Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Cuba is (not) book country


Last week a group of publishing folk, moonlighting as humanitarian aid workers, invaded Cuba. We spent the week in Havana and its environs and – because it was the 10th Havana Art Biennial – found ourselves immersed in a vibrant city-wide exhibition that focused on third world and Latino artists.

Havana is a mass of contradictions – beautiful colonial architecture backing on to dusty, crumbling buildings; state run bookstores that are almost empty of books and people, down the street from a thriving Mondadori store geared to tourists; eager and articulate locals who admit they are cut off from the “real world,” while continuing to refer un(self)consciously to 1959 as the “triumph of the revolution.”

Though we were interested in meeting with Cuban writers and understanding the contemporary literary scene, writing is, as it happens, the least developed of Cuba’s remarkably sophisticated cultural cache. The visual arts – paintings, photography, sculpture, graphic arts – are well represented, even in non-biennial years, and subversive political content seems “allowed,” if within limits. Music is everywhere, and Cuban dance companies – modern, classical and Spanish flamenco – are world-renowned, in part because dancers get to perform outside of Cuba. (Six dancers had recently defected while performing in Mexico, though we were told this would not have an effect on the group’s future touring.)

But books and writing in general suffer from the gatekeeper syndrome: how can you find an audience unless your efforts are correct enough to be acceptable to the retailers who – with the single exception of the tourist store on the Plaza de Armas, which is stocked with Stephen King, Isabel Allende and Dostoevsky, among others – are state-owned? Though some publishers, like that run by the Union of Cuban Artists and Writers (UNEAC), are “non-governmental” and have an independent editorial board consisting of union members, the distinction is moot when books are sold through sanctioned retailers and all media are also controlled by the state. And in a world where the internet is closely regulated (there is a state-wide “intranet” system, but computers are prohibitively expensive for most Cubans), modern options like POD or ebooks are of course nonexistent. As a result, books published in Cuba are of decreasing interest to its inhabitants, with the typical printing running between 1,000 and (occasionally) 5,000. Nor can people go to libraries to find something to read, as these too are government-run, and seem to have few contemporary books or indeed books of any vintage. (A school library we visited had mostly yellowing textbooks, dictionaries, and propaganda – and nine dog-eared copies of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in Scribner paperbacks vintage 1965.)

Indeed, a union member explained that books are not published simply to provide entertainment, but rather (as one of our guides put it) to promote “real values.” But commercial fare is nevertheless available: at an artist’s kiosk in the Capitol Building, a Spanish language copy of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons was spied and in the state-run bookstore we visited, there were, in addition to Che and Fidel speeches, a lot of books by Danielle Steel, Nicholas Sparks, Elizabeth George and Michael Crichton, as well as a (fairly recent) biography of Sigourney Weaver!

Still, there is an annual International Festival of Poetry in Havana, and the Cuba International Book Festival draws publishers from Latin America and elsewhere. Initially also a Havana fair, it was, apparently, Fidel’s idea to make the event a national celebration so that all Cubans could meet authors – and pitch their books to publishers. His suggestion that fairs be held simultaneously across the island was impractical – it was difficult for authors who might want to visit their home towns, but still participate in the hubbub of the Havana fair – and now the festival travels throughout the country on successive days, thereby allowing authors to travel around the country, courtesy of the state. Rights to some books are sold abroad at this fair, and some publishers attend other fairs as well. Authors receive a portion of the royalties -- small, according to UNEAC representatives, though they’re lobbying the government to increase it. To access UNEAC’s site, go to http://www.uneac.org.cu/

Above: Hemingway’s typewriter at his estate, Finca Vigia. No books are available in any language at the gift shop. T-shirts, random CDs and postcards, however, are.


This is Lorraine Shanley’s second – but not last – trip to Cuba. Thanks to fellow travelers Bill Goldstein for suggesting the title and for editing this posting, and to Harold Weinberg for the photograph of Hemingway’s Corona.

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