Sunday, November 06, 2022

_One Brilliant Flame_: Interview with Joy Castro

Joy Castro's fourth novel, One Brilliant Flame, takes readers to Key West, Florida in 1886. It is an enthralling nineteenth-century historical and political thriller. Today we welcome Joy to talk with La Bloga about this, her forthcoming work. 

 Montes: Thank you for being with us, Joy. What was the impetus for writing a historical fiction novel set in Key West? 

 Castro: Cuban Key West in the last decades of the 1800s was a completely fascinating era, and almost no one knows about it. Key West was then a utopian hotbed of revolution of all kinds: anticolonial, antiracist, pro-labor…There were even some significant moves toward gender equality. In our own intense political moment, when all of these issues are again (or still) on the table with a vengeance, I thought a hopeful, utopian, optimistic moment from the past would be a really important to explore. It's also very personal material. The background of my grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lives in Cuban Key West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had always been a mystery to me, because they never talked about the past. Moreover, that era was never covered in any of the history courses I took in high school or college, beyond a fairly cursory overview of what’s generally referred to as The Spanish American War—a name that erases Cuban agency entirely, as though Cuban anticolonial rebels hadn’t already been fighting that war against imperial Spain for thirty years before the United States entered the fight for its own empire-building reasons. And when most people talk about Cubans in the United States, they’re primarily referring to post-1959 migration to Miami and elsewhere during Castro’s regime, and that history, which tended to be dominated by the initial waves of well-to-do Cuban immigrants who’d possessed—compared to most other Latinx migrants to the United States—considerable economic and political privilege and tended to vote conservatively, had very little to do with my own family’s left-leaning, very working-class commitments. But I never understood where those commitments came from. That whole history was invisible to me. 


 When my father died by suicide in 2002, my brother Tony and I found among his things some bound, printed copies of our great-grandfather Juan Pérez Rolo’s eyewitness account of having come to Key West as a child in 1869, a little after the beginning of Cuba’s Ten Years’ War against Spain, and growing up as part of the anticolonial rebel community on the island, and becoming a newspaper printer. My son, whose Spanish is much better than mine, helped me immensely by translating that book, Mis Recuerdos, into English, but I still lacked a greater context. Also among my father’s papers was a 1918 collection of poems by his own father, my grandfather, who—unbeknownst to me at that time—had been a lector (a hired reader who read news, novels, and political theory aloud to the workers) in a cigar factory in Key West when he’d first arrived there as a young man. I was curious about how these isolated documents fit into a larger history.
Mis Recuerdos is a memoir by Castro's great-grandfather,  Juan Pérez Rolo

But it wasn’t until 2019 that I was thrilled to stumble across a month-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar at the University of Tampa, “José Martí and the Immigrant Communities of Florida in Cuban Independence and the Dawn of the American Century.” There in Tampa, I finally learned the larger story, and I’m so grateful to professors James López and Denis Rey for designing and running the seminar, selecting the hundreds of pages of readings we discussed, and coordinating the visits of the historians and literary scholars who shared their work with us. It was there in Tampa that I learned about the Great Fire of Key West, which completely destroyed the small city in 1886. I’d gone to the seminar only to fill the huge gap in my knowledge, not to look for ideas to write about. Yet when I heard that arson had been suspected but never proven, it made my crime-writer’s ears prick up, and I thought, Ah, that’s a way in. It’s been deeply meaningful to me to write this book, to counteract the erasure of the past. I often wonder if my father, who worked so hard all his life yet must have felt, at the end, so painfully meaningless—if he had seen his history, his heritage, reflected as important and beautiful, would he have killed himself? But perhaps so. One of the curious things I gleaned from Ada Ferrer’s incredibly rich and detailed Cuba: An American History, which won the Pulitzer this year, is that there’s a minor historical tradition in Cuba in which some men have chosen suicide—or suicidal self-sacrifice in battle—as a form of gallant protest, of refusal to surrender or capitulate to unacceptable conditions. So who can really know? My father’s death remains, to some extent, a painful mystery, and certainly, for us, a devastating loss. In any case, so many of us lack access to our full histories, and scholars would argue that this lack has been the result of deliberate efforts by white supremacists to sever all people of color from the sources of our power. Thousands of scholars are contributing right now to changing that, and this book is my own small contribution to sharing this particular story with readers who might never encounter a history book about the period. 

Montes: What a gift to your father and to your own understanding of his life, his death. And yes, an important time now for recovery work, which leads me to another question regarding recovery. What details did you discover about the anticolonial insurgency in Cuba that informs the book? 

Castro: At the seminar, we read about 700 pages of published scholarship on the era, in addition to viewing a biopic about the life of José Martí and reading several of his essays; Esther Allen, the noted Martí scholar and translator, was there with us. Afterwards, I was in Berlin for a semester, finishing Flight Risk, a different thriller that came out last year. But when I returned to the Key West project, I was extremely helped by a number of excellent books such as: 

Ada Ferrer’s Insurgent Cuba: Race, Nation, and Revolution, 1868-1898 
Matthew Pettway’s Cuban Literature in the Age of Black Insurrection: Manzano, Plácido, and Afro-Latino Religion 
Gerald Poyo’s Exile and Revolution: José D. Poyo, Key West, and Cuban Independence 
Consuelo E. Stebbins’s City of Intrigue, Nest of Revolution: A Documentary History of Key West in the Nineteenth Century 
Araceli Tinajero’s El Lector: A History of the Cigar Factory Reader
Teresa Prados-Torreira’s Mambisas: Rebel Women in Nineteenth-Century Cuba

They were all fascinating and rich. Key West itself I know intimately. Each year, we stayed at my grandparents’ home on Elizabeth Street, where my father had grown up, and played with my cousins, who still lived there. We’d go fishing off the docks and swimming at the beaches, and we’d eat mangoes and avocadoes straight from my grandmother’s trees. 

Lagrimas y Flores is a collection of poems by Castro's grandfather, Feliciano Castro

At that time, my grandfather and uncle still ran the little printing press behind the house, The Florida Press. I’ve tried to weave dozens of intriguing details into One Brilliant Flame with a very light hand, so readers can absorb the historical setting and political context effortlessly and not become overwhelmed by information. Rather than the dense, heavy feeling that some historical novels have, I wanted One Brilliant Flame’s texture to be very sleek, propulsive, and noirish, so it would intrigue and satisfy contemporary readers. As a reader myself, I prefer concision—lean, spare texts that provoke my curiosity—so that’s what I try to create. 

Montes: Yes-- and perhaps that is why the novel is told by a number of characters? Tell us why you chose to have multiple characters, rather than one narrator. 

Castro: First, I wanted to give a voice to the interior worlds of characters from multiple social locations, to illustrate how many different perspectives—racialized, gendered, classed, queer, neurodiverse—there were at the time on all the upheavals that were happening socially and politically. We all bring our unique personal histories to every event we experience, so the very same moment or political development can strike different people in entirely different ways. I wanted to show that in a way that would be vivid and exciting, and perspectivism was a technique that let me do so. Second, as a writer of thrillers and mysteries, I love to create texts that readers can read as sleuths, watching for gaps and what’s left unsaid—watching for inconsistencies between what characters privately claim about their motivations and how others observe their actions. I love the friction that emerges from the juxtaposition of different accounts. In this way, readers don’t just passively watch a detective solve a mystery, but actually solve deeper mysteries of character and motivation themselves. Third, I was very influenced aesthetically as a young writer by Louise Erdrich’s multiple narrators in Love Medicine and William Faulkner’s in As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. I admire the beauty that emerges from polyphony and the way that perspectivism demonstrates such high trust in readers’ intelligence, so I wanted to try that for this book. And I have a chorus of voices in my own head all the time anyway, so it was very natural to write that way. When my collection of short stories How Winter Began came out in 2015, some readers asked how I was able to render such different characters’ interior worlds so convincingly, which came as a surprise, because I think it’s something that just comes naturally to me. Like many writers, I feel inhabited by voices that are not quite my own. 

Montes: Indeed! And it is always interesting when these voices come from the past. That said, what does this novel tell us about the connections between the U.S. and Cuba (specifically Key West and Havana) in the nineteenth-century? 

Castro: In the late nineteenth century, during an era in which great fortunes were made in the transnational cigar industry, people referred to the three cities of Key West, Havana, and Tampa as “The Tobacco Triangle.” Because tobacco leaves imported from Cuba remained supple and pliant in the damp, hot climates of Key West and Tampa, those cities were much better locations for cigar-rolling factories than New York, where the cold air dried out the leaves and turned them brittle. Steamships ran regularly among the three cities of The Tobacco Triangle (and connected them with New Orleans and New York as well), so workers were extremely mobile. Spanish-language newspapers also circulated among those cities. Their economies, social worlds, and political organizing—regarding the anticolonial rebellion against Spain—were tightly intertwined. 

Montes: And how does this "Triangle" and "The Great Fire of Key West" figure into the novel? 

Castro:  In 1886, Key West was not only a prosperous and bustling small city but also the key rebel base for gathering funds and munitions for the fight in Cuba. When the fire started next door to the San Carlos Institute, which was the central gathering place for Cuban émigrés in Key West, the island’s only fire engine was in New York for repairs. The massive fire destroyed not only the San Carlos, City Hall, several churches, and multiple cigar factories, but over 600 private homes. It burned for a night and a day and completely devastated the small city. Authorities suspected that the fire had been set by Spaniards, to destroy the rebel base, but there were other possibilities for arson as well. One Brilliant Flame explores them all. 

Montes: Fascinating. Readers will certainly be receiving a relatively unknown history from various perspectives within this "thriller" plot structure. A great way to learn history! Now--when you were in Cuba, did you experience having a Cuban cigar or did you go to the Cuban cigar factories? 

Castro:  Yes! I had the opportunity to visit a family-run tobacco farm, where I saw the tobacco plants in the fields and the sheaves of tobacco hanging in the special barns to dry, and where I learned how to roll a cigar. Sitting there in the sunshine, drinking a little glass of Guayabita del Pinar and smoking a just-rolled cigar—it was wonderful! I feel very lucky to have had the chance to go.  
A family-run tobacco farm Castro visited in Cuba
Drying tobacco leaves

Outdoor cafe in Cuba

Castro: I’m incredibly thrilled and honored that the launch of One Brilliant Flame will take place not only in Key West this January but also at the (rebuilt) San Carlos Institute, that center of Cuban émigré life that the novel mentions on its very first page. To come full circle in this way—to honor my ancestors in a place that meant the world to them—is almost breathtaking. Any La Bloga readers who’ll be in Key West on January 11th at 5pm are very welcome to join us to celebrate. 

Montes: Thank you so much!

Castro: I really appreciate your willingness to share One Brilliant Flame with the readers of La Bloga this way. 

Montes: Happy to bring One Brilliant Flame to our La Bloga readers, Joy. And readers, YOU can pre-order One Brilliant Flame at this link ( or at Amazon.  Just click on these links.  

NOTE: All photos taken by Joy Castro
About the Author:  Joy Castro is the award-winning author of Flight Risk, a finalist for a 2022 International Thriller Award; the post-Katrina New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water, which received the Nebraska Book Award, and Nearer Home; the story collection How Winter Began; the memoir The Truth Book; and the essay collection Island of Bones, which received the International Latino Book Award. She is also the editor of the anthology Family Trouble and served as the guest judge of CRAFT's first Creative Nonfiction Award. Her work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Ploughshares, Gulf Coast, Brevity, and Afro-Hispanic Review; on Salon, and elsewhere. A former writer-in-residence at Vanderbilt University, she is currently the Willa Cather Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she directs the Institute for Ethnic Studies.  For more information, visit

1 comment:

Maureen Honey said...

Joy and Amelia--This is a fantastic blog about One Brilliant Flame, a novel I'm so eager to read. The cogent answers you gave, Joy, will help me frame your novel in extremely useful ways. Most notably, you provide the historical context for a real event, the Great Fire that destroyed Key West due to arson, and the personal connection you describe through your youthful experiences there visiting your grandparents. The precious family documents you found of your Cuban ancestors after your father's death are deeply moving. I love your photographs! How truly magical it must have been for you recently to visit Cuba and roll/smoke a Cuban cigar. You highlight the class issues animating your interest in Cuban history embedded in Key West, Havana, Miami, and other key sites of immigration. Finally, I appreciated your response to Amelia's question about multiple narrators featured in the novel because you introduced me to the notion that many voices are often in your head, and it's natural for them to come to life in your writing. They also serve valuable narrative roles in the mystery your present in One Brilliant Flame. My thanks to both of your for creating this gorgeous fascinating blog about what I'm sure will be a riveting reading experience!