Jorge Enrique Lage is a writer and editor from Havana, Cuba. He has published five collections of stories: Yo fui un adolescente ladrón de tumbas, Fragmentos encontrados en La Rampa, Los ojos de fuego verde, El color de la sangre diluida, and Vultureffect. He is also the author of the novel Carbono 14, una novela de culto. His most recent work, La autopista, the movie, is forthcoming in 2014.
McSWEENEY’S: So how did you approach the idea of writing a crime story? Did you start with a character, or a particular situation, or something else?
JORGE ENRIQUE LAGE: “Bitches” is the first story that I’ve written in which I tried to work within certain classical parameters of crime fiction. The genre has always interested me—as a reader—and I know its mechanisms pretty well. But I’m more at ease writing fantastical stories, so the primary challenge for me was to write in a more realist style. At some point it occurred to me to set the story in a psychiatric hospital, a place where madness contaminates and undermines the real. The rest was easy.
McSWEENEY’S: We asked you for a story set in Cuba. How much did you think about that, as you were working on this? Do you think a story like this can tell us something about a particular place, or a particular country?
JORGE ENRIQUE LAGE: I didn’t want to overthink it, so I returned to a well-known setting: Downtown Havana. The architectural ruins in that part of the capital are as emblematic of the neighborhood as the criminal picaresque that surrounds them: prostitution, delinquency, misery, black markets, marginalization… You pretty much can’t write about Downtown Havana without slipping into crime fiction. Downtown is noir by definition. And although a lot of that material there is well-trodden, by now, these types of stories are still able to wash away the cloud of political smoke that covers the country. They speak to the decadence of Cuba’s social experiment, to the abyss that separates reality and the rhetoric of the Communist Party.
McSWEENEY’S: Is there a Cuban author, or a particular Cuban book, or even a movie or a TV show, that you think takes on the genre particularly well?
JORGE ENRIGUE LAGE: I think a lot of people would probably mention Leonardo Padura here, one of the chief practitioners of the genre and an internationally renowned writer. But I’ve never liked his books that much, I’m afraid. The Cuban crime stories that I’d love to read—or watch on a screen—do not exist yet. They are stories that the future will make possible: stories that will investigate the clutter of the past and present, weaving together documentary outtakes and pages from the archives of the Ministry of the Interior and State Security—pages that are currently unavailable.
McSWEENEY’S: What can you tell us about your decision to name one of your characters after Amy Winehouse?
JORGE ENRIQUE LAGE: Winehouse is one of those figures who embodies the B-side of celebrity and success. A diva, a pop icon, but also a body that has been injected, shaken up, poorly treated: because of addiction, because of excess, because of violence. It seemed to me that she could supply the archetype of a victim: the type of person who is destined to end up on the ground, a line of chalk outlining her body. I tried to capture that quality in my character, adding, in addition, pornographic and transgender elements—the final result being something like a B-side of a B-side.
McSWEENEY’S: Your narrator becomes something like a detective, in your story; he’s also a psychiatric patient, and an aspiring writer. How do those roles fit together, in your mind?
JORGE ENRIQUE LAGE: Well, the relationship between writing—and reading—and detective work has been around for a while, since Edgar Allan Poe, at least. Ricardo Piglia, a great Argentine writer and scholar of crime fiction, has written excellent essays about this. The figure of the detective as a type of marginalized intellectual is one of the tropes of crime fiction that most interests me. Another is the tension between rationality and madness; in general, the detective is the lucid one. I wanted my narrator to subvert this a little bit, to suggest a different idea in the story: the link between madness and writing—especially when one is trying to “reflect reality” in a piece of fiction.