Being a Writer in Cuba

Osmel Almaguer

The cover of Creatura (Creature)
The cover of Creatura (Creature)

HAVANA TIMES — My second poetry anthology recently saw the light of day. Titled Creatura (“Creature”), it was published by Letras Cubanas. The honor of having my work published this way is owed to the award I received at the 2014 Pinos Nuevos poetry contest, which I won unanimously.

I say “honor” because, until a few years ago, Letras Cubanas was the flagship publishing house for Cuban writers and, without a doubt, the best publishing house of its type in the country. Now there are others that, with less resources, as is the case of La Luz (in Holguin) and Ancora (in the Isle of Youth) have taken the lead in the publishing world.

This honor I speak of, in my case, was met with an excellent publication, designed by Leandro Camargo, whom I wish to thank for his work. The design is also brilliant. The only problem is an imprecise cut made at the printers, which truncated a tiny part of the cover illustration.

There’s also the rewarding detail that my work was published by people who were my colleagues between 2008 and 2010, when I worked as a promoter at the Cuban Book Institute.

The book was launched, without much pomp or circumstance, during the International Book Fair, this past February 16 at the Lezama Lima Hall. There, following a performance in the hands of someone I prefer not to mention and in the absence of practically all my friends and relatives, Creatura was launched.

Minutes after the launch, I headed to the stand of the publishing house to receive the 10 courtesy copies and noted my book was being sold at 6 Cuban pesos. It didn’t bother me the book was being sold so cheaply (that way, more people could have access to it).

What made me sad was to note the correlation between the production and sale price, where the former exceeded the latter by nearly 4 pesos.

It’s sad to see a work you’ve invested so much time, effort, money and illusions into become devalued this way (for, according to the institutions that regulate the book market in Cuba, poetry doesn’t sell). Why does poetry not sell? Is this actually true? Some friends who work at bookstores disagree.

I’ve heard say that Cuba’s book industry is subsidized by the Ministry of Culture, owing to its strategic importance, but also that the publishing houses that have been incorporated into the system and become companies sometimes don’t even have the resources to pay their employees.

Letras Cubanas, to whom I am grateful for publishing my book, whose workers I am particularly fond of, also has not had the money to pay me for the book rights, the sum of 3,000 pesos (around US $ 150).

As for me, I’ve bought 30 copies of my book to give to friends and writers, and I am planning on buying an additional 40. I’m not the only one who does this, and this may not be the last time this happens to me.