On the floor of the university residence where I lived, someone had been left a book by Ivan de la Nuez for a few weeks. I know that I leafed through it, that I read a few fragments of it, before it disappeared in the same way that it arrived. On the cover, I seem to remember, Che Guevara was helping Sartre light a cigar. A book of which I now have no memory other than the perplexity that those fragments read caused me. In relation to the idea of Cuban culture that was discussed at the academy where I was trained, those passages created a noise, a dissonance. For a student of literature, at the end of the first decade of the two thousand, the books by Iván de la Nuez, Rafael Rojas or Antonio José Ponte were the elephant in the room. Read and shared from hand to hand, their ideas did not filter down to classroom discussions or writing assignments. They became the repositories of a parallel formation, of an alternative exchange (even between students and teachers), of a sort of double intellectual life. It was enough that a single edition arrived in Cuba, for these books to attend a new form of socialization. This “vacuum in the distribution of ideas”, to which Rojas has referred, was eagerly opposed by a kind of samizdat of the digital age: scanned pages, photos of greater or lesser quality, files, flash memories, copy of copy of copy.
In this way, my whole reading relationship with Ivan de la Nuez’s work has been determined by this spectral condition, by the delay. Fragments read here or there, texts that, better or worse reproduced, lose their editorial disposition to become something else, to change – at the same time as formatting – form or substance. That is why, although for me it is perhaps the most “conventional” reading experience of this work, I have approached the Cuban motifs of Iván de la Nuez with the same strangeness and curiosity with which the above was presented to me. In Cubantropía (Períferica, Cáceres, 2020), one can read the evolution of an existence through a series of images, but also that of a mobile identity from the intellection of certain spirits – tropes – of the collective. From all this, also, that the following questions have been formulated with the enthusiasm of a claim.
Ibrahim Hernández Oramas
In the continuity of the Cubanthropy essays one can glimpse -and it is one of the readings foreseen for the book- the success of an intellectual autobiography. We will agree then that any immersion that is respected in the conformation of that I of writing must begin with the years of formation. In this case, it is a question of the end of the 1980s, and the recovered illusion – and one that is also inspired by the winds of change coming from the East with Perestroika and Glaston – that intellectuals and artists can play an active role in the political life of the country, can become critical and legitimate interlocutors with the powers-that-be. It is a moment of cultural effervescence, in which iconoclastic and revisionist projects of the Cuban artistic tradition emerge, such as Paideia or Ar-De (in one of the photos of the ebook that Roberto Madrigal prepared for Incubadora about this last group, one can see a young Ivan de la Nuez attending, in the middle of G Street, one of the performances of Juan-Sí González). How do you value and remember those years of formation? How did they influence the intellectual that you are today and that critical, post-communist attitude in which your work is recognized? Do you think that a systematic and meticulous revision of that period is still pending?
In part, Cubanthropy can be seen as an autobiography, so it’s not bad to start with that photo and that period, which is also where the book begins. At that time, I used to go to Ar-De’s performances, and even participated in some public debate after their actions. Later, thanks to Cristina Nosti and Alfredo Triff, I wrote in Nature as Hostage, the first catalogue of Juan-Sí in Miami. This was in 1994 and still the mainstream of Cuban art (the one coming from the Beyond and the one waiting for us in the Here and Now) did not agree with his speech. So I devoured Roberto Madrigal’s book for many reasons: personal, cultural and political. Although the truth is that I noticed little in the photo and I didn’t give it much importance.
It was not until July 2019 that I stopped in the image, while I was riding The Parallel Utopia. Dream Cities in Cuba (1980-1993) An exhibition with architects from that generation of the 1980s that recovered more than forty urban proposals that never came to fruition. (Bringing out projects from that decade that had been vetoed, ignored and forgotten; that is, trying out that revision you’re aiming for). At first, this project was going to be a chapter in a larger exhibition about that decade, but in the middle of that process Goodbye Utopia took place, and I understood that there was no point in repeating works and artists. Above all, I had in my hand something that was different and little known, and moreover, it was done at the same time and in the same spirit as the art of the eighties. So I called the architect Juan Luis Morales and asked him to help me turn the chapter into the exhibition itself. This also had its point of revival, because those same architects and I had met thirty years earlier in Havana, when they asked me for the text of a pioneering exhibition of what then became known as Young Cuban Architecture.
One of the best moments in a curator’s work is the one when you can stay alone in a museum when it is closed. That privilege allowed me to stand for a while in front of that image, which appeared and disappeared on the wall of animated projections dedicated to Ar-De. And there it really shook me up, to the point of making me mentally repeat the environment of that time, the reaction of people to the performances, thinking about people I had loved and with whom I had shared common dreams. I’m not lying if I tell you that, thanks to that photo, I reconstructed that day and everything I did before and after getting there.
Something similar happens to me with this questionnaire, which brings back memories of endless discussions with the protagonists of those times, of my initial texts for artists’ catalogues, of daytime and nighttime rounds, of the reunion with friends who returned from the USSR (another story to be recovered), of the precocity with which I wrote some essays, from the Sandinista debacle in Nicaragua or the fall of communism in Eastern European countries, from Gorbachev’s visit, from my friends at the university or with some of those who were my teachers in the history faculty, from some loves and from always clinging to the sea on Baracoa beach, where I grew up.
I lived everything with intensity and I think I gave an excessive importance to everything, but the truth is that the eighties configured a cultural system, which I called “dissonant” at the time and which marked a lot of what I did afterwards. Those years incubated in me the intuition that critical energy should not be exhausted in the wall of the Malecón, and that this experience not only enabled me to tell the world things about Cuba, but also to tell the world things about the world.
One of the most acute passages in the book refers to the diaspora of Cuban culture in the early 1990s, a phenomenon “of a rather dramatic cultural order”, which meant the definitive cancellation of all those aspirations to participate in the cultural and political life of the island among your contemporaries. At the same time, this “escape from a time confiscated by politics” is perceived as a positive symptom, as a point of escape from the clichés of nationalism that had delineated the Cuban cultural field until that moment. In this sense, it is quite eloquent that the new generations of artists have established a communication with your work and your intellectual attitude, or that of others of your contemporaries who from outside Cuba, in this and later migratory waves, have assumed that re-reading of nationalism and territorialization; while the intellectuals of your generation who were assimilated and normalized by the official culture have almost nothing to say to them. How has this ambiguous condition of the diaspora determined, in terms of its trauma and its creative and dislocating force, your writing and intellectual life; and how do you think, in the light of the years, it has reconfigured and fissioned this homogeneous block of national culture? How do you value that communication, those links of your work with the new Cuban artists and writers, in spite of the inexistence of a place – the usual mechanisms of transmission within the Cuban cultural center are forbidden for your books – and what can this tell us about that decentralization, that uneasiness of a culture?
That my books are not published in Cuba is neither news nor has it ever martyred me in my life. In The Empty Shelf Rafael Rojas breaks down very well that enormous absence in which my little books would be among the last in line. Nor do I think that the intellectuals of my generation have all been taken over by the officialdom (or the officialisms), although there have been cases. Nor have I stopped to think about my connection with artists, perhaps because it has always been a constant, let’s say, “natural”. In Cuba, in the diaspora, in Barcelona or in my returns to Havana in recent years. I imagine it has to do with my way of living, but also with my way of working. I suppose it’s linked to the fact that I don’t feel like a “writer”, something that has been growing over the years. Or to my rejection of the way in which the figure of El Intelectual, with a capital “I”, has always been attributed to a writer -Sartre, Carpentier, Paz, Vargas Llosa- and the solemnity that accompanies that commitment. Leaving aside Gilberto Gil, how many ministers of culture do you know who have been artists or filmmakers or musicians? The authority of culture is mounted on literature, and the more it is vilified, the better it is for that authority. So perhaps artists are more likely to find someone who can put together their discourse on visual or popular stimuli, giving it the same importance, or more, than written sources. Someone who doesn’t just talk about their work, but appropriates their language to write their texts.
All this is intertwined with what I understand by “diaspora”, which is not a synonym for exile, but its multiplication. And the rupture of that determinism between national culture and territory. Faced with a culture that has exploded in this way, one has no other task than to go around recovering splinters. You can fill your rucksack -or your briefcase- with the pieces that attract you most, that suit you, or simply those that chance has placed at your fingertips. If you want to collect stereotypes, go ahead, but if there’s one thing that has that diasporization, it’s that, apart from its pile of losses, it offers you a few tiny but important gains, including the possibility of throwing away our clichés and their bipolar burdens. Having to choose between Havana or Miami, Homeland or Death, and all those extremes from which both one’s own blood and that of others is continually demanded and offered.
In that year 1991, when I left Cuba, you could look at The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, by Oscar Hijuelos, or at Perfect Lovers, by Félix González-Torres. They were two very different paths and I chose Felix’s, even though Our House at the End of the World, by Hijuelos, also interested me at that time. Perhaps art saved me, as far as possible, from stereotypes, and gave me an adventure that as a “career” writer I would never have had. In any case, whoever is free of clichés should cast the first stone. When I hear the word “stereotype” I usually think of San Nicolás del Peladero, a series that I watched with my grandmother and that we didn’t miss for anything in the world. And I remember that in that town, San Nicolás del Peladero, there was everything: a police station, an intellectual, a newspaper, a mayor, a butler, a store… But there was no museum.
Assuming the diaspora also implies, as you comment in another passage of the book, “leaving the home in the open, from the island to the world, from the village to the wide sea”. In another vein, one of the lines of interpretation of Cubanthropy is concerned with revising the imaginaries of the Cuban – stereotypes, formulas – that fellow travellers and mechanisms of mainstream legitimation have set up and then legitimised as cultural merchandise. “In this global era that has put a couple of maracas in the hands of all of us who come from that island,” what have been the difficulties of transmission, the misunderstandings in translation that your work has had to deal with? How have you managed to insert yourself, without yielding to those expectations of a duty to be of the Cuban product, in the European cultural circuits? Isn’t the prestige that your work has achieved in these areas proof that, beyond the groups of power that order and normalize transmission, there are still cultural oases that resist the temptation of stereotypes?
I don’t think that my “Cuban” work has been more difficult to fit in than the “non-Cuban” one, as far as it is possible to compartmentalize this. Being Cuban, in fact, has been less of a problem for me compared to other messes I’ve gotten into. It’s more complicated to try a trajectory inside the trial when you’re outside the academy. Or publishing in the media refusing to assume the tics of cultural journalism. Or persisting as an essayist who makes exhibitions and not as a professional curator. Or having, even if it’s minimal, your own voice in the cultural problems of your host city or country.
Nor will I deny you the schizophrenia that comes from having two lives that sometimes don’t meet. An example is the same reason for this interview, which is Cubanthropy. If you look, this is my only book, so to speak, centrally Cuban. Neither The Perpetual Raft, nor The Map of Salt, nor Postcapital, nor Blow Up Communist, nor Theory of the Rearguard were. On the other hand, with the type of essay I write, or the expositions that come to mind, it’s not that one can have too high a expectation of success. In this area, you can arrive very young at the Suhrkamp essay collection in Frankfurt, or design and found an image centre in Barcelona, and you can give it the prestige you want, but your living conditions don’t change substantially. We live in ultra-capitalism, its most perfect form of success is called money and my skills in that area are very limited.
However, I do believe that I have succeeded in something. And that is in the fact that I consider myself, after all these years, the main responsible for my successes and the main culprit of my failures. Not Fidel Castro, not capitalism, not communism, not the more or less heavy backpack I might carry.
In “Extremo Mariel”, a 1998 essay, you try to decipher the place of the Mariel group – “that unclassifiable shore”- within Cuban culture, and you maintain that this group -and also the exodus, understood as a much broader socio-cultural phenomenon- produces a first crack in those discourse matrices that had marked the confrontation between the Cuban State and the traditional exile. In a much more recent text, “The Theory of Reggaeton”, you tell us that the simultaneousness of this music has come, at a certain level, to demolish the bipolarity of a Cuba from within and a Cuba from outside, to blur these borders. How do you value, then, the persistence and the media re-arrangement of this discourse of opposites – I am thinking of influencers like Otaola or the aideological impudence of certain new propaganda of the Cuban State?
When I left Cuba, the first thing I did was get interested in people who had lived in exile before me and could offer me clues to that diaspora that I was beginning to sense at the time. I had and have friends from the 1980s who came out at that time, but I didn’t think it was healthy to stay in that ghetto, ruminating on “what they did to us” or “what we were going to do now” or “what we could never do now”. Much less continue to brandish a national-occupational curriculum that no one was interested in or fit anywhere. So, in Cuban terms, I broadened my horizon as soon as I could, starting from scratch at that particular school. Within that learning, one chapter was the Mariel group, to which I owe many things and to some of whose members I was able to edit or exhibit for the first time in Spain.
This was no different than publishing or exposing Svetlana Aleksiévich or Boris Mikhailov for the first time. Or working with other non-Cuban artists or writers who were doing work with which I could identify. From Daniel G. Andújar, Javier Codesal, Joan Fontcuberta or Noh Suntag to Rita Indiana, Dani and Geo Fuchs, Guillem Nadal, Verónica Gerber Bicecci or Valérie Mréjen. This is in spite of the fact that Spain does not usually reward anticipation or “good aim”, and where those who have the power to take on ex-primary authors or artists can be ruthlessly exploited by those who have been clamouring for them in the desert for some time. But well, these are tolls of a trade in which, fortunately, the next day you continue to discover people, works, things that make life interesting.
Let’s go back to the Cuban issue, and to that journey that zigzags between the binary and the simultaneous. For decades, bipolarity was the fire mark of Cuban culture, firstly because of a very precise government imposition. The island and the exile lived with their backs turned, not only at the level of politics, but also of a culture that endorsed it. It was not until the 1990s that this barrier began to break down, with a long list of projects in which the participation of creators from all sides as indissoluble parts of Cuban culture became a condition sine qua non. In that decade, the most powerful projects did not take place in Havana or Miami; and this is a fact, not an interpretation, that proves the branching out of that bipolarity.
At the beginning of the 21st century, when I started going to Cuba, I discovered that (at least in the second decade) it was an almost ubiquitous experience. Suddenly, I found people who had returned to the country, another who was taking advantage of the new migratory measures to get a career in Europe or the United States, many acting as mules from Ecuador to Russia. In general, I encountered people who had an experience of the world that previous generations had not had. And all of this with an Internet connection (however expensive or precarious).
That there is a return to harsh speeches? Obviously. Why? I can think of several reasons. Because we are always going to retort against America and this is what marks the Trump line, as the other thing was what marked the Obama line. Because history is circular and cycles come back. Out of weariness with a government that dilates and dilates the changes. Because the debates on culture have shifted to the networks, which have become a pitched battle where the one who shouts the most is rewarded. Because globalisation is failing and our ideas of what capitalism and democracy are are once again focused on Miami (and by extension the United States). And also because the political discourse is very poor and that precariousness favors everything basic, patriotic and demagogic that reaffirms Cuban populism. It is quite hallucinatory to see people to whom you suppose a certain cultural modernity that, as soon as it is put into political mode, begins to speak to you in the name of “the people,” of “the freedom of Cuba,” of “the homeland,” with the worst overreaction of the times when the future belonged “entirely to socialism.
And even more curious is to see how the reformist officialdom renounces anything similar to the Battle of Ideas or to talk about a political model or ideology. It is clear that it is committed to the same policy of entertainment, which does not need to be debated or contradicted.
But there is one novelty. And that is that if in the sixties of the last century the discourse of the Revolution successfully took advantage of pop, television, or photography until it formed what I call an iconocracy, something that gave it a symbolic credit of half a century, as far as the use of the networks is concerned the officialism is losing the battle today, using new media for very old discourses.
That’s where you find top leaders of the official culture debating with Otaola, when a few decades ago they were debating with Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Jesús Díaz or Rafael Rojas. I am neither an expert nor a follower of this influence, but I sense that its success lies in having offered the hard-liners of exile a formal vehicle that they almost always lacked. A connection with young people outside and inside the island. That’s why, although he points rhetorically to polarity, in the end he uses the audience that can only offer him that simultaneity that unifies, in a similar experience, the new Cuban generations in Havana, Holguin, Miami or anywhere else in Europe or Latin America. Besides, it also shows that from the classrooms of the socialist dogma, which has taken such pains to reward uncritical applause, people from the right also come out. Not from Harvard or Oxford or the Complutense, but from the same schools, the same uniforms and the same repetition every morning that “we will be like Che”.
In any case, the click, the like or the hook headlines that build the canon based on Internet traffic have managed to impoverish democracy in the countries that have it. So I don’t think they’ll be able to bring it to those who don’t have it.
In tune with this, and as far as your generation and those that follow it are concerned, we could think that this sustained diaspora of Cuban culture (this escape from a damaged life that you proposed as a solution to a limited idea of what is Cuban) has gradually cracked the uniform wall that defines the discourse of Cuban nationalism, or it seems to you, on the contrary, that many of the discussions that arise today in the Cuban cultural field are still delimited by this rhetorical and ideological matrix. I think, for example, of how many of the texts that dealt with both the controversy over the censorship of the documentary Sueños al pairo and the controversy over the imprisonment of artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara were incapable of going beyond these frameworks of interpretation, these clichés of the national that power has been embedding for decades. Is there not a Castro koine of which many of our intellectuals -regardless of the ideological position they defend- do not finish getting rid, or does it seem to you that some kind of overcoming of those regimes of discourse has been achieved?Well, we mentioned that the story is not entirely linear. It also moves in circles, and in one of those repressive circles Mike Porcel and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara have ended up meeting. As may have been found Reinaldo Arenas, Néstor Díaz de Villegas, María Elena Cruz Varela, Raúl Rivero and a list that, moreover, includes people close to the government or who feel socialist or revolutionary. We have always called that in Cuba the “meat grinder” and there are few families who have not contributed their little piece or chunk to the mince.
Having said that, I find not only the coincidences but also the differences between Porcel and Otero Alcántara remarkable. Both are united by the same abusive rope, but their responses and those of their surroundings were different, and that speaks somewhat in favor of the present. In Porcel, the silence that prevailed over his art and his person, and also that which was assumed by almost all his colleagues, took precedence. On the other hand, both Alcántara and those who demonstrated in his favour decided to speak from the first minute. In Porcel there was a slow annihilation that began by taking him out of art and ended forty years later when Sueños al pairo did him justice. Otero Alcántara, on the other hand, begins directly with the immediate justice of the letters, articles, solidarity, lawyers or manifestos, passing through a network of group and individual commitments. Or from personalities who gave him public support or moved silently to get him out of prison. In some way, Sueños al pairo functioned as an agitator in the rejection of the imprisonment of Otero Alcántara, perhaps because it put before previous generations a horror that could not be repeated.
The way in which, in each case, a political dilemma is connected to the artist’s particular work is also different. After Sueños al pairo, there is no Mike Porcel concert or album that capitalizes on his tragedy. After prison (which he had already been through on other occasions, by the way), Otero Alcántara tries to put the flag up for auction, he has a presence on the networks, and dossiers are distributed that support his artistic worth. This is a demonstration of the dissolution of the frontiers between individual career and social criticism, so typical of artivism. In the “Porcel case” there is a defeat for art in the face of analogical repression. In the “Alcántara case” you find out everything in real time, with the use of the Internet, and I consider it a victory. In fact, I have the impression that not enough emphasis has been placed on what was achieved, and what it meant as a punctual but significant triumph of culture over political power.
There is in your poetics, as confirmed by Cubanthropy, a taking of position by images. Images that can summarize the attitude of the progressive intellectuals of the West towards the Cuban Revolution -Che Guevara putting the match on Sartre-, that can explain the drift of a generation -the old men of the Revolution drinking alcohol of dubious origin in a Havana bar of bad luck, that can capture the sense of filial love -the Loquito playing his tricks on the passages of the Condal city-… There is also a vindication of the essay writing -or at least one of the central lines of this tradition-, of its subversive character, against those that Saer calls “happy practitioners of non-fiction”. How do you understand within this panorama the specificity of your writing and your commitment to the essay? Where, moreover, do you situate your poetics in relation to the tradition of Cuban essay writing and literature (I think, for example, when I read you the Benitez Rojo, which, with the image of the old black women waving in the middle of the Missile Crisis, could conjure up a state of affairs)?
If my memory serves me correctly, on the same day that O.J. Simpson went on the run, Benitez Rojo and I had met at a hotel bar in Miami. This was in 1994 and the event we were to participate in wasn’t due to start until the next day, so we stayed up watching TV and downloading one Glenfiddich after another with Simpson catalyzing the encounter. There began an intense friendship, in which I always felt like an apprentice and in which he always rejected the role of master. He was one of the few great Cuban intellectuals who treated younger people as equals. After that we met in Barcelona, Madrid, the Canary Islands. I was able to publish in Cassiopeia an extended version of La isla que se repite (with the luxury of José Bedia’s illustrations, which he loaned out without charging a peso), to take him to the presentation of a young Roberto Carcassés at the Jamboree, Barcelona’s best-known jazz club, to share projects such as Islas. The Island Feeling or Cuba Siglo XX, of visiting Manuel Díaz Martínez together for a lunch that I will not forget, and of talking for hours on end, as his curiosity always remained intact.
Benítez Rojo had to start from scratch at the age of fifty and didn’t lose a second in leaning back to his literary curriculum prior to his exile in the United States (and that he could do it). What’s more, he became a late essayist, and by mixing his intuition and research skills with rich prose, he carved out a niche for himself in American academia without this diminishing his style. I have the impression that he did not waste time on rancor, and I am not referring only to the rancor of the State. So, as you say, Benitez Rojo is a conscious and visible influence that I carry with pride. There are also others that are more or less evident, ranging from Lamar Schweyer (a bit outlandish and who was pointed out to me by Fernández Retamar) to Moreno Fraginals (who is one of the great Cuban essayists of all time and who is sometimes left cloistered in historiography). Or Lydia Cabrera, about whom not enough has been said about her way of constructing essayist narratives, or essays that are fables, just as Montaigne did. Or Edmundo Desnoes, with his pioneering approach to photography or the art of Wifredo Lam. Or Paul Lafargue, to whom I return continually, sometimes for his writings and other times for his biography. Or my own caricaturist father.
These influences work for me when I use them in my “non-Cuban” work. In the same way that I make Cuban other supposedly foreign sources: Miguel Morey or Eliot Weinberger, the visual writing of Verónica Gerber Bicecci or the photographic fictions of Joan Fontcuberta, the crosses with the art of Aldous Huxley and Marc Saporta, my later discoveries of Damián Tabarovsky, Eloy Fernández Porta, Gonzalo Maier or María Moreno.
My idea of the essay is formal, rhythmic, closer to energy than to theory. I always try to make the reader travel with me and accompany my own mental process. Jibarizing the text and moving it away, as far as I can, from that non-fiction that is killing the essay. And also avoiding the temptation to use it to justify my misfortune or my success. In my library I have a postcard that says: “I am an Alternative because I have no other alternative”. And I feel more or less like that. Without the slightest interest in giving it random theoretical coverage in the life that has touched me.
Gore Vidal said that the essay would be the literary genre of the 21st century, because everything else could be done better from other media than writing. So I like to think that, when I write, I connect to a language of the future. Vidal may have been wrong in his sentence, but you water it down, which is good for us.