by Marilyn Bobes (OnCuba)
HAVANA TIMES — US university professor Sara Cooper is the founder of a veritable publisher’s dream: Cubanabooks. The publishing house has already begun to secure prestige in both Cuba and the United States thanks to the tenacity of woman who defends literature written by women and Queer Studies.
She is currently working at the California State University, devoting much of her time to publish the work of Cuban women living in the United States.
At a time when curiosity about Cuba may well extend to its literature, Sara Cooper has a feeling that her project may become one more way for the countries – which opened their respective embassies on July 20 – to begin a difficult normalization process to involve the sphere of culture – to get to know each other better. We approached Cooper to learn more about her and her expectations for her initiative, which has neatly become a reality and one more bridge between the United States and Cuba – an initiative focused through the lens of women, the always neglected gender that struggles to secure the place it deserves on both shores of the Strait of Florida.
How, when, why and with what aims was Cubanabooks born?
Cubanabooks was created in 2010, with the publication of its first issue, an anthology of stories by Mirta Yañez (“Havana is a Really Big City”). In 2011, it became a non-profit company.
I’d been interested in Cuban literature – and women’s literature in particular – for many years. In 1998, I met Mirta Yañez and a close personal and professional relationship arose between us. Thanks to this, I was able to start translating part of Mirta’s work, with a view to publishing it in the United States.
Faced with so many difficulties trying to achieve this over several years, I almost gave up. Publishing houses (big and small) didn’t want to take the risk with an author who was unknown in the United States and didn’t write detective or erotic stories. They were also afraid about the legal and financial implications stemming from the blockade.
After long conversations with Mirta, we decided we were willing to “change the world,” and set out to create a publishing house that would publish first-rate literary texts written by Cuban women. Hence the name Cubanabooks
Another aim of ours was to have a bilingual publication. I didn’t want just my English-speaking friends and relatives to get to know the treasure of Cuban literature, I also wanted to have a source of Cuban literature for the Spanish classes I teach at university. Save for the first one, all of the books we’ve published are in both languages. This broadens readership in the United States.
We believe more and more that our most important aim is to build bridges between the two countries, at a historical moment many did not imagine they’d live to see. A crucial part of this is to be able to facilitate constant exchange between Cuban and US women, because there’s much we can learn from one another.
What books has Cubanabooks published to date and which are currently being edited?
In addition to the books I’ve mentioned, our publishing house has published other volumes, for a total of eight books: two novels (Mirta Yañez’ The Bleeding Wound and Uva de Aragon’s The Memory of Silence), three short story anthologies (Nancy Alonso’s Disconnect, Aida Bahr’s Ophelias and Maria Elena Llana’s An Address in Havana) and two poem collections (Nancy Morejon’s Home Instincts and Georgina Herrera’s Always Rebellious).
We have four books in the works, which starts with the initial consideration of a work in Spanish (a work undertaken by several of our editor) and concludes with the meticulous edition of the final bilingual text. There are no works in that final stage now, but we do have four new projects that have been accepted and on which the author, the translator and editors are now working. These are:
Esther Diaz Llanillo’s and Manuel Martinez’ About Spirits and Other Mysteries, Margarita Mateo Palmer’s Desde los blancos manicomios (no working title yet), a work being translated by Rebecca Hanssens-Reed, Zurelys Lopez Amaya’s Flocks, a series of poems being translated by Jeffrey C. Barnett and Mirta Yañez’ Un solo bosque negro and Las visitas, being translated by Elizabeth Miller.
We are also considering projects with an addition 10 authors, particularly in the novel and short story genres.
Why only women and specifically those who live in Cuba, and not female Cuban authors in the so-called diaspora?
Today’s society has not developed enough to afford women the same opportunities and recognition men enjoy, and this is clearly felt in the publishing industry. According to a study conducted in 2013 by Vida, a US organization for women in the literary arts, the industry favors the publication and review of books written by men. For instance, of all the books reviewed by the New York Times in 2010, only 35 % were written by women. There’s a regrettable idea out there that literature written by women isn’t “literature” but “women’ literature.” We have to have more books written by women, and see these books published, reviewed, taught and read. The entire staff of Cubanabooks is feminist (including the men) and we want to contribute to the struggle to achieve equality in this sphere someday.
I want to make something clear: though our priority is to publish women residing on the island, last year we published a novel by Uva de Aragon, who lives in Miami. Uva argues that women writers in the Cuban émigré community face their own obstacles in terms of being taken seriously, while, for me, what’s important is to tear down the barriers that have led to so much silence and lack of understanding between our peoples.
What difficulties has your publishing house faced and how do you see the future?
We are a genuine non-profit organization whose staff is almost entirely made up of volunteers. Those who work without getting paid, as all of the editors in Cubanabooks do, have to continue doing the things that pay the bills. All of the editors who live in the United States are professors who work every day and therefore find it difficult to find the extra time required by the publishing house. For me, the transition from professor to editor, promoter and organizer has been a huge challenge. And, like in any publishing house, we lack the needed funds.
Do you think the US market is ready for Cuban literature, now that the process of normalizing relations between the two countries is beginning?
The US public wants information about Cuba, they want to hear voices from the island, they want to break out of the total ignorance they’ve “enjoyed” over the past 55 years. Two weeks ago, I was doing the groceries and, when I got to the register, I was very much surprised to see the most recent issue of Time Magazine, devoted entirely to Cuba!
What is your opinion of the literature written by women on the island, given your studies of Cuban literature?
There’s a good reason I’ve devoted the entirety of my professional life to the study (and now the divulging) of this literature. There’s an undeniable power, a fascinating dynamism and a high degree of culture and intellect in the literature written by Cuban women. I believe Cuban women suffer the same neurosis endured by US women, because we were taught to believe we could do anything while continuing to place obstacles in our way. This is the so-called glass house phenomenon. The ideas and emotions that stem from these tensions are something we share, but Cuban women also have a cultural background that’s richer and more complex than ours here in the United States. In addition, I believe that having experienced the Cuban revolution has led to a very complicated perspective. In all of the writers I’ve studied and the ones I appreciate the most, all of these elements, plus the unique, vital experience of each, have been expressed through prose, poetry or both that manages to move me deeply.
Tell me about yourelf, your career, how your relationship with Cuba began and what state it’s in right now.
I obtained a bachelor’s and PhD in literature at the University of Texas in Austin (specializing in Latin American women’s literature), under the tutorship of Naomi Lindstrom. At one point, I became interested in a psychological approach to literature, from the perspective of family system theories. I wrote my thesis on the representation of alternative family systems in the narrative works of several women in Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina and Guatemala. I was particularly fascinated by works with LGBT characters, with whom I identified much more. I first went to Cuba while working as a Spanish teacher at Stanford University, to take part in a conference on women’s issues organized by Luisa Campuzano.
A year later, I met Mirta Yañez, and, reading her stories, I came to understand that Cuban literature and culture had been almost entirely ignored in my university studies (with some rare exceptions). With Mirta’s help, I became something of a Cubanophile. I spent many years studying a lot, an my CV is full of presentations and academic publications on different issues (family systems, LGBT issues, Queer Studies, literary humor, graphic humor and others). Now, however, I am far more interested in the gratifying work of literary translations (I am currently only translating Mirta and a Chicano friend, Antonio Arreguin Bermudez), the publishing of books through Cubanabooks and teaching at the California State University. Oh, and, of course, I continue to struggle to change the world.
I try to go to Cuba every second year. If I had more time and money (and there were less of a blockade), I would gladly travel there more often.