By Barbara Maseda
HAVANA TIMES — In her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Canadian author Margaret Atwood makes reference to a radio station based in Cuba (Radio Free America) that broadcasts subversive messages via short wave to the oppressed people of the United States, in a dystopian future where the old government has been overthrown by a totalitarian theocracy.
Atwood has lived to see how, more than thirty years later, some of the speculations in the book are “Trumping” reality, in a United States where women’s reproductive rights are at risk, and Canada is eyed as a likely option by those seeking to escape totalitarianism and madness.
Although many elements in the novel remain satiric (as far as I know, Texas is not trying to become an independent republic… right?) others are, in words of Atwood, “increasingly resembling the ideas of some U.S. lawmakers”.
A large section of the public seems to agree with her: The Handmaid’s Tale – described by Constance Grady as “a handbook for surviving oppressive systems” – has soared on Amazon’s bestsellers lists, as George Orwell’s 1984 did after Trump’s election.
As a very close neighbor, Cuba does not escape the unfriendly winds blowing from the North, and many of the steps taken since 2014 towards the normalization of bilateral relations hang now from a thread of uncertainty.
But life continues on the island nation, and people take on daily, weekly and yearly activities, after having witnessed all kinds of US administrations come and go over the decades.
One of those events is a yearly international book fair, which for 26 years has been gathering renowned personalities from different countries. Margaret Atwood is one of the distinguished guests at this year’s event (Feb. 9-19 in Havana), not only because of her personal standing as a writer, but also because on this occasion, Canada, her country, is being paid tribute to at the fair.
Ms. Atwood kindly agreed to answer a few questions for HavanaTimes about her ties to Cuba.
Cuba, culture, corpses, crows
This is far from being Atwood’s first visit to Cuba. She made the trip for the first time in the early 1980s, in the company of her partner, Graeme Gibson, also a Canadian writer.
During those years, the Canadian cultural attaché to Cuba was an acquaintance of Atwood’s, a former graduate student in History who had done some research for her in 1978-79.
Atwood recalls that, in addition to his cultural responsibilities, her old collaborator was also charged with taking care of any dead Canadians who had passed away while visiting Cuba. “I liked the juxtaposition: culture, corpses…” she says.
As part of his work concerning the living, the attaché arranged a cultural exchange visit for Atwood, jointly organized by the Canadian Embassy and the Cuban Association of Writers and Artists (UNEAC).
Atwood and Gibson met a number of Cuban writers on that first trip, which would open doors to future literary and birdwatching exchanges.
At the time, the couple had already taken an interest in bird watching, and they asked to see Cuban birds.
Not as limited by the language barrier as literature was, the birdwatching connection came to be more prolific: Graeme thought that many North American birdwatchers would appreciate the chance to see Cuban endemic species, and worked to develop a birdwatching program for Cuba. In the next two decades he arranged many trips to Cuba, and came to the country more than twenty-five times himself.
Developments were made on the literary front later: Graeme Gibson’s Perpetual Motion was translated and published in Cuba, and the couple also edited an anthology of Canadian short stories, 23, by Anglophone writers that would be translated into Spanish and published in Cuba under the title “Desde el invierno” in 1997.
Last trip to Cuba and its book fair
When asked about what it means to her to be a guest of honor at the Havana book fair, she humbly tries to minimize her relevance: “I’m in the age group in which these things happen.”
Atwood is not one of the most popular foreign authors among the general public in Cuba, but she is certainly well known in literary circles. Daina Chaviano, considered one of the best science fiction and fantasy writers not only in Cuba, but in the Spanish-speaking world, has named Atwood as one of her influences.
On her part, Atwood doesn’t seem to have read a broad variety of Cuban literature. The authors that come to her mind first seem to have been taken out of a manual of officially-approved writers: “Carpentier, of course. Marti. Miguel Barnet. Nancy Morejon. Pablo Armando. Abel Prieto. More…”
It’s a list that leaves out essential takes on marginal characters and communities, the filth and vulgarity of dirty realism, the complexities of life in Cuba, the irreverence of less compliant authors. It’s also a list that includes the current Minister of Culture, and the President of the Cuban Association of Writers and Artists (UNEAC).
The selection speaks, perhaps, of the nature of the links that she has kept with the country and its culture: ties built around diplomacy and official events, devoid of the restless curiosity one would expect from the talented literary critic.
The most important thing about Atwood’s brief passing through Havana, however, is that Cubans will gain access to more of her works.
For this fair, two Cuban publishing houses have edited a bilingual selection of her poetry, and a collection of 67 short stories, written between 1977 and 2006.
These local releases are essential when it comes to Cubans’ access to international literature, given that they cannot purchase products online, or afford international book rates. With a few exceptions, most of the books sold by Cuban publishers at these fairs cost less than 2 US dollars.
As for her expectations about this trip, Atwood says that she wants to take the occasion to pick Cubans’ brains: “I expect to find them talking about what everyone else is talking about right now: Donald Trump. And possibly his friendship with an old ally of Cuba: Russia. I look forward to hearing their opinions.”
Seen through her expert eye for speculation, this might not be such an unthinkable topic to bring to Havana. Who knows if the plot will thicken, and there will actually be a future for a Cuba-based “Free America” podcast…