Almost Nobody Reads in Cuba

By Pedro Pablo Morejon

HAVANA TIMES – My partner is very talented. She started playing with books, craft paper and coloring pencils, ever since she was a little girl. She dreamed of writing and becoming a painter. She managed to make the latter dream come half-true.

She is a painter who studied at an arts school and missed the opportunity of a lifetime when she turned down going to study at the ISA (Superior Institute of Art).

She has put on three exhibitions, although her main source of income is commercial work, using the patch painting technique. She is registered on the Artist Register and has a contract with the Cuban Fund of Cultural Goods. This allows her to sell her paintings to foreigners. Art can be sacred, but you also must eat. Unfortunately, sales have diminished to zero during these times of COVID-19 with no tourism whatsoever.

The Ateneo bookstore in Pinar del Rio

Maybe it was this and the fact that she knows me that her dream of becoming a writer popped up again. A few months ago, she started writing poetry and joined an important literary workshop in the province: “Faktoria de letras”. It’s led by well-renowned poet and storyteller for children Nelson Simon.

As I’ve already mentioned, she’s quite talented. Her poetry is intimate, with a lyricism full of beautiful images that reflect different emotional states. Loneliness, fear, hope, struggle, passion…

She wants to publish her work, be read and I tell her to be patient. Literature is a side career and almost nobody can make a living out of it.

We live in fast-paced times, when the world prefers documentaries, series and movies on Netflix, YouTube channels.  They want sources of pleasure that don’t involve them having to use their brains.

In Cuba, people entertain themselves with gossip on social media, timba and reggaeton music, and the “Weekly Package” of audiovisuals.  

On top of all of this, Cubans fight a daily war just to live another day. I see huge lines every day, people waiting to get food and basic essentials. It makes perfect sense that the exhaustion of struggling to survive might kill any thirst for reading.

There are few readers in Cuba, most of whom are writers and a few others here and there.

Book fairs are nothing more than a propaganda show to make the world believe that Cubans are readers. Yes, many Cubans do go to the fairs because we don’t have many entertainment options. Moreover, the Havana Book Fair always has a festive air.

It’s trendy to buy a handful of books, mostly for children. Just because we want to be “cool”, but I’m sure they probably end up in a corner. In the best of cases, their pages remain untouched, waiting to be read like Penelope waited for Odysseus to return to Ithaca. In the worst of cases, it’s a direct journey down the toilet. Let’s not forget that toilet paper is in shortage here in Cuba.

It’s a bad time for literature. A time when bookstores are empty.

Marti once wrote in a poem: “once I have my bread, I can write.” Stemming from this quote, we could say that once Cubans have their bread guaranteed and can live without literary censorship or bad writers, maybe then and only then, will many Cubans take care of more spiritual affairs such as reading.

Read more writing from Pedro Pablo Morejon

5 thoughts on “Almost Nobody Reads in Cuba

  • The only thing they read are the transfer numbers when they go pick-up the remittances so the average cuban can live without working or worrying, after all it’s the family in the “yuma” that toils for them. Jose Marti would be appalled by the behavior of today’s average cuban.

  • Bien morning I walked the entire length of the malecón en cfgs…I seen every student with a cell phone …not one without….there was very little talking as all had thier cell phones glued to thier eyes ….it reminded me of a horror movie I had seen ….”The walking dead”…I have asked this question to many of my friends in cfgs….i” if you found a 5 dollar bill in the street ..what would you do with it …buy food for your family or put the money on your cell phone.All have said “my cell phone ,I can always find a little bread or buy those cuban fat filled pizzas” is tragic ……a true tragedy …to spend the day and their parents money on tic toc or other silly videos ….

  • Pedro, I have to wholeheartedly agree with you. In all my visits to Cuba I have not seen any Cuban read a book, newspapers yes, books no. And those avid newspaper readers on park benches or under the shade of a leafy tree are all senior citizens. Perhaps, young people are reading digitally, but I doubt it since the vast majority do not have access to digital readers such as Kindle.

    Why are, especially young people, adverse to reading? You eluded to a few reasons. People must spend their limited time in long line ups on a daily basis to obtain food to feed their families. I am sure no Cuban has the luxury to stay at home, open a book, and read for hours. The Cuban economy will not permit such luxury. I say luxury because if a Cuban does have the opportunity to stay at home and spend time reading s/he is probably financially well off with no need to worry where the next meal is coming from. That is a luxury in Cuba these days that the majority do not enjoy.

    Pedro states: “Literature is a side career and almost nobody can make a living out of it.” This is true in Cuba as it is in Canada. Most aspiring Canadian writers are well known to be living from hand to mouth most of their careers. If by fortunate chance they do write a novel, or a book of short stories, or a publicized book of poems, that happens to win a national or international Literary Award then the writer can make a living at the writing craft. But those winners are few and far between. There are only so many Margaret Atwoods (Handmaids Tale, to name one) in Canada.

    I can’t imagine how extraordinarily difficult it is in Cuba for a potential writer to write well written, readable poetry, books, or short stories when, as you say, Cubans just do not read and of course through no fault of their own.

    You are also spot on when you state young people, even to some degree adults spend most of their time digitally on Netflix, YouTube, streaming movies and pod casts. In Canadian colleges and universities course content is not on traditional textbooks whereby a student has to buy the textbook and read the assigned readings. All course material including teachers’ lectures and readings are on line for the students’ edification. I suppose it is reductive reading when it is extremely easy to just cut and paste those noteworthy sections exactly what one needs.

    One thing that Canada does to encourage reading in the nation is hold an annual “Canada Reads” competition. Basically, it involves five Canadian personalities who defend five different books which can be from any genre, national or international. Each personality passionately extols the merits of one of the book titles in one hour of debate. The debate is broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) over five days. At the end of each debate, the panelists vote one book off the list until one book remains. That book is then garnered the champion and the book that all Canada should be reading. For avid readers, it is a must listen.

    Could such a free style reading competition happen in Cuba to spur reading? Probably not because the government would censor what books would be allowed to compete on its national broadcast propaganda machine which would make the reading competition ineffective, perceived as null, and simply a propaganda tool, “literary censorship” as Pedro aptly states.

    Pedro quotes: “Marti once wrote in a poem: “once I have my bread, I can write.” How profound and timely this quote applies to Cuba today. No one can fault a Cuban for not spending time either reading or writing when their bellies beckon for food. Sad.

  • Its the same all over the world . That hand held cell phone is the only source of entertainment and possibly stimulation albeit very small .that most people are using today . Book fairs in Cuba are exactly as described , something to do and little money to buy anything .Book fairs dont even exist in North Ametica anymore … one attends them .

  • I hope that Nick reads Pedro Morejon’s observations about Cuban “book fairs”.

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