The Rise of the Cuban Literati: In Sunshine and In Shadow
Reporting from the Most Important Book Fair in the Country
It was a half-hour before sundown and I was wrestling with the profound strangeness of Cuba’s moment in contemporary literature. Depending on whom I talked to on the island, Cuban writers were either admired, despised, or had been forgotten, completely and forever. The men playing dominoes in doorways said they read Leonardo Padura. The teenagers riding horses on the hilltop overlooking the bay said they read nothing. The gringos were content with walking the tourist-trap streets handcuffed with daiquiris and hard-ons for Hemingway. Nobody had heard of the hungry lit kids who were ready to rip the world in half.
Gazing down from the rooftop of a decaying tenement, where an anthology of new Cuban fiction lay bookmarked on a little table, I watched the delinquent cliché of Cuban streets come alive in the dusk. They were streets of survival, streets of destitution and black markets. Watching these restless callejons and calles that crisscrossed Old Havana, I thought of the young Cuban writers compiled in the tabletop anthology—rising talents like Osdany Morales, Jorge Enrique Lage, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo—and wondered where they belonged in the city’s subtropical drama. The anthology, a collection of compellingly modern stories called Generation Zero, suggested that maybe Cuba’s young writers didn’t belong here at all.
This feeling of not belonging is nothing new for Cuban writers, who, since 1959, when the revolutionary socialist state began, have never been certain whether they’ve belonged on the island. What is different, though, is the way in which contemporary Cubans are writing about feeling stateless and not belonging; thus making Generation Zero—and other new anthologies like Cuba in Splinters and Your Impossible Voice #10—the new literary monuments to the failures of the socialist state.
But what did these anthologies mean for Cuba’s literary culture on the island? I wondered. What was it, anyway, that these stories were saying about Cuba’s underground cultural scene? I had arrived in Cuba on the eve of the Havana International Book Fair to find out, and to see if there might be a legion of forgotten writers on the brink of greatness.
* * * *
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from a literary pilgrimage to Havana. To begin with, I received an email hinting at danger, claiming that agents of the island’s State Security would most certainly be tracking my movements. Then there was the challenge of becoming familiar with a literary culture that novelist Malena Salazar Maciá told me was difficult to explain to even her own friends and acquaintances within Cuba.
Determined not to be a gringo playing with fire in an unfamiliar literary scene, I spoke to seven Cuban writers via email in the weeks before my arrival. The writers were young and old, celebrated and unpublished, writers who I would meet at the book fair, and writers who were living in exile in Oakland and New York, Iceland and Miami. A few were self-proclaimed representatives of Generation Zero, a few were of an older Hidden Generation, and a few dismissed the idea of Cuban literary generations altogether. Their differences of opinion were sometimes distinct and confounding, yet always thoughtful and entertaining. And above all else, their sense of community was strong: each writer was well aware of his or her peers, and praise was often thoughtfully accorded from one writer to another.
Faced with a desire to easily classify these seven literary figures, I decided a brief oral history would be best. So here are the seven Cuban writers who corresponded with me through email, reflecting on whether there is, in fact, literary culture in modern Havana:
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo (novelist, blogger, photographer, and an ICORN guest writer in Iceland): “There is literature and there is culture in Havana today, but there is no literary culture.”
Yoss (novelist and lead singer in the heavy metal band Tenaz in Havana): “Of course there is literary culture in Havana . . . but [Orlando’s] phrase is so good I will say no more.”
Pardo Lazo: “I regret my words. I should have said: ‘There is literary culture in Havana today, but there is no literature and no culture at all.’”
Gina Picart (novelist and literary critic in Havana): “I never understand what Orlando says.”
Achy Obejas (novelist, translator, and the Distinguished Visiting Writer at Mills College in Oakland): “There’s no *independent* literary culture in the way we imagine in the U.S. and Europe. There’s the official literary culture, which is sanctioned by the authorities with its attendant periodicals and prizes and gigs. Then there’s whatever anybody can make happen with absolutely zero support.”
Osdany Morales (novelist, poet, and Ph.D. candidate in NYU’s Latin American Literature program): “In Havana, behind every book presentation there is a large state institution, and along the way literature ends up becoming a solemn issue.”
Picart: “The overall atmosphere of Havana today is not favorable for the culture to ferment.”
Obejas: “It’s all very scattered and ill-connected.”
Picart: “On the one hand there is the culture of the writers, and on the other the public. But both depend on the literature supply available in the country, which is very poor.”
Daína Chaviano (novelist in Miami, author of the most widely translated Cuban novel of all time): “There is no way to produce a literarily cultured nation if its inhabitants can’t select, compare, and freely choose their favorite books and authors because they have to wait for a small group to decide what they should buy and read.”
Morales: “The lack of spaces in which literary criticism is practiced makes it hard to find any readings in a national context.”
Granma (the official state-run newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party, February 12, 2016): “In some countries, [books] are too expensive, and in others, scarce. In Cuba, where these two problems don’t exist, books are often appreciated from afar.”
Chaviano: “It is difficult for Cubans living abroad to buy books published on the island.”
Picart: “The lack of diversity in the supply of reading [materials means that the reading public] has become a tame animal that swallows what is put in its mouth.”
Malena Salazar Maciá (novelist in Havana): “Cuban publishing houses have their published plans very tight. They rarely accept manuscripts of unpublished writers. There is no publishing market. It is tortuous.”
Obejas: “There are writers, such as Leonardo Padura, Yoss, and, to a lesser degree, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, who swim in the giant overlap [between official and unofficial culture], mostly because the government can’t deny them and they’re not interested in picking a fight.”
Picart: “Many Cuban readers only read Leonardo Padura, and when you ask people on the street about Cuban writers, they can hardly think of another name than [Padura]…”
Pardo Lazo: “The Cuban reader is a mediocre figure, it needs to be annihilated with a tender touch of text-rrorism. Only the State Security agents know everything about aesthetics and the theories and tensions of the Cuban cultural field.”
Morales: “I do believe there is a great deal of literature circulating in the peripheral of official culture.”
Maciá: “Cubans have always had good reading habits. Sometimes it may be decreased for different reasons, but in recent years I have noticed a growing interest in reading. It’s not much, it’s small, but I can sense it.”
Picart: “My personal impression is that Habaneros read less now than decades ago because Habaneros are involved in other activities related to the physical survival of the culture.”
Obejas: “Orlando’s flight from Havana has actually left quite a hole in the non-official cultural world, and Abel Prieto . . . stepping down as Minister of Culture has actually had an effect too. His successor isn’t a writer and clearly doesn’t value literature nearly as much.”
Yoss: “Havana abounds in meeting places for writers… but it is most normal to meet in people’s homes.”
Maciá: “Normally, literary gatherings are held in the homes of artists and writers.”
Morales: “I remember being outside a movie theater a few years ago, sitting on the steps and talking about books with some friends, or talking about books on a crowded bus, or while walking on a sunny sidewalk or through a tunnel breathing carbon monoxide, or on an uncomfortable bench in a park, or a bus stop at midnight.”
Obejas: “For me it’s all about private homes. There are just people whose homes are magical in terms of gatherings and conversations.”
Morales: “Readers are accessing pirated digital books that are not sold in Cuba, and this is a literary culture, perhaps undetectable for now. For the future (and obviously the present), we do need new and diverse independent press houses, with their own editors and visions, translators, designers, and distributors. And I believe all those professionals, as well as lots of readers, are out there ready to interact with the options contemporary literature is proposing.”
Chaviano: “There is a huge wave of emigrant writers [now] that didn’t exist in the 80s. This literary exodus is leaving niches that can’t be fulfilled at the same speed. If a country can’t make its most prominent young writers stay at home, its literary ranks will face a permanent lack of growing, or at least a difficult time to progress.”
Morales: “Hopefully, with the spread of the Internet, new initiatives dedicated to literature will appear: blogs, magazines, commentaries arising from readers and not only professional critics. Then we will know how (or if) Cubans are reading.”
Pardo Lazo: “[For Havana to become a hotbed of literary culture] it would take Europe or America to be there again to, please, re-rediscover us. Our colonialized culture is congenital. A hotbed depends on euros and dollars to be really hot. It’s called prostitution and we are prone to it. Don’t be late: it takes two for a tango.”
Maciá: “There are now emerging very talented Cuban authors. I think they will boost Cuban literature to unimaginable heights.”
Pardo Lazo: “The [posthumous novel of the Revolution] is about to be finished. I must finish it before Fidel Castro dies, so he can read it and officially order my assassination. It will be our book of truth.”
The commentary of the seven writers was, I had to admit, glorious. Hallmarked by wisdom and regret while flaunting forward-thinking speech and a playful camaraderie, the Cuban literati clearly didn’t fit with the socialist groove. And to my surprise, throughout my thread of emails with the seven writers, they all seemed to agree on one sentiment: the Havana International Book Fair was the most important literary event in the country.
* * * *
Stepping out of a taxi onto the green hills overlooking Havana, I could immediately tell something was unusual about la Feria del Libro. From the entrance, a road ran southeast through the fair and I walked along it, passing carousels powered by makeshift motors; passing young men saddling horses, then whipping them into a gallop; passing tents covering carnival games and stands selling Cristal cervezas and tuKola sodas; passing fields flattened by parked ’55 Chevys; passing soldiers clad in fatigues of green, police in shades of blue, and more soldiers clad in khaki; but never, not once, passing a book.
I recalled an email Yoss had sent to me in which he said, “La Feria is a party.” And while I was initially suspicious of a book fair that claimed to be a party, la Feria felt like a pleasant slice of lesser-known Havana. As I roamed around, though, I remained fairly suspicious that books were proving so hard to find. Especially when considering Granma, the agitprop newspaper named for the yacht that hauled Fidel Castro and 81 revolutionaries from Mexico to Cuba, claimed there should have been precisely 3,360,000 books on display. I ran that preposterous number through my mind another time, then passed through thick crowds until the road finally arrived at Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, where in 1959 Che Guevara oversaw the executions of suspected war criminals. And it was here, in the third-largest fortress in the Americas, that I found a few thousand books on display in vaulted dungeon-like rooms built into the walls of the fort, as if at any moment doors could be bolted shut, imprisoning the writers and readers for dissent.
In one of the vaulted rooms I met Yoss and Malena Salazar Maciá, who were milling around after a presentation commemorating the release of a book written by novelist Elaine Vilar. I introduced myself to Yoss, one of the island’s preeminent literary figures. He had a relaxed aura of cool—wearing a red bandana, punk-studded wristbands, and camo-print pants—and he couldn’t walk a block at la Feria without running into people he knew. Maciá, a rising talent in Havana’s science fiction scene, was fresh off a win in one of Cuba’s top literary contests for young writers. She had a cheerful affability and we quickly eased into conversation. In an email Maciá wrote me, she mentioned how thousands of people flocked to la Feria each day, and as we spoke in person she asked if I had seen all the people. “Sí,” I replied, “Thousands. But where are the millions of books?”
“They are all around,” she said as if the books were ghosts.
Around us in the vault was a mere cardboard box filled with the book Vilar had just presented. A woman with handfuls of Cuban pesos sat next to the box and when I tried to purchase a copy with tourist pesos she said it was impossible. Despite the illogical economics of a country whose inhabitants use a different currency than visitors, we managed to strike a deal. When I completed my purchase I returned to Maciá who introduced me to several writers, each of whom asked how I had managed to hear about them. I said the Internet and everyone smiled with a quiet warmth. I made my way to congratulate Vilar and asked her questions about her book, which was a graphic novel version of the opera Carmen. The next presentation was held for Michel Encinosa Fú, a novelist Achy Obejas told me was “amazing,” and I watched him speak with graciousness about the release of his novel, La Guerra de Bianca, which had won the 2014 Premio La Edad de Oro.
After the presentation, Maciá told me she planned to take a break from la Feria the following day to write at her apartment, and Yoss said I could find him at the Pabellón Cuba, another la Feria venue in Vedado. I said I would. Then we all said goodbye and I went on my way, taking a bicycle taxi up La Cabaña hill to see the sculpture of Jesus Christ. At the hilltop I felt relieved to be in the open air. Free from the crowds at la Feria, I looked southward into the panorama of Havana: the city from where millions of stories had never been told.
* * * *
A few days passed like this, where I was transported around Havana, going from the fortress on the slopes of La Cabaña to readings at the Pabellón Cuba, to meals at the prerevolutionary homes of writers, and to book releases at the Centro Cultural Dulce Maria Loynaz. I had lunch with Maciá’s family in a beach town on the outskirts of Havana, eating spaghetti and cubes of candied papaya before we walked across town discussing the similarities of our creative lives as writers, and the vast differences of our actual lives as casualties of diplomacy. I was invited to the home of Gina Picart for coffee and chocolate with her partner, the journalist and political scientist Oscar Ferrer Carbonell, and her amusing daughter Cynthia. Late into the afternoon I listened to Picart, one of Cuba’s transcendent writers, tell me about her career as a novelist. Talk eventually fell to the state of young writers in Cuba, and Picart suggested the island teemed with too many new, inexperienced writers, coupled with too few publishing houses.
On my last day at la Feria, I attended an awards ceremony for the 2015 winners of the Premio Calendario, an award given to unpublished writers by the state-sponsored Asociación Hermanos Saíz. I had spent the morning with Maciá and Alejandro Rojas, an unpublished novelist who received his breakthrough last year when his manuscript was selected for a Calendario in science fiction. Maciá, who experienced a similar path to publishing success by winning a Premio David last year, told me that it was difficult for unpublished writers to become published in Cuba. “The only viable option is to participate in contests that are held,” she explained. Osdany Morales, however, emailing from New York, issued caution regarding the acclaim surrounding literary awards in Cuba. Morales, a winner of both the Premio David and Premio Alejo Carpentier, agreed that the most effective way for young authors to become published was through literary contests, but warned that, “at the same time, it is risky to promote a literary scene based on these limited opportunities.”
I took a seat in the back corner of the crowded conference hall, awaiting the Calendario ceremony. Having settled into the fortress life of la Feria following the initial rush of energy on my first day, I was surprised by the mundanity of what I experienced as a few considerably ordinary afternoons at a book fair: the exchanges of strange pleasantries, the small talk with other writers about books they were purchasing or presenting, the hushed anticipations, the detached presentations, the kind applauses, the waiting in line for half-hours to eat slices of unpleasant pizza. My failure to be wholly impressed was, of course, an entirely American experience, informed by the excess of behemoth book fairs on offer in the United States every year, from Miami to Brooklyn to Jaipur-at-Boulder. In a sense, it was impossible for me to genuinely feel the paramount importance of la Feria. How could I have felt the same urgency and fervor for an event that was, in essence, the only moment of the year in Cuba when new books were released and when new literary awards were presented?
Later that day, an accomplished writer with an impressive array of awards—who wished to remain nameless—handed me a novel that had never left the shores of Cuba. And it wasn’t until the writer asked for my help in finding an American publisher that I finally felt the power of la Feria and my week in Havana. Holding the novel and hearing the writer’s plea, I understood that for Cuban writers there was a true necessity to la Feria, one no American writer could ever fathom feeling from any stateside fair. I understood that the life of a Cuban writer—one of enduring the struggle for physical survival and “deeply rationalized self-censorship”—was one that few American writers could identify with.
A brief history of Cuba could be seen as a history where people have continuously endured, and all year Cuban writers had endured unreasonable and labyrinthine publishing practices waiting for la Feria, waiting for the day when their books would be released, waiting for the chance to purchase the books of their peers, and, who knew, perhaps waiting for a chance encounter with a gringo who might not know how to expel all of their tragedies, but who was certainly willing to help. Later that evening, over rum and coffee, I told the writer I would be glad to help, and I could see the writer’s heart warm.
That night, as I took my last walk through the city, I felt a fundamental connection and sympathy with the writers I had corresponded with and met, yet I knew there was an indelible distance between us, and I feared there would always be that distance until someone repaired their world. This isn’t a story about Cuba no one has ever heard before, but it is one that constantly deserves reexamination in the face of our modern world. So when I came to the Malecón and once again saw all of Havana’s faded glory, I was reminded of a few final lines in Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo’s short story, “Sunflower Fields Forever,” which tells the story of two bored, suicidal lovers in Havana:
“The following midnight, after another long and narrow day’s journey of reading rather decadent things, they were consequently convinced that they lived in ‘an absurd era, of little or no action, as often happens after great revolutions or little catastrophes.’”
That following midnight in America, after a long and narrow day’s journey through Miami and a few Midwestern cities, I thought of all the little catastrophes still swarming around Cuba, and I, too, was consequently convinced.
All photos by the author.