A fact about the state of literature in Cuba today: The literacy rate on the island is 99%, but censorship means that the pickings for those readers is slim — histories of the island, the poetry of José Martí, Fidel Castro’s philosophies, among other approved selections. Another fact: Castro, the revolutionary leader of the island who ruled for nearly 60 years, was friends with many of Latin America’s literary giants (Gabriel García Márquez would send him his manuscripts before publication). One more fact: Literature scared him. In 1961, just a few years after the Revolution began, Castro famously gave the island’s intellectuals and artists a mandate on what type of art and writing was permissible in the new Cuba: “Dentro de la Revolución, todo; contra la Revolución, ningún derecho.” Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.
Like many Cuban writers working today, Wendy Guerra, the Cuban poet and novelist, has learned to craft her works both around and within that Castro mandate. She writes about the difficulties of Cuba, without ever outright criticizing the government. “From the time we’re kids, we Cubans are taught how to sharpen our double-speak to survive,” Guerra writes in her new novel, Revolution Sunday. Her work is a relentless example of that. Guerra’s first novel, Todos Se Van (Everybody Leaves), won Cuba’s Bruguera Novel Prize in 2006. Her success caught the attention of the global literary community, but also of Castro’s secret police. In Revolution Sunday, translated by Achy Obejas, Guerra crafts a highly-meta character; a poet named Cleo, lonely and alone, who also deals with this struggle of making art under surveillance. Cleo becomes lonelier and more alone after her parents die in what she believes to be a suspicious car accident: “I was convinced someone had tampered with the brakes on my parents’ car, making them disappear into the air.” In her grief Cleo submits her new manuscript to a Spanish competition. She wins, and her success makes her a celebrity off island and a pariah on. Indeed, the only people who occupy her space are her trusted housekeeper, Márgara, and the Cuban state police who knock daily on her door to enquire about her activities, while simultaneously keeping a watchful eye on her via cameras and microphones planted in her house. “My personal space became public,” Cleo narrates.
Enter Gerónimo, an Oscar-winning actor who arrives at Cleo’s doorstep one night with the intent to make a film about her father’s life. But the father to whom he is referring is not the one Cleo saw die in the car, but rather a “Cuban Rambo” whom Gerónimo claims is her real father. Gerónimo has the paperwork to prove it, and as Cleo listens, his information begins to make sense. While trying to unravel this mystery and make his film, Cleo and Gerónimo begin a love affair, consumed by their project and by each other.
Cleo, as a narrator, is not defined by this relationship or even her work, but rather the tension between her isolation and her lack of privacy; her success and her solitude — a paranoiac tightrope of constantly being watched but never being listened to. Guerra imbues life on the island with a feeling of constantly checking over one’s shoulder, looking in the shadows, even if the dangers are not in dark corners but in the blazing Caribbean sun. Cleo is also consciously, like Guerra, an artist who chooses to stay in Cuba rather than expatriate. “Why don’t you leave?” she is regularly asked, “Without Cuba, I don’t exist,” Cleo says. “I am my island.” But the government is working hard to undo that certainty.
Guerra’s work is banned in Cuba, but is flourishing abroad. Like Cleo, Guerra operates in a strange space; her international success affords her opportunities unavailable to most Cubans — travel abroad, for one — but it also isolates her domestically. “Some of my friends in exile think I am the spy of Cuban art who returns to Cuba with their secrets, which I pass on as reports or accusations,” Guerra said in an interview with Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez. “In Cuba, on the other hand, they think I’m hiding something, that I have some plan; they are suspicious of these long visits among the exile and think I’m the head of something, the spearhead of something.” In another stroke of autofiction, that situation is paralleled in the character of Cleo; she is accused of being someone she’s not no matter where she is.
Guerra’s writing in Revolution Sunday is frenetic, poetic, almost hallucinatory. The translation is faithful and vibrant, keeping the gorgeous disjointedness of Guerra’s original words, even if the Spanish reads more dreamily. Much of that is a product of what Spanish words feel and sound like. The vowel-ending vocabulary which defines romance languages gives Guerra’s original words a hypnotic effect; the Germanic roots of English keep the meaning, but the ethereal quality of the sounds isn’t as heightened, the words feel more clipped. Still Achy Obejas’s translation is fearless, reckless, manic in the same way as Guerra’s Spanish.
In both languages, Guerra’s narrator exists in a surreal state, whether drunk on Cuban rum, wandering through the house she grew up in like a ghost in the night, or just lost in thought and worry and writing — needing to be pulled back to reality by another person, any person.
No one should stay for very long where they’re rejected, but I go in circles, aimless in the pool of my own social defeat. I feel like I’m about to drown in my own tears, my own verses, dizzy with my own blah blah blah writings, choking on the suffocating and ever guarded summer haze. Then a hand appears in the dark. I take it without asking questions and rise out of the water.
The novel is complex; it mixes prose and poetry, hyperrealism and surrealism. The plot is vague and meandering and the point of it feels not to be the action forward but the movement within Cleo herself — her feelings and struggle and plight. The novel interior because Cleo herself must be interior — her mind is the only thing the government can’t monitor. Even during external moments as intimate as sex, she knows others are watching, “The walls of my room are viewed from who knows where in this city, a place where other men and women share the crumbs of our intimacy.” The only private space is inside her head.
What is the state of Cuban literature now? That is a question the book asks literally, but is also a question it forces its readers to consider. The literary scene is disjointed. There is the official literary culture, sanctioned by authorities, tightly controlled and monitored. There is the reality of censorship and the fact that Cuba stopped importing Western books in the 1960s which means that many authors and readers exist in a vacuum, unaware of what’s happening afuera. There are the Cuban authors celebrated internationally — like Guerra herself —whose best-selling work isn’t easily available on the island. The history that brought us to this literary moment is traceable. Forty years ago poet Herberto Padilla was jailed by the government, and the world’s writers — including Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Sontag, and Jean-Paul Sartre — wrote a letter to Castro in his defense. Thirty-eight years ago Reinaldo Arenas left the island via the Mariel boatlift, and 26 years ago he wrote Before Night Falls, his autobiographical account of his life in Cuba and then in exile. It has been roughly three decades since the “Special Period” when lack of resources shut the majority of the island’s publishers down and sent writers searching for publishers afuera. It has been 13 years since one of Cuba’s best-known contemporary writers, Leonardo Padura, published his first book, and six years since he won the country’s highest literary honor, the National Literature Prize. It has been three years since Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco (who read a poem at President Obama’s second inauguration two years before that) helped celebrate the opening of the American Embassy in Havana. And it has been 14 years since Guerra published her first book.
The question of how much Guerra is responding to this history, and how much of Cleo is Guerra, is hard to avoid. Both are poets, both Havana diehards, both working to share stories but having those stories siloed, both isolated from the island by the government controlling it. Cleo states:
The plainclothes officers didn’t even look at me; they were obsessed with the idea that I shouldn’t speak to anyone, express opinions, or give interviews. Interviews? With whom? For what? No one had contacted me, yet they insisted, demanded silence, asked me to trust them. More silence? Is there anything more silent than this profound mutism? What is left after your voice is nullified by the death of everything you ever had…I’m out of the game. I don’t exist.
It should be noted that in the Spanish version “out of the game” reads as “fuera de juego,” a nod to Padilla and his poetry collection, Fuera de Juego, which landed him in Cuba’s jails. Cleo’s imposed silence is the 21st-century version of Padilla’s incarceration.
After Gerónimo leaves Cuba, Cleo is able to go visit him in New York. Off island, Cleo is instantly unmoored. “I arrive in New York to discover this is an abstract place where no one is really waiting for me, where I’m not important, where I don’t exist.” Cuba is filled with complications, but they are complications Cleo understands. Gerónimo makes clear that off island, Cleo means something different to him as well; and as they travel to Cannes to premiere the film he made about her family, Cleo increasingly sees that without her island she is incomplete. “My spirit is still held captive in Havana,” Cleo declares after arrival in New York. “I hadn’t yet arrived with my entire being.” Cleo also understands that outside of Cuba she is more artifact than real human; she is a character in a film, Gerónimo’s “cartoon girlfriend.” She is, as she says, “unreal.” Havana makes Cleo feel alive, even as it confines her. Guerra’s Twitter bio echoes that feeling: “Writer. I am alive and in Havana.”
In recent years Cuba has published roughly 25 million books a year, two thirds of which are textbooks. The books sold on the island are nearly entirely state controlled — “Dentro de la Revolución, todo; contra la Revolución, ningún derecho.” But there are workarounds. There is an underground literary community, in which books are shared on flash drives and via photocopies, or people get new books from visitors to the island. There is publication abroad which can provide protection for writers at home. There are the code words, and smokescreens, via which Cubans have learned to write and speak. There is the prevalence and preference for fiction, which is brought just to the brink of non-fiction; just false enough to be safe.
Only two to three percent of English publishers output is translation, and while that number is depressingly low, it is both exciting and critical that one of this year’s translations comes from Cuba. As Cleo says, “A novel isn’t meant to be kept hidden in a drawer until someone finds it. A novel needs air, ink, light. It needs to be seen by editors, to go out into the world, to fly.” Cuba is filled with stories in drawers, and while it may be easy to glance at the island — with its 1950s cars and limited infrastructure — and say that it is frozen in the past, there are voices pushing the island’s narrative forward. Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing — but cracks are forming, opinions showing through, novels, like Guerra’s, that desperately deserve air are finding it. Without translation, English readers would never be able to experience this novel’s complexity of being an artist and being surveilled, as well as the confusing pull of a homeland that is both silencer and muse. And while the Cuban government still tries to quiet those voices it is vital for us to translate, to read, to listen.
Image: title page of “revolution approved” edition of Don Quixote, published in 1960. Via Shelly Smartt.