“Episodic Memory Pervades”: An Interview With Ricardo José González-Rothi

by | Mar 30, 2024 | Interviews, The Attic

THE MANGO CHRONICLE

Keene Short talks with Ricardo José González-Rothi about his memoir The Mango Chronicle, memory, Cuba, and episodic structures.


Keene Short: First, The Mango Chronicle was a joy to read! Congratulations on its publication.

I want to start with the preface, which notes that “two thirds of author royalties” for the book will go to nonprofits for social justice and freedom. Can you talk about which nonprofits will benefit and how you went about implementing this decision, for other authors who might be similarly inclined?

Ricardo José González-Rothi: The “accounting” details of providing royalties funds to charitable, not-for-profit organizations are yet to be worked out. I did not write this book with the intention of making personal profit but to share the message of my story. I am in a unique situation in that I am retired and make do financially-that is, I do not have to rely on my writing to pay the bills.

I feel that donating to worthy causes is my way of “paying it forward” to society. Without committing to specifics, there are worthy causes and organizations, many of which deal with providing food and aid to displaced persons, refugees, victims of natural disasters, etc that I would be inclined to support. I do not know personally other authors who have done this, although I am sure there are many out there. My advice to other authors would be to discuss this with their own financial advisors, accountants. I belong to the Authors Guild, and they are often a good resource to tap into potential resources, including their community forums.

 

KS: I’m curious about your decision to call this a book a chronicle, because structurally it very much reminded me of collections of folk stories from antiquity, like the Arthurian legends. It’s a series of adventures trials populated with unique, sometimes eccentric characters. As a memoir, does this structure reflect how you remember the past from where you are today, or does it imitate how you experienced the past so many years ago?

RG: Great questions. The vignettes reflect unique and often eccentric individuals who greatly impacted me as a child, and these accounts were indeed “adventurous.” As I thought about my childhood, I realized that perhaps more than most average kids, I had a pretty wild ride in a few short years. I was pretty precocious and observant, so even as a child I had vivid recollections of people that crossed my life, down to the scars on their hands, holes in their shoes or what they smelled like, at times even their “motives.” A colleague in a writing group once remarked about my life: “…you were like a Cuban Huck Finn!” I had never thought about it this way, I must admit.

As for the structure of the memoir:  I did not originally intend to write a book. I was leading a very hectic life as a clinician-researcher-administrator in academic medicine, and wanting to “write.” Finding time to write was difficult. I took some courses and began by writing some short pieces about my life in Cuba, which were published as stand-alone in literary journals. For some time I had compiled a list of what I felt were memorable events in my life, primarily from my childhood. I used these as “one-sentence prompts” that I could tuck away and write about when time permitted. Then I began getting feedback from friends, family and people externally who had read my published work, urging me to put these together as a book.  It took me almost four years of mulling the idea to begin to construct a unifying theme (the intricacies of living a “dual” life as a refugee, in between two cultures as I allude to in the Preface) and then I came to a metaphor (the nostalgia of leaving my childhood and the “mango” reference of friendship and family under and around a mango tree and going back to revisit).

The memoir is loosely chronological, hence the “chronicle” part, and is a mélange of my episodic memory of events both from a child’s perspective and then as an adult, reflecting back. I made a deliberate effort to capture in the narrative what unfolded from the “eyes” and recollection/perspective of me as a child, versus later on in the book, as a matured adult “reflecting” on aspects of that childhood, and how it shaped the person I became.

While crafting the book, chronology was at times juxtaposed, mostly because of stylistic and editorial modifications along the process of putting the book together. For example, the opening chapter, “Bienvenido” starts out with my first five months living in exile. (I had originally had this as a chapter later on in the manuscript). Some chapters, like “Cake Soldiers” reflect childhood recollections with transitions to events that occurred as an adult when I was in college. Towards the latter third of the book, there are more “adult” reflections, with insights about aspects of my childhood. The Epilog is written from the adult perspective.

 

KS: After arriving in the US, you describe having a “selective blindness” about the world, about Cuba, about political and military conflicts, while growing used to your new American life, and you also describe a tension between moving on from Cuba and holding out hope for a return not just to the island but to a version of the island that is pre- or post-Castro. I wonder if you might speak about the role of memory (passive) in relation to remembrance (active) in this book?

RG: I write about “selective blindness” in one of the later chapters of the memoir, which I titled “Remembering to Forget.” This is one of the more introspective and philosophic parts of the book.  By “selective blindness” I offer you the analogy of the horse with blinders pulling a cart in the busy streets of Manhattan. The horse, like I was, is aware of its surroundings, the dangers and distractions, but the blinders allow it (and me) to focus on the road ahead, moving forward. What was going on in Cuba for me became a negative distraction, one which deflated hope for me. The ‘selective blindness” I realized, was a deliberate attempt to focus on my priorities, to work hard in school, to help my family, to learn English, to thrive. My childhood essentially ended the day I arrived in the US. I had to become a “grown-up” as most children of non-English speaking parents end up: Watching out for how money was spent. Not throwing out anything that could be useful away. Taking my father to the bank to deposit money. Filling out applications, translating adult discussions, filling out forms for school, helping pay bills.

As for the tension from having left Cuba and holding out hope for return, this always loomed in the background. At some point in most refugees’ exodus, they keep telling themselves that they are leaving everything behind, but always hold out hope that they will be able to return to their homeland “when things settle down”. This is a recurrent theme for most refugees. Hope is what keeps us going. Somewhere along that emotional spectrum, reality seeps in. I know for a fact that the only way my family or I would have ever returned to live in Cuba was if it became a constitutional republic, like the United States. I eventually acknowledged the reality of our return would not materialize. So, I worked hard to become “A Good American.” This also a theme of the book, the gratitude of being “adopted” by this country, that in spite of all the cultural hurdles, I had the opportunity to thrive, and I did, for which I am forever grateful. I have embraced this, and consider myself an American who lives dually “within two souls.” I write about this in another chapter entitled “OIGAN,” which translates to “hear this” in Spanish. The chapter was a distillate of my comments to immigrant members during their Citizenship Swearing-in Ceremony in Federal Court.

As for the role of memory being “passive” and remembrance being “active,” this is a semantic conundrum.  Being a physician and having a spouse who is a brain scientist, I have learned that the neuropsychology and brain mechanisms involved in memory are beyond my scope, but by what we now know of the brain is that by no means is memory or remembrance static or for that matter, passive. Of two main types of memory processed by our brain, so-called “Episodic Memory” (remembering events, like “first kiss,” who was president the year you got married, or “flashes, like detail snapshot of your mother’s face at her deathbed, etc) is how we remember past events. From a perspective of a memoirist, episodic memory pervades, and it is dynamic. Episodic memory is also unique. For example, women are better at recalling episodes than men. Episodic memory, unlike what we envision as a “videotape” is a set of ideas recollected (mostly visually), but the memories may change with repeated attempts at recall and are subject to many factors. This is why so often, multiple people can witness the same event simultaneously, but their recollection of it can vary so much. Ask any marriage counselor, litigating attorney or crime scene investigator!

So back to your original question about memory and memoirs: Oliver Sacks, one of the world’s foremost behavioral neurologists and himself a prolific writer said it best, “There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected…”

 

KS: Throughout the book, you direct the reader’s attention to context-specific objects that seem to cross borders, or occupy two countries at once. There’s an image of Uncle Sam on a magazine whose red, white, and blue costume resonates with the colors of the Cuban flag; there’s Uncle Yayo’s 1951 maroon Chevy, an American car he leaves behind in Castro’s Cuba; the same could be said of the toy soldiers and what they come to represent for the narrator after the Bay of Pigs invasion. I’m curious if you have a theory of objects as extensions of (or landing pads for) memory.

RG: I am glad you pointed this out. Wow. Spoken like an insightful and analytical editor! The red-white-blue and Uncle Sam narrative and the toy soldiers and the Bay of Pigs connections were deliberate and I am glad this came through in the narrative. The other instances you so astutely picked out were not deliberate on my part. (I wish I could take credit for being so brilliant as to have intended them so, and I could see the parallels now that you have pointed them out. In fact, I am anxious to comb back through the book “looking” for more of these…). But yes, I believe it is natural for us to “anchor” context-specific objects- it is in part how we process our episodic memory, how we tell our stories. All I can say is that at times, writing and re-writing these episodes was intensely exhausting, sometimes depressing, but overall, very cathartic for me. Some memories remain palpable: For example, to this day, when suturing a wound, or stopping bleeding, the smell of alcohol, the menacing needle on the syringe of the woman drawing my blood when I was little, the glistening of the stainless steel forceps my uncle held when suturing the hen I was holding as I proceeded to pass out evoke an eerie physiologic reaction.

 

KS: In Matanzas, I notice that so many short arcs revolve around navigating someone else’s idea of who you are: You navigate nicknames like lagrimitas and Ricardito you learn to fight and cope with guilt according to others’ advice. Do you think that your story can be separated from those around you, or are they too bound up together?

I believe it is difficult to separate one’s “story” from those around us, especially when there is emotional charge therein. As a child, I grew up in a barrio where most of the kids in my neighborhood were three or four years older than me. I was at the bottom of the pecking order. I was bullied and I had to learn to defend myself, doing violence against my core beliefs was a very “guilt-inducing” situation. I had to deal with the tension of a very strict father with the most upright moral integrity and live to expectations at times when I was too young to understand the implications. Moreover, I was, as my mother used to say “a very sensitive child.” I took things to heart. In Cuba machismo, homophobia, violence to animals (cockfighting) poking fun at the disabled (people with epilepsy, hearing impaired) were tacitly accepted. I knew some of these things ran contrary to who I was, and what I sensed of the world around me, even at an early age. Somehow, in the mix of things, I was fortunate enough and resilient enough that with the support of my faith and great family, I think I turned out for the better in the face of the adversity.

 

KS: As a memoirist looking back at momentous world-historic changes, how do you navigate forces like nostalgia, policy, regret, and the narratives of others?

RG: I will take these in the order that you asked about them:

Nostalgia is good, as long as it doesn’t dominate or paralyze your thoughts and actions. There is also a fine line between expressing it, which can be very enlightening versus dwelling on it, which can be consuming, exhausting and difficult for the reader.

Policy is another conundrum. Although history clearly repeats itself, we live in a world where many people forget atrocities at the lack of or the result of “policy.” I know Cubans who came to the United States under circumstances similar to mine, who abhor “communism” or anything that hints of “red,” pointing to the atrocities in Cuba under one umbrella of a communist dictatorship. They virulently abhor the repression, the censorship, widespread political fraud, the lack of freedom, the propaganda, the inability to vote freely, to complain, to be allowed to express your opinion without reprimand that is going on in Cuba. Yet paradoxically, some of the same individuals go to extreme costs to defend and support factions in this country who are proposing some of the dictatorial things they themselves abhor going on in Cuba, when the censorship, political corruption, erosion of personal rights and freedoms to choose are slowly seeping in, taking place in their own backyards in the USA, right under their noses. Now, months away from a momentous presidential election in the United States, they fail to recognize that many of the elements they support are the very same elements that led to the current dictatorship in Cuba. A dictatorship by any other name, is still a dictatorship-communist or otherwise. Have they forgotten where they came from?

From the perspective of the memoirist, it is easy to fall into a rabbit hole in the midst of policy issues, unless of course, policy is the core of their memoir-apartheid, starvation, human trafficking. In writing Mango my emphasis was a coming-of-age and not a political diatribe. To the extent that the history of Castro’s regime impacted mine and my family’s life, I included impactful events, but it was not my intention to make a political statement or turn the emphasis of the book to a political diatribe. I don’t consider myself a political person, and although I have my biases and am a believer in social justice and in speaking truth to power, soap-boxing is not my forte. Thus while I did not avoid policy, I did not make it an emphasis of the book.

Regret, if used constructively can afford us the opportunity for personal and spiritual growth, and also allows for highlighting the frailty of character which brings to the reader not only the “humanity” of the individual, but provides a very real connection that we all live with some degree of regret. It is the human condition that the reader can identify with. I have never met anyone who can categorically deny they harbor regrets.

Narratives of others. As for the “narratives of others,” there are many ways to forge through these. I prefer to lay the facts out as they are, withholding judgement. It is better to allow the readers the luxury or discretion, leaving judgment to them. Sometimes, however, there are others’ narratives that conflict with the memoirists’ values and then the choice of whether the writer confronts them becomes either subjective or compelling. I allude to this in several chapters of the book, for example, in “The Unfortunate Kimbumba Incident” and “Retribution” the way Generoso, a kid in my barrio the assumption that he was “maricon” because of his effeminate tendencies never sat well with me. In “Cuca la muda,” being myself partly guilty of this, I later abhorred the way a disabled individual was ridiculed, yes, we were kids, but we should have known better.  In “Peeling Back the Burlap” I come to “judgmental grips” after experiencing first hand the heedless violence of cockfighting as a “sport.” My judgment of others’ narratives in all these instances just bubbles up and out. It needed to. Thus yes, the narratives of others matter, and we must continue to navigate them with the winds of truth at our backs, realizing that from time to time we may need to adjust the sails.

Do these influence the way you look back? The way you write about your past, or the past of others? Does it really matter?

Yes. Yes. Yes. And, Yes.

 

KS: Lastly, I’m curious what you’re working on now? What are you reading? Listening to? Thinking about?

You could be opening up a Pandora’s box: I am writing short pieces, essays, some poems, but not with the output frequency I would wish for, because I am greatly enjoying and using much of my time mostly being a grandfather. One thing I have learned as I get older, is that speed and multitasking are overrated, and not benign. Both take a toll on the body and soul.

Mulling about my next full-length book(s): One may be historical fiction based around Cuba and America, possibly about my native city of Matanzas. Another possible theme may have a medical slant, historically, with an experiential aspect of my practice as a physician. I’m also putting together a posthumous collection of my mothers’ poetry, much of which is in the “decima” tradition, and consists of rhyming, multi-stanza poems in Spanish, which poses a challenge. Mulling is good. Plotting is good.

As to what I am reading; Ada Ferrer’s An American History of Cuba, Richard Blanco’s The Prince of Los Cocuyos, and anything Anthony Doerr writes, as he is one of my favorite authors.

As to what I am listening to: any of Tommy Emmanuel’s guitar music, Adeem the Artist White Trash Lullaby, John Prine’s Greatest Hits, The Mavericks’ Recuerdo.

Thinking about: Freedom, truth, kindness, and hope. Speaking of hope: The other day as I was chatting with a friend, we talked about getting older and “seeing the end of the runway.” I used  the expression in the context of the finiteness of our lives. To which he replied,  “The end of the runway is where flight begins.” That gives me hope!

 


An academic physician and scientific writer, Ricardo Jose Gonzalez-Rothi has had fiction, creative nonfiction and poetry featured in the U.S. and in the U.K., in Acentos Review, Hispanic Culture Review, The Bellingham Review, Litro and others (gonzalezrothiauthor.com.) His memoir, The Mango Chronicle (Running Wild Press) will be published in 2024. He lives on a farm in North Florida where he grows fruit trees, minds critters of the wild, and occupies himself with mending fences, playing guitar, woodworking, spending time with photography (gonzalezrothiphoto.com), kayaking, and, most importantly, with being a grandfather. As a Cuban refugee he came to this country and had to learn a new language. The number of Hispanic/Latino/Latinx writers in the  United States literary scene is disparate and he is committed to facilitating opportunities for diverse writers to compete in the field. You can connect with him on twitter @Ricaro2Almas, or through his Youtube channel @mangoforyou2day.

About The Author

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Keene Short writes and bakes on the Ohio River.