Monthly Archives: June 2012

Interview of Cuban writer Ángel Santiesteban Prats by Amir Valle – Part 4 of 4

Public spaces

In a recent column I published an anecdote with which I’m sure you agree: our meeting in 2004, by chance, on the corner of Palacio de los Matrimonios in Vedado, after months without seeing each other, in which, very concerned about the political and cultural pressures you were under, you told me, “You’re wrong, brother, this isn’t the way. Your way and mine is to write. They have to respect us for what we write. And besides, let the politicos take charge.”

My wife, Berta, who was there, reminded me a little later, whispering, after hearing your words: “What’s happening to Angel is that he still hasn’t been shocked like you”. But I knew by our conversations that already you were disillusioned by everything you saw, the censorship, the lack of liberties, the fact that most of our group had been forced to emigrate.

But I’d like you to tell me, how did that change happen to convince you that there was a need for your voice as a social individual to be heard, as well as your writing, and when did you decide to definitively jump into the search for liberty that had been taken from us and that they’re still trying to take away from many writers in Cuba?

It was forced on me. Now I would like to tell you it’s the same, but the reality is different. First we had to prove ourselves as writers, maybe that was the idea, for them it was easier to leave us “outside the game” taking advantage of the fact that we didn’t have a tangible presence in Cuban culture. Formerly you had to earn that place, that right that literature itself grants you. So we were educated to be teachers.

Heras always told us that there was a moment where the pupil killed the Teacher. I never understood him. He said it about the literary plane and he expressed it with sadness, because at the same time he accepted that it was a part of the natural process of the ascent of the writer. I never saw that moment arrive. I always accepted him as the Teacher. But I experienced that death in part, let’s say, as a citizen, because of deviations from the social and political point of view. There I killed the Teacher. And the Teacher killed the pupil. It was an assassination on both sides, something for which I was not prepared.

In any event I jealously keep a dedication that he wrote to me a few years ago, where he assured me of his admiration, because I’ve been upright in my position, in my honesty, and I never wavered in spite of official inducements.

My need to express myself, to communicate, to say what was inside me and which I also think is an essential part of being a writer, was an unconscious motivation, like the act of writing. I never intended to be a writer, it was a bitter and necessary need that quietly arose. Perhaps it pushed me to be a communicator of my circumstances. That also happened unexpectedly. Many times I said I would be happy if I could find a little corner on the last page of any periodical where I could express my point of view, however mistaken, superficial, personal, but definitively my way of seeing life, opinions I would assume in the face of history with all the responsibility that goes along with that. Then on a trip to the Dominican Republic, certainly my last trip outside Cuba, I learned from a Cuban writer friend, Camilo Venegas, and Zilma, his ex-wife, that something called a “blog” existed. That word meant nothing to me. And they taught me what it was and it seemed to me a great invention of the 21st century. And I could read for the first time the posts of Yoani Sanchez.

I went back to Cuba wanting to have a blog, but at the same time I wasn’t naive, I knew every thing that it would open up and bring about. I had several months of conflict and internal struggle. Finally I decided to do it. And I called the Book Institute and spoke with the President, Iroel Sanchez. I told him what I intended to do, and I asked him for a national space in order to anchor myself, I was thinking Cubaliteraria. After asking me what the subject matter was, I told him that I would take a cultural and social view, something different from the usual, with the intent of driving debate and prompting opinions. He told me that he didn’t have the famous “band width” (the title of an unpublished book I have written).

Then Cubaencuentro offered me the chance to be included with them and without asking me what my blog would be about. It was the first big find. They still support my statements and writings. To appear blatantly in the Cubaencuentro magazine was unacceptable impudence for the establishment.

I remember everything they did to Antonio Jose Ponte for having been part of the editorial staff of this magazine. In one of my first posts I referred to a delegation of writers that attended a book fair in Mexico, and I talked about their having to beg for funds. That image stayed with me.

When I attended an event in Martinica with a poet who won the National Literature award, I saw him asking for pocket money and saying that we Cubans were poor and they should help us. I remember that I fled from his side. It was obvious that this poet was used to these denigrating scenes. Before leaving I warned the organizers that he was speaking on his own behalf.

I remember writers who traveled to the same Guadalajara Fair, who at the end of their days of participation, had to stay wherever someone offered because otherwise they would be out on the street. I also remember the Cuban ambassador in the Dominican Republic fleeing, aghast, from the airport because he might have to take charge of two young writers whom the organizers hadn’t gone to pick up. And a lot of other things that people talked about.

Then, when I wrote the post, it caused a scandal. They branded me as a traitor. And even those writers in the delegation, knowing I told the truth, asked me why I wasn’t afraid that the possibility of traveling outside the country would be taken away with me, although they were among the ranks of the poor.

But that rejection was a promotion. You remember that they intercepted me in plain view of the public and beat me. They fractured my arm, after warning me that “being counter-revolutionary didn’t suit” me.  The latest was that petition from 15 years ago that now joined another accusation of assault.

In summarizing all these stories, they haven’t left me any other choice but to take my time with all the force and energy of my soul.

Amir, you always were precocious; in literature and politics you had more clarity than the rest. You always came in first. And that expression of mine at the time was a strategy and  eventually a naivety on my part. But I’m happy that things happen, at least in my case, through my own need. That they’re natural, not provoked or hurried, least of all thought out.

And here you see me, assuming responsibility for my acts and their consequences.

One of the methods of the dictatorship that exists today in Cuba has been to introduce the virus of fear in all citizens, whatever position they’re in, whatever their origin or training, whether they live on the island or in exile. Recently in an open letter you wrote that now it didn’t matter to you to go to jail for your ideas, to die. I know, because I had to live this also in 2001, which is a hard, difficult process, but how was it in your case?

It’s been two years of waiting. Everything started like a game. I start and you continue. I resisted it for two years. Continued detentions, acts of repudiation, scorn. I continued with the game because it embarrassed me, although my conscience was clear, from those shameful accusations that still weigh on me to write them here. But the game turned serious. They started to give a serious character to the case file, an instrument of the system, and Captain Amauri Guerra Toyo, with the dirtiest violations, has created a file without proof, from top to bottom, in conspiracy with State Security and the public prosecutor’s office, where they managed to forge my signature, to change documents that my lawyer and I had seen before.

Finally, in the presence of my attorney, I signed a document and made marks with the ball point pen so they couldn’t add other words that would incriminate me, and even so, after the period I put and on top of the marks that I demanded they make, this man added a comma and a sentence that I didn’t say, according to the testimony of my lawyer. The whole file is very ambiguous, as is the Prosecutor’s petition that plays with what they don’t have or don’t know, and only a third of it is readable.

My position is to be conscious and honest, so I can continue to live. There is no way of making me change my ideas or of stopping me from making my present situation better. There is only one way out of the quagmire, and it’s that the Counter-Intelligence officials accept that they should drop the judicial proceedings. And as we know, although times are different, they don’t want to lose, above all because they fear that later other intellectuals will try the same thing. They don’t want to permit this precedent, and they will try any way they can to make an example of me.

Finally, as I put in my open letter, I’m prepared for the worst. In that case, I will resist by conviction and innocence, even go on a hunger strike.

Tell me how you yourself see something that is very delicate but very important to understand: What is happening today with Cuban writers? Is there a difference between what they think privately and what they say in public? Is it true, as Barnet and Abel Prieto say, that the immense majority of artists and writers are on the side of Fidel, Raul and the Revolution?

For me, perhaps more than anyone, writers have given me proof of their real position on the system. Sometimes, when I listen to them, they make me feel closer to the politics of the system than they are. They have two speeches, the official and the critical, which they hide from the officials. Because they want to travel, as I said before, like poor people, but they can travel, because they resolve something, besides breathing free air. But I don’t believe most of them are honest. They pretend to be “traveling companions”, it’s a cynical status that both sides accept, and they use it and take advantage of it with the goal of remaining human for some and being part of the social system for others.

Writers wave the famous little flag, at times faster than others, according to the free gifts offered, and they silence their true feelings about the system. In this way they invent the history that infallibly garners hypocrisy for each one of them.

What about the powerful Cuban culture that has been created these past five decades in exile, in many parts of the world? How do you believe it can contribute, from outside Cuba, to the need for social change on the island?

Without trying to be an analyst, a political strategist, a philosopher or a demiurge, and someone taught me to avoid subjects I know nothing about, but it’s my opinion, more as an artist who humbly offers his point of view, I am of the opinion that the intellectuals in exile should remain very attached to Cuban culture, to defend it first as art and later from their own political position. They shouldn’t forget anything, first the culture, then everything else.

I’m sure that this artistic pressure will create conscience and respect for a national dialogue that will produce a political change for the rebirth of democracy and free will for Cubans, although some of them, as usually happens, will find themselves in the minority. The sentence I like so much and that surely I don’t quote exactly because I have repeated it so much I have it inside me and have made it mine: I will die for your right to think differently from me. Therefore, continue to take advantage of the space that freedom gives you and its methods of communication with advanced technology, and you can’t be persecuted or suffer direct repression like the confiscation of computers.

In some way, creating a space for national complaints will be the voice for those who are on the island. Refining esthetic rifts, attitudes of personal convenience, in order to advance unity. The strengthening of the diaspora offers us who remain here security, we who directly demand the rights of all to live together in a future free and democratic land that opens its arms for the longed-for reunion of its children who are now dispersed throughout the world.

So yes, I don’t have any doubts that Cuban intellectuals, inside and outside, are called on to contribute profoundly to a future political transition in the country.

So much emotional disequilibrium, so much psychological pressure, so much direct repression against you, so much responsibility for your blog, “The Children Nobody Wanted,” do they allow you to write? And if so, what could we offer that is new to a writer interested in your books?

Writing is an escape; it’s a space of sanity that protects you, when it should be the opposite, since being creative is the closest thing to being demented. But reality, as has been said so many times, surpasses fiction. And that’s true. On the outside everyone seems crazy to me. They know what they are looking for but even so, they walk in other directions. People I respect and with whom I agree on the facts.

In spite of everything, I try to write. I have several unpublished books, around 10, that are waiting for their moment patiently. I’ve never been in a hurry to publish, because writing them takes away that distress of residing on the cultural plane of the country. I know that they are there; I sense that they are of an acceptable quality, strange and moderately original, as far as subject matter and form, and that gives me peace. It hurts to write from your conscience because it’s not for your time, so it can be for a future in which you won’t even be present. But it’s not important; it’s a way of discharging a debt from your time and leaving a mark.

An obvious question comes up now about an old polemic, which started when Sartre and Camus discussed the role of the writer in society. Specifically in the case of Cuba, with its singular circumstances and from your personal experience of the last years, what should the responsibility of a writer be in regard to his society, his country?

My responsibility is to assume my conscience and feelings honestly and carry this over to my acts and position in life, whatever bitterness and harm follows. In my case it means fulfilling this need to communicate, to state my opinion and that of those who don’t find the way or the form of expressing themselves.

I try to be a voice for my people, who always will be those who suffer the most, the innocent ones. I know that confronting the system carries a high price, but I don’t have a choice. I always wonder what the formula is for shutting up, to think one way and speak publicly with another. How can you accept gifts at the price of seeing your country under a dictatorship, its people in poverty, and remain silent? How can history ignore that you are a hypocrite, an ally of a manipulative system that in more than 50 years knew only how to censor, muzzle personal opinion and fill us with a degrading sacrifice, full of sadness and ravenous hunger?

To be direct, the responsibility of Cuban writers, more than ever, is to protest, to make their disagreements public. To insist on their rights as independent artists and accept the consequences. It is the artists’ responsibility to be the echo of their time, their people and their conscience. And they will then be doing enough to say they follow in the footsteps of Marti.

Translated by Regina Anavy, AnonyGY, Rafael Gomez, and William Fitzhugh

Interview was conducted in December 2011

Posted on Angel’s blog on: April 5 2012

Interview of Cuban writer Ángel Santiesteban Prats by Amir Valle – Part 3 of 4

Literary spaces

There are five moments in your literary career that I want you to talk about, trying to salvage the most important details, those details of each success that would mold you into being the writer you are now, or those other moments that made you open your eyes to the harsh reality that you are experiencing today. 

A. Honorable mention for the Juan Rolfo International Short Story Prize, in 1989

A surprise. I considered myself, more than now, an experimental writer, not an accomplished one. I only entered the contest hoping to receive an opinion from a foreign jury. I wanted to know if my writing worked outside Cuba. If it would be interesting or boring, with a regional theme. It was the first time that established writers heard my name. In a certain way, I put myself on the map of the “newbies”.

B. The two times they took away your Casa de las Americas award.

Very sad, not just for me but also for the position they put the jurors in. The book’s subject was the war in Angola, where we remained for 15 years and where many lives were lost by Cubans who never understood why the hell we were there. The book was not an epic, as this war was usually treated. I was only interested in the human side, the men who were immersed in a foreign war.

I’ll never forget the face of Abilio Estevez giving me the unexplainable dissertation about the book, and that you later would write that the worst book of all won the Casa de las Americas prize that year. Abilio said that in the hotel when they were reading the works, they paged him on the PA system to come to the room. When he arrived, Security was waiting, and they told him that no one wanted to give this book an award.

They did the same thing with the Argentinian juror, Luisa Valenzuela, who later wanted to take me with her to her country because I was the same age as her daughter, and with this fact I understood how difficult it would be for me to rise in the literary world under the Regime. This was in 1992. Since then I’ve been reluctant to leave the country, and I told her I was grateful, but only God knew why I had been born here and that I wanted to stay. She never agreed, I imagine, and when the Alejo Carpentier prize was launched, I did everything possible so she could get an invitation to Cuba and be present.

Later in 1994 something similar happened, but this time State Security was more careful and tried, without success, to infiltrate the jurors. But the books survived the Tyranny and its Totalitarian Leaders. Censorship has never been able to stifle art. Once a writer told me that my book was unfair to those who had been in this war. And when I told Heras those words he told me that books weren’t fair or unfair, they were only good or bad, speaking from a literary point of view.

C. The 1995 UNEAC short story prize for Dream of a Summer Day and the publication of the book, with the censorship included, in 1998

Books catch on when one more person needs them, they are like life jackets. And this award finally gave me the possibility to be a published writer, because they knew me in the cultural milieu, but I didn’t have a book, which is definitely the calling card of a writer. It was also the genre of the short story, which is the most coveted genre in Cuba, above all for our generation. But the book was the same one that had been censored, anticipating that State Security would come back to spoil the award for me.

I changed the title (Dream of a Summer Day) and it passed through the filters and won. When they saw this book was going to be published, and that it talked about the human part, man immersed in that war, the contradictions, then the book started an emotional discussion. The book floored them. It went from one bureau to another. Occasionally they called me in to talk about my negativity in publishing it before they were able to edit it. And again I assumed the silence of Gandhi, but with the variant that I didn’t want a political scandal, what I wanted was literary. To be part of cultural news.

They even decided to call me to negotiate. They spoke to me openly, there were several stories that couldn’t see public light, above all the story The Forgotten, “It wouldn’t be published in 25 years”, the functionary told me (I managed to publish it in 2001 in the book The Children Nobody Wanted, which won the Alejo Carpentier prize).

As I told you before, I urgently needed to present a book, but I hurt myself with this book, because I accepted that it would be published without those stories. This was a betrayal, the worst of all, a betrayal of myself. But the need to publish was joined with another unexpected one: A woman was expecting my child and I didn’t have a place to live. They offered me an apartment. I thought about it a bit. I immediately saw the possibility of giving the woman and my child some stability in the next few months.

I also thought that any publisher would have the right to read the book and determine what to publish, and that the functionary was finally giving me the possibility of having a book published. And in exchange for the unpublished stories they were giving me an apartment. I felt like I was bargaining in a market in Baghdad, and at any rate, man is and always will be “a part of his circumstances”. I accepted. The book came out in the 1998 Book Fair, with a dark cover. They did it on purpose, so it looked less like a book and more like a box of detergent. Thus I achieved my goal of presenting myself to readers, and incidentally my first child was born in a dignified place.

D. The 2001 Alejo Carpentier Prize for The Children Nobody Wanted 

This book has all my censored stories. That’s why I gave it this title. Furthermore, the story with the same name is included, and I felt that those scorned, censored stories were like the young people who escaped on rafts from the island. I found a similarity in both cases.

The jury’s vote was divided, of course. They all knew what they were risking by giving me the prize. The two votes in my favor were from Arzola (he had won the prize the previous year), and what decided him was a telephone call from the office of the then-President of the Cuban Book Institute, the “Taliban” Iroel Sanchez, who, as you know, is  a new version of that person named Pavon who harmed Cuban culture so much.

They told me that Iroel opened his eyes as if praying to his gods, I imagined Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Marx and Engels, and his adored Fidel Castro, for whom he felt an almost homosexual love.

But coming back to the jury, Arzola left Cuba a little time after the award, but the other juror was none other than Eduardo Heras Leon. And certainly I entered the competition even when I didn’t know who the jurors were going to be, because if I had known he was there I wouldn’t have entered since that added fuel to rumors about our friendship later. And Heras, at least until 2009 when he lost his path, hadn’t been invited to any other competition than the one convened by the Book Institute.

That was the punishment that Iroel imposed on him, who told me that the Association of Cuban Combatants had complained in a letter, demanding an explanation for the publication of the book, and on a more personal plane, he commented that his buddies who were in Angola with him criticized him for publishing such a ruthless vision of war under his position as President of the Book Institute.

I asked him if the book told lies. “That’s the problem,” he answered. “We know it was like that and worse. But Angel is the enemy who takes advantage of our weaknesses to attack us. We can’t give him the pretext.”

Later it was funny. They took me to the Book Fair in Guadalajara, as every year they did with the Carpentier award winners. And they coordinated various presentations in universities, and in charge of this were some Mexicans from a Committee of Solidarity with Cuba. When the students asked about human rights in Cuba, my companions answered trying to discredit the dissident groups and calling them “factions”, a word coined by Fidel Castro, which everyone repeated later. That bothered me so much I took the word and said that 100, 50, 10, five or one, we had the same rights to think and choose as the other millions of Cubans. And the students and cluster of professors stood up and applauded me.

Upon my return, the organizers spoke with Iroel so they could exchange me for another writer, because I wasn’t giving them the right result. That made me laugh. And they exchanged me, of course, in the way that is typical of socialism. No one says anything to you, but everyone shuns you as if you had the plague. And later I saw several times that people I knew on the bus wouldn’t greet me. Of course, I took this on myself and didn’t mind.

In the official presentation of the book at the fair, all the functionaries of Cuba were there. At my side was Jaime Sarusky, who that year had won in the novel genre. And while I was talking, I saw how his hands were sweating. I’ve never seen anyone sweat so much. Drops were falling on the paper he later would hold to read and I started to worry that it would get smudged.

I was saying, in answer to some question from the public, that I wasn’t trying to bother anyone, but yes, being honest, above all with myself, that I identified with that sector of young Cubans who didn’t find any common ground between the Revolution and our generation. That the Revolution was something from the past with which we didn’t feel a connection. And I finished by saying that the majority of young people I knew were of the same opinion.

The functionaries remained stoic. They put up with it, but many years later, Iroel reminded me of it as a disagreeable moment in his life. For my acts of honesty I always was punished. In Manzanillo I knew that they had received calls and emails from the Book Institute, from the writer Fernando Leon Jacomino, who at that time was Vice President, criticizing them for inviting me and suggesting that they substitute the writer Rogelio Riveron for me.

On another occasion they called me to make me President of the Wichy Nogueras prize, and later they didn’t advise me of the countermand. And when I arrived at the Capitolio, to know the results, they told me I no longer was part of the jury. Or what happened in the last Book Fair in which I participated: I was in the Moron Hotel and Security asked to have me removed from my room. That night I slept at the home of our taxi driver.

Now I am a phantom writer.

E. The 2006 Casa de las Americas prize for Blessed are Those Who Mourn, the hardest and most critical of your books

It’s because the book touches the knottiest fiber of human beings: prison, the prisoner immersed in the most profoundly undesirable condition for survival. I could finally use all those experiences that I lived through in La Cabana. Some friends begged me, I think with the best intention, to not do it. They didn’t want to see me harmed, banished, as they had been in the Five-Year Gray Period, I shouldn’t write it since it wouldn’t be published. And the book contains only 20 percent of that repulsive reality. Now I’m writing a novel that frightens me because I’m releasing what I’ve kept inside. I want to be empty, to not return to this subject. To get it out. Because when I write, I hurt, I rip myself up in a way that makes me feel that everything is happening again.

The book, in one of those ironies in life, was presented at the Book Fair in the Cabana. It took place in one of those cell blocks in which I was incarcerated. While the others were expressing their impression of the book, I in my imagination was walking with the prisoners from one side to the other. I had gone back in time, and the people interested in Culture were substitutes for those who had struggled to survive physically and morally, who served as characters, so that my suffering and anguish would not be in vain. That was my way of paying homage to them, offering them my gratitude in spite of their being the same people who enthusiastically had rejected the gesture by not being part of that reality that so marked us.

For having shared the experience, the book is dedicated to Jose Marti, who really is the perennial convict blessed with Cuban goodness.

Translated by Regina Anavy, AnonyGY, Rafael Gomez, and William Fitzhugh

Interview December 2011

Posted to Angel’s blog: 5 April 2012

Interview of Cuban writer Ángel Santiesteban Prats by Amir Valle – Part 2 of 4

Angel

There was a definitive moment for your career as a writer that I believe is worth remembering, even when I know that it can be a difficult question: your meeting with the writer Eduardo Heras Leon. Leaving aside the possible differences that you could have had from the clear ideological differences between Eduardo and us, how did that meeting nourish you spiritually and intellectually and give you that brotherhood over the years, which is known by our whole generation as an example of loyalty and sharing for many of those kids we called “the group of the Chinese guy, Heras”?

When I got out of prison, like I said before, for going with my sister to the beach, and when I was acquitted in court (the judges considered that I had not committed the crime of “conspiracy,” because I was her brother, and the only interest I had was to protect her, but because of that I had been in prison for 14 months), I then had the illusion that I could be a writer; the idea of creating filled me with magic. I passed from being a king of my neighborhood to being a god of my creation.

Since I was a child, I had been attending painting classes at the Casa de la Cultura ,and when I inquired I was told that there was a House of Writers, which I joined immediately.  Later, I learned through the newspaper about the anniversary celebration of the  Cuban Book Institute and that entry was free. A group of friends, their girlfriends and I decided to attend. There I met Eduardo Heras, whom I immediately approached with the intention of asking him to read a hand-written version of a horrendous novel that was the beginning of later horrendous books I would write. Heras, with evasions and explanations of how his work kept his schedule very tight, since he was the Director of the section on narrative, did not guarantee that he  could read it, but because at that time I had all the time in the world, I said I could wait. I started to feel the first symptoms of anxiety after three months. After six months, I was desperate for a critique of my “novel” because I felt that until I received his valuable feedback I shouldn’t continue, and, on the other hand, the pressure of being 20 years old, as if time was running out. To dedicate my life to literature, I needed to hear the sound of the starting gun.

After I showed up in his office several times, I wore him down and he promised  to read it the next weekend. And I waited.  The following Sunday he called me at my girlfriend’s house to ask me to visit him the next day.

When I arrived, he had the novel on his desk, which made me happy. After 20 minutes telling me that he had many other works to read and that the novel was not publishable, of course, that I needed to learn literary techniques — and it seemed to me reading between the lines that the idea of being a writer was unattainable — Heras paused silently and told me, “I assure you that I can tell after reading a text when someone is wasting their time….and in your case, reading some sentences, I can say that you have talent, and if you want to, you will be a writer and will be able to accomplish everything you want. It only depends on your instinct, your will, your persistence in reading. There you will find everything you are looking for and all you should learn”. He kept looking at me, perhaps he knew how to read my alarm, since I think I was more prepared for criticism than for acceptance.  It thrilled me to assume that I could be a writer.  At that time, it was a very large and distant word, and I assure you that in some respects it still is today.

So I started on my way, where each minute had the purpose of going beyond the most recent one. It was a war of internal progress, where his advice assisted me. He’s a professor without equal because he has that vocation. Eduardo Heras has had many jobs, the most incredible ones, but I’m sure that his vocation is teaching. Through him I also met you all, the brothers that life has gifted me, you who support me, my first critics and editors. I met you all in that seminar at the Alejo Carpentier Center in 1985. In that moment I was the happiest being in the universe, perhaps we all were. I remember that you taught me that it was poetry in prose that I wasn’t able to decipher, and you were so tactful with what you did with my story, South: Latitude 13. I remember even the sentence that you pointed out to me as an example, and I surprised myself by writing poetry without being aware of it.

At the 1985 Writers Conference, I was invited as an observer. Of course, I was still not considered a writer, I had just opened my eyes to the literary world. That was the day that I met them. Arzola was amazed by all the lights in the city, a far cry from the darkness of Sanguily, his birthplace. To another writer it seemed incredible that some glass doors opened by themselves solely by approaching them, and he looked everywhere for the man who must be pushing a button, or the surprise of seeing the stairs at the department store Variedades de Galeano go up by themselves. We were so innocent!

There was a story that happened there and that remained in my memory and it happened at the Hotel Lincoln. For the first time, I had heard about Rulfo, about Hemingway’s iceberg theory, and all the others. It turned out that at lunchtime, you all had told me that you always had room for guests and that I would be able to have lunch with you. I wanted to decline but you insisted and I, who was as fascinated by this group as was Arzola by the lights of the city, had discovered how I wanted to dedicate my life, and I was in such a hurry to learn more, in a hurry to write, to bring out a world that was beating within me, itching to escape, to be born. And when I seated myself at the table, a staff member of the Center, in spite of having seen me in the conferences and lectures, asked who I was and told me I should leave the room, and I left, ashamed.

In truth, I didn’t want to have lunch. What I  wanted was to keep listening to you speak of literature, the profession, a fascinating, magical world that excited me, that wouldn’t even let me sleep. It was my last attempt to join the “generation of the brand new” as we would later call ourselves. Maybe this was my punishment for praying for this.

I left the restaurant in a hurry wanting to get the hell out of there, not so much offended as embarrassed for having taken a seat that didn’t belong to me, that I had not earned. When I was about a hundred meters from the hotel, I thought they were calling me and it was all of you following me: You were out in front, then came Arzola, Gume, Garrido, Guillermito Vidal, Marcos, Alfredo Galeano, Torralba, and Eduardo Herras. You had decided to leave with me in solidarity, and we continued discussing literature while we ate a pizza together right out there on Galeano Street.

That meant to me a love pact.  Anything negative that happened or would happen in the future with the members of this group could not equal that gesture of yours to me.

And as if to prove that everyone is born assigned what he will always be, a few months ago my ex-lawyer for the trial where I must confront slanderous accusations designed to convince me to shut down my blog, asked me for a letter from the Union of Cuban Writers that would list my literary achievements. And though something told me not to do it, because of her insistence I called and was answered by the same officer that expelled me from the hotel table, something I forgave him for because I understood that as a government functionary, it was his responsibility to maintain control of the event.

But it turns out that when I asked him for the letter he was reluctant and asked me to call the next day, and when I did he told me they can only give me a letter confirming that I was a writer belonging to the Writers Association because this would be sufficient.  And, when I asked him whether they could add that I’d won the UNEAC prize, he told me, “No, only that”, which after all made me laugh, because I found it so ridiculous and alienating that I felt embarrassment and shame for them, and I told him not to bother, that I could go forward without this letter.

I never called again.  And to be honest,  when on my birthday they sent me a bottle of wine, I remembered that letter between Dulce Maria Loynaz and the Spanish writer and journalist Santiago Castelo where he commented that Fidel Castro had sent him a box of chocolates, adding, “and they weren’t poisoned”.  I can say the same.

My son’s name is Eduardo in honor of Heras, who is also his Godfather. I can assure you, and you know that no teacher equals him, and I can add that no Godfather does either.

There was a time when we would discuss politics often and one time, to preserve our friendship, we decided not to touch any political topics. And so from then on we didn’t.

What happens is that life constantly summons us down a set of paths and we’re forced to decide which to take. And so, our paths diverged. He chose to stay with that archaic system that he realized was statist but that he was determined to defend. As I said, at times I understand; I’ll never question him because it may be too late for him to give up his position, which would be a kind of self-betrayal, because recognizing that so much sacrifice was in vain would not be an easy matter. He sees Fidel Castro as the man by his side when he risked his life at the Bay of Pigs. And I respect that. Everyone has his past and his conscience.

So when I opened the blog, which I did in the Cubaencuentro space, he sent me a message from Canada where he told me I had betrayed him. Since then, I’ve not have any more contact with him. And I’ve respected that decision, it’s what he wants, and I’ll always be grateful to him and keep that gratitude.

But the present doesn’t erase the past, right?

I noticed your saying that you gave Heras “a horrendous novel”, it’s understood that this was because it was the first you wrote without any kind of literary tool, but later you repeated that “it marked the beginning of the horrendous books that followed”. Do you actually consider your writing horrendous? Why?

My writing is not for people to savor, to enjoy. Without proposing it, it surged up inside me. From the first time I read in public, a lot of people came up to me to let me know that they didn’t like my stories because my writing depressed them, made them anxious, frustrated; it made them suffer. And I loved it when they confessed that. I suffer a lot in the creative process, and it seems I managed to convey this. Readers complained about the distress that my writing caused them and said that some times they threw the book at the wall, but that later they picked it up to continue reading.

My writing is about the pain of our people, their frustration. It’s the voice of those who would like to read their own experiences and see them reflected in some way. So that their problems will interest others. I feel that this is like a mission for me.

In one of my essays from a couple of years ago, I said that in Cuba the limits of marginality had faded so much that social, spiritual and moral marginality were a phenomenon visible everywhere. In your case, because of your humble beginnings, as we have seen, you were obliged to coexist with the marginal world in Havana almost from the time you opened your eyes, and I remember one day we were talking and you told me, and I quote from memory, that this world was “as ruthless as it was human and beautiful.” In what sense do those influences of marginality determine the person you are, on one hand, and on the other, the writer you are?

The marginal know what they are and do not hide it, they accept and internalize it. They have no pretensions.  Friendship for them is an Omerta-style code, and they would die for you without giving it a second thought. They have their marginal ethics, and betrayal is unforgivable, which for me means everything I am. I tell my friends they are free to be whatever they choose, even belonging to the Communist Party if they are honest and they own it, since most of them I know do it to gain position in the system, they are opportunists, but when you speak with them they make you feel that they are the ones who are  dissidents.

My friends can be marginal, professors or illiterates, gay or asexual. They can come with a human head under their arm and I will always seek to protect them and make them aware of their mistake, but above all I will never abandon or judge them. I will be among the first to visit them in prison. I was taught in my neighborhood that friendship means never abandoning someone, especially in their worst moment.

In my neighborhood, I was accepted as something strange and endearing. They saw me create frightening characters with respect. They looked at me with the same  tension with which a physicist builds an atomic bomb. In 1992, when I got my first computer, a monochrome 286, while I was writing, one of them approached me hesitantly to ask whether I questioned the computer about the topic I planned to write and then the computer wrote the stories itself. I thought it was wildly cool that this idea occurred to him. And I said that in some ways yes and in some ways no. And that made him happy, because I made myself tangible, diminishing the difference between us, and he accepted this answer radiantly.

I remember another anecdote about our unforgettable Professor Salvador Redonet that you and I still ponder. He was also living in a poor neighborhood and at the ground level there was a vacant lot. But when guys were playing dominoes and drinking, if they noticed the light in the professor’s room was still on while he was preparing some class for his university students or some anthology in which he almost always included us, luckily and to our credit, they, his neighbors, poorly educated, would ask each other to lower their voices because the prof is studying”. The marginalized did not envy the success of others; on the contrary, they felt they were their guardians, protecting and respecting them.

In your work, as in all the work we do, there is a strong presence of sensuality and eroticism, although in your case, as I wrote on one occasion,there is a “heartbreaking sensuality, with an aggressively cruel eroticism, almost bestial”. I know that much of your vision on the subject originated many years ago, in that strange love-hate relationship, the rejection and admiration you felt for your father, a libertine, a man who was macho and promiscuous, as you told me in those early years, like most men of the hard times in which he lived. What do you think about this or other possible influences of those years on the writer who creates those sexually violent, almost fiendish worlds, where sex is part of the psychology that typifies many of your characters?

My father… from him I inherited the need for a constant feminine presence. Nothing has been more important to me nor makes me feel better than making women happy, especially my mate but generally all the women who surround me: family, friends and even those I don’t know.

But I saw in prison the side of sensuality that was heartbreaking, aggressive and cruel. There were men who bit into the wall because of so many repressed desires. Who got excited with their own odors, their sweat, their own caresses. They spent all day excited and even though they knew masturbating made it worse, only a moment of relief that was followed by a level of frustration and an uncontrollable rage, some got angry against everybody, with a visceral hatred towards life, which meant their lack of discipline could bring on punishment in horrendous and ruthless cells, or even worse, add years of prison time to their sentences.

Today many of those friends who by misfortune (for nostalgia) or luck (for many of us) are scattered around the world. I know that you nourished yourself a lot with certain works of our sisters and that many of these experiences were vital for the maturity of your work. When I mention that word and that time, what do you think about?

I remember that time shared with that magical group we formed. It’s incredible that with all the differences that we human beings had in that group there was never a rift. We read others’ work as if it were our own. There was never envy; on the contrary, we encouraged each other to compete and we were happy if someone won a prize, as if we all achieved it together.

We had Guilllermito Vidal who taught us about life experiences and literary resources. Gume Pacheco was humor personified, Garrido pretended to be serious until we knew him well, Arzola was naive, you were always the hardest worker, Marcos Gonzales, as talented as alienated from his destiny.

We made ourselves into a family, so much so that we bypassed literature and our personal problems began to be treated in a group and solved. We worked for the promotion and publication of the group. This makes me remember that once I bought the journal, Alma Mater, from the University of Havana, and when I came to the part about writing I saw a name like mine and a story with my title, and that furthermore it belonged to the Tenth of October Writers Workshop, and the first thing I thought of was that there had been someone else in that workshop with a name like mine.

I never imagined it was you; as you knew I refused to publish. You took my story from my house and sent it to the journal editor. That surprise was very welcome. So historically I have to recognize that the person guilty of publishing my horrendous stories for the first time was you.

Speaking of the Tenth of October Workshop, remember Chachi Melo? I brought you and introduced you to her and then you were also taken with her happy and profound friendship. While we were reading her first text her beautiful child kept interrupting us. Today he’s the important writer Abel Gonzalez Melo.

Translated by Regina Anavy, AnonyGY, Rafael Gomez, and William Fitzhugh

Interview December 2011

Posted to Angel’s blog: 5 April 2012

Interview of Cuban writer Ángel Santiesteban Prats by Amir Valle – Part 1 of 4

Amir Valle

“The responsibility of Cuban writers, more than ever, is to protest, to make their disagreements public.”

For more than a decade, starting with invisible struggles that happened during literary events that were taking place in Cuban literature in the 90’s, the name of Angel Santiesteban was mentioned several times, but always strangely linked to the condition of “promise”; none of the other writers being promoted (now converted into literary critics who were judging the new phenomenon that the so-called Promotion of the ’90’s or the Novisimos) had managed to write stories of the strength and significance as this — at that time — very young writer. 

With barely a couple of years under the tutelage of Eduardo Heras Leon, in 1989, Santiesteban got an honorable mention for the prestigious and popular international Juan Rulfo short story award, convened each year by Radio France International, which has become the launching platform for the best writers of current literature in Latin America. That’s how the history of his myth begins. With this push he managed to finish his book Sur: Latitud 13 (South: Latitutde 13), which was sent twice to the Award of Casas de las Americas (1992-1994), where due to non-literary shameful circumstances, his book was discussed behind closed doors, and in spite of the quality of its stories it didn’t win the award, which was awarded to the two weakest books in the history of this short story contest.

But perseverance is one of the personal characteristics of Angel Santiesteban, and convinced that the book would be published some time, he changed the title and presented it for the UNEAC Award (given by the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba) in 1995, where it won. But because his point of view about the subject matter in the stories (the internationalist wars of Cuba in Africa) didn’t agree with the government’s, it wasn’t until 1998 (and excluding from the volume some stories considered “conflicting”) that it appeared under the title “Sueno de un Dia de Verano” (Dream of a Summer Day). It started a real commotion within Cuban story telling in the ’90’s, exactly at the time when the best books from the most outstanding authors of that year were being published on the island (Alejandro Álvarez Bernal, Alberto Garrido, Guillermo Vidal, Sindo Pacheco, Alberto Guerra, Raúl Aguiar, Alberto Garrandés, Jorge Luis Arzola, Anna Lidia Vega Serova, and José Miguel Sánchez, just to mention some), exactly when some of those writers began to have a regular presence in the large Spanish-speaking publications (Ena Lucía Portela, Karla Suárez, Ronaldo Menéndez, Alexis Díaz Pimienta, Andrés Jorge González), and just when a great number of the these writers were starting a drop-by-drop exodus (more than half of those kids today live off the island), and were leaving to enrich with the quality of their works the already solid Cuban literature written in exile during the last 50 years. 

Barely two years later, in 2001, he won the Alejo Carpentier short story award, this time with his book Los Hijos que Nadie Quiso, The Children Nobody Wanted, a selection also uncomfortable for the ruling official system, since the topic of the war in Africa was incorporated (Los olvidados, The Forgotten), topics like escape on a raft into exile (Los Hijos que Nadie Quiso), the hard Cuban prison system (La Puerca and La Perra, The Pig and the Bitch), the illegal slaughter of cattle for the black market (Lobos en la Noche, Wolves in the Night) and the rebirth of prostitution due to the economic crisis (Los Aretes que le Faltan a La Luna, The Bones the Moon Missed). Many of us writers, critics and scholars of Cuban arts and letters still wonder how it’s possible that Cuban publishing houses waste time republishing books that aren’t sold by authors nobody reads; however, they don’t republish a book like this, which literally flew off the shelves in just two weeks. 

Also, today many on the island wonder how they can get the book Dichosos los que Lloran, Blessed are Those Who Mourn, awarded the Casa de las Americas 2006 prize, which was sold in a really surreal way during the Havana International Book Fair this year. 

It’s worth mentioning that besides a brotherhood forged in good and bad times, I shared with Angel the teachings of Eduardo Heras León, the hugs of friends of our generation, the joy over the first awards received by those friends, and many other things, including some girlfriends.  And under that complicity, created in the middle of hugs and clashes, of agreements and disputes, this interview was born. It happened in a decisive, dangerous and (I know) traumatic moment in the life of this writer, considered by many Latin American critics and writers as the most important Cuban storyteller living today on the island.

Intimate Spaces

There are places in the personal life of a writer that, even when they are not generally known, are determining factors in understanding what his “mark” is, that unique take on life that many times may or may not coincide with that creative differentiation that some people call “his own style”.

Let’s talk about the three moments of your first years of life that, as we’ve talked about all these years, are essential to the writer you are today. But I want you to look at them from a distance and try to clarify what changes were made in the little person being formed that you were then, that could have influenced your point of view as a writer on a topic that’s in your case a recurring theme: “the voice of the losers”.

A) The family environment (your mother, the great Luis, your brothers)

My mother is the beginning of my creation, and almost was the end, because it took so much to be able to survive without her presence. She was my steadfast friend, my constant support. My writings passed by her eyes. I learned how to unfold her dreams and pains, and I wrote them down. Through her silence, an aversion to the system took hold in me. Mornings were spent listening to the short wave, Radio Marti, Radio Mambi, Camilo Cienfuegos. I listened  to Huber Matos*, whom I deeply admired for all his suffering and the stoic way in which he sustained his 20 years of unjust imprisonment.

Even you, Amir, many times stayed by her side until dawn, because she wanted you to hear something important. Willy Chirino’s song, “They’re Already Coming,”** at times I thought she was the one who wrote the lyrics. She used to always say that with Castro in power, little was left to her. Through her, I found out that we have a Cardinal, and she told me that kind and ingenuous adage: “The Cardinal is higher than the Commandate” and expressed it with devotion.

Also through her I suffered when my older brother was taken away to the war in Africa, and all because they promised that when he returned to his labor organization, they would give him a new truck (when he returned, they had closed the factory). Because of her, I refused to go to Angola, telling her that I didn’t want to inflict upon her another round of suffering and because I was convinced that the Angolan people were not grateful for our being on their territory because they saw us as an occupation force.

Because of my mother also, I refused to attend Compulsory Military Service; I was put at the age of 17 in jails like the La Cabaña prison. That was enough of social studies to make me be what I wanted and defend what I needed. And the psychiatrists diagnosed claustrophobia, and finally I was able to avoid the army.

The eyes of my mother were the large screen that dictated literature to me.

After she divorced my father, she married Luis, the great Luis, as you say, a lovely and profound man whom you knew very well. He was my paternal patron. He had great contradictions: He was immense in size and at times was like a kid my age. He was tough and sentimental. A man without deep education but with a surprising philosophy of life. He took care of me, my brothers, my nephews, and friends like you, with an sickly fervor.

My brothers taught me that above all in any dispute we were a family, and for even the smallest of reasons we were united to give each other strength and cooperation. My sister Mary, who has lived in Miami for over 20 years, has always been my second mother; since she was a girl she took on that role; from my birth I was her plaything. And when there were no cell phones, at least in Cuba, we had a day and a time when we both observed the moon; that was the way we met, through moon-gazing.

Because I accompanied my sister to the shore when she wanted to leave the country, to see them leave, I was put for 14 months in the most aberrant and abusive prison of any book that I’ve read on the topic. Not even in the novels describing South African prisons during apartheid did they suffer the injustices and the hunger that existed in the Cuban prisons.

My brothers were caught in the deep sea, it was a boat from INDER, and when they were returned, in order to escape, they threw the engine off the boat into the sea. But that didn’t impede them from being pulled in by the Coast Guard. They were sentenced to 10 years in prison. Later, me, for the crime of “conspiracy”.

Soon my mother found all her children in prison, in different prisons, and she was exhausted going from one prison to another. I will never forget her stoic figure coming through the moldy doors. Her way of demanding that the guards respect the supposed rights they granted us, and also the way she endured their jokes when she was asked if she were a lawyer, to which she answered that she was a Mother and that was enough. What happens is that many didn’t remember this, she answered them, and I had to watch all those violations through the bars without being able to defend her.

When she was gone, I felt for hours the pain of the bars on my face due to the despair and impotence I felt, because I could not protect her from those abusers who had no soul. All that anxiety we made her suffer, we were never able to make it up to her. There would be no way. Although she never complained, that’s why I tried hard to be the writer she admired who would make her proud. I could take her to literary readings and dedicate a book to her, which she took in her hands to accompany her in that painful moment that reminded me of the same impotence I felt before in jail.

B) The period when you were “Camilito”

That was the period of naivety. Military life always appealed to me. I wanted to be the Officer in Chief of Tactical Troops. But God wanted the opposite, despite everything, even the painful punishment of my mother on seeing us in prison. I thank God for having interrupted that path, because that same year I was supposed to begin my higher studies in the Military Academy.

Thanks to prison, I matured rapidly, skipping all the stages. I learned, in part, to understand human beings. I saw, felt their punishments, tears, desires, frustrations, dreams, and they permeated me deeply, making me a Doctor of Sociology of the System, and since then I carry those wounds with me. When I write, the saddest faces of the recluses who accompanied me on that voyage to Hell peep out; also the agony of the mothers who had to leave us there. The suffering was such that my subconscious obliged me to write, to drain off that anxiety through words, because I sometimes felt that it would explode inside me. Writing was my salvation and the thing that allowed me to endure that year and so much more without becoming insane, and since that time writing has been my salvation, the practice that allows me to resist every hour of governmental injustice.

Before going to jail, I never imagined I would be a writer. I detested writing because to me it seemed the work of weak people. But I didn’t know then the power of words, I didn’t know that a sentence could have the same power and destructive reach as a howitzer, and even more so, because a missile is used only once, while a sentence continues in time and detonates with the same force or more every time it’s mentioned.

C) The Luyanó neighborhood and your youth 

Luyanó was Paris. It had all the lights of the universe although there were often black-outs, as usual, which occurred more frequently in the Special Period. But that darkness was like a neon light. I couldn’t imagine my life without my neighborhood. There I had everything and felt like a king, in spite of being on the wrong side of the tracks, which I came to retrieve many years later, because those people seemed normal to me, good, unpredictable. I was happy, and I have pleasant memories of my past. The neighbors were like a large family. I still dream about my childhood and my friends’ grandparents. I always remember them in that time and space.

Now from a distance I wonder how I could stand it. Sometimes I visit the neighborhood. My daughter lives there and loves the place like I did, but when I go back the streets seem alien to me.

I give thanks for the advice of a friend’s father, who warned us that wasting time sitting around on the street was for losers. And I observed the men who remained for long hours in that place; I measured their lives and calculated their futures. The majority had prison tattoos, bullet and knife wounds from battles they had survived and for which they were respected.

Their messed-up lives frightened me so much that I didn’t even stop on the street when some friend called me. I kept walking on some pretext and hurriedly kept going. I was fleeing what I saw as my natural destiny, which terrified me. I escaped from those places as if they contained a virus that was just waiting for the right moment to invade and incubate in me.

Those I left there couldn’t emigrate, they passed their lives without leaving a trace, without contributing anything in their time, and what’s unfair or sad is that they never were aware of it, no one explained it to them. They assumed their destinies without complaining or having any higher ambition.

Translator’s notes:
*Huber Matos, a guerrilla chief, disagreed with the direction of the Revolution, was declared a traitor, and spent 20 years in jail (1959-1979).
**”They’re Already Coming ” is in the lyrics but the song is “Our Day is Coming

Translated by Regina Anavy, AnonyGY, Rafael Gomez, and William Fitzhugh

Interview December 2011

Posted to Angel’s blog: 5 April 2012