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

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