Literature Libre: 9 Great Books to Understand Cuba

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Editor's Note:

Derek Palacio received his MFA in Creative Writing from the Ohio State University. His short story “Sugarcane” appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2013, and his novella How to Shake the Other Man was published by Nouvella Books. He lives and teaches in Ann Arbor, MI, is the co-director, with Claire Vaye Watkins, of the Mojave School, and serves as a faculty member of the Institute of American Indian Arts MFA program. His novel, The Mortifications, is now available.

The first book I ever read about Cuba or Cubans was Oscar Hijuelos’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. The novel explores the frenetic life and music-making of the fictional Cesar Castillo, a Cuban immigrant who briefly makes it big during the mambo era of 1950s New York following an appearance on “I Love Lucy.” Interestingly, when I think back on the novel, I remember its lush language, its sensory details, its immediacy and intensity, all of which perhaps belies, or at least distracts from, its fundamental lens: nostalgia. Hijuelos’s story operates primarily through Castillo’s older point of view, so the major events of his life and this novel are told in retrospect, gilded with longing for what once was. Consequently, the book is a paean to a Cuba and New York City that no longer exist, but are, through the sustaining power of wistfulness, “beyond death, beyond pain, beyond all stillness.”

Hijuelos’s marvelous novel is not the only book about Cuba that traffics in nostalgia, and in fact, that emotional phenomenon became a hallmark of the Cuban-American literature I encountered from then on. Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban was for me a gorgeous fever dream, and like Cesar Castillo, the members of Garcia’s del Pino family must also confront tremendous loss. But whereas Hijuelos’s story is told primarily through the eyes of one displaced Cuban, Garcia’s is a narrative of many voices and perspectives, spanning three generations of a single family. What’s truly remarkable is how that dazzling expansiveness repositions nostalgia, recasting the object of loss as family over place. The trials of the del Pino family are not so much about fading locales as much as they are about the disintegration of a clan. Each member of the family responds differently to the political and social turmoil of twentieth-century Cuba – Celia, the matriarch, devotes herself to the revolution; Lourdes, the daughter, seeks exile in the U.S.; Javier, a grandson, escapes to Czechoslovakia – and through this fragmentation, we grieve for diminished loyalties, the sad truth that one might have to pit individual survival against the preservation of filial ties. At the end of Hijuelos’s novel, Desi Arnaz says, “But I can remember when life felt like it would last forever,” which is a bigger, broader sense of loss than is felt by Garcia’s matriarch, Celia, who laments, “Families used to stay in one village reliving the same disillusions.”

Looking back on these books, it’s hard not to see their treatments of Cuban nostalgia as fitting within, or at least influenced by, an American mindset on Cuba. The history between the United States and post-revolutionary Cuba is one of enmity and confusion, resulting in a relationship defined by loss: the loss of political relations, the loss of economic ties, the loss of cultural exchange, the loss of mobility, the loss of trust. Consequently, it doesn’t surprise me that these works – books published in America – in some sense speak to injuries that feel larger than what is present on the page. This is not to say that the sentiments or ideologies within these books are specific to or dependent upon the American experience, but only to note how that American perspective (always looking in from the outside) perhaps magnifies the debts and injuries explored within these narratives.

That magnification reverberates in some books on Cuba as a doubled pain: not only as something vanished, but also as some opportunity lost. Rachel Kushner’s Telex from Cuba is a beautiful, intelligent, and deeply researched novel, and perhaps speaks directly to this idea of Cuba as prospect squandered. The story focuses on three families of U.S. expats – the Stiteses, the Lederers, and the Allains – and their work for the United Fruit Company in the final years before the revolution. Each family has come to Cuba not just for work, but also to escape a lesser life in the States (the Stites patriarch could not get a better job in the U.S., and Hatch Allain was rumored to have killed a man in Louisiana). Cuba, for these Americans, is a land of opportunity, a place to rise above their station when they could not do so at home. Telex from Cuba, in this sense, portrays an island of potential in the eyes of these foreigners, and the looming chaos, the political violence alluded to in the novel’s opening, will result in a lost future. Cuba serves as a refuge and as a new beginning, as well as a place for greatness. Ana Menéndez’s short story collection, In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, sometimes strikes a similar tone, though in the voice of a Cuban exile in Miami. Playing dominoes, the character Máximo jokes that while in America he is a “mutt,” “in Cuba I was a German shepherd.” What is missed is not only what had been, but also what could have been: success and status unachieved.

Ultimately, these portrayals of Cuba suggest or imply a kind of stasis, either the past coming to a halt or the future stymied, which is not an unfamiliar characterization of the island, a place often described as stuck in time. I myself have written Cuba in such a way, focusing also on what’s been left behind or what might have been for exiles had they not been forced from their homeland. It is with joy, then, that I have in recent years delved more deeply into literature about Cuba from Cuba, which paints not so much a different picture of the island, but a fuller one. Reinaldo Arenas’s Before Night Falls – his memoir of growing up in Cuba, experiencing the revolution, being jailed, and then escaping to the U.S. as part of the 1980 Mariel boatlift – is a vivid, candid, sometimes hopeful, sometimes tragic, sometimes full-of-rage account of Cuba’s evolution under Castro. The force of Arenas’s work comes in part, I think, from the ways in which we see Cuba did not transform under Castro, or the ways in which its people resisted the revolution as a marker of before and after. Certainly tremendous change was thrust upon the Cuban citizenry (the social and political structures of the country being dramatically overhauled), but in Arenas’s account, we find writers and artists continuing their work, sometimes in secrecy, and we witness homosexuals seeking and finding love despite the threat of jail and violence. The constancy of these drives, the efforts of these people to enact their passions despite the exceptional circumstances, offers a portrait of Cuba that is complex and alive, contradictory and ever-changing. To borrow from Whitman, the country “is large, [it] contains multitudes,” and Arenas’s account, heartbreaking as it sometimes is, pays homage to the constant flux that is Cuba.

The Voice of the Turtle, Peter Bush’s 1997 anthology of Cuban stories offers a sense of how Cuban writing has always pushed for this understanding of the island, bringing together icons of the Cuban literary tradition alongside newer voices. Other works, especially Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo’s recent anthologies Generation Zero (2014) and Cuba in Splinters (2014) pick up this torch, exhibiting the new directions contemporary Cuban fiction (as well as contemporary conceptions of Cuba) are moving in. These books, all available here in the U. S., keep in mind the consequences of Cuba’s revolutionary history (which will always be a part of the country’s overarching narrative) while investigating the island not only as it once was or could have been, but also as it is today. There is much to love and savor in these recent collections, and it is with joy that I now read beyond my first impressions of Cuba, toward a fuller and more nuanced experience of the country’s “multitudes.”