Literary Culture in Cuba – interview with Dr Par Kumaraswami

Dr Par Kumaraswami and Prof. Antoni Kapcia's recent book ‘Literary Culture in Cuba: Revolution, nation-building and the book' draws on interviews with over 100 Cuban writers and editors and have concluded that now Cubans enjoy one of the richest and most deeply embedded literary cultures in the world. How has this happened? Trish Meehan caught up with Dr Kumaraswami on her return from the recent Havana International Book Fair.

What role did the Literacy Campaign play in the development of Cuba's literary culture?The Literacy Campaign, along with the subsequent educational campaigns, was undoubtedly the most significant event for Cuba's literary culture: not only did it almost eliminate illiteracy, but it also enacted the policy aims described by Fidel in the 1961 speech – people on both sides of the gender, race and class divide realised through participating in the campaign that literature was now the right of all. That sense of entitlement to writing or reading literature was absolutely vital.

You also stress the role of the Havana International Book Fair, now a massive public annual event which moves across the island through February and March – what are its main successes?The book fair existed in some form before 1959, but took on a regular and international dimension in the early 1980s. However, the most significant change in its organisation and aims occurred in 2000 and a period of massive expansion followed. At the height of this expansion (as part of the educational and cultural reinvigoration of the Battle of Ideas), it attracted 5 million visitors and sold 5 million books across the 39 municipalities that it visited across the island. It has had to downscale as part of economic reforms introduced under Raúl Castro, but its main successes still lie in the way it brings together everybody involved in the world of the book – from eminent writers to readers and the general public – to share the same space. The writers gain prestige from seeing that there is a public – and the public gains prestige by attending an event frequented by writers. You often see families and groups of teenagers enjoying a day out at the book fair – in fact, the atmosphere and the demographics that attend are more akin to a Saturday afternoon at one of the UK's mega shopping centres than a book festival.

What has been the role of the writing workshops movement?The national network of writing workshops was most influential in the 1970s and 1980s (aiming to make writing accessible to all). They still exist, but often along more informal lines where established writers set up regular sessions in cultural centres or even their own home. Our feeling is that they are still much more important outside of Havana, which is something of a hothouse of literary activity. Many writers who grew up in the provinces stressed that the workshops became – and still are – a way of compensating for not belonging to, or being familiar with, the Havana literary circuit.

You refer to a strong tradition of openness within Cuban literary culture. What is the truth about censorship in literature?My own position is that yes, there have been periods where writers have been marginalised through not being published – often under the remit of ‘defending' Cuba and the Revolution from external threats. The whole question of that siege mentality and its impact has been thoroughly debated in Cuba, and it remains a complex question and a source of some national shame. However, it is also worth mentioning that one outside vision that frequently emerges is that all of Cuban literary production has been subjected, from 1959 to the present day, to government-led censorship. In this book, we prefer to argue a more complex case by looking at the range of decisions – economic, aesthetic, political, social – that inform the decision to publish one book over another, and we think it's important to look at those decisions in context. After all, every society has norms of what is acceptable or not.

How have the last 20 years since the early years of the Special Period affected opportunities for writers and potential writers to learn their craft, get published and reach audiences?Other than the more obvious consequences of the Special Period – the virtual paralysis of the publishing industry for several years, leading to what is known as the ‘colchón', ‘mattress', of piled-up unpublished manuscripts – the economic crisis was clearly a huge disincentive to aspiring writers. However, our conversations with writers, editors and cultural promoters also revealed that local activity continued as best it could from the mid-1990s on, in the form of handcrafted books, informal workshops led by central figures, mentoring between individuals, etc. In terms of reading and readers, the effect was damaging, mostly due to demands on time and resources, with many being obliged to sell their book collections to generate income. However, what is striking is that policymakers, researchers and key figures in literary culture were acutely aware of this, and, from the mid-1990s onwards, sought modest solutions. By the early 2000s, there were a whole host of reading programmes for different sectors of society and publishing had been decentralised to respond to local needs and problems of distribution; and then, the mid-2000s saw a massive expansion of not only the Book Fair but also other reading events and initiatives designed to incentivise and socialise reading once again.

Why have so few books by Cuban authors been available to international audiences? This is a complicated question. First is the question of economic prioritisation which means that a heavily-subsidised publishing industry which had flourished from 1959-89 largely ground to a halt with the economic crisis of the 1990s, and has never really recovered. The inability for economic reasons to even meet the demands of the Cuban reading public is one of many concerns debated at the book fair. Print runs for fiction and non-fiction can be between 200 for specialist texts and 3000 for Leonardo Padura Fuentes' or Daniel Chavarría's latest ‘bestseller'. In terms of the normal mechanisms by which literature is translated and prompted internationally (critical attention from foreign academics and translators), the vast majority of literary texts published on the island simply never leave its shores. What does convert into translated editions is often the result of chance, or agreements made between foreign publishing companies and individual writers – and, in some of these cases, market demands mean that only a certain kind of vision of Cuba – sexy, sordid, exotic or erotic – is considered marketable abroad. Of course there are exceptions, but it would be reasonable to say that there is not a great deal of overlap between different ‘canons' of Cuban literature on and off the island. There are indications that the Cuban publishing industry is becoming more responsive to promoting Cuban writers abroad and establishing foreign agreements, but for now, writers who are successful abroad, such as Padura Fuentes, are a huge exception.

What are the most recent developments and changes for writers in Cuba?The current economic reforms are affecting literary culture as every other area of activity, and there are many debates about the need to preserve and protect cultural activity from decisions which are based on efficiency or economic imperatives. This is precisely because Cuban cultural commentators, including prominent policymakers, recognise the complex social functions of culture, including literature, and aren't prepared to subject these to market mechanisms. On the other hand, there are indications that the efficiencies demanded by the new process will also lead to more effective marketing strategies, which can only benefit writers and readers. As always with Cuba, it's a complex situation with no easy answers.

This interview appeared in CubaSi magazine Summer 2013

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