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6 04 2010


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CUBAN LITERATURE FROM WITHIN

INTERVIEW WITH JORGE ENRIQUE LAGE, COMPLETE (IN ABCD, ABRIDGED)

– Your story “15,000 cans of tuna and we have no way to open them” parodies the process of editing a novel in Cuba, through a cocktail of sex, money in abundance and crazy adventures: What is the reality that you tell in this story?

At the beginning of the story, when all the Cuban publishing houses have stopped publishing books, the protagonist says, “Anyway, what I want to read isn’t published here,”  And then, in the midst of the devastation, asks, “When did we have those books everyone talks about and that five, ten, twenty years ago passed through the hands of the rest of the world?” The reality connects there. Of course the publishers in Cuba publish books, some of them very good. But go into a bookstore and it’s just that, books from Cuban publishers, books from Cuban authors. Two or three publishers with a few foreign authors, often selected without much in the way of criteria, and nothing else.  As none of the major Spanish publishers distribute in Cuba, that’s all the contemporary literature you will find. The basic list of authors of our era that are unknown to the common reader in Cuba is extensive. For a more informed reader, who knows an author but doesn’t have access to a single one of his books, the drama is even worse. Then the story takes off from there a little: this sensation that in Cuba there are no books anywhere, that almost nothing is being published.

– How would you describe current Cuban literature? Can we understand what is written on the island without taking into account that which is written outside of it?

I would not try to define it. Like others, contemporary Cuban literature it has its share of display, where the best known writers especially are the face of it abroad, the names that first come to mind when you talk about it.  The dynamic of the market is what defines it. But behind the showcase is the hidden cabinet of the writers, dead and alive, more or less secret, whose writing gives light and shadow to the preconceived ideas of Cuban literature, and puts it into a healthy perspective for the reader. This type of writer is not generally known outside of Cuba, at least not immediately.  That is why the inside-outside question has several facets. In the same way one can’t understand, unless one arbitrarily proposes it, from afar, the literature written inside without taking into account the literature written inside, because the writers take it into account, also the latter would change very much on having been read in dialog with the former. But Cuba is an island, not just a geographic point of view. The editorial and media movement of books and authors doesn’t do justice to the internal movement of current Cuban literature. I could seem that the last thing that jumped out of here and landed in a bookstore in Barcelona is the latest thing, the most interesting, or worst, the only thing there is. Rarely is this the case.

– What symbolic place is occupied by the writers who decided to stay, for example Anton Arrufat or Pedro Juan Gutierrez?

It is not the same for everyone. Each writer has created whatever space they can. There are many ways of living in Cuba. Anton Arrufat is what they call a sacred cow. The National Literature Prize with everything that involves and in the end over exposure. Pedro Juan is a horse of a different color. Dirty Trilogy of Havana, the book that placed him on the international stage – and perhaps his best book – remains unknown in Cuba. He is not a writer you see on the jury of contests, nor attending receptions or tributes. The name of Pedro Juan, like that of Leonardo Padura and some others, is permanently associated with the debates about Cuban literature and the marketplace, about the impact of Cuban literature beyond its borders. That places you in another way here. And there are also peculiar cases like that of Ena Lucia Portele, who has decided to stay and also to publish in her country, living in Cuba full-time but at all times being very far from Cuba.

– And what about those who decided to leave, like Antonio José Ponte and Rafael Rojas?

As with those who stay, leaving does not define you, although it is a strong influence, it is not a decision that defines anything, in terms of literature. There are more than a few Cuban writers who in recent years have been published and officially promoted in Cuba who are living elsewhere. The readings and reviews of these works and their authors may be dissimilar. However, for political reasons, there are authors not tolerated by the government: Ponte y Rojas among others. What happens is that, even if it seems otherwise, is that the government veto has its limits. When it comes to essays of this caliber, books fall into Cuba by force of gravity. The books of Ponte y Rojas are read, discussed, passed from hand to hand, and repose naturally in the private libraries of writers. His place is one of waiting: sooner or later the time will come when this dialog will find a space to be made public.

– Do you think that the tradition of the great Cuban authors exiles (thinking of Reinaldo Arenas, Cabrera Infante, etc.) is present in the new generation of writers?

I think so. And  also Gaston Baquero, and Jose Kozer, and Henry Labrador Ruiz … and the schizoid spectrum Lorenzo García Vega. My generation has read Cabrera Infante and Reinaldo Arenas a lot. Another thing is the radical edge, humor and risk of Tres Triste Tigres [Translated into English as: Three Trapped Tigers], and the Color of Summer are present in what is written today.  If the question is, are there narrative works that show a writer so conscious of his own power, of its liberating force, then the answer is definitely, No.

– What trends would you highlight in the new Cuban literature?

I’m afraid I can’t highlight any trends. Just as well. There are some young writers, and above all some incredibly good young poets, but in a scenario where there are few magazines, no supplements, where the entire editorial production is centralized and controlled by the State, where there is no literary criticism, to pretend to be a coolhunter, or trend spotter, is a rather bleak exercise.

– To what extent are media platforms like publishers, fairs and normal access to the Internet necessary to maintain  lively literary debate?

Absolutely necessary, of course. But literary debate is the least of it. Cuba lacks a platform for open debate about the many problems and traumas that are faced by Cuban society today, especially about the politics and economy of the country. In current conditions, it continues to be a debate that can get you sentenced to death.

– What blogs are read in Cuba?

I wish I knew. And who reads them. And where. And  how often. If whether they comment or not and what comments they write.  All that information, which must be recorded somewhere, if it were publishes would reveal many interesting things.  But the truth is, I have no idea.

– What do you think about Yoani Sanchez?

I think that, in her blog, more than a medium of expression, Yoani has found a tone of voice.  A tone that, to my taste, appeals too much to the emotion rather than the intelligence of the reader, and at times seems excessively noble, but that undoubtedly is in tune with something. Yoani has managed in what she says, to particularly capture the common wisdom and sensibility. And this is very difficult when it comes to the Cuban reality, so complex and full of paradoxes and shaken by the complete absurdity. Obviously outside of Cuba, where she is read much more, they read it differently. To anyone is familiar with the reality Yoani presents, reading it is like déjà vu: anyone could add misfortunes and miseries that are the same or worse than what she reports; on any corner is common to hear similar anti-government criticisms and disagreements; almost everyone has thought, and shared with others in private, similar phrases about the present and future of the country. There is some third person in that posting. I think that is why these brief texts of Yoani’s will be read as one of the many visions of daily Cuban life in these days, long after those of use submerged in today’s darkness have fallen, long after the media has stopped talking about her, when her generation and mine have been displaced by others, I hope, more intelligent.

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