The writer Ángel Santiesteban Prats
Luis Felipe Rojas, 12 February 2015 — Just days after Ángel Santiesteban Prats sent this interview to Martí Noticias, he was transferred in an untimely manner to Villa Marista, the general barracks of Cuban State Security. However, his replies were already safeguarded, as was he.
This storyteller — who won the UNEAC (Cuban Writers and Artists Union) prize for his collection, Sueño de un día de verano (Dreams of a summer day, 1995), the 1999 César Galeano prize, the Casa de las Américas award of 2006 for his Dichosos los que lloran (Blessed are they who weep) — later started a blog where he set forth his ideas on human rights in Cuba, and he did not cease even unto imprisonment.
In 2013, Ángel won the International Franz Kafka “Novels from the Drawer Prize,” which convened in the Czech Republic, for the novel, The Summer When God Slept. Today he is responding to these questions from his improvised cell in a Border Patrol unit of the Ministry of the Interior, in Jaimanitas, Havana.
Following is a Q&A between Luis Felipe Rojas and Ángel Santiesteban
Luis Felipe: At which moment did the narrator and character Ángel Santiesteban come to be?
Ángel: I can affirm that he came into existence at the end of the 1980s. I believe that the need to write, to communicate, to transmit my feelings, were a way of dealing, precisely, with the pain I felt inside of me. I recall that my first literary sensibility arose at the age of 17, when I found myself imprisoned at the La Cabaña fort, for the “offense” of having accompanied my family to the coast, with the intent of seeing them off, as it turned out.
They were later caught on the high seas, and I was charged with harboring fugitives — but on the day of the trial, the court ruled that, according to current laws, I could not be so charged, because between parents and children, and between siblings, such action was considered reasonable. However, I was prosecuted anyway because, according to the district attorney, I should have reported my relatives for clandestinely leaving the country, which is considered an act of treason against the totalitarian regime.
Notwithstanding, I remained in jail for 14 months. Thus I consider that before I was a writer, I was already one of my characters, which I used to share my personal pain with the other characters that, as of that time, I began to construct. In each character created by me, there is my pain, or that of my family, friends and neighbors. I am a social reflection of my times, and there is where my commitment lies: with myself, with my mother, with history and with my times, with no concern for the consequences that this posture might entail for me.
I suffer with every word I write, I bleed for every passage that I execute. I live and die with my characters; but always, I believe above all, it is through art that is genuine and uncompromised.
Luis Felipe: To what point were your narrative demons fused with your social intentions?
Ángel: I swear that this was not a goal, nor was it a commitment, and even less intended as a means to shock or gain attention. I believe, in fact, that this is not the way to achieve art. My creative seed took root in nonconformity and social fear — individuals who hid their antipathy to the political process and pretended, or pretend, to be sympathizers of the dictatorship — and this reflection of my times turned me into a voice, an alternative, and it was an unconscious process, because the foundation of my artistic vision is that which lacerates me, which strikes or preoccupies me, and then I want to capture it in the best way, according to the literary tools at my disposal.
When I discover a thought in a personal passage, or hear an evocative anecdote, a force is ignited in my being, and a different hunch alerts me that I should attempt it, and almost always this is tied to a social consequence.
Luis Felipe: You have assumed the tragic sense of life. Like Severo Sarduy, Guillermo Cabrera Infante or Reinaldo Arenas, you have assembled a literature that becomes condemnation. What does Ángel Santiesteban Prats process or write from within this enclosure?
Angel and Luis Felipe
The author of this interview with Ángel Santiesteban, 20 January, 2010, in Havana, Cuba.
Ángel: Above all, to recognize that with any artist to whom I am compared, among those three great Cuban writers, I am honored, and I appreciate the noble hereditary line in which you have placed me, because I will always recognize the distances between them and me. I respect them for their work and life, the suffering they hoisted like a flag, for choosing the emigration option, looking for those “three trapped tigers,”* who were them, for having been voices discordant with the political system.
I have experiences similar to Reinaldo Arenas, in terms of imprisonment and the cultural marginalization that he suffered; but I identify with all three in the matter of emigration — only that in their cases they had to displace themselves from the Archipelago, and in mine, I live those same consequences, but from the interior, inside the Island. For this reason, today I write about the reality that surrounds me, the injustice that I live.
I once wrote in a post that the last place that the dictatorship should have sent me was here, where I have had to develop myself as a human being, artist and dissident. I have written a book of stories out of pain, but which in my view and that of my friends, is still very raw, and I need to distance myself from the experience to revisit it and remove a political intention which, inevitably, is reflected in this collection of stories. I also wrote a strange novel, with a prison-life theme, which I intend to revise upon my release. I started a novel, Prizes and Punishments, of a more biographical cut.
My life experience is tragic. I have lived a tragic script that affects society, caused by the dictators’ political whims. It is known that “we writers nourish ourselves from human carrion,”** and this system is quite given to soiling us with the blood of its victims.
Luis Felipe: Your characters appear to be stricken with pain as if there were nothing else on the horizon. From whence this creation, these pieces of change contained in every story?
Ángel: At times it is, in a word, an image, or the reflection of an anxiety. When I perceive that someone is suffering, I feel a need to help him. I fervently believe that if a writer does not help to change — to heal — that reality, at least he has the duty to reflect it like a mirror of his times, as a social function. And, at times, we even seek alternatives to anemic responses for those sufferers, when they see in the characters their more immediate reality.
We have the possibility, as part of creation itself, to substitute, improve, provide, replace, exchange, our given destinies, and to create for ourselves something better. The variables can be many, to the extent of the writer’s capacity for talent and his artistic needs. I feel that I am the reflection of my times and so I try to capture this in my work.
Luis Felipe: If we refer to the backstory you provide in The Summer When God Slept, your novel is the reconstruction of an era. Describing life at sea, characters that are not precisely fishermen, the actual circumstances in which they decide to launch themselves to a new life, or to death, and the outcomes that come to pass from what we today know as the “Rafters Crisis,” what we have is an historical novel. What were your tools — were they historiography, sociology, or a thorough knowledge of those narrative techniques that you have been displaying for a long time?
Ángel: When I tackle a subject that I have not experienced, which is not even found in books that can be consulted, I begin a field study — in my case, depending on my subjects, with the soldiers who participated in the African wars, with the rafters who chose to return from the Guantánamo Naval Base, or marginalized characters who survive through crime.
I always make recordings of their narratives. In a few cases I had to turn off the recording equipment at the interviewee’s request, when they incriminated themselves in their testimonies and fear forced them into self-protection, upon revealing delicate matters — for example, terrible orders from a high-level military commander in Angola that produced innocent victims, or acts that they themselves committed and for which they are now ashamed.
I have the need, when I begin to treat a subject, to know every event — the history, the culture, the color of the earth, the scents, the vegetation — details that help me to transport myself and live in my imagination, to recreate, to go back in time and see, and feel, what I narrate.
The majority of the characters in my novel, The Summer…, are based on relatives or friends. Manolo is my younger sister’s husband. It is true that he was involved in the conflict in Africa, that he was a combat engineer, that he risked his life in the Florida Straits on a raft with other relatives, and that he later crossed the minefield [around the American naval base at Guantanamo] to return to Havana with his family.
In him, in that character, are composites of many characters. I interviewed every rafter I have met, producing hundreds of hours of cassette recordings — which is what I would use in the mid-90s — and in every one I captured the pain that burst from their words, gestures and silences.
Luis Felipe: There is a period of “painful apprenticeship,” as Carlos Alberto Montaner might say. Why are your stories loaded with victims?
Ángel: I am convinced that every Cuban who is a participant in the political processes — not only since 1959, but from before — is a victim of the whims, ambitions, and bad intentions of those leaders who have arrived at positions of power in the nation. In particular I base my view on the experience, the suffering, of the generations since that of my parents, through today, and I consider them victims of the regime.
And not just those who were opposed, but I also add those who were deceived, those who like my Uncle Pepe, bet on a better country, democratic and humanist, until they discovered that they had been deceived, but then no longer had the youth or courage to confront the deceivers — and they decided to take their own life out of shame at having been party to this miscreation that has governed for more than half a century, and has done so by executing, jailing and assassinating via its structures for repression and espionage.
Those who emigrate, those who remain inside the Island with their fears (even if only one); those who at some time have needed to pretend so as not to be reprimanded or punished; those who have lied, or are lying, and who betray their real thoughts and opinions about the reality that surrounds us — all are victims of the system.
I always reiterate that the only ambition I have had in life is to understand people — to understand them even if I don’t share their reasoning, but at least to know the cause, the feeling that they had at the moment of committing an act, be it positive or negative. I don’t always achieve this with human beings, but I do so with my characters. They must be transparent to me at the moment that I tell their story, understanding their actions, thinking and functioning.
I am a victim of my times, in the company of my characters, who reflect this human suffering.
Luis Felipe: It appears that you inhabit a space between the pieces of Carlos Montenegro and the lost souls of Reinaldo Arenas. The protagonists of your novel and stories move between the perdition of the night and the disillusionment of the days in Havana. Do you not fear that you will ultimately tell of a Havana that has been told and told again?
Ángel: Montenegro’s version is my personal experience, and we already know that reality surpasses us — it being so rich in hues, in multiple, inexhaustible tones that guarantee the health of that approach in the city and to the city. There is always a trace that hasn’t been covered, a new way of telling the same story, of sharing imperishable themes. Not even the same photo taken repeatedly in rapid succession can capture the same subject because its colors change constantly.
Yes, I fear repeating those paradigms of Cuban literature, but I do not believe that it can seem an imitation of those great and special writers, because there are many ways of seeing, ways of telling this Havana, this Cuba, at times so beloved, or so hated.
Border Patrol Prison Unit, Jaimanitas, Havana.
Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison
* A reference to the novel, “Three Trapped Tigers,” by Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante.
** Santiesteban is quoting Cuban writer Amir Valle, who made this statement during an interview with the journal, IberoAmericana, published in 2014. The original Spanish phrase, “Los escritores nos alimentamos de la carroña humana,” is used in the title of the article.