crash of the dream against the reality. It is a book of deny. Unfortunately, this novel is still unpublished in Cuba, although the government is considering a first publication in 2018. I finished to write it in 1995, that would be only 23 years after the completion of the writing!
My other books, unpublished in French, are not so hungry in this sense, they are not so furious, they do not present such a political desillusion; but they still tell a story about the survival. They’re not the kind of great epics that were were written before the fall of the Soviet Union.
Question: You mentionned that A Planet for rent was never published in Cuba. Did Cuban people never read it?
Yoss: They never did. The novel was published in Spain, so I tried to distribute the two or three copies that Spanish readers had send me, and two of its chapters were published in anthologies as short stories.
Q: A Planet for rent has many, many characters. Do you have a preferred one? If so, why?
Yoss: Personnaly, I prefer Jowe, the poet, the dreamer, the one who chooses to die rather than becoming a slave at the end of the short story TUNEL DE FUGA. To me, he si the most idealist of my characters, as well as the most tragic and the most human… and the most transhuman.
Q: How do you deal with censorship?
Yoss: I write my story whatever the outcome is, and only after I am done with writing it, I think about the difficulty to publish it in Cuba. For instance, I am finishing a short story compilation called ChronoCuba, and I think I will not be able to publish them for another 20 years. Let me tell you a bit about it. All these stories are about Cuba, time travel, and a different Cuba. In one story, people discover chronorifles, a powerful type of device which is able to shoot people in the future or in the past. Another story is about prisoners: they are sent to the past, in the XIXth century, and are condemned to see the future becoming harder and harder for Cuba. Another example: ten years ago, I finished to write Pais grande, Pais pequeno about the relationship between Cuba and the US. Now, a publisher in Cuba will publish this because Cuba, according to him, is at a breakpoint. It is the good moment to publish something about the relationship between Cuba and the US.
Q: You’re now on a 3-month tour in the United States to present A Planet for Rent and Super Extra-Grande. How do American readers react to your writings? Is it any different from the French or the Cubans?
Yoss: I have to say that if the French understand very well my book, that it is not only a sci-fi story but a metaphor, I suspect that a lot of Americans did not read it in this way. For them, I believe that my book is only a very exotic novel from a citizen of the Third World. I would then say that it is a vision from the Third World of a subordinate future. Maybe what they do not understand that my novel is about the future of my country.
On the other hand, some Americans are very concerned with the relationship of the Cuban government with my books. They even asked me if I had been to jail, which they are always surprised to learn that I never set a foot in a prison. Cuban prisons are very though.
Q: Do you think that the political changes between Cuba and the United States have affected the publishing industry?
Yoss: Under the Obama presidency, a lot of change was involved. You are now able to say and write a lot of things that would have been totally politically incorrect before. Some are dreaming about Cuba becoming the 51st State of the US before Puerto Rico. They believe that we, Cubans, are greater than Puerto Ricans and closer to the US than they are. They think that Cuban people love Americans and vice versa, and that we know what we politically want and have more rights than Puerto Rico to become the 51st state. I am very scared about this. Although Puerto Rico is not a colony, it is not a free country either. I do not wish at all this status for my homeland, even if being part of a more powerful country would bring us much more profit… Our national histories are too different.
Q: Now that the Obama presidency is history, how do you foresee Cuba’s future with the new President of the United States? Have you already noticed changes in the Cuban literary milieu? How does this affect you?
Yoss: Honestly, I’m expecting the worst of Trump’s presidency, for Cuba as well as for the rest of the world. I am afraid that Trump, without lifting the block nor the embargo, will re-establish the Cuban Adjustment Act and more generally, that he will dismantle all the steps taken by Obama to become closer to Cuba. That is to say, to go backwards in time… Or at least to try to. And that, as all science-fiction readers know, never ends well.
As of now, we cannot feel in Cuba the changes brought by the new era of Trump. But we do look at the new government, made of millionaires that the new President brought together, with suspicion.
Regarding how this affects me personally…. Last Friday, I learned that I was nominated for the 2016 Philip K. Dick Award. The Norwescon from Oregon invited me to the ceremony, but they won’t pay for the travel fees, and I do not have enough money to pay for it. It would have been the same thing under Obama. So, once again, nothing has changed…
Q: Your second book published in English is Super Extra Grande, the history of a Spanglish-speaking veterinary for gigantic aliens. Your use of the language has a deep resonance, especially in big Spanish communities like in New York, where the languages are connected to each other. Can you tell us a bit about this language that you forged? What is all about Spanglish?
Yoss: Spanglish is, to me, the language of tomorrow. Spanish being the second most language spoken here, in the United States, and it might be the third most spoken language in the world. It is not hard to believe that with the migration flows and the globalization, the world will at some point speak a very strange mix of Spanish, English, Chinese, Russian… And this new language could be closer to Spanglish than anything else.
Now, I have to mention that there are two versions of ‘my’ Spanglish. There is the version that I wrote in my original novel and the version that David Frye, my translator in the US, forged. He believed that my Spanglish was quite incorrect and was rather a Spanish language with here and there a few words of English. It’s certainly true, my English is not as good as my Spanish. He proposed me to translate my Spanglish text into a more grammatically accurate Spanglish. Later on, when I read the English version of Super Extra Grande, I could only think: « Woaw, this is exactly what I wanted to write! ». David is very good, it is a privilege to have such a good translator.
Q: So if I understand well, your Spanish edition is written in one version of Spanglish and your English edition is written in another version. What about French?
Yoss: It is very hard to try think about translating Spanglish in another language. Maybe by using créole or French from Martinique?
Q: Now a question about New York City – that’s where we are after all. Any impression on this city?
Yoss: With all these technological innovations present in the stress, New York City and the United States can easily appear as the future that awaits us, Cubans. Unfortunately, in this future, the human contact has disappeared. People are always on their phones and are connected to the Internet 24/7. It is quite a scary future if you ask me, especially because I was born in the last century. I am not totally closed to the new technologies, I suppose anyone can be a little fluent with it, but they scare me.
Therefore, the future is not perfect and as I said, I am afraid of this future that New York is presenting me. I am afraid of the loss of human contact between persons, I am afraid of the very quick day to day rhythm of life in NYC, and more than everything else, I am afraid of Cuba becoming a kind of Alaska, a second class state; but being here, I am a witness of this future. I believe that if we pay enough attention, and if we have the will to do it, we can change our future before we follow the same path as the United States. We can spend our money in this future, but it might be better to save our money for a better future, or even to stay in the present in which we live in Cuba.
Q: What is your current project?
Yoss: I am, at the moment, trying to publish Condonautas. It will be my next book to be published by Restless Books in the United States, and was branded as the ‘first Cuban queer sci-fi novel’. It’s a story about a growing cast of astronauts called the condonauts, the contact specialists. It is trying to present a different point of view on paraphilias and, as a matter of fact, zoophilia is a great talent in my story. In this novel, if you find your child playing with the cock of your dog, he might have some great talent to be a condonaut. You would send him to a condonaut school where your son/daughter will meet and have sex with various lifeforms. Needless to say, I am very interested into the French reception.