Why you should care
Because Cuba could be the next great literary home of new, untold stories.
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President Obama’s recent visit to Havana marked a “new day” of openness between the U.S. and Cuba. But while many are focusing on politicians and businesses that are writing a new chapter in cross-country relations, few are looking at the island nation’s burgeoning literary scene, which is also opening to a different era.
In the past, the country has attracted great American novelists — the most famous, of course, being the Nobel Prize winner Ernest Hemingway, who wrote much of For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Old Man and the Sea in Cuba before spending most of his adult life there. And, to this day, flocks of fans still frequent famous Hemingway hangouts, including the plantation Finca Vigía, or Lookout Farm, as well as the Havana bar El Floridita.
But emerging authentic voices are also capturing the very essence of life in Cuba and among its diaspora. “There’s enormous talent that has been held back from writing or publishing for two to three generations, so as these writers find their voice and publishers find them, we are going to see a literary explosion out of Cuba,” says Ana Dopico, associate professor of Spanish and comparative literature at New York University and author of the blog CubaCargo/Cult. Some Cuban millennials, in particular, are producing work that Dopico says is “intensely political” in embracing intimacy, private memories and secret wounds in addition to recording “the everyday life of millions of Cubans confronting and resisting extreme difficulties and forced choices.”
With a literacy rate over 99 percent in Cuba, there’s an inherent attraction to education, reading, culture and the arts.
Cevin Bryerman, publisher of Publishers Weekly
More broadly speaking, Cuban literature has been deeply influenced by the island’s collective conscience, where writing often isn’t a solitary experience but a collaborative one, says San Francisco–based poet laureate Alejandro Murguía, who’s also a professor of Latino studies at San Francisco State University. Besides the U.S.’s long-standing trade embargo, other barriers — including translation and a limited digital reach — persist and have diminished the market potential of certain writings.
Yet recent steps have been taken to garner a wider audience for Cuban literature. In February, Publishers Weekly represented the first American presence at the Havana Book Fair since its inception a quarter of a century ago, and it also took steps to establish relations between publishers in the two countries. With a literacy rate over 99 percent in Cuba, there’s an inherent attraction to education, reading, culture and the arts, says Cevin Bryerman, Publishers Weekly’s publisher. “Books facilitate the exchange of ideas and communication, and once the embargo is lifted, it will open doors to a deeper understanding of Cuban culture,” Bryerman says.
A sampling of famous Cuban writers as well as up-and-comers with lit that’s worth a read.
Cuba in Splinters, edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
This collection of stories is derived from what Dopico refers to as the “grandchildren of the Revolution,” a group of writers who collaborated together through Cuba’s underground online e-zine world. Set almost exclusively in Havana, the stories intentionally depart from stereotypical tropical tales — such as a zombie story that folds a critique of the oppressive bureaucracy of the Cuban government into an American-style doomsday scenario, Alexia Nader has noted in OZY.
The Man Who Loved Dogs, by Leonardo Padura Fuentes
First published in Spanish in 2009, and later appearing in an English translation by Anna Kushner, this nearly 600-page story details the exile from Russia and eventual murder of Leon Trotsky. According to Nader, “Padura is a literary giant known for detective novels that subtly double as cultural criticism of Cuban society under Castro.”
Paradiso, by José Lezama Lima
Lima, a Cuban poet, writes the story of José Cemi’s coming of age in Cuba and his search for his dead father. The book’s publisher, Dalkey Archive Press, calls it both an archetype and a cosmos of Cuban society.
Havana Noir (Cuba), edited by Achy Obejas
Akashic Books, an independent publishing company, says this collection of stories features authors who uncover “crimes of violence and loveless sex, of mental cruelty and greed, of self-preservation and collective hysteria, in a city characterized by ironic and wrenching contradictions.”
Papyrus (Spanish edition), by Osdany Morales
This second novel from Morales was given an Alejo Carpentier Award several years ago and features a story about a writer who visits the seven libraries of the world — leaving a new book in each of them. Both Bryerman and Dopico say Morales is an up-and-coming Cuban writer who should definitely be on any bookworm’s radar.