Must-Read Lit From Cuba
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The island nation has some new dark stories to tell.
By Alexia Nader
As the U.S. and Cuba begin to make amends, what does this mean for Cuban literature? Some hope for a big shift — like “an urgent Manhattanization of Havana,” says Cuban writer and editor Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo. On one hand, this sea change may create space in the international arena for Generation Zero: authors writing openly about the effect of Castro government’s policies on private lives since 2000. On the other hand, American publishers are extremely selective when it comes to Cuban fiction, explains Ana Dopico, an associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese comparative literature at NYU, preferring the “literary noir in Padura’s detective novels or the ‘dirty realism’ of Pedro Juan Gutiérrez.” Whatever the future holds for Cuban literature in the U.S., these new and familiar literary voices from the island and its diaspora have already made it to our bookstores over this past year.
Cuba in Splinters: Eleven Stories from the New Cuba
edited by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
These stories hail from Generation Zero authors who came together as a literary group via Cuba’s underground online e-zine world. Set almost exclusively in Havana, they intentionally depart from stereotypical tropical tales — such as a zombie story that folds a critique of the oppressive bureaucracy of Cuban government into an American-style doomsday scenario. The prose flares with the trapped energy of youth remaining on the island after many waves of exodus. For Lazo, this discomfort with isolation will be the key to the integrity of future Cuban works: Cosmopolitanism must replace exceptionalism. “Cuban literature is to survive overt or it will perish provincial,” he says.
The Man Who Loved Dogs
by Leonardo Padura Fuentes
In a story of the exile from Russia and eventual murder of Leon Trotsky, told with a wash of noir, we get not only Trotsky’s version of the events, but also the viewpoint of the man Stalin tasked with the assassination. Padura is a literary giant known for detective novels that subtly double as cultural criticism of Cuban society under Castro. This nearly 600-page tome meditates on the theme of exile — from your country, political party, history, family, and even (cue the noir) your own identity.
The Distant Marvels
by Chantel Acevedo
In Cuban-American author Acevedo’s latest novel, a group of women are trapped inside a crumbling villa to wait out a hurricane, and one of them needs to tell her life story before she dies. This is the frame from which tales of love affairs and maternal sacrifice of Cuban revolutionaries gently flow, spanning from the period of Cuba’s battle for independence in 1895-1898 to the beginning of Castro’s regime. Acevedo’s prose has an endearingly relaxed feel — like she’s sitting across from you and telling the tale.
Woman in Battle Dress
by Antonio Benítez-Rojo (Forthcoming, September 2015)
This historical novel elaborates on the true story of Henriette Faber, a woman who assumed a man’s identity in order to practice medicine in Cuba, where her identity was outed with disastrous results. Rojo, who defected from the island in 1980 after running the state-sponsored publishing house Casa de las Américas for years, is best known here for a collection of essays and literary criticism on the Caribbean, The Repeating Island. He gives his protagonist an irrepressible free spirit, which forces her to test the boundaries of sexual practice, identity, and nationalism of her time. Under this first-person adventure story, a somber question lingers: What’s the limit to the freedom you can write into your own life?