Search: Advanced Search

Cecile Pineda author's photo

Cecile Pineda is a 2014 finalist for the prestigious [Neustadt International Prize for Literature], and Face is her representative work for that award.

Cecile Pineda is the author of six published novels: The Love Queen of the Amazon, written with the assistance of an NEA Fiction Fellowship, and named Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times; Frieze, and Face, which won the Gold Medal from the Commonwealth Club of California, the First Fiction Award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts & Letters, an American Book Award nomination and a 2014 Neustadt Prize nomination; Bardo99, a mononovel which addresses the experience of the 20th century, Redoubt, a meditation on gender, Fishlight: a Dream of Childhood, and three works of non-fiction, Devil's Tango: How I Learned the Fukushima Step by Step, a criminal exposé of the nuclear industry; Apology to a Whale: Words to Mend a World, an exploration of language at the intersection of archeology and comparative linguistics as the root of the world's present power alignments, and her creative writing memoir, Three Tides: Writing at the Edge of Being. Her play, "Like Snow Melting in Water," set in contemporary agrarian Japan, centers on themes of displacement and ecological collapse. It saw productions in India and Thailand in 2012. Her archive forms part of the Special Collections Library of Stanford University.

LISTEN: [K. Ramares-Watson talks with Cecile Pineda about the fate of the Earth pegged in particular to the nuclear weapons and energy industry.] (Women's Network Radio)


"Writers, readers, teachers, and creative writing classes, take note: Cecile Pineda is an American original, literary treasure, and her prodigiously inventive and important work, finally returning to print in a landmark and long-awaited reissue, deserves a place in the forefront of American literature." — Jeff Biggers in Bloomsbury Review

Bloomsbury Review Interview

Pineda Unbound: An Interview with Cecile Pineda, by Jeff Biggers

Synecdoche and Responsibility: On reading Cecile Pineda

By Professor Marcus Embry, Read HERE

An Interview with Cecile Pineda

From the San Antonio Express-News, July 18, 2003
By Michael Soto

Before La Sandra or La Julia, novelist Cecile Pineda was setting the standard for Latina fiction writing.

Born and raised in New York, Pineda has for most of her career lived in the San Francisco Bay area, where she founded the avant-garde performance company, Theatre of Man. San Antonio-based Wings Press, which published Pineda's spare and gripping tale BARDO99 last year, is currently reissuing all of Pineda's work in a uniform edition, with cover art by San Antonio photographer Kathy Vargas.

Pineda's recent semi-autobiographical novel Fishlight: A Dream of Childhood (Wings Press, 2001) has been described by Publisher's Weekly as "a gentle, beautiful book, a rare and poetic song from an exquisitely melancholy childhood." The Chicago Tribune hailed The Love Queen of the Amazon (Little, Brown 1992; Wings Press, 2001) as a "brilliantly drawn portrait of ... one of the few great Latina heroines not created by the male imagination." (The central character is a Peruvian woman with a complex personal life, to say the least.) The New Yorker magazine calls her novel Frieze (Viking Press 1986; Wings Press 2003), set in ninth-century India and Java, a "singular, absorbing book."

The latest installment in the Wings Press reissue series is Pineda's award-winning debut novel, Face about a Brazilian man who, after a tragic fall, must come to terms with facelessness — available in print for the first time in almost two decades. (It was originally published by Viking Press in 1985.) In a new foreword for the book, South African novelist J.M. Coetzee describes Face as "an extraordinary achievement," and in a new introduction, literary scholar Juan Bruce-Novoa refers to the novel as "an exquisite allegory of the human condition," a "seductive text that ensnares the reader through the measured flow of its language."

Here's an excerpt from an interview conducted last week.

Q: Which writers inspired you as a girl? Who inspires you now?

A: The writers I read compulsively as a child were Conan Doyle and Rafael Sabbatini. I read the Book of Revelation at the age of 10. I couldn't sleep for months. But now, looking back, the books which inspired me were a series of biographies about women who had led interesting lives: Schumann-Heinck (the Wagnerian contralto who used to nurse her umpteen children in the wings before venturing out on stage), bad girl Lola Montez, etc. I don't remember the author's name. And, although there must have been women whose interests ranged widely, it is the women who were artist-performers that I remember. I don't know that writers inspire me so much as claim my deep respect and admiration: Kafka, of course, Joyce and Beckett, Juan Rulfo, Sadegh Hedayat, J.M. Coetzee, Alan Paton, Agotha Kristof, Dino Buzzati, Kobo Abe, Bruno Schulz, Gerd Hoffmann, S.G. Sebald, Ingeborg Bachmann nd Clarice Lispector, to name a very few of my favorites. And of the poets, Kazantzakis and Lorca, and St. John Perse especially. I find filmmakers particularly inspiring, especially Andrei Tarkovsky. This list does not include the names of the many students over the years whose work has left me utterly dumbfounded.

Q: At what point did you realize that becoming a professional writer — making a living doing what you do — was within the realm of possibility?

A: "Making a living!" I wonder if any serious female writer of fiction presently makes a living in the Total Security State. I began to write fiction because 1) when the Great Communicator [Ronald Reagan] came to power my experimental theater company's funding was cut off at the pass, and 2) my godmother was in her last days, and I looked for a way to try supporting her.

Q: While you haven't written the obligatory "artist comes of age" novel, many critics — and I tend to agree with them — have suggested that the protagonists of your novels are nevertheless artist figures. Why have you foregone the usual route and instead written more obliquely about the artist's place in society? What is the artist's place in society?

A: The coming of age novel probably needs to be written closer to the time the writer begins drying behind the ears. I came to fiction in my maturity because I had had a previous career as a director of experimental theater, which allowed my ears to dry while having a fairly good run of it. Some of my protagonists are artist figures; certainly that applies to both male protagonists of Face and Frieze, and to the female protagonist of The Love Queen of the Amazon, who is an explosion in a Viagra factory. But I seem to have abandoned the artist-as-protagonist in the last series of three novels, Fishlight, Redoubt and Bardo99. I seem to be interested predominantly in politics, society and culture, which is probably why politics, society and culture appear to be foregrounded in my settings. Historically, and in most countries with the exception of the present one, the writer's role has been one of outsider, of observer, of social critic, and political gadfly. Authors in other situations, not the present, seem to have accepted, even relished, the challenge of being the conscience of their age. (One is reminded of Portrait of the Artist, for example, from which the previous is nearly a verbatim quote.) To be really interesting, a writer needs to remain outside of society schmoozing with a bunch of other folks outside society. Schmoozing out there can be a lot of fun!

Q: You've also avoided, for the most part, writing directly about the community in which you live. Excepting Fishlight, how have the places you've known entered into your writing?

A: Although I have not avoided its details, I have managed to avoid writing about the "community" in which I seem to live 1) because it's an imagined community which 2) comes short of appealing to me. But disguised as it may seem, each work reflects on the here and now. The one exception would have to be Bardo99, an apocalyptic encounter with the twentieth century, which is as close to my own "community" (or the present day) as I care to come. Every single day of my life from my earliest years seems to be inscribed in my memory, and it is from this imaginary shoebox that I draw for detail. How the light played; how sound traveled in the waning summer afternoon; how fireflies shot through the darkness like incandescent chaff on the threshing floor-all that. Intuitively I must have known that when metal strikes stone it produces sparks. Following the publication of Frieze, I traveled for two months in India. I was actually able to observe the carvers working in the stoneyards of Mahabalipuram, much as they had for millennia. I asked them if they protected their eyes from the sparks and the chips. They assured me there was no risk. I watched them move a block of granite-measuring some three meters long, one meter high, and one meter wide-clear across the stoneyard using saplings as crowbars. They did it chanting to verse and response, one inch at a time. They say God's in the details. Details are what give fiction its authenticity; they are what permit the reader to trust the writer.

Q: Much of your work belongs to a category that was once called the "novel of ideas." Would you agree? Or is such a category no longer possible these days?

A: I write only what I see, whether in my memory, or my mind's eye. My novels are not so much novels of ideas as novels of image. But I can't see why the novel of ideas might become outdated so long as there remain writers and readers who like to think. It's just that I like to write for folks who like to mix a little feeling in with their thinking.

Q: You mention in your preface to the new Wings Press edition of Face that you took the contours of the plot from a newspaper article. What drew you to the story? Was it the plot elements suggested by the article, or the wealth of ideas suggested by the condition of being faceless?

A: Much of what intrigues me comes to me through the daily newspaper. Primarily I am unconcerned with plot. I leave that to successful writers. Rather, I am interested in what events say about people, and about living life in the present world as we imagine ourselves to live it.

Q: I think that any writer would enjoy being compared to, for instance, Gabriel García Márquez, as you have been since the publication of Face. But are you comfortable with being called a "magic realist"?

A: Good gracious! Magic realism is a term invented by a wise-ass critic. If there's one thing that rubs against my grain, it's to be pigeonholed or to have the work pigeonholed. It does both a disservice. I write about all kinds of things, not only extra-phenominal events. In fact, in The Love Queen of the Amazon, I parodied a certain famous Latin American writer by miraculously resurrecting one of my heroines through the Van Allen Belt! I'm interested in moths (they appear repeatedly in my work in one devious role or another); I'm interested in animals and insects; I'm interested in politics, and especially people. Reviewers (as opposed to critics) feel the obligation to warn readers what to expect a work is like and here they fill in the blanks: García Márquez, Par Lagerqvist, Franz Kafka. That particular phenomenon just indicates a critic grasping at referential straws. A good work is like itself.

Q: Speaking of labels, what do you think of the loosely defined movements known as the "boom" in Latin American and, more recently, U.S. Latina fiction?

A: I truly believe that starting in the '50s, Latin and Central American writers have blazed a unique and colorful trail, awakening much of European literature from its post-Edwardian stuffiness. Certainly a novel like Pedro Paramo (by Juan Rulfo), although written before much of the so-called "boom" reached critical mass, is a novel which still now surpasses all the contemporary literature that gets promoted as exemplary.

Q: Your work will receive much attention at the upcoming [2003] Latina Letters Conference in San Antonio, with academic presentations bearing such titles as Failed Matriarchy in Love Queen of the Amazon and Pineda and Coetzee: Critical Geographies at the Fin de siecle. Do you like to attend academic panels about your work? Have you gained anything from them in the past?

A: And don't forget Cecile Pineda: The Literary Time-Space Continuum! I deeply respect many of these scholars — people who have made the effort to compose papers, who have come from afar to present them here in San Antonio — whose work I happen to know, and whose opinions I happen to find interesting. Of course I will listen to them with careful attention just as I would hope that my listeners would listen to my readings, especially the one dealing with "The Body Revisited" scheduled for Saturday evening at 7:00 p.m. on the second floor of St. Mary's University Center. In general, I find reactions to the work a source of surprise and delight. Often readers will offer interpretations that I could never have come up with even though I may have conned myself into believing I left no stone unturned.

Q: Where do you see "Latina letters" — I mean the writing as a whole, not just the conference — headed in the near- and long-term future?

A: Latina letters will be with us for a very long time, as long as there remain folks who refuse cultural homogenization, who celebrate their diversity. Hurrah for that! People will continue to write. Some of them, besides writing about yummy sex and yummy food, will actually address the political and sociological challenges of our age — admittedly a very interesting one. The best of them may even offer new insights as to how best to conduct our lives in devastating times.


(Michael Soto is an assistant professor of English and interim director of African-American studies at Trinity University).

Email Cecile Pineda


Titles Published by Wings Press: