By Tom Hallock
President Obama’s decision to re-establish commercial and diplomatic ties with Cuba caused me to think about what it might mean for publishers, writers, and readers, and to reawaken hopes I had when I visited Cuba almost twenty years ago.
In February of 1995, I traveled to Havana with a delegation of US publishers, writers, and journalists organized by Association of American Publishers’ International Freedom to Publish Committee, a 40-year-old group that has defended freedom of expression around the world through its missions, exhibits, and lobbying activities. Sixty-three publishers joined in creating a Libros USA exhibit of 6,000 books, all of which were donated to Cuban libraries afterwards. (Or most were: an FSG title I’d sent by dissident writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Mea Cuba, never appeared in the display.)
The delegation included writers such as Bob Shacochis, Miguel Algarin, and Carol Brightman, editors Ash Green, Wendy Wolf, and Andre Bernard, journalists Maria Hinojosa and Anne Marie O’Conner, and several human rights activists who traveled as “publishers.” It was Carol, who first travelled to Cuba as part of a Venceremos Brigade in the late 60s, who became my guide and mentor, bringing me to the home of the filmmaker Estela Bravo for screening of “The Cuban Excludables” about the plight of thousands of Cubans then held in US prisons. Carol also asked me to be her escort to “The First International Transvestite Festival,” held at a club called “Teatro America.” We were told it was the first time the government had allowed such an event to be held in public since Castro had come to power.
The formal agenda included a welcome by then President of the National Assembly Ricardo Alarcón, and several sessions with Abel Prieto, then head of the Cuban writers guild. The event with Alarcón was held in the National Assembly. Alarcón defended Cuba’s human rights policy but grew angry and defensive under questioning. There were also meetings with Cuban publishers and writers. We learned that in a country with 90% literacy, the problem was that, because of paper shortages, there were few books.
At one session, an older Cuban writer said, “I grew up reading Hemingway and Steinbeck, listening to Charlie Parker, my hero was Babe Ruth. Mailer, Ginsburg, and Ferlinghetti all came here. We have had a dialogue going on for decades, but now it has been interrupted. You have forgotten.”
This session with the writers was not going well, with tensions emerging between the human rights activists—who were insisting on a confrontational discussion of human rights with people who could not possibly speak about them in such a public setting—and the journalists and writers who wanted more of a dialogue with their counterparts. Frustrated with the rhetoric, I stood up and introduced myself as “the anti-fascist director of sales and marketing at Farrar Straus,” and asked a question that had come to mind in the earlier meetings with publishers. “Sometimes there are official limits on freedom of expression, but there also can be subtler forms of censorship. In the US, for example, African American women writers were under-represented for many years because white publishers did not think there was a market for their work. Today, I heard about many works of fiction by men but only short stories and poetry by women. Where are the novels by Cuban women, and what are the special issues that Cuban women writers face?”
I did not get an answer in that session, but afterwards was approached by a group of women, including the poet Nancy Morejón and the editor Blanche Acosta. I was invited to drinks, a party, and further meetings where I would find out “what was really going on with women writers in Cuba.” I was told that while Cuban women had some equality at work, they did not have it at home, that prostitution was rampant, that women’s lives were difficult and that novels were being written. And so the trip unfolded...
There was also a trip to a cigar factory, where workers rolled Cohibas and Monte Cristos while listening to their lector read them a novel. (This practice of having a reader originated in Cuban cigar factories spreading eventually to the United States, where it was brought to an end in the Tampa cigar makers’ strike of 1931, thus ending a form of both entertainment and education for illiterate workers.) Another member of our delegation handed me a note a worker had given him for me. It was a poem, which was later translated as follows:
We are the Whispering Phantoms.
The day is our dark night.
We are the cheapest labor
And live in the most expensive city in the world.
Between you and I exists an invisible frontier—and a window.
For you it is very elegant
But you don’t perceive that for us
(It is very different).
In addition to the screening and Transvestite festival, the informal agenda also included a meeting with writers, publishers, and artists who were working outside the formal economy to create and distribute books. An example of the work of this movement is “Cristo en la Cruz y Otros Poemas” by Jorge Luis Borges, handmade by volunteer artisans from repurposed materials and published by Ediciones Vigía, an independent publishing house located in Matanzas, Cuba.
I didn’t end up with any publishing projects for FSG out of this trip but a few years later at Beacon Press, I worked with novelist and translator Dick Cluster to publish Cubana: Contemporary Fiction by Cuban Women, edited by Mirta Yanez which included the work of sixteen writers, most of whom had not been previously published in the US.
My hopes are that this hopeful opening will enable new Cuban voices—gay, female, and perhaps cigar factory poets—to emerge, and that US readers will come to know a country and people they have judged and marginalized for so long. Perhaps then we can resume the dialogue that has been interrupted for too long.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tom Hallock is Associate Publisher of Beacon Press.