How did you select the Cuban pieces for the anthology, Literature from the “Axis of Evil”?
I combed through Cuban print and Internet literary journals*Š and I spoke with translators… I was interested in diverse topics and styles that might both challenge and comfort readers in North America.
The pieces were authored by a range of up-and-coming and more established writers. Some of the authors are heard internationally, and some have been overlooked.
Could any of the up-and-coming authors be considered literary firebrands?
It is complicated to define the notion of “literary firebrand” in the Cuban context. In some cases, those who may be perceived as a troublemakers within the Cuban cultural scene could potentially be much more easily tolerated internationally, and as such, more marketable. One story by Ena Lucía Portela, in particular, addresses, to some extent, these complexities. These submissions are from writers with diverse publishing histories on and off the island.
What about established voices? For example, who is the most famous author from Cuba today?
Obviously regarding fame is complicated. Describing the restrictions implanted by socialist regimes, in I Scream, Therefore I Exist, Reinaldo Arenas, the renowned Cuban novelist, states: “There is a golden rule common to all writers under the Communist system: a manuscript that has not crossed the border is a manuscript that has yet to be written.”
If we were to talk about contemporary Cuban writing, those who come to mind as being famous are still the Cuban Boom writers of the 1990s, a phenomenon that hit Spain and Italy first and with which, the U.S.markets have been less involved.
I'd say that Pedro Juan Gutiérrez or Zoe Valdes is the “most famous author.” Gutiérrez, who resides in Cuba, is most known for his style of dirty realism, expressing the day-to-day realities of an everyday man that contrasts highly with the “new Cuban man” of the 1960s.
Zoé Valdés lives “in exile,” and has roused controversy for her representations of steamy and impoverished Cubans on the island from abroad.
Leonardo Padura and Ena Lucia Portela have also been widely read internationally, though Portela's internationally award-winning and fabulous Cien botellas en una pared (2002), has yet to be published in English and really ought to be.
Reina Maria Rodríguez has served as a guide to numerous poets. She is highly esteemed nationally and internationally for her literariness and commitment to literature and-in fact, she was just awarded the Calvino prize for her first novel Los elefantes saben siempre. She is authentic as well as a literary diva and has quite a following in Cuba and abroad. And, then there is Antonio José Ponte whose work, like that of Reina María Rodríguez, pays homage to a textual and real Havana, but whose professional and political choices have put him out of favor on the national sphere. He no longer publishes on the island, but is read quite a lot in the U.S. and in Spain.
José Manuel Prieto, for example, is a Cuban novelist who is exceptional for the extent to which the geographic space of Cuba does not enter into his writing, and for that matter, up until recently Prieto was not always considered under the scope of Cuban writing.
There are a whole slew of other very good and well-known writers I could list,and then another slew of writers who have won numerous prizes on the island but have hardly appeared in translation or publications outside of Cuba.
Of the three authors that appear in this New Press collection, Raúl Rivero is the most famous – his role as a political dissident is extremely significant here.
What role does literature play in Cuba culture today?
Even with the above very abbreviated list of famous authors originating from an island of approximately 11 million people, it may have already become apparent how important literature is within Cuban culture.
That said, it is difficult to answer this question without rehearsing the great feat of the Revolution – the literary campaign is hard to bypass. Nevertheless, before the Revolution of 1959, Havana was home to many great writers.
What I would say is that Cuba has an elaborate network of prizes and workshops that is highly impressive. While I was once told in Cuba that there are no undiscovered literary geniuses on the island, I am not entirely convinced. Though the comment is fascinating as it suggests that there are those in the know who are looking.
It is sometimes said that in socialist states literature ends up possessing an exaggerated value on account of its being interpreted for its ideological implications.
While I would say that such a notion characterizes the first few decades of the revolution more than the present, individual writers would be hard-pressed to disregard the collective sphere with respect to their vocation, altogether.
To some extent, as these selections suggest, literature has also become a place wherein not just politics, but identity politics are carried out.