The Social Life of Literature in Revolutionary Cuba: Narrative, Identity, and Well-being

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I have tried to find out what percentage of its GDP the Cuban government spends each year on culture and the arts.

One problem is that money for the arts and sports are calculated together. Three percent of what is currently being spent is going to the combined categories. Cultural education is not included in this statistic, meaning education not aimed directly at forming people in the artistic specialties. Neither are the expenses incurred in the administration of cultural events.

Narrative, Identity, and Well-being

The Cuban Revolution considers culture a necessity rather than a luxury, as important to the whole human being as health, education, adequate housing or a decent job. According to data published in , the World Bank proclaims Cuba a world leader in education. It lists the country as having invested nearly 13 percent of its GDP in this sector, in contrast with the United States and Canada , which spend 5. One must inquire into how they are calculated.

It is important to determine what kind of education, not simply whether it is free and covers cradle to adulthood. One must ask if educational opportunities cross class and racial lines, if the schooling of girls and women matches that of boys and men. Do the educational resources available in poor neighborhoods equal those in wealthier enclaves? Are the needs of students with learning difficulties being met?

The 30 best works of Cuban literature

Of interest as well is whether critical thought is encouraged and what avenues for dissent exist. The Cuban Revolution quickly achieved educational equity in terms of class, race, and gender. Special-needs students also receive appropriate educations. Issues of critical thinking and dissent have had their ups and downs; there have been periods of repression as well as an arc that points to increasing freedom of expression.

This extraordinary achievement began with the dazzling literacy campaign carried out by the entire nation in Follow-up programs kept raising standards as well as broadening opportunities. At times it has seemed that the country is one big school. UNESCO also reports that Cuba ranks first among all the Latin American countries in every subject and stresses that a Cuban student has twice the knowledge and skills of the average student in the region.

Inside the country, in the arts all salaries, monetary prizes, subsidies, and the like are paid in Cuban pesos. The Fund for the Development of Culture and Education FONCE , a government institution under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture, is charged with collecting all profits earned in convertible currency by the companies that commercialize cultural products and redistributing those profits to areas that earn little or nothing in that currency: books, arts education, museums, and so forth. It also pays part of the printing bills for its two magazines in that currency.

But the major portion of its printing bills—that which covers paper and ink purchased outside the country—must be paid in CUC. Until Cuba is able to unify its monetary standard, it will be difficult to determine exactly what percentage of the GDP goes to culture and the arts.

Each February, Havana hosts an enormous international book event, increasingly a destination for writers, editors, and publishers. Then, beginning the following month, successive editions of the fair move east across the island. The first of these takes place in Matanzas, the next province over and one with a rich intellectual and artistic history. Several of my books have been published in Spanish editions by Matanzas publishing houses, and this was my third attendance at the Matanzas fair.

These are staged in a variety of venues, including theaters and plazas, schools and universities. The closing session was held at the Fire Station Museum, surrounded by a display of old engines. Those with books that have made their appearance during the fair do hour-long stints at which publishers literally hawk the books, enticing potential buyers to take a look at those on offer and, if they decide to purchase one, have it signed by the author.

Subsidized publishing means that books are accessible to everyone. Interesting conversations always take place at the signing stand. One of the most exciting things about Cuban book fairs is the extent to which the entire population participates. One of the most exciting things about Cuban book fairs is the extent to which the entire population participates; people from all walks of life crowd the variety of activities, attend public forums and purchase books, show up at exhibitions of the visual arts, dance programs, and concerts, vociferously demonstrating likes and dislikes.

Children of all ages enjoy events designed for them. This sort of popular participation can only happen in a country where literature and the arts have truly been made available to everyone. More than a few men bought copies of my books and asked that I dedicate them to wives or girlfriends, while a few feet away kayaks skimmed the waters of the San Juan River, a number of them with women at the paddles. Aged equipment and a shortage of replacement parts, paper, and ink conspired to keep some books from making their scheduled launches.

Yet in the midst of such problems, the effort and resources that go into literature, art, and culture remained impressive. Books that did make it into print were produced in beautiful editions and sold to an avid reading public for pennies. Large cultural events were staged with sensitivity and elegance. Visiting writers and artists were housed and fed expansively. Local writers told me they continue to earn salaries for writing; it seemed like a natural state of affairs to them.

It is clear that art and culture continue to be priorities in Cuba.

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But those who left after having experienced the Revolution for a decade or more and decided they could not continue to reside in the land of their birth. They were considered traitors back then, called gusanos worms , mocked and harassed and, except in rare instances, prevented from returning if they wanted to come home.

Today Cubans come and go at will.

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Several years ago, a Cuban poet who had emigrated to Colombia needed a kidney transplant. There were and are others, of course. No studies have been made, and what occurred to me as I thought of these writers is purely anecdotal. It nevertheless seems significant. In their vast majority they wrote their best works in Cuba, rarely if ever again producing anything close to what had earned them their original prominence in the pantheon of contemporary Latin American letters. Exceptions are Severo Sarduy and Reinaldo Arenas, both of whom continued to write noteworthy books in exile.


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Guillermo Cabrera Infante left Cuba in His most famous novel, Tres tristes tigres Eng. Three Trapped Tigers , was published in but was completed a couple of years earlier. Edmundo Desnoes left in His most famous work, Memorias de subdesarrollo Eng. His major work, the trilogy entitled El mar de las lentejas Eng. Sea of Lentils , , had been published the year before, as had almost all the books he wrote.

Reinaldo Arenas left in after turbulent years in and out of prison. His best-known work, Antes que anochezca Eng. Before Night Falls , was published in , making him an exception to my observation. Two other excellent novels, Las iniciales de la tierra ; The Initials of the Earth , and Las palabras perdidas ; The lost words , were also written before he left the country in the mids.

Friends who saw him in Madrid, in the years leading up to his death at sixty-one, say he was embittered and that he as well as his wife had become consumed by alcoholism. Neither is he remembered for having read Kant. But the books he wrote when he was still committed to the Revolution are something else. They sent us a message that lives, one we can claim. I hope they will be republished. Sarduy and Arenas were homosexuals whose work explicitly portrayed gay themes at a time when that subject matter was spurned and censored in Cuba.

This may explain their having felt suffocated in their native land and making the choice to leave. Yet a number of other homosexual writers remained in Cuba, addressed their sexual identity in their work, and demanded or simply waited out their right to be heard and published. Gay Cuban writer Lourdes Casal rejected the Revolution and left her homeland as a young adult but returned to become one of its staunchest defenders, eventually dying in Havana.

What was seen as genuine rebellion in the United States seemed to threaten a Revolution that encouraged unity as it confronted increasing opposition from the North. These writers endured repression until the Revolution came to its senses with regard to their lives and their art. I have long felt that Cuban poetry is particularly strong. I made the selection, wrote the introduction and notes, and did all the translations.

The collection includes fifty-six poets, beginning with two born in and ending with one whose birth year is Almost half are women; and gay, lesbian, and transgender writers, authors from different provinces, and those who write in a variety of styles appear in its pages. As I read the work of those who had emigrated, I realized, once again, that the poems I liked best had been written before those poets left home. With few exceptions, those were the ones I chose to include. The same is true of the Cuban poets whose books I have translated. The vast majority continue to live on the island.

I wondered if this inability to produce major texts in exile was, in fact, a shared phenomenon. Were they traumatized by the shaming indignities to which the Revolution subjected them when they left? Did finding their voices again become impossible in a strange country with a different culture and language? When people must struggle to find a job and gain access to health care, creative work can be a luxury. Their situation was different, of course.

Most ended up in exile communities where they encountered some degree of solidarity and support. The Chilean musical ensemble Inti-Illimani did as well. Yet most of these refugees produced some of their finest work as refugees. But the circumstances were different and those involved less alone in most cases. The Cuban experience has definitely been unique within the Latin American context. I believe the inability of so many Cuban writers in exile to continue to grow in their work may primarily be due to the difference in the two sociopolitical systems.

In socialism, culture and art are considered necessities and those who produce their products seen as contributing importantly to society as a whole. In capitalism, art is a commodity. Its goal is to make a profit for those selling it: literary agents, critics, publishers, galleries, museums. The grass may look a whole lot greener somewhere else, but once there, adjustment may not be so easy. He tried to establish himself in Venezuela but soon found that the artistic community in Caracas was unnervingly competitive.

He decided to move his family back to Cuba, and the Revolution—on the cusp of making changes to its policies regarding those who leave—received him generously. He returned to Caracas, a city that all too soon became so violent he was afraid to stay. Then he went on to the United States, where he spent the last several years of his life.

He died in a Miami hospital without ever again having produced the brilliant work that made such a name for him Cuba. She pointed out that most of the great Cuban musicians who left early on also failed to produce great music in exile. She echoed the basic differences between how art and culture are regarded in socialist and capitalist societies but took the argument further. In Cuba, she said, art is produced for the masses, while in capitalist countries it is produced for the elite.

This has all sorts of ramifications. For example, in the US original fine art pieces sell for millions while copies also become an industry; art for the masses earns in quantity what that for the elite does in quality. Similarly, best-selling novelists earn advances in the tens of thousands of dollars while poets and essayists rarely earn anything from their work. In Cuba, the arts are supported by the state—a very different story. The upshot is that writers and artists who seek freedom by leaving their homeland and going somewhere else basically only acquire the necessity and freedom to make money, if they are fortunate enough to be able to do so.

The interviews themselves were conducted between and The authors describe their publication as falling between disciplines, neither a social science study, literary text, or historical narrative, but drawing from all of these fields. The preface to Afro-Cuban Voices underscores the importance of racial issues in contemporary Cuba. It notes the ongoing lack of information on the subject and recognizes that racial friction has increased in the s. The much longer introduction consists of an essay on literature related to race in Cuba.

It underscores the fact that Afrocubans have been commenting on their social circumstances in published sources for well over a century, but that such literature remains largely unknown. The authors comment on the similarities between racial stereotypes in Cuba and Brazil, then analyze specifically Cuban-related studies. The introduction ends with a critique of existing literature on racial matters written on the island, noting that Afrocubans themselves generally find it superficial, dogmatic, and not sufficiently focused on the present.

While grateful for what they have been able to accomplish under the revolution, they recognize that few publications exist on racial matters within their country and that no forum for public discussion of race is currently available. Part II explores racial representations in Cuban fiction and the mass media. Print journalist Marta Rojas is featured in chapter 4 with an account of her involvement in the Moncada trial as well as more recent professional aspirations. Scriptwriter Eliseo Altunaga appears in chapter 5. He discusses biased depictions of Antonio Maceo in the work of Cuban historians and discrimination against Afrocuban religions, among other topics.

Chapter 6 focuses on actress Elvira Cervera and her experiences with discrimination in radio broadcasting. This is one of the most critical essays, ending with her decision to create an all-black drama troupe as a reaction to the marginalization of Afro-Cuban dramatists. Chapter 7 considers the career of screen actor Alden Knight. He is also highly critical of the present, mentioning that the black community has no authority within the power structure of the media. This section ends with an interview by poet Georgina Herrera chapter 8 who began writing after growing up in poverty in Jovellanos, Matanzas.

Part III contains some of the most widely known interviewees. She is followed by Juan Benkomo chapter 10 , a drum maker and santero who has suffered persecution as the result of his religious beliefs.

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Chapter 11 continues with anecdotes from the career of Guillermina Ramos Cruz and the difficulties she has experienced attempting to study African-derived culture in Cuba. She reflects on the concept of the African diaspora and its meanings for African Americans throughout the hemisphere. It does the international community a service in this sense by offering relatively direct access to a few of the countless voices in Cuba that have no means of making themselves heard. The writing style is clear and easy to read, and the content highly significant.

I found the testimonies to be very compelling. For instance, I was amazed to discover how many middle-aged Cubans had grandparents who were born into slavery and had been told firsthand about that period when they were young. The sense of awareness among Afro-Cubans about the extent of suffering in their recent past and the gains they have achieved over the past century is striking. Equally as noteworthy are their views on the ways they have benefited from the revolution and the areas in which it has failed to meet expectations. While the interviews provide more basic information than synthetic analysis, it is information that has been sorely lacking.

Afrocuban voices is an important work for all those interested in contemporary race relations and one I highly recommend. Afro-Cubans Voices is available from Amazon. The publisher, the University Press of Florida, may have it availabe in March Kirk, Series Editor. From the series editor: "A courageous attempt to deal head-on with the issue of race in Cuba today. Perez Sarduy and Stubbs [seek to] put a human face on this debate, and do so well. The book will be received with relief by some and with frustration by others.

Controversial it will undoubtedly be, since -- as with most things Cuban -- strong emotions are a given assumption.

It will be an admirable beginning for the series and, it is hoped, will spark a much-needed debate in the United States on many aspects of the Cuban question. It is about time. Based on the vivid firsthand testimony of prominent Afro-Cubans who live in Cuba, this book of interviews looks at ways that race affects daily life on the island.

While celebrating their racial and national identity, the collected voices express an urgent need to end the silences and distortions of history in both pre- and postrevolutionary Cuba. The 14 people interviewed--of different generations and from different geographic areas of Cuba--come from the arts, the media, industry, academia, and medicine. They include a doctor who calls for joint U. All responded to four controversial questions: What is it like to be black in Cuba? How has the revolution made a difference? To what extent is that difference true today?

What can be done? Exposing the contradictions of both racial stereotyping and cultural assimilation, their eloquent answers make the case that the issue of race in Cuba, no matter how hard to define, will not be ignored. Both have published on topics related to Cuba and the Caribbean.


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