Wednesday, April 29, 2009


We trekked up to Ada Books, an adorable matchbook sized store in Providence, in our rental, the three of us: Bobby, M and me. This was Bobby territory. He'd gone to school here. His sister was waiting. Friends were excited to see him after so long. And we were thrilled too. One super gift from the East Coast tour: Knowing Bobby.

We practically ejected from the car in front of the store, as we'd been pushing it time-wise. And Bobby went in like a rock star, shaking hands, getting hugs. His sister -- I knew right away, her Cubanness preceeded her! -- was all proud smiles.

And we began. I went first, did my ten minutes, then gave the floor over to Bobby. But he hadn't gotten his rhythm yet when his brother-in-law, who'd been sitting second row center, got up and signaled to Bobby's sister. They quietly stepped outside as Bobby continued.

Then we heard the thump.

From there on, it was chaos: Bobby's brother-in-law had fainted, his weight had crashed against the store's door. Ambulances, firetrucks, paramedics.

Bobby's sister asked if we could drive him to the hospital. We said yes and went to get Bobby, dealing with everyone inside. He had a local friend, someone who knew where he was going on, who'd already volunteered. Bobby was pale, his hands fluttering.

We walked back to the car with him to get his bag.

"Oh, I almost forgot," he said, rummaging in his luggage. "I'm a romantic, a sentimentalist."

He pulled out a bottle of bubbly. It was from New Mexico, his home state, one of M's fave places.

"For your anniversary," he said.

We were celebrating our first one that weekend.

We couldn't believe the sweetness of the gesture. We couldn't believe he'd remember in the midst of such frenzy.

We hugged him and sent him on his way, glad to have him in our lives, and set off, back to New York.

Bobby's brother-in-law, as it turns out, is just fine. It was a scary moment but, honest, nothing. (Thank god!)

And we had our romantic dinner, a little music with the Afro-Cuban All-Stars later, and an extra day in New York thanks to storms that canceled flights to California.

So we saw "Monsters v. Aliens."

And we drank Bobby's brew.

Monday, April 6, 2009

CO-BLOGGER ALERT!: Bobby Arellano writes New Jersey!!!

A cold rain in Jersey couldn't keep 25 people from coming to Raconteur Books in Metuchen for our stop on the Akashic "Cubanization" tour. Achy was un poquito enferma, but I read from my novel Havana Lunar and answered questions while Raconteur co-owner Alex Dawson poured the wine and played Beny Moré on the house stereo.

I have been talking with Achy, who as readers of this blog know has
touched down in half the eastern states over the past eight weeks, about why some good independent bookstores seem to be thriving despite the shrinking economy. Dawson has a theory about their staying power. Identifying Raconteur as a "thrift" enterprise that sells used as well as new books, he says that people who a few months ago might have just walked by the funky display in his front window are now being drawn in by the prospect of saving 25% or more off big-chain book prices. This new business, together with a devoted local clientele who credit the owners with prompting a cultural revival in this medium-sized suburb (more than one patron told me, "Alex is doing great things in this town"), makes Raconteur confident about the prospect of continuing to sell books while growing new programs -- a journal called the Raconteur Reader, a music/circus/literary festival at a 200-seat theater three blocks from the shop, and an annual beard-growing contest in honor of George Bernard Shaw.

Thanks, Raconteur! Achy, Akashic, and I all hope to be invited back!

Sunday, April 5, 2009

What Edmundo Said


For fifty years the revolution has been in power in Cuba.

I returned to the island in 1960 to embrace the dream of a radical new life. At about the same time, Achy Obejas abandoned Cuba with her family and Robert Arellano’s parents left as well. Thirty years later, Achy and Robert returned to a social nightmare. Between the three of us we have experienced the dream and the nightmare of history.

The island of Cuba is both a reality and a myth. Reality is what we are given, what we are born into and myth is what we create as writers. We transform the chaos of experience into narratives, stories that help us see and feel, interpret the world around us, to go on.

Ruins by Achy Obejas and Havana Lunar by Robert Arellano are two novels that give a human face to the agony of the Cuban revolution during the years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The startled communist government called it “período especial de paz” -- “a special peacetime period” -- a monstrous and bloodless euphemism for a period these two writers here with us tonight have attempted to define through characters in a landscape of scarcity, of agony, of survival.

Two epiphanies of scarcity are enough to reveal the cruel humor of survival. The first one is from Ruins. “The week before, Rosita had been selling those very sandwiches on the street –she’d even offered him one. But no sooner had Usnavy pulled up the bread and seen the flat layer of pith covered in seasoning, than he recognized its true provenance: These were pieces of a blanket normally used for mopping floors which Rosita had beaten and marinated in spices and a little beef broth. The texture of the wool had been transformed into what they all imagined steak was like, something tender and chewy. The success of her enterprise had come as much from her ingenuity as from the tricks memory plays.”

And this one is from Havana Lunar: “Carlota told me there was a rumor going around Marianao of bread –fluffy white flour rolls, not tough pan integral, and fresh, made the day before. We would keep it a surprise in case the lead turned out false…

“Pablo was ecstatic: bread for his birthday. But it was like a bad movie on El Cine de las Ocho when Tirso rushed in seconds before we could sink our teeth into those beautiful sandwiches. '!No! !Echaron vidrios en la harina!' I slapped Pablo’s hand before the sandwich could get to his lips. Pablo saw real fear in my eyes and began to cry.

“ 'Please, Pablito. There might be glass in the bread. There are bad people out there.’

“Tirso said, “The government did it to sabotage the black market.’

“Biting his lower lip, Pablo proposed, ‘We can try it, and if we feel something in our mouths we can spit it out.’ ”

Both these fragments I have read might seem unnecessarily cruel, but they reveal, in some ways, a return to sanity. After the revolutionary dream of plenty, of abundance and social justice, the attempts to impose socialist realism in literature, Achy and Robert have returned to one of the roots of Spanish literature –the picaresque novel. The struggle for survival in Spanish realism of el siglo de oro. Humor, in Cuba, is an instrument of survival. When situations become very intense and unsustainable only a joke can break the spell.

Both these novels are expressions of our predicament. Ruins is a literary jewel, a novel that turns history into literature, the language at certain moments turns the pedestrian into poetry. Usnavy is a character that incarnates the last fifty years of the Cuban revolution: From the illusion of a better world to the tragedy of failed idealism. Havana Lunar has Julia, an adolescent turned into a jinetera, a prostitute, a murdered pimp and a doctor that talks with Che Guevara. You can’t stop turning the pages towards the ultimate surprise. It is a marginal world, where marginal action reveals the crisis of the revolution. As you follow the characters you discover the urban and rural landscape of the island.

These are Cuban novels written in English. The Spanish language also struggles to enrich the prose of these narratives. Arellano sees the needs to often say it in Spanish to make the situations more real, like “Echaron vidrios en la harina.” Obejas is more selective, she chooses only certain words that have no equivalent in English, that have a weight and a meaning that cannot be translated. She uses sapo to name the onlookers at a domino game, and you can hear the word sapo (frog) flop and rest like a damp passive back seat driver. Or derrumbe to help you feel how the collapse of a building turns into a ruin. The Spanish English Velázquez dictionary cannot give us a single word for the verb: “Derrumbar: to precipitate, to throw down headlong. To precipitate one’s self headlong. To sink down, crumble away, tumble down; said of a building.” And for the noun it has: “Derrumbe: A tumbling down, collapse. A landslide.”

One of the more revealing secretions of these novels is in the language, the clash of English and Spanish and their psychological and cultural implications. Achy through rigorous poetry and Robert through the crunching of prose. Ruins and ruinas; lunar and blemish, birthmark. Lunar is untranslatable. Lunar: “mole, a natural spot or discoloration of the body, note or stain of infamy.” La luna, the moon is black compared to the sun. Lunática, lunatic. “Ese lunar que tienes cielito lindo junto a la boca, no se lo des a nadie, cielito lindo que a mí me toca.”

If there is something that characterizes, in my experience, the Cuban revolution, the word is intensity. Intensity that, as far as I am concerned, is more important than being right or wrong. These books reveal that intensity and whatever political judgment you must certainly make, it must come from the characters and events these novels bring before your eyes.

There is a poem by a Catholic poet, Cintio Vitier, ten years older than I am, who decided never to leave the island and gave us this image of the tragic beauty of living these years in Cuba. It’s called Estamos, that is, "We Are."





chirimbolos de repuesto,




días llenos de propósitos,


Vida con tan pocos materiales.

A veces

se diría

que no puedes llegar hasta mañana,

y de pronto

uno se pregunta y sí,

hay cine,


lámparas que resucitan,

calle mojada por la maravilla,

ojo del alba, Juan

y cielo de regreso.

Hay cielo hacia delante.

Todo va saliendo más o menos

bien o mal. O peor,

pero se llena el hueco,

se salta,




un esfuerzo conmovedor en tu pobreza,

pueblo mío,

y hasta horribles carnavales, y hasta

feas vidrieras, y hasta


Repiten los programas,

no hay perfumes

(adoro esa repetición, ese perfume)

no hay, no hay pero resulta que


Estás, quiero decir,


EDMUNDO DESNOES, Nueva York y 2009

[You are doing things: music, spare parts for the broken down, books, hospitals, bread, days with a purpose, fleets, life with such pathetic materials.

Sometimes you think you’ll never make it, see tomorrow, and suddenly you ask yourself and yes, there are movies, black-outs, lamps that resuscitate, street marvelously wet, the eyes of down and sky on the way back.

There is sky ahead.

Everything is coming along, more or less, right or wrong, or worse, but the hole gets filled, we jump, you go on, you are making such a heart breaking effort in your poverty, people of mine, even horrible carnivals, and even ugly window displays, and even the moon.

They keep repeating the same programs, there are no perfumes (I adore that repetition, that perfume), there isn’t, there isn’t any but it so happens that there is.

You are, I mean, we are here.]

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Edmundo & Felicia

Bobby, me, Edmundo & Felicia

M and I snuck a kiss when no one was looking.

In New York, we stayed with Edmundo Desnoes and Felicia Rosshandler, a powerhouse intellectual couple with a sweet and enduring story. Edmundo, of course, is the writer of both the book and the script of Memories of Underdevelopment, which was recently named the most important Latin American film of the 20th century by a prestigious critics group. Felicia is the author of a book I love and frequently teach, Passing Through Havana, a novel about being a young European Jew in Cuba during World War II.

They are both smart, elegant, a little unpredictable, and great fun. They are also, each of them, just ridiculously beautiful. That they’re also charming and open is an extra added bonus.

I don’t remember whom I met first – I sought out Felicia because I wanted to use Passing for my Jewish Latin American lit class at the University of Chicago (it proved a great hit, especially with girls). And I sought out Edmundo because I’d gotten obsessed with getting a blurb from him for my novel, Days of Awe (which he gave, and which I’m very proud of).

Their love story, however, is what thrills me. They were sweethearts as teens – Felicia still refers to him now and again as her novio cubano. And you can tell that it was one of those great illuminating young romances, the kind that imprint the way you give and receive love.

And, like most young romances, it ended and they went their own ways, to other lives with other people. Felicia moved to New York, married and had kids. She worked for Life magazine, wrote, took up photography.

Edmundo stayed in Cuba, committed to the revolution, wrote many things, married, divorced, then began to have doubts. In 1980, at the Venice Biennale, he defected (back when it was still called defecting). He continued writing, editing books, critiquing, teaching.

Then, about 18 years ago, they made their way back to each other.

And I’m enraptured by the idea of a Great Love to bookend Life.

They are both masters of the art of conversation, and so each visit is filled with much sharing and questioning and provoking of the best kind. Edmundo always makes me think, Felicia always make me feel.

This time I also got to wear one of her absurdly fashionable little jackets – this one a fairly simple down – so my fashion quotient jumped up about 20 percent. And this time M and I prepared breakfast for them one morning and they indulged us (Edmundo: “The eggs are wonderful, the potatoes are not bad”). And we hung out with the very worldly Olivia, Felicia’s seven year-old granddaughter, who hacked into M’s Facebook page and uploaded pix and left “I love you” messages on walls far and wide.

Edmundo was also our “moderator” at a reading and public conversation Bobby Arellano and I had at the 92nd Street Y, one of New York’s most prestigious literary venues. Still, when I put out the sked with the news, I was surprised by how many emails I got congratulating me on the gig. I was also a bit taken back when I looked at the evening’s agenda and discovered that Edmundo, Bobby and I were at the 92nd Street Y at the very same time as Barbara Walters, who would be autographing her memoirs. I was outwardly pretty cool about it, but inside I was dying: Would anybody come?

To my surprise, we had about thirty people: they came with great energy, interest and armed with many good questions for us. Edmundo gave a magnificent intro, Bobby read with pure abandon, and I had to summon my last reserves of charisma just to keep up. These guys were amazing!

Afterwards, Edmundo suggested celebratory cake and M packed her handful of pals and we went off into the bright New York night to satisfy our tummies and spirits!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bluestocking Pix by Jason Smith

We were lucky enough in NYC to have Jason Smith, an old friend from Chicago, come to the reading and take pictures. He's one of the finest photogs I know, and these are just a little sampling. For a look at his portfolio, pls go to