In Ana Menéndez's The Last War, an American photojournalist in Istanbul awaits her husband in Iraq, when she receives a mysterious package that triggers memories she's suppressed.
You're in Cairo right now. What are you doing there?
I'm here on a Fulbright scholar grant for a year, teaching journalism at the American University in Cairo. It's been a little bit sad, strange and scary watching journalism implode from over here. But my students still seem committed and excited about it.
Eight years ago, when you published your first book, you said that you might know more poets than authors. Still true?
It may still be true. I've always been very much influenced by poetry. Poetry is a palate cleanser. It reminds you of why you're doing what you're doing. My uncle, a poet, gave me a book of kid's poems by Paul Sandberg when I was in kindergarten. Of course, in a Cuban household, everyone's an amateur poet—everyone's always reciting.
In The Last War, what did the contrast between Flash's camera and her memory mean to you?
There is an important disconnect in Flash that I think exists in many of us, between the search for external truth and the inability to turn that search inward. All three of my books, in their own ways, are obsessed with memory—how we want it to be infallible truth, but it's not.
Your parents fled from Cuba to Los Angeles, then relocated to Miami. How has displacement informed your writing?
I remember my American friends could go to their house and say, “This desk is from my great grandmother; this rug is from my father's aunt.” All we had of our country was stories, the intangible. My grandmother's family moved from Lebanon to Cuba. I always say that she could go to the supermarket for 20 minutes and come back with a story that takes an hour to tell.
How did you start writing?
I fell into journalism mainly because I was freaking out at the end of the 1980s, when everyone was studying business and I had an English degree. I felt I needed a job and health insurance. But for any writing, the joy is in the process. You can waste too much psychic energy trying to define yourself in some abstract way. As Hemingway said, you can talk your passions to death.
You're a globe-trotter. Any other future places you'd like to explore, either in person or in fiction?
I always end up writing about a place when I'm long gone from it. The novel that I'm writing now, from Cairo, actually takes place in Miami. The strangest place left for me to explore is probably the place that I ought to know best.