Exiled in Barcelona: an interview with Cuban poet and novelist Rolando SÁnchez MejÍas


The founder of magazine Diasporas talks about censorship in Cuba and the reasons of his exile

1. The fact that you don’t live in Cuba, but instead in Barcelona, has that changed your way of writing?
It’s funny: I’m the same, and however, something in me has changed. I write in more or less the same way.  My motives for writing are still hardly two or three. However, writing in Cuba, in a totalitarian system, makes your writing move within certain limits, and I’m not talking about censorship. In Cuba, a realist tradition of literature has always prevailed, and that’s why the majority of Cuban writers found themselves faced with a problem that had no solution. How can one be a «realist» writer in a totalitarian state? It’s an utter contradiction. My problem was not censorship, except in the case of certain articles or personal gestures that I was forced to adopt, even due to «metaphysical» reasons, because, ultimately, I believe that in a totalitarian system, nothing remains untouched. What is perhaps at stake is precisely the entire dimension of reality, a thing tht the European defenders of the Cuban status quo, don’t understand, because they only focus their eagle-like vision –because in order to look at Cuba from Europe one has to have true eagle vision– on one or two or three aspects of reality. And experience is only transmissible when it is lived for a long time, when your nature belongs to the evolution of such a system. I was born precisely in 1959, the year the Cuban Revolution triumphed, and I have lived all my life within such a system. I don’t have eagle vision with respect to the system. This has been denied to me by nature. I began to write a bit late in life, around 1984, and curiously at that time, I was going through 6 years of military service, as official in the chemical corps of a regiment. My boss was a colonel who also wrote. He was a realist writer. He wrote about the fight of the «alzados» [insurrectionists](also called the rebels, counterrevolutionaries) in the Cuban mountains of Escambray. One day he showed me his stories, something unthinkable in a military unit of that sort, because it was something like a shock regiment of the General Staff of the Armed Forces. I mean, there was no room for literary «games», harshness and order was what there was. However, that «harsh» man, a man of action that has spent his life wearing a uniform, secretly wrote his realist stories. I don’t know what he saw in me. What is certain is that soon a literary comradeship developed. On the other hand, books were scarce in Havana. I would leave the military unit and head for the library at «Casa de las Américas», and luckily, my first contact with books after some 12 years –I did read as a child, but I was away from literature for many years, due to my studies in chemical engineering– were Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, Maurice Blanchot (yes! There was only one copy of Blanchot’s «L’espace littéraire» in Havana!); later came Lezama Lima, Octavio Paz, Virgilio Piñera, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, and a long and peculiar etcetera. When I was 10, I accidentally came across Sartre’s Les mots, and some stuff by Kafka. I stutter –and still do. So Sartre’s book and his stuttering suited me and, in some way, left their imprint on me.
2. What is your opinion of Spanish society?
It’s too soon to have a very clear view of Spanish society as a whole. Perhaps Spain as such does not exist, and there are only the regions. Cataluña, for instance, although, of course, there are links, historical and cultural connections. In the meantime, I can only speak a bit about Spanish cultural society, or more exactly, of how the literary world functions in Spain, and I find the situation quite unfortunate. On the one hand, what is understood as literature, what is regulated in the name of literature, simply leaves a lot to be desired. Spain lives buried in its own literature, in its own idea of literature, an idea which, on the other hand, is not very clear. It is not even the case that they are close to the best of their literary past, the Golden Age of Spanish poetry, of Cervantes, of Unamuno, the mystics, etc. The market and the development of Spanish society have gradually imposed literary models which are quite limited. One should look at what is happening in fiction, and poetry, and, of course, criticism and essays in general. And, above all, one should see the reaction of Spain vis-à-vis anything foreign. It is difficult for contemporary narrative and poetic models to penetrate Spain, models which could enrich the Spanish ones. Modern American poets are not read, contemporary Brazilian poetry, one of the richest in the world, is unknown, and it’s very difficult for Spain to fully accept models from Latin America, such as the poetry of César Vallejo. In Spain, there is a strong reaction against the contemporary scene, against any avant-garde or innovative spirit. Just yesterday I read an article by the main literary critic of El País, the most important daily in Spain, and he speaks of the necessity to recuperate «the nightingale» in poetry, as a sentimental model, in opposition to other avant-garde models. He speaks as if the avant-garde ad really penetrated Spain, to begin with. And secondly, I don’t know if «the nightingale» that the critic speaks of, could be the same one as the one we have in mind. I don’t think we are talking about the same «nightingale». On the other hand, the cultural dynamic of Spain is quite despicable: the way literary prizes are divided up amongst friends, the lascivious relationship between the print media, writers, critics, magazines and the interests of publishers. Also, the limits of different forms of literature are not very clear: in Spain the territory of the best seller and «serious» literature, for instance, is at times not clearly defined. Perhaps the literary market created that state of confusion in Spain because the Spanish intelligentsia was not sufficiently prepared to serve as a structure for the market. When we speak about the market, it seems at times that we are talking about an abstraction, as if money flowed in the abstract. And money does not flow in that way if the institutional structures of a country manage to maintain a certain autonomy or, at least, a certain identity. In Spain, the academy is not strong, and neither is criticism, and to this we can add the fact that there has always been a strong reaction against philosophy and against thought in general. It’s worth noting the stances adopted by literary critics and of Spanish thinkers, vis-à-vis, for instance, contemporary French philosophy, vis-à-vis French post-structuralists and postmodern thinkers, or vis-à-vis contemporary thought in general, how they have been ridiculed in the name of who-knows-what kind of philosophical common sense, or national philosophical tradition, which is non-existent, or if it exists, it has not fully developed, such as the thought of María Zambrano, for instance, who already, starting in 1940, exerted an influence on Lezama  Lima, and the group of Orígenes magazine in Havana, and who, in Spain, has had a belated influence, or or at least, has only reently been recognized as an important avenue of thought. Having said so, in general, I feel very close to many Spaniards –not necessarily those in the intellectual or cultural milieu–, and I’m not speaking here of philosophy or literature. Spaniards exhibit a certain «irresponsibility» which is similar to that of Cubans. Spaniards are talkative and childlike by nature. The more I know Spain, the better I know Cuba.
3. Does distance make you see the Cuban reality from a different perspective?
In Cuba, I was deeply involved in the experience of that world. I was too «attached», linked to all kinds of processes, whether they be political, literary, or vital, that in the end, merge into a single field in a country like Cuba. On the one hand, I wanted to change a lot of things at once: I was active both in the literary, as well as the political world, I still believed it was possible to change certain basic things, and not seldom did I run into the same insurmountable barrier. I had the idea that it was still possible to revitalize a New Left, both in the social as well as the intellectual field. But I didn’t understand exactly the nature of power in Cuba, the nature of the totalitarian space, something I understood much later. For some time, I coordinated the Literary Workshops at the national level, a structure which was, and still is, very strong in Cuba, perhaps the strongest institutional structure that literature has in Cuba. During that period I tried to make some changes, on e of which was to try and dislocate, separate, the ideological and political structure from the cultural structure, but I realized that the matter was more complex, and that, in the end, these structures were inseparable. I had also rendered negative by minimal reaction, the idea of a possible Cuban literary tradition, because in Cuba, totalitarianism has made of “Cubanness” an ideological enclave, and not a social or cultural value in itself. From a distance, you begin to truly get to know your country and yourself. You are involved, but not in the same way. I had to reaffirm myself with an emphasis on literature as metaphysics, because that is what you can pit against power, if you can’t or you don’t want to be a civic or political poet. Seen from afar, that “metaphysics” softens up, because you don’t need the emphasis as opposition. Now the Cuban tradition appears to me as one among many, one more “literary figure”, among many. I have to fight that “ghost”, but in another way. Another trap is the “exilé” enclave: it’s a trap that one has to be able to avoid , in order not to fall into a similar dynamic.
4. Are you surprised or irritated at the image of Cuba that people have in Europe? Do you feel it’s truncated?
Europe’s image of Cuba is not even truncated or incomplete. It’s worse: it’s a totalizing or symbolic image where what is known about one of its parts, replaces the whole. There’s an entire generation that “drags” behind them their image of Cuba, much in the same way someone would drag behind an old marriage. Those are the ones that still live in the Cuba of the 1960’s , the revolutionary and “romantic” Cuba of the 60’s. For them, time has not elapsed and, of course, they don’t work in the direction of time, because that would destroy their lives. Others hardly know anything about Cuba, they know the music or something similar, and on the basis of that partial element they develop a fatal predisposition for everything Cuban. They are the slaves of folklore. Their vision of politics comes from folklore. Some Europeans have a folkloric vision, part of which includes sex, for instance. I’ll give you an example: literature. In general, the idea of Cuban literature that European publishers promote is one close to folklore, an attitude prevalent in even the most prestigious publishing houses in Spain and France, for instance. Some of them would not allow themselves such games when dealing with other literatures, but they do when it comes to Cuban literature. They find in the public a perverse element which is available. It’s the same case with Cuban cinema: Europeans watch Cuban films and they can come out of it slightly contented with something they can’t understand but whose infantilism they accept. They watch a Cuban film and the scenes send him immediately into a sort of natural “freshness” or political “infantilism”. In Cuba we call this “bobería” (“foolishness”), you might say stupidity. But the word “bobería”  has a wider range when describing this symptom, that of the consumer vis-à-vis this type of folkloric and realist novels, and this type of Cuban movies: they accept “bobería”, the worst sort of excitement. On the other hand, what Europe is doing to Cubans is terrible. I am referring to what Spanish businesspeople do: for instance, they go to Cuba, they open a hotel, they strike a deal with the Cuban government, they pay the workers a ridiculous sum, say 10 dollars a month, and they pay the State directly the salaries of these workers, say 500 dollars. All of that without the right to unionize or protest. Why aren’t Cubans protesting? Because this is their only mode of survival. And Europeans here accept that as something normal. They even present it as something necessary “in the face of Yankee imperialism, the embargo, etc.” Herein lies their hypocrisy, the traditional European hypocrisy: the same hypocrisy of European businesspeople.
5. How would you describe the difference that exists between the space of literary creation in Cuba and Europe –in the case of Spain?
Europe is ruled by the market and by a publishing and cultural tradition related to the magnitude of its institutions, with the “legitimacy” of its literary institutions. The market struggles with this last legitimacy, and out of this friction comes European literature and the literature published in Europe. There has been a “cultural policy” that this organized not only what gets published, but also the rest of the institutions that function around literature, ranging from their literary to their ideological content. Some examples would suffice: In the first place, a certain literary “realism” has been privileged by such cultural policy, in some decades  in a ruthless way, in others in an indirect way. In this last way, through, for instance, the “literary workshops”, a mass movement, that includes every municipality in the country, controlled by the literary and ideological institutions, such as the Communist Party, as well as the eminently repressive ones, such as the Ministry of the Interior. Each member of these literary workshops is controlled by various government officials. So there’s a literary filter, there is control of literature from several angles. In general, those who practice the “realist” genre, which in the end is nothing more than “realist socialism” disguised as a supposedly critical  “realism”, but ultimately, one that is in favor of the political system in general. It is in such a way that the “legitimacy” of literary genres in Cuba has established itself in no way regulated by the market. In Cuba there is a strong “realist” tradition, which has only been broken by writers of the stature of Carpentier, Lezama Lima, Virgilio Piñera, Calver Casey and some others. This is how tradition has been exploited to its maximum by the state, detracting from it, of course, because the great “realist” Cuban writers did not, by any stretch of the imagination, operate in that way: neither Lino Novás Calvo, nor José Martí, nor the rest. This type of mechanism has prevailed in a official way for 40 years, emphasized by the suppression of the influence of writers like Severo Sarduy, Cabrera Infante, Gastón Baquero, and many others eliminated from Cuban publishing policies and erased from the dictionaries of Cuban literature and from the public educational programs. If this had happened for 5 years, perhaps nothing would have happened. But if that had happened in France during more than 40 years, I don’t know what would have happened to French literature and philosophy. I suppose there would have been no philosophers like Foucault, Derrida and Deleuze, or writers like Duras.
6. In Caen you said, “one learns that he has been born and raised in a totalitarian system bit late in life.” You, I believe, led the League of Young Communists and you were also national coordinator for literary writing in the Ministry of Culture. When did you become aware of the “lethal trap” that the system lay for intellectuals? Was there an action that triggered this? How did you begin writing? What authors decisively influenced you?
My break with the Cuban state came through literature, let’s say that that through an awakening of literary conscience, that gave way to politics. My literary inclination for certain, let’s say, “metaphysical” literary styles, for authors such as Blanchot, Borges, Onetti, Cortázar, Musil, etc., did not allow my ideas about politics and reality to remain untouched. If there had been a realist writer, perhaps I would have become a “civic or public poet”, or something similar. But since my realism perhaps was contaminated by a kind of total “exhaustion”, a kind of total “renunciation”, it was difficult to maintain a balance between politics and life. This is the “lethal trap” that I’m talking about, a trap that affects life as much as writing, if you don’t manage to solve it. Already even during my military life, some things began to affect me. But in reality, the change came when I participated directly in politics. During some time I chaired the Cuban “Association of Young Artists and Writers” from which I finally was removed by the League of Young Communists (the organization that controlled such an association). They removed me because I was not in agreement with the “cultural policy” of the new Cuban visual artists. The state wanted to control them and limit their social action, their public action, and I did not support that policy. I was then removed. Two years later, almost all the young visual artists of that generation left the country. Today they live in Europe and the United States. Later, I worked as national coordinator of the Literary Workshops, organized by the Ministry of Culture. I began to publish alternative editions of the work of Octavio Paz and others who were literally banned in the country. On the other hand, I tried to incorporate marginalized writers from other trends called “aestheticist”, to the dynamic of these Workshops, trying to diminish the influence of “official writers”. Here new problems arose. I remember that a cultural newspaper published an interview that a journalist did with me, about the changes that we were effecting and that we were going to effect. All of a sudden, in the Ministry of Culture, alarms went off. The director of the institution were I worked , a kind of viceminister of culture, called me to her office and asked me what I was aiming at with such changes, that those changes were impossible, etc., etc. The situation became critical when I began to sign some open letters asking for the liberation of Cuban political prisoners and when I publicly declared my political views on the reforms to the socialist system. In 1991, I was expelled from the League of Young Communists in a public act and I was removed from my post. In 1993, I created the group Diásporas, as a cultural response to the institutional state of Cuban literature. In 1995, I published an open letter, explaining the mechanisms of physical and literary censorship. Already my situation in Cuba began to be untenable. In 1996, the first issue of the magazine Diáspora came outs, a publication committed to a type of alternative literature. It is the only alternative magazine that was published in Cuba in those years, and I believe that in the literary environment, the only one without any official support. Currently, it is still published in Cuba thanks to the stance and perseverance of the two writers left in Havana, Carlos Alberto Aguilera and Pedro Marqués de Armas. The magazine is prepared by all, but its layout is made in Cuba, where it is also photocopied: only some 100 copies at the most, at times a lot fewer. We don’t get support from any institution, neither government nor religious, nor of any sort. We want to preserve it free from the usual mechanisms, including the usual mechanisms of dissidence. As Deleuze would say, we have wanted to build our own “territory”, a modest one albeit itinerant. Only one brief line of flight in the Cuban literary tradition and of the Cuban cultural milieu.
7. The censorship and difficulties you’ve encountered,  are they the result of your literary work or of your public and outspoken stance in favor of a democratization of the regime?
My literature, in itself, was never censored. Who could be interested in censoring a few “conceptual-metaphysical” poems and short stories, whose meaning, even if they don’t belong to any hermetic tradition, remains erased or veiled? It’s the same with my stories. Even if they had been written in the 1970’s, I don’t think they would have remained unscathed, because it was an era when “metaphysics” and the variants of the “occult”, or “experimentalism” was not well looked upon. Lezama and Virgilio Piñera, one because he was baroque and the other because he was “absurd” and a homosexual, were “forgotten” by Cuban cultural policy. Severo Sarduy, Cabrera Infante and Gastón Baquero, three of our main writers, were banned in Cuba. A figure like Reinaldo Arenas was a kind of “bomb” at the time. Anyway… In reality, my problems started when I wanted to extend my actions to the arena of Cuban culture and politics. It’s paradoxical: I was raised in a socialist style of behavior, where it is assumed that certain personal behavior of yours can be socialized for the good of others.  But with me, this didn’t work. It was also a period, the last years of the 1980’s and the beginning of the 90’s, when the influence of the changes in the East arrived in Cuba, and awakened a “reformist” desire among some young “militants” of cultural and political organizations. It was a confusing period, because we thought the reforms would be supported by some part of the government, and that didn’t happen. The spirit of reform continued for a while, but against the current. We were left a bit in the lurch. The majority of “reformists” were removed from their posts or “bought out”, others went into exile, like the generation of visual artists that had studied in the Cuban art schools and art institutes. Currently the panorama is horrible. Literature is directly controlled by the State Security Agency, by the “official writers” who are militants of the League of Writers and Artists of Cuba and by the cultural policy, this time restricted to a kind of survival.
8. In the Cuban context, how is the lack of freedom of expression felt with respect to the lack of other freedoms? Would all these freedoms constitute an indivisible whole, or would the lack of some be felt more harshly than that of others?
Cuba is an entirely controlled country. The lack of freedom of expression goes hand in hand with the lack of other freedoms, such as freedom of movement, or freedom of political choice. There are new laws that, for example, very severely judge the publication of a literary article in a foreign periodical, or a simple verbal opinion that one may offer in an interview, whenever both things are seen as an attack on Cuba’s “national sovereignty” or to the “security of the state”. The Internet is completely controlled. Cubans don’t have access to the Internet, they cannot even have a fax. Only some Cuban officials, and some writers, artists and scientists have permission to access the Internet. Cubans don’t have a passport, for example. It’s not one more document you can choose. The only ones that can travel freely are some officials and some writers and artists. The rest is controlled by cultural and immigration institutions. The problem is the following: one believes for some time that certain partial reforms can lead to a total reform, and in the course of time one realizes that this is impossible: it is a totalitarian system and this essence has not been fully understood by Europeans, who have not suffered themselves under this type of system. One thinks that acting upon the parts of the system, you are acting directly and totally upon the system. But the totalitarian itself is this impossibility.
9. How was the magazine Diásporas born? What is the editorial project? What is its location in relation to others such as Azoteas and Paideia?
First the Diásporas group was born, from friendship and literary affinity and as “resistance”, logical resistance against the status quo. It was the first time that in Cuba there was a goup of friends with “experimental” interests of that sort. In Cuba, unlike other Latin American countries such as Argentina, for instance, the “avant-garde” was never an element that had to be taken into account. Borges, an Argentine, is the product of the Spanish avant-garde current “ultraísmo”, the Mexican Octavio Paz, comes from French surrealism, but the Cubans Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera had nothing to do with the avant-garde. We also don’t have a tradition of magazines or important groups that came out of the avant-garde processes. Diásporas, all of a sudden, sees that for specific political and literary reasons, it must position itself as an “avant-garde”, in a country where, I repeat, there is no such tradition.
That tradition has even not been very well regarded in Cuba. . This is different in the visual arts, though, where, from the 1980’s on until today, there has been a solid avant-garde movement, enmeshed in the international trends. In Cuba, the literary process has always been some 20 years behind. On the one hand, the Cuban “realist” tradition is weighty, and of course, there is also a considerable political weight. Diásporas is inclined towards the “baroque” and “absurd” aesthetics of Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera; on the other hand, there has been the influence of Borges, Cortázar, Onetti, and of Latin America in general. There has been the influence of international translations from, in this case, Deleuze’s and Derrida’s philosophy, so scorned in Spain, for instance, and unknown in Cuba; of the literature of Robert Walser, Robert Musil, Kafka, Hermann Broch; also the influence of fiction writers and novelists from the 1960’s until today, Thomas Pynchon, Donald Barthelme, Charles Olson, etc; of French writers such as Maurice Blanchot, both in essay as well as in narrative; and of Brazilian poets such as the de Campos brothers. All these influences happening at once, as if literature were one, as if there were no limits, as a Brazilian avant-gardist said, through anthropophagy, through devouring. The Cuban reader has always been “a literary animal”, the remoteness of the island, also the scarcity of books, all that produces a paranoical, all-encompassing stance vis-à-vis culture. Any book that falls on the island is literally devoured, assimilated, reconverted. In the first number of the magazine, I wrote a kind of editorial that said: “Diásporas: una avanzadilla (sin)táctica de guerra. Una vanguarda enfriada durante el proceso” (“Diásporas: a (syn)tactic approach of war. An avant-gardegone cold in the process”). I meant, an avant-garde convinced of its poor timing, of its belatedness, of its historical inappropriateness. The critique that Diásporas makes, includes, not only, the state of things that facilitates a literature wounded in its center, but also the entire tradition of Cuban literature, attempting a new reading. To give a simple example, a critical rereading of Lezama Lima’s baroque distances us from the “lyrical and insularizing baroque” for which Lezama is currently praised by the majority of Cuban poets. Diásporas engages in a re-reading of the poetic system of Lezama, including the articulation of this system to other more fragmented systems, yielding fragments which are more useful for writing.
10. In Caen you also said, “A system is totalitarian when it manages to make even words merge with reality as a supplementary institution. The totalitarian system hates the black spaces. It does not tolerate lines of flight. Everything must acquire the rigor mortis of an ordered reality.” Is this not a widespread process that we find in democratic societies, where industrial circles are very powerful? Is there not also a curtailing of vocabulary and a tacit ban on the “in-depth use of words” to use an expression of yours? Or do you think it’s obscene to compare these two situations?
I think it’s not very productive to compare both situations in that way. That road leads to nowhere. A very simple example: in a market society, no matter how strong the media is and even the market itself, there is always the possibility to “build” an alternative project, even to write from alternative positions. There is always the possibility of a “niche”, of a “construct”. Words, on the other hand, have never been used in depth. There have always been institutions that have reduced the specific weight of words. My experience in these last 3 years in Spain has been that man, any type of man, European or Latin American, whether he comes from the market or the gulags, has an inherent predetermined metaphysics, a certain pain. That’s where a lot of things remain untouched in our nature. The darkness of the human being is the same wherever  you go. The market and the media create the “illusion” of totality, but I have seen in those that surround me, the same pain the same lack of understanding, the same ghosts, the same singularity that is the stuff of literature. The ban on “using words in depth” is very different in a totalitarian context that in a market context. The market also requires alternatives, whether philosophical, literary or musical or of any sort. Its monstrosity is blind. But totalitarianism does exert a properly regulated, conceived and systematic leveling. Westerners that complain about the cultural “relativism” in which they live, as when they turn the TV or log on to the Internet and can virtually possess anything. They complain about the virtuality because they are deeply ignorant about the lack of any sort of virtuality. That is truly petty. As Popper would say, it’s a petty thought.

–tr. Odile Cisneros