By Maykel Paneque
HAVANA TIMES — He arrives on time, smiling and bathed in cologne, with the freshness of someone who has bathed before battle. A friend predicted Angel Santiesteban would summon me to a bunker to grant me an interview, but, when I called him in the morning, we agreed to meet at the coffee shop at the intersection of 23rd and 12th streets at two in the afternoon.
His voice sounded a bit coarse. He spoke with some difficulty, as though I’d gotten him out of bed. And I had. He was working through a literary hangover from writing from midnight to four thirty in the morning, his favorite time for writing. He had been working intensely for weeks. He usually wakes up at eight in the morning, rereads and corrects what he writes in the early morning and submerges himself in the world of his characters, who demand more life.
No smoking, no drinking, no music. Alone with his demons, he sits in front of his computer every day and starts to write the film that plays out in his mind. “That’s how I get my ideas. First there’s an image, then a moving picture. No notes or drafts,” he says, mentioning how busy he is. He must send Cuban writer Amir Valle, who lives in Germany, one short story every week, for a book to be published by Fischer. He would have preferred to publish Dios no juega a los dados (“God Does not Play Die”), a novel about prison, a testimony of his recent experiences in prison, but Amir, who is also his friend and agent, has recommended he let the story rest for now.
Santiesteban’s cell phone vibrates. It’s his girlfriend. He answers. “She’s just reminding me I have a doctor’s appointment at three. I had completely forgotten it. She reminded me before I came here.” We’ll only have twenty short minutes for the interview, if nothing else urgent comes up. He seems exhausted, he can’t conceal this even though he wants to. He rubs his eyes in circles with the index and thumb. “This heat is overwhelming, it puts you to sleep. But don’t worry. Even though this horse seems taciturn, tired, don’t believe it, he works with his mind. So, don’t worry. Let’s continue.” A Leo, who was born on August 2, the date of the horse in the Chinese horoscope, suffers from chronic gastritis, a hiatus hernia and a bleeding ulcer on the walls of his stomach. Days before, they detected a blood clot in his intestine that makes his condition even more delicate. It’s no wonder he’s lost weight.
“I got all this during my last stay in prison. I went on two hunger strikes, one lasted 16 days and the other 18. I wanted to see if I could teach a lesson to this totalitarian regime that barely lets you breathe. That’s what I wanted. To sacrifice myself and use my death to try and damage this dictatorship, make it accountable.” It was 2013. Cuban actress Sheila Roche, his partner at the time, was the one who made him see reason during a visit to the prison. “Didn’t you screw our relationship? Didn’t you want to be in prison? Now it’s not the time to die, do what you came here to do. Didn’t you say you wanted to condemn the abuses you see every day? Then do it. That’s what Sheila said to me and I listened.”
An old woman who walks with a stop approaches the table, holding a bunch of peanut pacakages. Santiesteban buys 10 and calls the waiter over. He asks me what I want to drink and we both decide on malta. This writer, without whom the map of Cuban literature could not be fully drawn, has yogurt, fruit, natural juices and crackers for breakfast. He can’t touch coffee, beans or soft drinks. The dietary tyranny his doctor has imposed on him is so arbitrary that, if he followed it literally, he’d bore himself to death eating the same thing over and over again, which is why he is constantly breaking the rules.
“I can’t even eat this,” he says while opening up a peanut package. He pours half the peanuts inside into his mouth and starts chewing. “Lucky it’s just a routine check-up today, none of this business of swallowing up a hose so he can go scuba-diving in my stomach.” He looks at his watch on his left wrist. “I don’t like being controlled, which is why I never liked being a kid. I detest being governed by someone. I never got used to getting orders, I could never stand anyone controlling my life and setting routines for me. Even if freedom led me to failure, I would continue to choose it.”
He opens the can of malt, takes a sip and remains focused and serious, as though it were irritating for him to rummage through a childhood that could be summarized as seeing his mother support five kids in a bad neighborhood with her hairdresser’s job. His mother never read him stories and was burdened by the guilt of having given birth to an epileptic child after suffering a fall during her pregnancy. “Since she spoiled him every way she could, she would even let my brother hit me. He was very violent. I had to wait till adolescence to make him respect me. One day, I told my mother she’d done the most damage, not by falling, but later, in his upbringing.”
He waves away a fly that tries to land on the can of malt and it seems as though he were waving away those childhood memories, wanting to leap in search of his teenage years, when he entered adulthood prematurely that day in 1984, when he went to say goodbye to his sister and brother-in-law, on a boat headed for Miami. As fate would have it, the Cuban coast guard surprised them and he, Angel Santiesteban, would be imprisoned for the first time for the crime of concealment. “They told me I had the right to turn my sister in. I waited 14 months for trial and was finally absolved. She and my brother-in-law had to wait ten years for attempting to leave the country illegally and the crime of robbery. The boat was State property.”
Now, he smiles for the first time. He thinks back to his days as a student at the Camilo Cienfuegos Military School, when he was 17. He had sent a letter to his brother, serving in an internationalist mission in Ethiopia, telling him he was ready to take over for him in Africa. “They liked the letter so much and so many soldiers wanted to copy it that they pinned it up on a bulletin board, next to the board showing the different holidays. He wrote me to tell me I should study philology. I thought that was a medical career. When I found out it was in the humanities, I felt offended. At the time, I thought literature was for weaklings and homosexuals. I sent him another letter, telling him not to underestimate me; that I was made for weapons, the military.”
His calling as a writer and voracious appetite for books would assail him in prison. He would read Iulian Simionov’s Seventeen Instants and a Spring to learn how to narrate a story, write dialogue, describe things. He was stifled by the story of how several Palestinian students had confronted the Iranian army from the rearguard and had ended up sacrificing themselves. “When I got out of prison, I met Heras and gave him the novel for him to read. He suggested I found a literary workshop to learn narrative techniques. He told me it was a diamond in the rough, that I was literally in diapers.”
Between workshop sessions and books Eduardo Heras Leon lent him, he began to compile testimonies from different soldiers who had taken part in internationalist missions and wrote his first book of short stories: Sur: latitude 13 (“South: Latitude 13”). “It’s the other side of Angola. Some veterans would ask me to turn off the recorder when they began telling of overwhelming experiences. Many who read the book think I was in that war.”
“Now, I’m going to tell you something very few people know.” He pauses, opens his mouth and shakes the remaining peanuts loose into his mouth. “In 1992, I sent Sur: latitud 13 to the Casa de las Americas literary competition and won. Abilio Estevez, one of the members of the jury, called me to congratulate me. When the verdict was made known, State Security agents called a meeting with all jury members and told them they would do me harm by publishing a book that would bring me trouble. They acknowledged it wasn’t a counterrevolutionary book, but it spoke about the human dimension of the Angola war, which was a rather uncomfortable reality at odds with the official discourse. They said they would talk to me to have it published by Letras Cubanas.” Santiesteban had to content himself with appearing as a finalist in the competition. He would win the award, against all odds, in 2006, with Dichosos los que lloran (“Blessed Are They Who Cry”), a story-novel dealing with prison.
The years went by and Sur: latitud 13 continued to sleep on a shelf somewhere in the publishing house, until Santiesteban decided to change its title to A Summer’s Night Dream and present it at a competition. Then, it wins the Cuban Writers and Artists Association’s award and, suddenly, he discovers that censorship was to continue stalking him like a bad confident. To publish it, they demand that he remove five stories from the book. Later, when Casa de las Americas was preparing a dossier with the work of young narrators, at the request of the institution, Satiesteban sends three stories so they can choose one. None is chosen. This was the beginning of what Santiestaban would call “the children nobody wanted,” children marked by rejection and indifference (though some have managed to cheat censorship over time).
Having won the National Literary Workshops Contest with Sur: latitude 13 or having obtained a mention in Radio France’s Juan Rulfo Competition are not what earned him some fame at the close of the 80s. It was, rather, his altercation with Cuban writer David Buzzi during a literary event in the province of Pinar del Rio. “Buzzi bragged of having written 10 books and, at the restaurant, said: ‘that’s why people have to get on their knees and suck it.’
“I was sitting next to his table and told the people sitting with me: ‘I’d rather suck it than have to read one of his books.’ He heard me and called me outside to demand an explanation. But he asked for one shoving me and I beat the crap out of him. Later, people would say to me: ‘so you’re the one who beat Buzzi up.’”
The cell phone began vibrating. Santiesteban doesn’t pick it up. He merely looks at his watch again and then glances over at me, as though giving me the opportunity to ask one more question. I sip my malt. I think about the possibility to travel abroad we Cubans have. They’re nearly non-existent. It would be unthinkable to rely on our salaries, not even if we were to save it, in full, throughout our lives. I’ve seen so many men and women grow old, who laid their hopes on a dream that won’t be fulfilled. Men and women who have worked for more than 30 years, wasting away a life that will never know Paris, Amsterdam or Stockholm, not even a desolate street it Haiti or a shanty town in the Congo.
Santiesteban, who has been invited by several foreign institutions to take part in cultural gatherings in their countries, will have to wait until 2018, when he is to be granted parole. “Because of a total farce, something that can only happen in a country like this, that boasts of a democracy in which disagreeing is to automatically walk over to the side of the enemy.”
Santiesteban swallows up another package of peanuts and hands me the last one. He looks at the watch and calls the waiter over to pay for the bill. It is as though he were letting me know the time for confession is over. This storyteller that proves uncomfortable for the government created the blog The Children Nobody Wanted to fulfill another dream: to write about his social and political concerns in a little-known newspaper in an overlooked space. Now, about to turn 50, he feels like that teenager who used to buy motorcycles and cars to repair and resell them, one of the many ways of trying to lead a life that unravels with the daily effort to live it.
“Writing is how I justify the space I take up on Earth. My life seems meaningless if I don’t do this every day. I write in order to express the feelings of those who want to be heard.” The father of two children, he doesn’t read what others write about him or his books. He only fears being unable to speak his mind. He admires Hemingway, Juan Rulfo, Isaac Babel. He detests politicians who want to pass off as writers. When he doesn’t write or read, he meets with friends, goes to the theater or sees a movie. If it’s got Morgan Freeman or Denzel Washington in it, so much the better, as these are his favorite actors. “They conquered my soul when I was studying film direction.”
What does Santiesteban think about Cuban literature? He gathers the empty peanut packages and crushes them into a ball. He seems to be looking for a bin he can aim the ball at. “Cuban literature lacks freedom and has an excess of fear, of self-censorship. The consequences of speaking one’s mind are serious and not everyone is willing to face them. They silence you, they don’t let you publish anything or be part of any delegation that travels abroad. They don’t invite you to be the member of a jury or anything. But they can’t force you to stop writing, which is why I say that, if institutional censorship is harmful, self-censorship is even worse. Censorship keeps you from getting published, true, but what you write is out there, in a drawer. When you censor yourself, you open up a gap, as you fail to write what’s on your mind.”
As a teenager, Santiesteban refused to publish his stories in order not to regret it later. He preferred waiting, maturing slowly, until, during a literary gathering, Amir stole Ellos (“They”), a story dealing with futile love, and published it without his consent in Cuba’s Alma Mater magazine. “Heras even said to me: if you don’t give me a story for me to publish in Letras Cubanas, forget about my literary support. I was never in any rush to publish, I wanted to reach this age without regretting having published something I should have thrown out in time.”
The cell phone vibrates again. The time of my interrogation is now definitely over. He doesn’t have to look at me, I understand immediately. His words justify his actions; it is a question of looking for them, reading them. Sometimes they are scattered across a banner. He’s never voted or belonged to any committee, he preaches only through literature: “On a municipal election day, if you can call having a candidate imposed on you an election, I set up a huge banner outside my house that read: “This house doesn’t vote. We throw out the government and its lies.”
Had literature not crossed his path, Santiesteban would perhaps devote his days to drawing now. In high school, he drew many comics. “But the dialogue balloons in these comics were so big that I said to myself one day: perhaps you should draw less balloons and write more. The inclination to tell a story was always greater in me.” He gets up. Perhaps saying his leg is numb is a polite way of telling me the time’s up. I won’t be able to find out what his greatest wish is. He will leave and the question will continue to hammer inside me. But he stops, turns around and looks me straight in the eye. “My greatest wish is to be able to live in a country where saying what I think won’t land me in jail again.”