09 Oct / Celebrate Latinx Heritage Month with Cuban and Cuban American Literature [in The Booklist Reader]
Once upon a time, Cuba was an enigmatic, faraway place that conjured up images of I Love Lucy, history lessons about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and recurring headlines about Guantánamo. As far as books go, two loomed large: Cristina García’s Dreaming in Cuban, a multi-generational family epic and National Book Award finalist, and Oscar Hijuelos’ Pulitzer Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, about two musical brothers and their journey from Havana to the U.S.
When I went there, my reading began in earnest. While books are always my go-to tool to understanding culture, two films were also especially enlightening: Strawberry & Chocolate, Cuba’s only Oscar-nominated film, about the unlikely friendship between a patriotic student and a slightly older gay man (I’ve since sat exactly where Diego’s kitchen table stands, and Havana has barely changed in the quarter-century since the film debuted), and Before Night Falls (shot mostly in Mexico) about the difficult life of the Cuban novelist and poet Reinaldo Arenas. The literary history contained within those two movies alone could keep you reading for years, particularly writers like G. Cabrera Infante (Three Trapped Tigers) and José Lizama Lima (Paradiso).
As I continue to augment my own Cuban reading list, I’m trying to stay mindful of what Cuban American author Margarita Engle, currently the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate, refers to as “finished” Cuban and Cuban American books. “[M]any of the recent non-own voice books about Cuba are either wildly inaccurate, offensive, or both,” she warns in an essay called “Cuba for Beginners.”
With the notion of “finished” in mind, here are some notable titles I’ve discovered – in time for Latinx Heritage Month Since this is a work in progress, please leave additional suggestions in the comments. I’m hoping to keep this list growing!
Beautiful María of My Soul by Oscar Hijuelos
While Hijuelos’ 2010 companion title to the unforgettable Mambo Kings – 20+ years later – easily stands alone, I highly encourage you to read both titles together. The subtitle is revealing: Or the True Story of María García y Cifuentes, the Lady Behind a Famous Song. Hijuelos traces a half-century of María’s long life, from her guajira childhood to her Havana adulthood and beyond. In a wonderfully surprising meta-move, Hijuelos even inserts himself into her narrative, with delightful results.
The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa, translated by Nick Caistor
A Cuban-born exile, Correa is editor-in-chief of People En Español. His debut novel, The German Girl, was seized by the Book Institute of Cuba, although Correa himself was granted permission to participate in last year’s Publishing Mission to Cuba, where a group of American publishers participated in the Havana Book Fair. Girl is inspired by tragic Cuban history, when the German S. S. St. Louis was barred from landing in Havana in 1939; the majority of the 900-plus passengers were Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Forced back to Europe, approximately a quarter of the refugees perished in the Holocaust. Correa imagines the lives of one separated German family: the father is denied entry, but the mother and daughter are among the few allowed to disembark. Decades later, the tween-age last descendant travels from New York to Havana to meet the great aunt she never knew she had.
Havana Noir edited by Achy Obejas
Part of Indie publisher Akashic’s ever-expanding series of place-based noir fiction, Cuban American Obejas gathers her compatriots – many born in Havana and/or living there now – to commit deadly deeds. That the collection opens with a map of Havana neighborhoods marked with corpses should be fair warning. Published in 2007 before the historic 2014 U. S./Cuban thaw, this is Havana – neither “tourist pleasure dome [nor] Marxist dream-sate, but the Havana where Cubans actually live.” Obejas promises “a city of ironic and often agonizing contradiction.” Here’s you’ll find Leonardo Padura (Havana Black, Havana Fever), one of Cuba’s most famous literary exports, alongside Cuban-born Miami resident Carolina García-Aguilera (author of the Lupe Solano crime fiction series). First-time author Yohamna Depestre makes an excellent fiction debut here, too.
Loving Che by Ana Menéndez
An unexpected package of photographs and letters arrives for a Miami woman who knows little about her past. Raised by her grandfather, remembering almost nothing about her mother, the woman returns to her birth city of Havana in search of answers, carrying her mother’s confessions, which seem to reveal a surprising personal connection to Che Guevara.
The Tower of the Antilles by Achy Obejas
Obejas’s latest work features 10 electric short stories that explore identity, dislocation, family separation, and plenty of eroticism. In “Kimberle,” a woman takes in a suicidal stranger who steals books. A woman returns to Cuba in “The Cola of Oblivion” to have a difficult tourist-restaurant dinner with left-behind relatives. In “Supermán,” a boy matures into manhood and finds fame for the size and talent of his – uh – member. Floating somewhere between magic realism and brutal reality, Obejas’s restless characters are deniers, escapists, adventurers.
Cuba on the Verge: 12 Writers on Continuity and Change in Havana and across the Country edited by Leila Guerriero
Since Obama’s 2014 visit reestablishing ties between the U. S. and Cuba, American travelers have had the opportunity for direct exploration, but there are “no easy answers,” warns Argentinian journalist Guerriero at the start of her anthology of stupendously astute essays. Half are written by authors writing from within Cuba, others by outsiders passing through. Marked by “doubt and contradiction,” Guerriero’s meticulously curated dozen essays offer an irresistibly beckoning window onto a nation just 90 miles from American shores, but untold decades, practices, and cultures away.
No Way Home: A Dancer’s Journey from the Streets of Havana to the Stages of the World by Carlos Acosta
Confession: In a confluence of serendipitous coincidences, I met Acosta and got to see him dance in Havana. Given such a breathtaking experience, of course I went straight to his memoir. The young Acosta wanted to play soccer and breakdance, but his father wanted his youngest son off the streets – even if it meant possible estrangement – and enrolled him in ballet. And the rest, as they say … but not without grueling work, crippling loneliness, debilitating self-doubt, and sometimes more pain than gain. His persistence prevailed: his life-in-dance, Tocororo: A Cuban Tale, which he debuted in London in 2003 with his family in the audience, would become the “happiest night of [his] life.”
The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba’s Last Tycoon by John Paul Rathbone
By the 1930s, sugar had made Julio Lobo astonishingly rich: he was “the King of sugar, not just of Havana, but of the world.” Power made him “El Veneno, the poisonous one” – so nicknamed by his friends – “for his charm and sibylline tongue.” He had multiple wives and mistresses, often at the same time. He wooed Joan Fontaine and Bette Davis both. He stood for “everything that Fidel Castro would eventually purge from the island,” but until then, he lived a life of glorious privilege. Rathbone, whose mother grew up in the Havana mansion that would become the current North Korean embassy and whose grandfather owned Havana’s central department store, dovetails his own family history with Lobo’s, resulting in a multi-layered, you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up portrait of pre-revolutionary Cuba.