I Think about Cuba Every Day

Dalia Acosta

Havana Photo by Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, June 25 (IPS) — Lázara wakes up every morning in her home in New York, has a cup of coffee and, with the same passion with which she takes a stand for or against every cause, she turns on the radio, hoping to hear the news that she has been waiting for most of her life: the demise of former Cuban president Fidel Castro.

The Dominican Republic, or for that matter the world, is in its present state because “communism has spread everywhere,” according to Lázara, the main character in “Rosas de abolengo”, a novel in progress by Cuban writer Sonia Rivera-Valdés, who has lived in the United States since 1966.

This obsession that so many Cuban exiles suffer or enjoy with an intensity “that can obstruct their view of what the world is like” seized on Rivera-Valdés one day, causing her to abandon another novel she was writing, and has kept her busy to this day, she said at a tribute in her honor this week in the Cuban capital.

“I think about Cuba every single day; it’s second nature to me,” Rivera-Valdés, a professor of Spanish language and literature at York College, in New York, who is recognized for her efforts to build bridges between her native country and the United States, told IPS.

Cuba, the country she left without rancor when she was 28 and had already had three of her four children, appears in the background of nearly all her stories, although she changes context or location, or substitutes “mate”, the traditional South American infusion, for coffee, the beverage preferred by Cubans.

“I am the source of the feelings and emotions in the stories I tell, and in my way of telling them. They are my stories, no one sat down and told them to me. They reflect how I see the world,” the author said at the close of an informal meeting at the “José Martí” International Journalism Institute in Havana.

“Feelings and human complexity are what I want to convey,” said the author of “Historias de mujeres grandes y chiquitas” (Stories of Little Women and Grown up Girls) (2007) and “Las historias prohibidas de Marta Veneranda” (The Forbidden Stories of Marta Veneranda), which was awarded the Casa de las Américas literature prize in 1997 for Spanish literature in the United States.

The tribute ceremony, held Monday June 21, was organized by the Ibero-American Masculinity Network and the Mirta Aguirre Chair of Gender and Communication, and preceded a similar event to be held at the University of Havana on June 28, which will also honor the work of Cuban poet Nancy Morejón.

With a natural flair for story-telling, Rivera-Valdés read an extract of her new novel to the audience, shared the inner workings of some of her stories, and talked about how her view of life, men and women has changed over the years.

“I have dreamed of love, not for a specific person, but the love which produces a state of absolute happiness,” she said after reading aloud “Como en la Cárcel” (roughly, Like Being in Jail), the story of a woman inmate who discovers herself as beautiful and happy only in the eyes of another cell-mate, and has a forbidden affair, defying fears and prejudice.

“Inner freedom cannot be taken away, even in prison,” the author said.

She added that she enjoys every moment of the writing process. “Some people are so afraid when they write, but I really enjoy it. I don’t suffer at all in front of my computer, it’s more like going to visit a different world.”

In that spirit, she converted the five windows along a wall of her house into the title of one of her stories, and a turn of phrase she heard from a Cuban friend became “The Eighth Foot”, a story she says she wrote just so she could use the phrase.

Another friend told her she was ashamed of the smell of the slippers she wore around the house. Rivera-Valdés recollected this while explaining the “forbidden stories” gathered by her character Marta Veneranda, a sociology student working on a thesis about “what is forbidden” and the fear of what others will think or say.

“When I read Sonia’s work I always come across a moment of my own life. She is like a chronicler of the moments of many lives,” Cuban anthropologist Julio César González Pagés, the coordinator of the Ibero-American Masculinity Network and an ardent promoter of Rivera-Valdés’ work on the island, told IPS.

Zaída Capote, a member of the Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda department at the Cuban Institute of Literature and Linguistics, said that in her view the Casa de las Américas award and publication of The Forbidden Stories of Marta Veneranda revealed an interesting feature of Rivera-Valdés’ work.

Over and above the deep sense of solidarity throughout her work, Capote recalled that the book that won the award was almost a natural part of the “explosion of themes” that characterized Cuban literature in the 1990s, “as if it had been written in Cuba.”

The writer blended in with this literary generation through her unique approach to women’s issues, especially lesbianism, Capote said. “Previously it had always appeared combined with guilt, but in her work we find lesbian relationships infused with peace and joy,” she added.