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Letters from Cuba: Robert Arellano and Achy Obejas at the Enoch Pratt


| Image by from the awesome cubastamp.com

Ever since its 1959 Revolution cut Cuba off from the United States—or is it the other way around?—the island nation has served as a counter-argument to American exceptionalism. While the anti-Castro forces in Miami and elsewhere still have enough political power to stop the U.S. from even considering lifting the long-standing trade embargo, leftists look admiringly on a country that has universal health care and a life unspoiled by the ravages of capitalism, a world that is particularly compelling now.

Novelists

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and Robert Arellano are both children of the revolution, in the sense that their parents left for the United States in its aftermath. Obejas grew up in Michigan City, Indiana, while Arellano spent his childhood in Miami and New Jersey, far removed from the communism that has shaped the country's history for the past 50 years. On Monday night at the Enoch Pratt Central library, they read from their most recent novels, works that try to sort out Cuba's history from a Cuban-American perspective.

Arellano went first, reading from

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, just released by Brooklyn-based anti-corporate publisher Akashic Books. Inspired by Cuban crime fiction—some of which has been collected in 2007's Obejas-edited

—the novel centers on an idealistic young doctor who is wrongly accused of murder. Set in 1992, when Cuba's economy is crumbling due to the fall of the Soviet Union, the novel uses the noir's literary devices, such as the first-person voice, heavy use of slang (here, refreshingly, in untranslated Spanish), and a jumbled narrative, to flesh out a briskly told story that touches on everything from the failures of the revolution to the sex trade.

Obejas, whose previous novel,

Days of Awe

, was an exhaustively researched story of the Jewish community in Cuba, focuses on the same "Special Period" in Cuba, so called because many of the economic controls instituted with the help of Soviet support were suspended, allowing for the growth in tourism. In her new novel,

, Obejas focuses on Usnavy, a true believer in the revolution who struggles to adjust to the post-Soviet period when even his own family is eager to flee the country.

Both Arellano and Obejas have spent extensive time in Cuba since the early 1990s, and these experiences inform the novels. But all this time spent in Cuba hasn't made up for the lost 30 years in which Cuba and America were on very different trajectories. And, as easy it is to get to Cuba now, Obejas said that some things about the country haven't changed. After convincing Random House, the publisher of

Days of Awe

, to let the novel be printed in Cuba for no charge, Obejas ran into trouble when the Cuban publisher demanded to remove a scene where a young Fidel Castro looks at the scarred male organ of an older Jewish Cuban man.

"Fidel cannot look at another man's penis," Obejas said, repeating what the publisher told her.

With that revelation, and a plea by Obejas for Americans to read the work of Cuban writers, which is not subject to the embargo, the evening ended. The revolution continues.

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