‘To me Havana is something traumatic, a place suspended in time’
The editor of a new Cuban anthology talks to some featured writers, part of ‘Generación 0’
Havana, capital of Cuba, home to a new literary movement
Havana. It was Orlando Luis Lazo who thought of the name. He started to talk about Generación Año 0 (Generation Year 0), to identify the group of Cuban writers he belonged to, who had started to publish their writing in the year 2000.
A group that Ahmel Echevarría, another of its members, explains was “small enough and yet very lively. We needed the name to unite ourselves around something and somehow also to mark a rupture with the past”. The past was that of the ’90s, the hard years of the so called Special Period (the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the collapse of the Cuban economy, greatly dependent on its powerful ally).
In 1999 an incident happened which would make world news while at the same time stirring intense debate not only in Cuba but in the United States. The crisis of the balseros (Cubans who from the middle of the ’90s began to leave the island in improvised boats) hit the headlines when a little boy (Elian) reached the US shore in his dead mother’s arms. Little Elian became a sort of hostage of the US while his father, who stayed in Cuba, began a long legal process to get his son back. The story soon becomes a state issue and is somehow used to “launch from an ideological point of view a recuperation of the cultural values of the Revolution which had been decaying in the ’90s”.
The authors belonging to Generación 0 had lived through the ’90s as teenagers or in their early 20s. At that time the books published were those of a different literary generation, called “The newest” (Los nuevisimos). To those well known and established names such as Leonardo Padura and Arturo Arango (belonging to an earlier generation, that of the ’80s) other names, younger writers, were coming onto the scene, and many of them had also started to publish outside of Cuba; writers like Pedro Juan Gutierrez, who in his Dirty Trilogy of Havana graphically synthesised the logic of the ’90s, marked by “delusion, hopelessness, frustration”. As the intellectual and writer Felix Julio Alfonso Lopez, also a member of Generación 0, explains: “We witnessed in those years the loss of references, day by day characterised by survival and also by a dirty realism taken to its last consequences. It was the expression of that decade of the ’90s up to the year 2000, so hard and in which literature sadly in a way tried to be what it should never be: a very close reflection of the society and reality in which it develops.”
It was from the year 2000 that the promotion of this new cultural policy of the Revolution was nicknamed the “Battle of the Ideas” (this is the name Fidel Castro gave it). “This Battle of the Ideas,” says Alfonso, “was in itself revolutionary because it meant to rethink the logic of how the new generations were going to be part of and incorporated in a discourse defending the best values of the revolution, of the Cuban people, and the nation.
“It had various expressions: the devolution of the universities with new campuses opening in the farthest corners of the island; the opening of many publishing houses in each and every province thanks to a programme known as La Riso, from the name of the printing machine, Risograph. There was increased growth and more widespread diffusion of secondary education as well as the appearance of new cultural magazines in many provinces. Cuba has always been very Havana-centred as far as culture, education (and of course policy) were concerned. New literary prizes and awards were born in different cities.”
All this ferment offers to the new generation of writers a fresh range of tools which until that point had been non-existent. Indeed many of these writers had their book finished and ready but had not been able to get it published.
Ahmel Echevarría (born in 1974) recalls that the group was thinking of “launching a sort of literary guerrilla process. We didn’t want simply to meet, share friendship, read texts: we wanted to think politically, so to speak, about what we were doing. We wanted to find a rupture and settle ourselves in it. This implied,” he says, “thinking of a magazine, for example, but also writing critical texts of the books we were writing, reviewing, reading.”
Jorge Enrique Lage (1979) concurs with Echevarría that the name Generación 0 arose from the need of the group to “make visible our different views and thoughts. At the beginning,” he adds, “we were a small group of friends, very Havana-centred and we needed the name to be recognized by the critics. It was our identity label.”
If the Battle of the Ideas at the end of the ’90s got stuck, as Felix Julio Alfonso underlines: “got schematic, and finally turned into a slogan till it died a natural death, so much so that nowadays in Cuba nobody talks about it”, these young authors are the product “of this battle, of the publishing, educational and cultural expansion which began in those years”. It is in fact a “very personal appropriation, in some cases even intimate, of the previous great literary tradition, which nevertheless is now put on a different stage, a new reality and above all with a need to say different things, to express different messages.
“I think,” says Alfonso, “that these writers have managed to do this very well, I mean their literary output is very good, aesthetically speaking, by no means doctrinaire and yet committed. I believe that this is a revolutionary generation.”
Ahmel Echevarría, Michel Encinosa, Jorge Enrique Lage, Raúl Flores and Orlando Lazo (who today lives outside Cuba) now begin to express a different vision, another way of projecting themselves literarily without stopping to be – and indeed they are so by nature – rebels, critics, irreverent.
The tone of their narrative changes, the themes change, the very way of portraying themselves as the writer changes, the condition of writer within the society is seen in a different way and this is something which for Alfonso “makes this generation even more mature, enriched. This is a very prolific generation and also much read. These authors have been able to make literature conscious that it is literature that they are making. I mean they are not making an empty critique or a non-committed critique of the reality they live in. On the contrary, they are convinced they are part of a group, a generation, a society.”
All of them, along with their differences, agree in their abandoning the literary tradition of the revolution, the great revolutionary narratives. They reclaim writers such as Reinaldo Arenas, Virgilio Piñera, Cabrera Infante. Yet these new writers focus themselves on minimal stories, marginal stories, on the histories of the other, of those who have not been the central subject of history, but rather indefinite, secondary subjects.
The writers themselves say they are making underground histories: they are like moles digging under the earth, trying to bring to light stories which many times don’t even have Cuba as a setting, but are set in different contexts or in a fictional world. There is a clear fantastic or science-fiction current within the work of these writers. Perhaps it is Joss, José Miguel Sanchez who most cultivated this genre, as well as Michel Encinosa.
Lage himself doesn’t mind being labelled a science-fiction writer, although he underlines that his interest is “to get the reader feeling unease, uncomfortable. I am interested,” he says, “in inventing and experimenting with the city, the characters, the situations, none of which I want to be realistic.”
Lage’s Havana is a ghostly Havana, “a place out there whose urban space I want to violate. To me Havana is something traumatic, a place suspended in time, a city with many deficiencies in social, human, urban terms. I am not interested in speaking about it with the admiration of a citizen of the capital. I wouldn’t be able to do that.”
Alfonso notes how “these writers are great readers of the new North American and European literature. How did they get access to it, I don’t know, because you can’t find these books here and the internet is so bad. Yet, they have managed to get them.” The influence of Raymond Carver, Brett Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace is evident. So is the influence of Tarantino’s cinema, the Coen brothers and of music – a lot of rock, some pop.
From a small group, Generación 0 was soon something widespread on the whole of the island, and is now identified as part of the much larger group forming the vibrant heart of the new Cuban literature. Magazines like La Noria, published in the east of the island and co-directed by Santiago poet Oscar Cruz and Guantánamo writer José Ramón Sánchez, have begun to print reviews, short stories, poems, by other authors sharing the same feelings and tensions of the writers in Havana. Among those are Lesna Rodríguez (born in Camagüey, now living in Miami), poet Jamila Medina (Holguín), Anisley Negrín (Santa Clara). Other projects continue to be born, like Clastro-fobia, promoted by Yuniel Riqueni (born in Granma, now living in Santiago).
Ideas, stories, anxieties revealing a cultural vitality nurtured by a very active and dynamic breed of writers on this island today, in the middle of so many changes and such deep transformation.
- The Book of Havana features 10 short stories by some of Cuba’s leading writers, edited by Orsola Casagrande (Comma Press)