10 04 2010

Taken from Martí Noticias

A. de Armas

Ena Lucia Portela, La Habana, 1972. BA in Classical Languages and Literatures. She published the novels The Bird: Brush and Ink (1999), translated into Italian, The Shadow of the Traveler (2006); A Hundred Bottles on a Wall (2002, Premio Jaén de Caja de Ahorros de Granada, Spain, and Deux Prix Grinzane Cavour Océans-2003, France), translated into French, Portuguese, Dutch, Polish, Italian, Greek, Turkish and English; and Djuna and Daniel (Havana, 2007, Barcelona, 2008).

She has also published volumes of short stories A Stranger Among the Stones (1999) and Some Very Serious Disease (2006). Her story The Old Man, the Murderer and Me was awarded the Juan Rulfo Prize by Radio France International in 1999. In May 2007, Ena Lucia was selected among the 39 writers under 39 years most important in Latin America.

Her work is studied and at the University of Wisconsin Madison, the City University of New York, the University of California LA, at the Sorbonne, in Leyden, in Gothenburg, at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Kansas, and reviews of her books have appeared, among others, in newspapers and magazines such as Le Monde, Libération, Le Humanité, Le Figaro, Telerama and La femelle du Requin.

Young, successful at an age when many authors publish, hopefully, their first word, endowed with a beauty at once modern and nineteenth century, marked by a halo, tragic destiny, possessor of a thin and sharp humor, she is also a woman who is not afraid, or rather, who has nothing to lose, as she says, and thus a rebel, a rebel with a cause, or many causes.

Consistent with this rebellion, consistent with herself, she has signed the document OZT: I accuse the Cuban government, signed so far by more than 40,000 people worldwide, including personalities such as Fernando Savater, Zoé Valdés, Pedro Almodovar and Herta Müller, Nobel Prize in Literature 2009. Becoming the first member of the UNEAC (National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba) to sign the petition for the release of political prisoners in Cuba and respect for human rights, distancing herself from the line of that organization, 16 March, in a statement published in the official daily Granma, refusing to condemn the Cuban regime by the death on hunger strike of dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

MN: Rock, the world of rock, has it influenced your work?

ELP: Well, who knows. In the late eighties, when I was a teenager, hairy and superthin, I frequented the Patio de Maria, had loads of “friki” friends who are Cuban rockers, and I downloaded the loud and ferocious metal. Sex Pistols, for instance, was my great discovery. So I guess that somehow all this bullangaranga has influenced my narrative. How, when and where, I could not be more precise. I have always suspected writers who seem too aware of their influences, both literary and critical in general. Now I use punk to defend myself from my neighbors, who tend to play some horrific reggaeton at maximum volume, which annoys me greatly. So I put on some CD of Porno para Ricardo at full volume and just stick with them, hehe. It’s very funny how Gorki Águila’s band brings on an effect similar to a symphony orchestra playing Arnold Schönberg: total crushing. Gradually they beat a retreat, I stop the torture, and that’s it. The trouble is when it comes to the blackouts and we’re all washed up, because there is neither reggaeton nor Gorky nor a damn thing for anyone.

MN: And the darkness of the human condition, how has your work been affected by the darkness of the human condition?

ELP. I talk about the blackouts and then you ask me about the dark, which brings to mind that Dominican merengue, or Puerto Rican, I can not remember who said it, very philosophically: “In the dark I put my hands… / in the dark I slipped my feet …” The dark interests me a lot, but I do not associate it with bad or evil, but rather with the irrational, the instinctive, atavistic, that beast side that all of we human beings have and that every one who controls (or not) as we can. I think the most interesting stories, tragic or comic or merely dramatic, come from the darkness in conflict with reason. And I think it preferable, at least for me, to sublimate my darkness through literature and not perpetrate them in in real life.

MN. You, who are today one of the best known Cuban authors abroad, multiple award-winning, translated and studied in universities around the world, it appears on the other side as if you did not exist for the critics in Cuba. What is that about? Is it the classic “you can’t be a prophet in your own land,” or worse, not being loved by the prophets of your land?

ELP. I am certainly not a prophet, not in my country nor in anyone else’s. Loved yes,by the people whom I love, in whose list there is no figure of any prophet. Years ago when I had not yet been put squarely in the “inxile” I complained a couple of times of lack of attention in Cuba. Now I do not complain. Why? If Leonardo Padura, the most popular of Cuban writers living on the island (given that several books by Pedro Juan Gutierrez only circulate underground), who has been acclaimed abroad, both by critics and by academia, does not get the attention here he deserves, what I can expect for me or any other writer of my generation?

International awards, unless the recipient of these awards is someone with an unquestionable vocation for sucking up, are often counterproductive to the effects of which we speak. In our literary kolkhoz there is no culture of debate, and if a foreign critic says that this or that Cuban writer is the greatest, the mandarins of the world can not think that it is simply an opinion. Accustomed for more than half a century of being bound by dogmas, they do not conceive that the world can run things differently. They confuse, therefore any opinion emerging from overseas with another dogma that they want to impose, evil in this case, to “expel” unbridled and cruel capitalism, if not of the empire and the CIA.

And rather than discuss the matter openly, or even to discuss it, they are silent. Of course this is not an innocent confusion, since there is much resentment and envy of the success of others abroad, as by little, has been mine. That a writer can exist outside the native cultural institutions, something unthinkable before the legalization of possession of foreign exchange in 1993, quite upset by the commissioners of culture. They would stop it if they could, but they can’t. Hence all those silly little campaigns against the market, where they chatter on about the most unusual little gossips that you can imagine, in which even my agent, Carmen Balcells, has taken his smacks on the head. She, of course, couldn’t care less. Like me.

MN. Ideally, how do you write? What conditions do you need, what manias or rituals, or what do you have to do to get yourself writing, if there is anything?

ELP. At night. For years now I have been nocturnal which does not mean that I just started wandering around in the dark like some Canterville Ghost, but I write at night when it is more quiet and less hot, when there is less danger of a knock at the door or a telephone call. And I drink cold water and hot coffee, thick, with very little sugar, as the Turks, and smoke black cigarettes. If I lack some of that, I get nervous and some character pays the consequences.

MN. To you, what is the relationship between eroticism and freedom?

ELP. A few years ago, in an interview published in the online magazine La Habana Elegante, I talked about the harrowing sense of freedom I had experienced in the spring of 1997, twenty-four, when I put my delicate little feet for the first time in New York. That, as you can imagine, was not well received in Cuba. Some classmate, supposedly a cultural journalist, contacted me with that  inflated air of bravad felt by those who feel supported by power, and she also interviewed me. She sent me a lengthy questionnaire,  extremely hostile, where she appeared as a sort of Torquemada I was that wretched witch trapped me by the Holy Office. I trashed it, of course. There was no point answering this interrogation, and my answers would never have crossed the Cuban media censorship. But now I remember one question: my concept of freedom. And I want to answer it. Defining terms, I would say that freedom is, first, as it says in the old Parker pen ads: write what you think. Zero inhibition, resentment or self-censorship. And then I will add that freedom is also writing how you feel, what you desire, what you dream. And from there comes the relation to eroticism, then.

MN: And eroticism and heroism?

ELP. The word “heroism” evokes for me to Marie Curie, who died trying to isolate chlorine, or Ali La Pointe, the protagonist of this extraordinary film by Pontecorvo, The Battle of Algiers, the firemen who are running towards the scene of the others fled, the UN peacekeepers who tried to stand between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994, Osip Mandelstam, who wrote as he thought, in circumstances far more dire than mine, and so many others. I think how wonderful a world would be in which heroic acts were not necessary, where no one had to declare a hunger strike, and even die, to be heard. The heroism is admirable, no doubt. But also very sad, very disheartening. No I don’t find it erotic, nor happy nor fun.

MN. Can the geography of the body to be turned into a homeland, a possible homeland?

ELP. For me the notion of “homeland” does not refer to nationality in a strict sense, as contained in passports, or in a language. It is also found, incidentally, in the United States. That’s where I first felt part of something much bigger that transcended me. I was (and still am) much more “Hispanic” than Cuban. And of course the language has to do a lot with the geography of the body. In my bed people speak Spanish. Not that I discriminate against speakers of other languages, but intimacy with subtitles baffles me a bit, it takes concentration, it makes me laugh at the most inappropriate times. And people are feeling inferior, just imagine …

MN. How how to freedomand literature relate?

ELP. I already told you this, Chico, aren’t you listening to me?

MN. Do you understand what is missing, or what Cuban literature has lacked?

ELP. A sense of humor. I do not know where did this nonsense comes from that the Cubans are graceful, light and friendly by nature. In our literature there is a lot of lead, much stiffness, much that is overblown and pretentious, such that it seems as if the author, before writing, had swallowed a broom raw without chewing. Something very unfortunate, no doubt.

MN. Is there a Cuban literature or a literature in the Spanish language?

ELP. There is whatever you prefer: Cuban, Caribbean, Latin American, Hispanic, western, earthling, galactic and universal. There are also literature,that is feminine, masculine, neuter, white, black, yellow, colored, mulatta, mora, jabá and other mixtures. And of course, gay literature, lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual, transsexual, and asexual. It all depends on the academic fashion.

MN. What novelists of the past are your contemporaries?

ELP. If you are referring to those with whom I dialogue often and in whose company I feel comfortable, I will tell you that the list is quite long. Here are three names. O well, only two, because one of them hid behind a pseudonym that I can’t remember: El Lazarillo de Tormes, my classic Hispanic favorite. The others are Mikhail Bulgakov and Émile Ajar.

MN. What motivated you to run the risk recently of signing a letter demanding the release of prisoners of conscience in Cuba and respect for human rights around the world?

ELP. The risk of expressing myself freely in foreign media, with all that that means when you live under a totalitarian regime, I already assumed a very long time ago. For those who know me a little, for those who have read what I published in Babelia at Encuentro in Index on Censorship, etc., and what I’ve responded in interviews for print, radio and television in a few countries, my signing the campaign OZT: I accuse the Cuban government will not be lightning from a clear sky.

When I entered UNEAC, in 1998, nobody asked me if I was a communist. It was not, and never have been. There was a time that now seems far away, when I tried to be “apolitical,” to be on the sidelines, which is a great ingenuity in totalitarianism, where politics invades every nook and cranny of the life of each person. This ended in 2003, when I gave an interview to Radio France International (RFI), where more than the Océans Deux prix littéraire Grinzane Cavour, which I had won for the French version of my novel A Hundred Bottles on the Wall. l spoke of the disgust and horror I felt over the events of the Black Spring. You know, the summary executions of three civilians and the mass incarceration of peaceful opposition.

The RFI is heard in Cuba and I spoke in Spanish, loud and clear, so some people phoned my home in Havana to ask my mother if I had been in exile in Paris, because no one is supposed to call things by their name abroad and then return to Cuba as if nothing had happened. But no. I returned. I had to. My mother and I live alone, without other family on the island, and if I was in Europe at the time it was going to be very difficult to get her out of Cuba, it would be like leaving a hostage. That is why I have always returned.

This is the first time I put my signature on a collective manifesto, because I generally prefer to write (or say) what I think myself, in my own words, for which I am responsible. What happens with the text I Accuse is that I agree is both emotionally and intellectually, with every sentence, every word, every point of what it says there. And that’s why I signed, simply.

MN. Have you suffered reprisals?  Are you afraid of reprisals?

ELP. No, neither one nor the other. I have nothing they can take from me. Membership in the UNEAC over the years only served so that the Department of International Relations, sometimes reluctantly, gives me that ridiculous artifact called “exit permit” to travel abraod at the expense of foreign publishers who have published my books or entities who have invited me to literary events. Beyond that, I have not had (nor have I coveted, mind you) any other privilege, nothing that makes my life very different from any ordinary Cuban. I have never traveled abroad as part of an official Cuban delegation, I would never have been “given” a house, a car, a stipend in exchange, or any of those crumbs which our cultural officers use to buy consciences. What could they do to me, then?

My phone has been tapped on several occasions, so presumably the boys in the unit are aware that I don’t have  a double life or skeletons in the closet, that I am the same Ena Lucia in private as in public, that, except to say openly what I think, I commit no crime. It happens also that Ifor  seventeen years I have been living, as it were, on “borrowed time”, that is I have a progressive and disabling disease: Parkinson’s disease, and I am not likely to have a long life. That’s something that gives you a different perspective on things, with great emphasis on the importance of the here and now, where many fears become superfluous. I need all my energy for my work, so I can not squander it on fear and putting the cart before the horse, thinking I will do this or that. No way. Let them do whatever they want, or what they can, then we’ll see.

MN. An excerpt of that letter says: Cuba must change. Cuba will change. And it will do with the contribution of intellectuals, writers and artists, whether or not they are members of UNEAC and the Hermanos Saiz Brigade. Question: Is there awareness of the OZT campaign among authors and artists, members of such organizations?

PLA. Listen, the quotation you cite does not form a part of the text of I Accuse, which was what I signed, but a message that the organizers of the OZT campaign circulated via e-mail among the writers and artists living in the island. A message, by the way, very weighted, very intelligent and very honest, it did not seek to divide the “UNEAC” with threats and/or injuries, which took care of the real conditions of life of many of these people in Cuba, whose weariness (fatigue very real, although some will always deny it, that if something is scarce around here there are the specialists in denial of reality) appealed for new signatures to the I Accuse, the text of which, short and perfect, was included.

As I do not have full Internet access, it was thanks to that message I could finally read what thousands upon thousands of people had signed worldwide, thanks to one of the organizers, the writer Enrique del Risco, I added my signature. Now, with questions about what the truth is, I’m not sure that there is such awareness. I haven’t frequented the culutral enviornments here for years, but judging by public expressions of many colleagues, I think that what predominates is the fear of radical change. Reformist postures, perestroika waves, yes there are. In fact, it is most abundant at this time, which is a step forward in relation to other periods. But from there to demonstrate for the values of liberal democracy, respect for that which the Communists call “bourgeois freedoms” that are ultimately the only freedoms that exist, is a stretch.

MN. What is Ena Lucía working on now? Can you tell us something with respect to your new work?

ELP. I’m working on a new novel, titled “The Last Passenger.” It is a crime novel, very black, itcame  to me from a story with the same title published in the United States in 2007 in the anthology Havana Noir. This project has been delayed a bit, since I’ve been too busy reviewing translations and critical editions of other books of mine. But I hope, with the assistance of all orishas, to finish it before the end of this year.




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