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

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