HOUSTON'S NPR THE FRONT ROW (KUHF 88.7 FM) INTERVIEW WITH

                                                                                                  HIMILCE NOVAS RE HER NOVEL, PRINCESS PAPAYA





                                                                       Arte Publico Press


PRINCESS PAPAYA weaves santeria, transgender identity, and the resistance struggle in contemporary Cuba into an intense, rhapsodic story of a Cuban American Jewish family torn apart by tragedy and intrigue. Caught up in this intrigue is a compelling cast of characters: a deaf-mute child with uncanny spiritual powers, the unlikely seed of a santera princess and a doctor whose greed precipitates a descent into his worst nightmares; a poet struggling to regain her Muse who mourns the death of her husband, a victim of September 11 and “the crash that turned him into a human bomb”; her heteroclite, extraordinary lover, a Native American who escorts her from grief to grace; and a brother who, as a rabbinical student, is riven by his family’s sins, endures torture in Castro’s dungeons and ultimately triumphs over his demons and the lust for revenge.





Himilce Novas

240 pages, Trade Paperback

ISBN 1-55885-436-3, $12.95


A thrilling novel intertwining one Cuban-American Jewish family’s personal tragedy with the contemporary struggle in Cuba


Roberto Lobo receives anonymous calls in the night.  Voices whisper threats in his ear.  His fear drives him to seek the help of Ideliza Mercado, Princess Papaya and Priestess of the Barrio.  Roberto hopes Princess Papaya’s powerful knowledge of santería will end his torment.  Hiding in the shadows is Ideliza and Roberto’s deaf-mute son, Bembé.  Across the city, Victoria Lobo, a Jewish, Cuban-American poet, mourns the death of her husband, Francisco, until a chance meeting with Bembé brings her closer to her brother and the disappearance that has plagued her family for twenty years. 


From this web of characters spins an intense story of desire and intrigue, forging the lives of Roberto and his sister, Victoria, Ideliza Mercado and her son, Bembé, and Cooper, a mysterious stranger who is more involved in their stories than they may guess.  A unique cast of characters populate this rhapsodic, magically real tour de force: a hydrocephalic child with uncanny spiritual; a doctor whose greed precipitates a descent into his worst nightmares; a grieving poet struggling to regain her muse; and a man who fights to survive torture and the neglect of his family.  


Taking us from the 9-11 tragedy in New York City to the political dungeons in Cuba to the vineyards of Santa Barbara, Novas weaves santería; gender, transgender, and sexuality politics; and the resistance movement in contemporary Cuba. 


Princess Papaya is really a ‘rhapsodic, magically real tour de force.’ The writing is so compelling and the story is so passionate and intense as to be life transforming. The novel is filled with suspense, intrigue and human pathos. I’ve never read anything so real and yet so out of this world. Novas is an extraordinary writer.” Philip Moon, The Avid Reader


Princess Papaya is an extraordinary novel. Himilce Novas

is a poet who has just come into her own.”

--Guillermo Cabrera Infante



                      REVIEWS OF OPRINCESS PAPAYA



The San Diego Union-Tribune

 Family plot

An unfolding mystery changes the lives of three siblings in lyrical 'Princess Papaya'

Reviewed by Roxana Popescu
October 3, 2004

Sometimes a novel is so delicious that it reads like a cookbook graced with a plot and characters. M.F.K. Fisher details seductively simple dishes from her visits to France, and Laura Esquivel assembles mouth-watering Mexican meals for her readers. If only they had access to a magical-realist kitchen.

Princess Papaya

Himilce Novas

Arte Publico Press, 240 pages, $12.95

On par with this tradition of literary gourmandise is "Princess Papaya," a novel by Cuban-American novelist and cookbook author Himilce Novas. Though not about food in any proper sense, it relates a mystery where grief, belief, betrayal, cultural and gender identity, and the redemptive power of forgiveness, are all seeped in the salves and spices of Jewish and Cuban cuisines.

Novas' recipe goes something like this: Take one scheming obstetrician and mix with a Cuban curandera, or healer, with pendulous papaya breasts, to get a deaf-mute boy with milk-chocolate skin. In a separate bowl, mix a vanilla-sweet widower and an olive-skinned Sept. 11 widow who met on the Internet, to get a pungent romance. Finally, add a bitter missing brother or two and a dash of revenge. Serve cold.

This is the story of three Lobo siblings, Jewish-Cuban exiles born in New York whose lives are disturbed by a series of disappearances and discoveries. Roberto, a doctor who supports his Trump Tower lifestyle by proffering late-term abortions and illegal pharmaceuticals, gets threatening phone calls – and then vanishes. It is up to his younger sister Victoria to find him. Helping her are Princess Papaya, Roberto's mistress and healer, and Cooper, a secretive stranger unexpectedly connected to all of them.

Meanwhile, David, the oldest sibling, has escaped from prison in Cuba after 18 horrific years. He shows up in America with a few scores to settle. Perhaps he has the key to Roberto's absence?

Novas has a slightly off-key take on reality; coincidence, kismet, mysticism, mitzvah and prayer are equally plausible explanations for how unlikely things come to pass. For Victoria, a poet who lost her husband in the 9/11 attacks, it seems unbelievable that her grief could ever dissipate. What causes her improved mood "if not a mitzvah or a minor miracle, then a quickening a retrograde shift, the flutter of a butterfly in Borneo, Elijah's fiery chariots, some random act of kindness that suddenly lighted on the frosted SoHo loft, where she'd spent months gazing at the lineup of her husband's luminous canvasses"?

There is no better gatekeeper to this uncanny world than Bembé, the deaf-mute son of Roberto and Princess Papaya, a "spontaneous sage-artist with the milk-chocolate smile, who could render his eyes transparent at will and see all things at once." He cowers in a niche when Roberto and his wife make love, and he joyfully watches affection blossom between Victoria and Cooper.

Bembé consecrates everything with his silent and unflinching gaze, suggesting that the unspoken and the oblique are as important as what is stated aloud.

[…] Novas writes with unbridled lyricism. Romancing Victoria on their first date, Cooper "caught her lips in flight, clung like a butterfly, with silk wings over her, kissing her kisses without holding her." Novas spins moments such as this with exquisite grace, and she has produced a novel that is as succulent as it is biting.


"Princess Papaya"
By Himilce Novas
(Arte Publico Press, $12.95)

A touching, quirky novel that takes the reader to all levels of mourning, love, politics and sexuality among the Lobos, a family of Cuban-American Jews.

At the center of the family’s tangled sea of secrets and nostalgia is Ideliza Mercado, the Princess Papaya of the title and a fortune-telling santera.

[…] Novas brings her love of food to this novel. The read contains an array of descriptive smells and colors that will lead Latino readers to memories of walking into a botánica or Cuban kitchen. But beware — there’s an overkill of descriptive filler, which will probably prove tedious to some readers.

—Shinoa Matos

Review of Princess Papaya by Himilce Novas in



Novas, Himilce. Princess Papaya, Houston, TX: Arte Publico Press, 2004. 213 p.

ISBN 1-55885-436-3. paper. $14.95.


In the world that Princess Papaya creates, the reader comes to expect the un­usual. The hydrocephalic child is an artist and a computer whiz; the priestess of Santeria carries her gods in her lug­gage. Himilce Novas' novel is funny and poetic at the same time, yet rides on a current of violence and fear. This novel is the most recent in a series of works by Novas, including another novel and a book on Latino history. Novas has taught literature and writing at such universities as Tulane and California at Santa Barbara.


One of the most intriguing elements of Prin­cess Papaya is the mix of ethnicities and religions. Victoria Lobo and her brothers Roberto and David are Jewish Cuban Americans, with an unidentified ances­tor who gives some of the family members aquamarine eyes. This startling anomaly is explained in the family lore by the phrase "a pogrom is a pogrom," meaning that bloodlines are confused by systematic rape.


In the novel, we enter several points of view, although the central one is Victoria's. Victoria is a poet and her language dominates the book. Often she will think in lines from poems she's read or poems she's creating: "she free-fell/a swirl of doves against the sea." But even outside these intense moments, the language of the novel is often complex and many-lay­ered: "The underlying cause of Victoria's spontaneous remission from despair seemed so sacred, when uttered to herself in thought, that she felt bound to encrypt it. It stood for the bond and light streaming from Bembe's eyes like shooting stars, whisking her bones, airing her lungs, dilating her middle heart."


Victoria has to forgive her husband for dying and her brother for disappearing. The catalyst for this forgiveness is her nephew Bembe, a deaf and dumb boy who understands without words. His mother, Princess Papaya herself, also has the power to communicate on a spiritual level, giving the novel a magical quality.


Novas' novel crosses multiple borders-of heritage, of religion, of gender. One of the most empa­thetic of the characters is a man who had been raised as a girl, had even gotten pregnant, but who always understood himself as male. Born as hermaphrodite­ or more correctly, to use the Native American term he adopts, as a berdache-this man understands gender as no one else can. He is in direct contrast to Victoria's brother who misuses women and abuses his son.


Intricately plotted, graphically erotic, writ­ten in modes as diverse as e-mail and personal jour­nal, Princess Papaya gives an unusual view of the Latino/a experience. The novel ranges from scenes of violence in a Cuban prison and an abortionist's clinic to a magical realist vision of God, making the reader question what reality is. Kathleen De Grave



Novas, Himlice. Princess Papaya. Houston, Tex.: Arte Público Press,
2004. 240 pp. ISBN 1-55885-436-3, $14.95 (pb).

Ideliza Mercado is Princess Papaya, a priestess and a spiritual counselor. She wasn't expecting to see Roberto Lobo again in her botánica until the first of the month, but Roberto has been receiving threatening phone calls. Someone is telling him his days are numbered and that he's going to pay for what he's done, so he desperately needs Princess Papaya's help. Thus begins Novas's second novel. Besides the seven African Powers, some of the characters in this novel include Bembé, Ideliza's hydrocephalic son, and Victoria Lobo, Roberto's sister, whose encounter with Bembé allows her to face her personal grief. Princess Papaya takes the reader from post-September 11 New York City to Cuba and to California, and weaves together santería, transgender issues, sexuality politics, and the resistance movement in contemporary Cuba.

Novas broaches the transgender subject entirely outside the political fray, as it touches two people who didn't send out for it but nonetheless are caught and ultimately blessed by it. "In the same non-polemic vein that I believe is part of my voice as a novelist, I have addressed the subject of political prisoners in Cuba and the corruption that often overshadows and transcends ideology. Ultimately, these and the many other components tell a story larger than the sum of its parts. The story deals with the healing process that goes when we emerge from a terrible dark night of the soul. As Robert Lowell says, it's not what the poem means but how the poem means-and Princess Papaya is all about the how," Novas explained in an e-mail interview.

Recommended for anyone interested in the nooks and crannies of the Cuban psyche.

Beatriz Rivera-Barnes
Pennsylvania State





PRINCESS PAPAYA By Himilce Novas was Finalist for

Book of the year  in



Princess Papaya

A Novel by Himilce Novas

Arte Publico Press

ISBN: 1558854363

Paperback: 213pp; $14.95


Roberto Lobo receives anonymous calls in the night. Voices whisper threats in his ear. His fear drives him to seek the help of Ideliza Mercado, Princess Papaya and Priestess of the Barrio. Roberto hopes Princess Papaya’s powerful knowledge of santería will end his torment. Hiding in the shadows is Ideliza and Roberto’s deaf-mute son, Bembé. Across the city, Victoria Lobo, a Jewish, Cuban-American poet, mourns the death of her husband, Francisco, until a chance meeting with Bembé brings her closer to her brother and the disappearance that has plagued her family for twenty years. Taking us from the 9-11 tragedy in New York City to the political dungeons in Cuba to the vineyards of Santa Barbara, Novas weaves santería, gender, transgender, sexuality politics, and the resistance movement in contemporary Cuba.

Princess Papaya, explores the theme of gender in both normative and untraditional forms. As active member of Veteran Feminists of America, Novas remains dedicated to gender equality. Feminism informs her work and lectures, making her approach to the topic of gender equality both educated and first-hand, objective and impassioned.  





ne imagines that being part of a prominent literary and intellectual family in the exiled, 1960's-era, Cuban-American community of New York City would be a heavy mantle to bear, and yet, essay­ist, poet, and fiction writer Himilce Novas' talent seems weightless. Her creative forays volley from teaching to radio commentary and from incisive essays to the wonderfully lyrical novels and sto­ries that have won her wide acclaim. Her two novels Mangos, Bananas, and Coconuts (Arte Publico Press, 1996; Riverhead/Putnam, 1997) and, more recently, Princess Papaya (Arte Publico Press, 2004) have garnered her the acclaim of critics and her peers. Of her newest novel, Isabel Allende said, "Her writing is universal and time­less. Princess Papaya is beautifully rendered, chill­ing, touching, and haunting." From the first line, Novas' storytelling weaves an enthralling spell. The novel follows a Cuban-American family in post-9/11 New York City as they confront the mysteries of their past and the failures and betrayals of their present reality. From a greedy doctor who performs late-term abortions to a young child with extraordinary spiritual powers to a poet who has lost her muse, Novas creates a cast of characters that challenge the reader to reexamine the world in which they live. Ever courageous and unafraid to challenge mainstream thought and writing, I had the opportunity to chat with Himilce about her life and her work.

MP When you sat down to write Princess Papaya, what came to you first: A character? An image? A scene?


 HN One sees (or perhaps I should speak only from my own experience and say "I see," although it is arguable that there is a common denominator to all writers, and thus when I say one sees," I probably mean "I see and I think the writer sees") a character against the back­drop of a situation, a life unfolding in a particu­lar corner of a world. Then, to that character other characters accrue. These become the "cast" of the story that is being told, hummed, and droned inside me and which I'll eventually decal onto the written page.


I should clarify that that original character around which the story unfolds is ultimately not necessarily the "main" character in the written story--at least not to the naked eye. She/he is perhaps the heart or vena cava, but the work itself depends on the equipoise, gestalt, synergy, and interplay between the characters, their lives, their compounded fate, and their aggregated substance.


MP One of your characters is Victoria Lobo, who has lost her husband in the events that unfolded on 9/11. Since 9/11 has dominated political and social conversation and thought in the US and abroad for four years, I wonder at the challenge it poses as a subject of fiction. Was there anything you felt you had to represent with regard to survivors? Was there anything that you insisted you would not represent?


HN 9/11 was metaphor and catalyst to depict the violent and unexpected loss of a loved one. It gave me a prism for Victoria Lobo to see her husband's life immolate before her on the TV screen. I could have equally chosen a different random act, such as a traffic accident or a drive-by shooting along some anonymous highway. But by choosing the plane en route to NY from Boston crashing into the WTC tower, I chose a collective grave, a grave in the collective uncon­scious, a funeral larger than life that all readers had already attended and considered and mourned. That is, I drew the reader to a familiar ground zero. However, the 9/11 attack itself was not part of the story.


For me, the random act of Francisco's sudden death and deconstruction was the point--i.e., the seeming senselessness of the accidental victim and the impact it had on the attending charac­ters, particularly Victoria. I guess one thing my choosing 9/11 certainly did not represent was a political message. It was the personal message, the lives lost and the lives shattered as a result of a senseless act that I was after. Of course, politics and the broad flux and efflux of human actions impact the individual, so in that sense politics was the silent presence in the story.


MP Your father, Lino Novas Calvo, is one of the most acclaimed short story and novel writers in Latin America and the Caribbean. Do you see his fingerprint in your own work?


HN We each have our own highly individ­ual voice and I cannot say that his writing direct­ly influenced mine, either stylistically or thematically. Also, I am an American writer writing in English and one cannot underestimate language and cultural point of view when looking at a writer's work. But my father did teach me a lot about literature and about the craft of writing itself. He also taught me how to read and write by reading me his translations of Faulkner, Joyce, and Hemingway (among many others) before I was 4 years old. Most of all, he taught me that a writer writes.


I also think that his sense of honra and his fairness and his humility and his compassion for those who are unjustly treated and persecuted helped shape my own view of life and ergo my literary compass. Both he and my mother, Herminia del Portal, were seminal in that sense, as well as in the most fundamental sense. I learned from both and miss them terribly.


MP I'm interested in how language inter­acts with the stories you're telling. Obviously, there is the issue of a writer's facility with language that comes into play, but for someone like you who is bilingual, are there any other con­scious decisions that inform you writing in English? Does it change you as an AMERICAN writer?


HN I am actually quatrilingual: English, Spanish, French, and Italian. I have translated works from all four languages (art books, articles, etc) and write and speak all fluently and "native­ly." I learned all four at the same time. However,my innermost language is English. That is my ready-think voice, my knee-jerk, and my writer's pen. I don't have to think about language when I write. (I do not write in translation, after all!) It thinks me, and you cannot tell the dancer from the dance. As Alexander Pope said about Newton: he lisped in numbers for the numbers came. I am an American writer who writes in English, the same as Emily Dickinson was an American writer who wrote in English, or Dos Passos. Language to me is the same as air you breathe. I take it in, and I release it. Then I suck it in again, and by virtue of this simple exercise, I stay alive.


MP How do you think it affects the characters when their lingua franca is English (their dia­logue, their thoughts), Do you think it changes who they are?


HN If I write about characters whose language is English, there is no language question in terms of language per se, but there are questions vis a vis the characters' social class, intelligence, regional provenance and so on, which, of course, always inform speech. That goes for characters that think in Spanglish, Cajun-English, or any other linguistic hybrid. I must tell it as it is, the way an actor must do a perfect accent and not a mockery of one or a soprano must hit that perfect c over high c and nothing in between. I hear it, I know it, and I do it.


If I write about a character whose English is wanting and/or speaks in translation, then that is reflected in how his/her speech pattern is expressed, and it is up to my artistry to convey that.


If I am writing about a character who is speaking in, say, Spanish, I convey that with my own linguistic sleight of hand and may pepper his/her sentences with Spanish words for sazon and coloratura. You can find an example of this in Chapter 5 of Princess Papaya w­ith the character named Dolores, a Cuban living in Cuba, who is forced into prostitution as a means of survival ­but ultimately uses it as a private weapon against the Castro regime.


If you are asking me whether language changes the way people think, the answer is both no and yes. No because underneath all language is the universal human language. Yes because each culture has a predetermined set of values and its own singular weltanschauung, which informs both linguistic meaning and intent, as well as what you say and what you don’t say.

It is up to the writer's own art and genius to modulate all that within the text and context of ­the novel itself--never letting it stick out like a thesis, as that would not be literature. In the end, one's work must be a seamless garment, ­and the reader should understand and discern the story intuitively, not be expected to dissect it like a frog.

MP How do you feel about translations of your own work? Do you play an active role, or do you view the translation as a separate artistic product?


HN I do not like to translate my own work at all. It would be like saying something twice and second-guessing myself in the process. I'd rather spend the time working on something new. However, I do like to check for accuracy and fidelity with a fine-tooth comb.


MP Your characters occupy a very real and familiar environment, and yet they witness magic in their daily lives. Is that your view of the world or is this something unique to the Cuban American communities you're depicting?


HN I suppose the same way my left brain interacts with my right brain. The one needs the other. I don't know that life through the magic lens is unique to the Cuban-American experience per se. Perhaps it has more to do with the artist's eye--or this artist's eye.


MP Do you privilege fiction or non-fiction? Do you think either is more powerful or more apt to tell a particular story?


HN Do you mean prefer or lean more to one or the other, like favoring the right leg over the left? Well, in any case, the two are not related at all. Writing fiction is the same as compos­ing music. The artist is born. I did not choose it. I just am. There is no preferring there. A writer writes. No sense asking the mocking bird why it sings.


MP Is your work autobiographical?

HN My fiction is not autobiographical. Perhaps some day I'll write my memoirs or some memoirs and that will be autobiographical. As I said before, I write what I live, feel, see, know, remember, and touches my human heart. And, to borrow from Whitman, I contain multitudes. I weep with those who weep, and I am not alien from the human condition.


MP All of your work very much weaves in the intersection of society's mores and values with the lives of individuals. In this novel, several of your characters represent people that are often critiqued by mainstream values: the doctor giving abortions, the curandera, couples engaged in forbidden affairs, the hermaphrodite. Are you drawn to these characters?


HN Yes, those characters clamor for a voice, long for grace, understanding and tran­scendence. I'm interested in considering the whole of them from an independent lens. I pon­der their contradictions and complex humanity away from the myopic eye of prejudice or con­demnation or society's expectations.


MP I recently saw a film by a young film­maker about Cali, Colombia. She said that she

wanted to focus on a positive depiction of Cali since everything she'd seen was negative. Do you feel pressure to represent a particular communi­ty? Are you concerned about negative depictions of that community?


HN No, I don't feel any pressure to repre­sent any community. I am not interested in prop­aganda or morality plays where characters stand for things or ideas or, worse, ideals. I don't want to spin anything, good or bad. It's both song and knee jerk reaction. It is, ultimately and funda­mentally, poetry. Robert Lowell said, "It's not what a poem means but how a poem means." That's what my literature is about, how.


MP I had a professor who argued that the tradition of the public intellectual critiquing the American lifestyle in newspapers and essays was dying. You're a scholar, a fiction writer, an essay­ist, and a radio commentator, which puts you in a wonderful space to comment on the culture around you. What do you think are the responsi­bilities of intellectuals today? Do they have a place in the community at large?


HN I do agree that, certainly, the bully pul­pit as literary genre where the thinker/essayist lambastes injustice seems to be defunct--but the advent of the blog is perhaps filling the void that your professor identified, though not entirely.


I believe everyone is called upon to speak out against unfairness and to relieve human suffering in one measure or another. And, of course, from whom much is given, much is expected. So, if a writer can articulate the wrong and the right and point the way to solutions, then he/she must speak out, write and shout and say "ouch!" for as long as it takes in as many venues as possible. To stand by silently and let oppression rule in any guise is not acceptable in my view.


MP And the dreaded question: Are you working on anything new?


HN I'm working on a story (a novel) about destiny/providence. I'm also drafting a lot of letters in defense of same sex marriage and undocumented immigrants these days.


[This article appeared in October, 2005 in LITERAL, a literary magazine subtitled LatinAmerican Voices, published in Houston and distributed in the US and Mexico.

The writer/interviewer is Monica Parle]  

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