Monsters and amputees in Cuban literature today. A conversation with Nancy Calomarde

Author of a book on one of the great Latin American magazines, Políticas y ficciones en Sur (2004), Nancy Calomarde, essayist and professor at the National University of Cordoba, together with Argentinean researcher Graciela Salto, put together a shrewd volume on current Cuban literature. To talk in extenso about Devenir/Escribir Cuba en el siglo XXI: (post)poéticas del archivo insular (Katatay, 2019), I send her some questions via email. Cuba, the canon, Angola, trash as a concept, the archive, would be some of the keys to our hypertext. A hypertext that could begin with those letters Piñera sent to Rodríguez Feo from Buenos Aires and end here, among of the authors and themes that run through the book.

Devenir/Escribir Cuba en el siglo XXI ends precisely with an essay by Ineke Phaf-Rheinberger on the Angolan war, what does this war say to Cuban literature today; what traumas, what zones, what gaps does it reveal?

It seems to me that this text has the quality of questioning a little-studied area in which two traditions meet, in this case the Cuban and the Angolan, not only around a singular war but also about the meanings of Cuban “collaboration.” Moreover, the work does not limit itself to questioning it from a single perspective, but rather highlights the crossed presence of diverse cultural imaginaries processing a common experience. I believe this event continues to question Cuban literature because it shows the limitations of the process of “internationalization” (transnationalization) in which the revolution was projected between 1975 and 1991. It is worth remembering, by the way, that if in the early sixties the nationalist paradigm modulated the idea of revolution, just a couple of years later that model was redefined on the basis of a transnationalized perspective typical of the new socialist orientation. That orientation will have enormous implications in the island’s policies, and very especially, in the policies related to culture. I believe that in Cuban culture the question still resonates about the meanings of that collaboration and to what extent that event made it possible to connect the domestic and foreign policies of the revolutionary program with the consequences of the fall of the Soviet regime for the country.

Cover of ‘Devenir/escribir Cuba en el siglo XXI’, compilation by Nancy Calomarde and Graciela Salto (Katatay, Buenos Aires, 2021).

On the other hand, I believe that this work provides a valuable reflection on the modes of construction of corpus (or series) within Cuban literature (and its dialogues). In this case, we observe how criticism exhibits fictional dialogues around a fairly close event, perceived as the presence/absence of a trauma or tear. In the search for that interrogation, the work contributes a singular dialogic body constructed with six stories (Cuban and Angolan). In addition, in my opinion, two fundamental issues are interwoven in this corpus. On the one hand, the question about the presence of Africa in Latin American (and Cuban, in particular) literature and, secondly, the experience of a war fought in another peripheral region under the context of the struggles for decolonization: both read from an ironic, anti-heroic perspective that interrogates the dark drifts, the war and its traumas (personal, family, social) in impoverished regions crossed by different forms of colonialism. The meaninglessness of loss in a distant war and the territorial distance with its consequences on the collective level raise the question about the value of certain political practices. On the other hand, I find very interesting the author’s remark about the scarce presence of wars in Latin American literatures, because it invites to new reversions and studies.

Returning to the axis of your question, I believe that this war still challenges current Cuban literature, to the extent that it has not ceased to reproduce monsters and amputees in the collective memory and whose voices resonate in very contemporary texts. I believe that criticism can help to make those whispers visible. On the other hand, I also believe that, in the context of contemporary Cuban literature, beyond the works of Norberto Fuentes, Ángel Santiesteban and Karla Suárez (and the Angolans) whose texts are studied here, something of that scriptural memory as an inscription of bodies and affects in the trauma (historical, social, individual) is very present. That is why studies such as those of Ineke Phaf-Rheinberger are so productive in that they point out the ways in which the African body and the memory of the ruins of the Angolan war still speak to Cuban literature.

Cuban culture, the introduction confesses, “has been operating as a metapolitics and a metaliterature.” Could you elaborate more on this? Where do these two “meta” that the quote proposes coincide and where do they separate?

Cuban literature in recent years, as you well know, has been exhibiting its production machine, its procedures and, above all, the meanings of writing. That literary meta-reflection can be traced from the fictions and poems of the main referents of the Diaspora(s) group —in addition to part of your work, that of Rolando Sánchez Mejías, Ricardo Alberto Pérez, Pedro Marqués de Armas, Rogelio Saunders, José Manuel Prieto, Radamés Molina and Ismael González Castañer— to “Un arte de hacer ruinas,” by Antonio José Ponte, and from the writing of Virgilio Piñera to the work of many narrators of the so-called “Generation Zero” (such as Ahmel Echeverría or Jorge E. Lage), who marked what Enrique Saínz called “the shudder in Cuban literature.” I would designate that shuddering as an operation of focused deconstruction of the literary procedures as semiotic mechanism that exhibits its internal parts and is capable of reproducing, deepening or questioning the established meanings. This space of aesthetic and ethical responsibility in the face of its praxis enables the inquiry into the devices of rhetorical production and self-questioning. That space also leads to question the cubensis canon, to rewrite the ways —in whose autophagic plot those same texts are inscribed— in which the literary tradition is organized around certain ideological patterns and certain political conjunctures. This attitude of reevaluating the literary archive and questioning the mechanisms of production of Cuban literature is what I call metaliterary function, assuming it as a device that has deepened and expanded in the last decade, although it is already present in texts such as Los siervos by Piñera or El libro perdido de los origenistas by Ponte.

In this line, the metaliterary function necessarily questions the modes of production of power and meaning in Cuban society, that is to say, it exhibits its metapolitical key. There they meet, although they project divergent readings. In that place, the writings expose that open question to the grammars of political power and literature as a system of contiguities (complicities) and the unresolved tensions between autonomy and heteronomy in Cuban literature. The questioning of the languages and devices of totalitarian systems, the complex place of art in societies like Cuba’s where the possibility of an artistic field independent of the State is hardly possible, the tourist commodification of society and its pauperization have configured a mark of Cuban writing. The series could be traced from Jorge Ángel Pérez’s En La Habana no son tan elegantes (2010) to Ena Lucía Portela’s Cien botellas en una pared (2002), or from Virgilio Piñera’s Cuentos fríos (1954) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Tres tristes tigres (1954) to Abilio Estevez’s Tuyo es el reino (1998). Even the metaphorical reading of El Destierro de Calibán (1996) by Iván de la Nuez, in the key of physical, affective and literary deterritorialization has worked in many fictions. The essayist then claimed to return to geography in search of other paradigms to narrate when teleology has hijacked the spatial imagination. As we can see, in these few examples, economic, urban, sanitary or cultural policies are picked up in literature as rhetorics that question the knowledge/doing and the power/doing of literature. This metaliterary and meta-political gesture— that had grown weary of the critical gesture to “politics” —looks for new languages and metaphors.

Nancy Calomarde

One of the writers the book pays particular attention is Antonio José Ponte, whose dossier and interview are included. Do you think there are points of contact between Ponte’s writing and some of the authors covered in the anthology? Which Ponte is the one we find here?

The centrality of Ponte in this volume is undeniable. It is also undeniable the early dialogue that many Argentine scholars have maintained with his work. Already in 2005, when Ponte was still living in Havana, we were reading him mainly in his Argentine editions. His ghostly voice (which resonated in every congress), finally, in 2018, became a presence. What does Ponte’s imaginary propose for an Argentine reader? Perhaps a form of the closeness to a certain Borgean tone of his prose, bare, rigorous (traces perhaps of his engineering intelligence), especially in his short stories. Perhaps also his loving erudition, that writing and conversational quality that allows him to establish dialogues with diverse traditions and to read in his literature juxtaposed strata of micro-stories that send us back to distant texts, to remote cities, to forgotten characters from the proximity of an omnivorous reader who writes as if he were reading. Thirdly, I would say that his literature also promotes a particular crossover between orality and writing and a very powerful generic interplay and crossbreeding, and both configure a singular fictional device that resonates with the Argentine reader (from Esteban Echeverría’s El matadero to Arlt’s stories and those of César Aira) in a plot that goes from the fictionalized essay to the short story in essayistic key, from the nouvelle to nonfiction, or from the novel to the chronicle.

Regarding your question about his presence in the Cuban writers most studied in the volume, I think he is extremely visible, especially from the devices I referred to in the previous question and whose matrix could be in La fiesta vigilada, Un arte de hacer ruinas and El libro perdido de los origenistas. Of course, the dialogue with Severo Sarduy, Virgilio Piñera and Cabrera Infante can also be traced through another reading approach.

Nancy Calomarde and Antonio José Ponte

After Piñera, Sarduy, Cabrera Infante, Iván de la Nuez or Jorge Enrique Lage, just to name a few of those who resonate the most in the anthology, how would you define contemporary Cuban literature? Is there any similarity with what Argentina “narrates” today?

I think Cuban literature invites to be thought in its aesthetic and ideological heterogeneity and its multiplicity of genealogies in which it retries itself. Also in the heterogeneity of the territorial fictions within which writing is staged, without failing to consider the divergent operations that raise the literary practices produced from inside and outside the island. This expansiveness is linked, not only to the extremely diverse conditions of production, but especially to the dialoguing bodies (and stories) that are exhibited and that process (aesthetic) forms of missed encounter in a hypothetical “Cubanness.” If I could point out some elements that connect them, I would say, first of all, that they are constituted as literary experiences crossed by the tension between autonomy and heteronomy as a structural problem that brings together the “inside” and “outside” (of the island, of Latin America, of literature). This tension is knotted in the recurrence to those procedures that I pointed out linked as performative and performativized gesture of “the literary” and as deconstructive gesture of the artifice of power to question the relations between discourses and the ordering of bodies in the territories in common. There is also a turn towards the singularity of aesthetic quests, the weariness of the teleologies and the myths of the national and transnational canon and the diversity of experiences of uprooting, delocalization and deindividuation. “Cuban” writing becomes a space for other forms of reterritorialization of the living experience and its archives.

Regarding your question as to whether I find similarities or areas of closeness between Cuban literature and current Argentine literature, I think it would give rise to a new conversation, since addressing it in these few lines would run the risk of simplifying an area of contact overpopulated with rugosities, deviations and encounters. I will limit myself to point out only a few texts and authors linked to problems that I have been studying in recent times and where I find possible dialogues based on three main territories of narrative fiction: 1) writings where the question linked to the forms of unspecificity of the notions of life and art (of world and in/world) dwells, as in Kentukis (2018) by Samanta Schweblin or in Dioses de neón (2006) by Michel Encinosa Fú; 2) writings that narrate the forms of inscription of subjectivities in anomalous territories that defy the predetermined geocultural orders. There, one could bring together Búfalos camino al matadero (2012) by Ahmel Echevarría with La piel (2015) by Juan Terranova or Cataratas (2015) by Hernán Vanoli and Mi novia preferida fue un bulldog francés (2017) by Legna Rodríguez Iglesias with Fuera de lugar (2016) by Martín Kohan; and 3) The forms of the archive/fiction in Gabriela Cabezón Cámara through Las aventuras de la China Iron together with Archivo by Jorge Enrique Lage or El vampiro argentino (2011) by Juan Terranova. These series in no sense pretend some form of exhaustiveness, rather they would point out resonances and dislocated familiarities that allow connecting other Cuban-Argentine series.

From Piñera in Buenos Aires to Cortázar, Martínez Estrada or Samoilovich with his complete collection of Diario de poesía en La Habana (in the rooftop of Reina María Rodríguez precisely), the intellectual exchange between Argentina and Cuba has been constant, where does Devenir/Escribir stand in relation to this flow of archives; can Cuban literature be read as a Trash-Nation device?

Devenir/Escribir aspires to be part of that archive of Cuban-Argentine dialogues you mentioned. As one of the editors of this volume, I think of Cuban literature from that somewhat ambiguous space of proximity and remoteness that for an Argentine reader configures Cuban writing. That imaginary is woven in fiction, in misunderstanding and in a loving community of reading desire, often marked by the asymmetry of material possibilities and contacts, that is, marked by its “oblique” character. Beyond that feature, the survival of the link between both traditions is clear enough to be found in academic curricula, on the shelves of Argentine and Cuban bookstores, in university graffiti or in the Argentine popular songbook.

You point out Piñera, Cortázar, Martínez Estrada or Samoilovich as some of the unavoidable names of the dialogic genealogy. We could add so many… For example, José Rodríguez Feo, Eduardo Mallea, Tamara Kamenszain, Néstor Perlongher or Gombrowicz himself (as an “Argentinian” writer) in this weaving of voices. The baroque —so distant from the Borgesian paradigm of fiction—, the essay of national interpretation of the forties and fifties, the conversational poetry of the sixties and seventies, the neo-baroque of the eighties and nineties, and the postautonomous fiction or reality/fiction (Ludmer, 2010) of many writings of the present are spaces of attempted dialogue between both literatures. The notion of “transfiction” that you build to think about Cuban writings can be inscribed in these forms of dialogue.

Finally, poetry, short fiction and essays have been the most fertile grounds for those dialogues. I believe that there is still much to unarchive, exhume and endow with voices those conversations that have been shaping us for decades. In this sense, we aspire that the book is configured as that Trash-Nation space you mentioned, perhaps also trash-literary, insofar as it questions the mechanisms of power construction of literature and its own semiotic devices. A copulative trash that brings us together in another Cuban-Argentine conversation.

Carlos A. Aguilera (Havana, 1970). Writer. In 1995 he won the David Poetry Prize, in Havana, in 2007 the ICORN Scholarship of the Frankfurt Book Fair, and in 2015 the Cintas in Miami. His latest published books are: Umberto Peña. Bocas, dientes, cepillos, restos (monograph, 2020), Teoría de la transficción (anthology, 2020), Archivo y terror. Operaciones entre literatura, política, teatro y arte (essay, 2019), Luis Cruz Azaceta. No exit (monograph, 2016) and Matadero seis (nouvelle, 2016). He co-directed the magazine Diáspora(s) between 1997 and 2002. He coordinates the FluXus collection at Rialta. He lives in Prague.


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