Everything I Kept: Reflections of an “Anthropoeta”
September 20, 2019
By Ruth Behar
This excerpt appears in Women Writing Resistance: Essays on Latin America and the Caribbean, edited by Jennifer Browdy.
If I had to choose one aspect of my life that had the greatest impact on me as a thinker and a writer, it would be that I was born a Jew in Cuba. And after that, it would be that I came to the United States as an immigrant child, carrying this doubled sense of identity which would eventually be articulated in an American context in the English language, but always with a longing for the native Spanish that was spoken in my family. As a girl and a young woman growing up in New York, I struggled to find a way to give voice to the experience of being a Cuban immigrant, while always yearning to know the island that my family remembered nostalgically, but to which I was told we would never again return to live.
Like other young Cubans of my generation who came of age in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, I was politicized by the leftist and multiculturalist movements of the era. I searched for a way to take pride in my Cuban identity, while trying not to internalize the epithet of being a gusana, “a worm of the revolution,” as those of us who left Cuba after the revolution of 1959 had been branded. The young Cubans of the era chose the slogan, “Not all Cubans are gusanos,” and that’s how I would have described myself at the time. Later, I refused to see myself in such negative, self-annihilating terms, when I came to understand that such an epithet was part of a long Latin American legacy of disowning and declaring traitorous those who dared leave their homelands for “the other America” across the border. I decided that I would find a way to celebrate my identity as a woman of the diaspora, while still reclaiming my bond with the island that it was my destiny to lose as a child, before I knew what it meant to have a country.
As a girl, I thought that the best vehicle to express my feelings about these complex yearnings would be poetry and fiction, and I went off to college with the hope of becoming a writer. But I soon lost confidence in my voice as an artist. I was, then, the “Obedient Student” of my poem by that name, and when my teachers discouraged my efforts at poetry, I gave it up. Perhaps, ultimately, it was a good thing that I put aside my artistic ambitions, because it was a moment when I was searching for an intellectual framework in which to examine issues of language, culture, and belonging, issues I didn’t yet know how to ground in social and political reality. In my last year in college, an inspiring anthropology teacher convinced me I had the potential to become an anthropologist. Following his advice, I decided to turn my creative impulses to the study of anthropology.
Anthropology offered me a crucial intellectual and philosophical framework for my explorations of identity, memory, home, and the crossing of borders, the dislocations that are at the root of anthropological thinking and that are part of the lived experience of those who live in the diaspora. It was through anthropology, as well, that I was able to undertake the magical, and also politicizing, journeys into the everyday reality of people living in the Spanish-speaking world. My anthropology took me to a rural village in northern Spain, a small town in northern Mexico, and eventually, and essentially, back to Cuba, the root of all my wanderings.
I believe that the dreams of our youth never leave us. Even as I tried hard to conform to the norms of academic writing in the discipline, my anthropology became increasingly haunted by my longing for poetry. I told myself I was creating a poetic anthropology, that I was an anthropoeta, unveiling the poetic underpinnings of the anthropological quest for home in a world of homelessness and homesickness.
And then, as I began to travel regularly to Cuba beginning eleven years ago, I found myself needing to actually write real poems again. Returning to the homeland I lost as a child made me want to claim poetry again as an essential part of my life. I found that initially, being back in Cuba, I could not do anthropology, I could not speak in the voice I had acquired through my schooling in the United States. I didn’t want to turn Cuba into an ethnographic field site. I didn’t want to be an anthropologist in Cuba. The experience of being in Cuba was emotionally so moving, so heart wrenching, so beautiful and so painful at the same time, that I struggled to find a language in which to express who I was and who I had become through my journeys as a woman of the Cuban diaspora.
I began to find the language I was seeking in poetry. Although I wrote primarily in English, I would create Spanish versions of the same poems that were more often new renditions of what I was saying in English rather than literal translations. Often, snatches of a poem would come to me fist in Spanish and I would move from Spanish back into English. Through this writing, I realized that my need to have a voice in the Spanish language was motivated not only by my desire to return to Cuba, but that it came as well from a yet more distant past, from my father’s Sephardic ancestors who refused to stop speaking the language of those who exiled them. My poems embraced a doubled sense of loss, a language of exile that had deep roots as it sought to express the immediate and current emotional impact of being back in my childhood home as a grown woman, with a fierce longing to belong, even though I had no memories of my native land.
My return to poetry would have been impossible without the anchoring provided by my intellectual and artistic collaboration with the Cuban artist Rolando Estévez, the artistic designer of Ediciones Vigía, a publishing house founded in 1985 that produces handmade books in Matanzas, Cuba, in editions of two hundred copies. These books have become collector’s items, not simply because of their small print run, but because of their excellent literary quality, their charming, whimsical designs, and the original way in which the artistry is produced on plain brown paper, proving that beautiful books can be made even within an economy and aesthetic of scarcity. Ediciones Vigía books are now known throughout the world, and major collections exist in Spain, Britain, Mexico, and the United States.
Reading and savoring the books of Ediciones Vigía opened my eyes again to the power of poetry, and of literature more generally, to speak the unspeakable, to soften our hard hearts. I was fortunate that Estévez and my friends at Ediciones Vigía encouraged my efforts at writing poetry, giving me opportunities to present my poems in Spanish to curious and compassionate audiences in Matanzas, who want to understand the desire for the island of Cubans like me, who live in the diaspora. I have had two books of poems published in Cuba by Ediciones Vigía, a small collection entitled Poems Returned to Cuba/Poemas que vuelven a Cuba, and recently a more ambitious collection of forty prose poems in English and Spanish entitled Everything I Kept/Todo lo que guardé.
Everything I Kept was inspired by and dedicated to the Cuban poet Dulce María Loynaz. The daughter of an illustrious general who fought for Cuban independence, Dulce María lived in a Havana mansion of faded elegance until her death at the age of ninety-four in 1997. Although she could have easily left Cuba after the revolution, her sense of patriotism kept her rooted on the island. Yet she wrote all of her major works before the revolution, and her wistful, meditative poems and intimate womanist fictional writing were not the kind of literature initially encouraged by the revolutionary process. She did not receive major attention for her work until advanced old age, when a younger generation of Cuban writers and artists began to seek her out as a model of artistic integrity. Later, in 1992, the Cervantes Prize was bestowed upon her by Spain, and this brought an international group of readers to her work.
It was Rolando Estévez who introduced me to the poetry of Dulce María Loynaz. When we first met, he was producing stunning watercolors in which he used fragments of her poetry in combination with artistic renderings of her work. His artistic vision drew me to the humble and yet bold quality of Dulce María’s voice, the mixture of melancholy, regret, and simplicity that pervaded her writing and which has often been likened to the work of Emily Dickinson. I was especially impressed by Dulce María’s volume of prose poems, Poemas sin nombre, published in 1953. Acclaimed at first, it was soon forgotten, even, it seemed, by Dulce María herself, who feared her work had become irrelevant in the wake of the historical transformations wrought by the Cuban revolution.
I decided to write a series of prose poems that would evoke the mood and yearning of Dulce María’s poems. Th e majority of my poems poured out of me in desperate haste in the last months of my thirty-ninth year and in the first days after turning forty. I was able to read many of these poems aloud to Dulce María, whom I got to know, and I was especially lucky to be present at a literary event that was held in Havana in honor of her ninety-fourth birthday, just months before her death. There is no greater gift than being heard by a poet you love, a poet who has moved you to want to be a poet.
About the Author
Ruth Behar, ethnographer, essayist, poet, and filmmaker, is professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. The recipient of a MacArthur Fellows Award and a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, Behar is the author of several books, including The Vulnerable Observer. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter at @ruthbehar and visit her website.