She became a novelist after a theater career and won acclaim with her debut, “Face,” the story of a man who rebuilds his own face after a disfiguring accident.
Cecile Pineda, who in midlife turned from a career in theater to one as a writer and drew raves with her first novel, “Face” (1985), the story of a barber who rebuilds his own face after a disfiguring accident, died on Aug. 11 at her home in Berkeley, Calif. She was 89.
Wings Press, which reissued “Face” in 2003, announced the death. No cause was given.
“Face” was notable not just as a first novel, but also as a novel by a Latina author published by a major house, Viking, which was unusual at the time. Ms. Pineda was born in New York to a Mexican father and Swiss mother, and in her books, which included both novels and nonfiction, she often examined issues of colonialism and identity.
Identity was certainly at the core of “Face,” which was nominated for the American Book Award for a first novel and was a finalist for the National Book Award for a first work of fiction. Ms. Pineda said it was inspired by a news article she read in 1977 about a Brazilian man whose face was disfigured in an accident. In the novel, her protagonist, Helio Cara, falls from a cliff, the injuries resulting in similar disfiguration. She described his first encounter with a mirror afterward:
“In the sudden light, someone stands weaving before him on unsteady legs, something without nose or mouth, eyes dark purple splotches, sealed almost shut, particles tattooed onto the skin. His groin goes hot. Not me! Not me! His voice gargles in his throat. No sound comes, no sound at all.”
Cara, finding himself a social outcast, embarks on a do-it-yourself reinvention.
“Using medical manuals, razor blades and local anesthetic, he begins to reconstruct his face,” Cathy Colman wrote in a review in The New York Times in 1985. “It is here that the author reveals the immense power of human will and obsession.”
Ms. Pineda quickly followed up “Face” with a second novel, “Frieze” (1986), the metaphor-heavy story of a stone carver working on an ancient temple.
“As delicately phrased as a prose poem, and with moments of real beauty, ‘Frieze’ makes its tale of an eighth-century Hindu stone carver into a parable that opposes the pride and power of the state to the slow resistances of human life,” Richard Eder wrote in a review in The Los Angeles Times. “Flickering between them, unstable and essentially amoral, are intellect and art.”
Another acclaimed novel was “The Love Queen of the Amazon” (1992), whose protagonist, Ana Magdalena, is expelled from a convent’s boarding school after stripping down to rescue a drowning classmate. Full of comic scenes, the novel was in marked contrast to the spare poetical prose of Ms. Pineda’s earlier novels.
After two more novels and a book that she called a “faux memoir,” “Fishlight: A Dream of Childhood” (2001), Ms. Pineda stretched herself again by switching to nonfiction with “Devil’s Tango: How I Learned the Fukushima Step by Step” (2012), about the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan.
“I am trying to understand being born to the urge to destroy, to rip mountains apart, to pour thousand-year poison into the seas, to belch soot into the sky, to kill everything that lives,” Ms. Pineda wrote. “Where does it start, this impulse? In what mind?”
She followed that with another nonfiction book with an environmental theme, “Apology to a Whale: Words to Mend a World” (2015). She then examined her own family’s story, as well as immigration and detention policies, in “Entry Without Inspection: A Writer’s Life in El Norte” (2020). In that book, she wrote of realizing how little she knew about her own heritage, and of trying to fill in the gaps. She recalled a moment after the publication of “The Love Queen of the Amazon” when she was addressing a group of Mexican American women.
“In my talk, I mentioned that some of the stories I’d included in that book were inspired by my father’s fabrications,” she wrote, “but at a certain point, I broke down, unable to continue. In the presence of an audience composed of women whose histories were apparently available to them, I mourned the absence of my own.”
Cecile Pineda was born on Sept. 24, 1932, in Harlem. Her mother was an illustrator, and her father, who had entered the United States under an assumed name at 16, was a linguist. Despite her father’s surname, she wrote in “Entry Without Inspection,” she grew up speaking French and not Spanish in her household, along with English.
She studied theater at Barnard College, where The Barnard Bulletin praised her performances in Molière’s “The Physician in Spite of Himself” and other plays. After she graduated in 1954, she headed to the West Coast, eventually settling in San Francisco with her husband, Felix Leneman. A 1965 article in The San Francisco Examiner quoted her as speaking out in support of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a boundary-pushing theater company, whose performance permit had been canceled by the city after one of its shows was deemed indecent.
By 1969 she had her own troupe, the Theater of Man, an experimental theater company that she led for the next 12 years. In 1970 she added a master’s degree in theater arts from what is now San Francisco State University to her résumé.
As for her transition to novelist, that news article she had clipped in 1977 about the man with the disfigured face sat in her files for several years.
“Without doubt, I said to myself, such a remarkable story will appeal to some novelist who will discern meanings in it so powerful that the story will act as a catalyst for a memorable work of fiction,” she wrote in a preface to the 2003 edition. “It never occurred to me that I myself might take up the cudgels.”
When, after several years, none did, she began writing “Face” because the clipping was still haunting her. “The story,” she wrote, “had come to fester like an unhealed wound.”
Ms. Pineda’s marriage ended in divorce. She is survived by two sons, David and Michael Leneman.
Though Ms. Pineda was acclaimed as a pioneering Latina writer, in a 2004 interview with Jeff Biggers for The Bloomsbury Review she played that down somewhat.
“I know I am viewed by people eager to claim me as a Latina writer,” she said, “and this acclamation certainly makes me proud. But it is not entirely representative.
“My mother bore me. She was as mired in the notions of the Old World, in its rationalities, its explanations, its conventions, and its Protestantism, as my father was a product of his Catholicism and his own colonial past. Perhaps in the tension between the two, I managed to find a voice.”