Por Yusimí Rodríguez
HAVANA TIMES, Nov 28 – For months now, there are two people I’ve been wanting to interview: one of them is my Havana Times colleague, known to readers as Amrit; the other is the writer Veronica Pérez Vega who is just becoming known in our country, but who has recently had her first novel published in France, “Here, the only thing to do is leave”.
Now, when at last an opportunity appeared, it became a little difficult for me to decide which to interview first. Happily, they provided a simple solution: I could interview both at the same time, because Veronica Pérez Vega and our colleague Amrit are one and the same.
HT: Vero, I’d like to start off talking about this work of fiction that you have published in France and later about your work at Havana Times. Even though I’m familiar with the story, I believe that our readers would like to know what led you to write this novel.
Veronica: In 2006 I was writing a novel, and I made e-mail contact with a Cuban writer who lives in Germany. She’s a friend of the group known as Omni and she suggested a project to Eligio – one of the other Omni members – and to me. The project consisted in writing a novel in three voices, where each one narrated thirty days in their life. My principal reason for accepting was that I had some pressing economic needs at that moment.
She suggested that when each one had written up one week of their life, she could then present the project to an institution and obtain financing. It was an interesting idea, because it involved writing down everything just as it happened.
I wrote in the park, at the beach, at the bus stop. I paused to note down what I was feeling, the smells. It became a habit. Time passed and our lives became more frantic: a trip to Germany appeared on the scene, as she invited the group.
The thirty days of the original project idea stretched into months. At the end of a year, I wrote to her, asking what was going to happen. At that point, neither she nor Eligio felt like they had any strength left to continue with the project. I went on by myself, and I had some problems with her. I could have just gone on with my part and put an end to it, but I felt that it should reflect the original idea.
I inserted fragments of their writing, but she didn’t want to appear in the novel nor have her writing there. So, that’s how I came to rewrite the novel entirely, eliminating everything that this friend wanted me to take out, including the title, which was hers. I created a new subject who is in part based on a friend of some years ago. That’s the only fictional character, but the circumstances are all real.
When I had finished, I didn’t know what to do with the novel. Marie, a French friend who had once interviewed me, asked if I would agree to have her try to publish it in France. It seemed like a good idea to me. She contacted Cristila, a translator, who made a commitment to read the text. But time passed without her doing so.
When she finally did, she loved it and convinced the publishing company to publish it. The editors wrote to me that she had defended the work with such passion that they had decided to run the risk of publishing a totally unknown writer such as myself. It was like a miracle, although at the same time it didn’t really astonish me. I don’t know if it’s because one dreams so much about something that when it finally occurs it’s like a calm surprise.
HT: The title of the novel sounds quite radical, as if the only option for Cubans was to leave the country. Is that what you think?
Veronica: When I had to change the title, it took a lot of work for me to find a new one. In eliminating the original, I felt like I had ripped out a thread of something. , “Here, the only thing to do is leave” is a phrase that has been constantly present in my life; also, I had published an article under that title in the digital magazine Esquife, and I knew that it had raised a lot of hackles. In addition, I wanted to make a documentary with that name in which I would interview people who had left, people who were waiting to leave, and people who dreamed of leaving. To a certain extent, the documentary is in the novel. Since I can’t film it, I created the images with words.
I realized that the novel was about the agony and the dreams of a group of people who are in a country that is falling apart. They struggle to find some sense in staying there, who knows for how long. You shouldn’t be asking yourself at every moment if you should leave or not, because we’re all part of the world. But in the way we’ve lived here, our feelings about the country are too painful, including our feelings of guilt.
In addition, when a Cuban leaves, it’s not like it is for a person in the first world. The way in which you leave is always a little traumatic. It’s possible that you won’t be able to return for a long time. There’s as much pain in the act of leaving as there is in that of staying. So I felt that this phrase embodied the story.
The people in the novel move among others who tell them that it’s not worth making an effort, that here the only thing to do is leave, but they keep trying to prove that you can construct something here as well, and that it’s not just a station where you’re waiting for the train that’s going to take you away.
HT: Nevertheless, when I met you in 2003 your main objective was to leave this country. You had the opportunity of leaving through the support of your father and that seemed to be your future. In fact, we thought we would be maintaining our friendship through letters and e-mails, because you saw yourself as living outside the country. What has changed?
Veronica: I still see myself as out of this country, or almost. I see testimonies from people who left in the eighties, and I feel like one Marielite more [Mariel was the port where a major boat lift took place in 1980]. I always dreamed of joining my father and never believed that I was going to stay. It was a sentiment that took deep root in me, together with all the frustrations that we experience every day here.
This created a kind of interior exile. I don’t dare to say that I’m going to stay in Cuba, nor can I say that I’ll leave, but I always feel better when I think that I’m not going to stay. I desire what the majority probably do: to be able to enter and leave my country freely, without it becoming a tragedy.
HT: Veronica is exactly at the point of fulfilling the dream that accompanies the majority of Cubans throughout their lives, although many die without ever accomplishing it: to travel. In the wake of the publication of her novel, she has been invited to France to participate in the Latino Arts Festival. Before, traveling seemed like a nearly impossible dream, but now…
Veronica: It hasn’t been at all simple. Perhaps it would have gone better if I were a member of the UNEAC (the Artists and Writers Association) or of some other institution that could take charge of the application process; that which awaits a Cuban who is not backed by any organism is to run the luck of being invited as a tourist. The weight of the invitation that you receive doesn’t matter; in the end you’re someone who is traveling simply as a tourist.
HT: But traveling as a tourist is a simple matter anywhere in the world – or not?
Veronica: I don’t know. Here it isn’t. When it’s a personal invitation, you have to fill out mountains of paperwork. But perhaps the most frustrating thing is that the person who invites you generally has no idea how things work here. I tell you this because I have been invited on other occasions and the intention has been drowned.
Those on the other side give up because there are too many forms to be filled out. If it’s related to an event that takes place at a specific time, you need at least six months to avoid stress and pressure, and you also need consistency from the other side. In my case, the people have been very nice and have done everything possible. They just didn’t fully understand how difficult it is to get a Cuban out in this way.
HT: But they had to make out the invitation as a personal one, because the institution couldn’t invite you. A Cuban can’t be invited by an institution unless they belong to an institution here? A French person can invite you, but not an organization, is that how it works?
Veronica: The supposition is that if there’s an institution on that side, there must be one here to back me up. But it’s been very difficult to find one. These people in France were very disconcerted by what was happening. They have been holding this festival for ten years and they had never come up against a case like this. In fact, in order for me to get a visa they were supposed to send me travel insurance that the French Embassy in Cuba requested. They didn’t understand, and they had to call the embassy because they’ve never had to do this.
Other Cuban writers such as Wendy Guerra and Leonardo Padura have been invited to this French festival, and in neither case has it been so difficult. Wendy Guerra lives outside of Cuba and Leonardo Padura is a member of the UNEAC.
HT: For a long time you felt a certain envy towards people younger than you who had managed to travel and to see the world; some because they had married foreigners and others who emigrated via different channels. You compared yourself with them and felt that up to a certain point you had failed. How do you see things now?
Veronica: I believe that just as we have a memory of the past, we have one of the future. I always had an intuition that there were ties between France and myself. The race of life can become very convulsive, because one is constantly comparing oneself with others. For example, during the Special Period, which was a great shock to me, I felt trapped here, because I had always imagined that I would live outside the country.
During this stage of my life I was a dancer. For that reason, I wasn’t totally aware of what was happening around me until one day I arrived at a bus stop and saw that enormous mass of people stretched out along the sidewalks of G St. Waiting, without ever knowing when the omnibus might come. Half of those of us who were there knew that we wouldn’t even be able to get on the first bus, and that filled me with desperation and a sense of impotence.
Leaving this country became a goal and an obsession. One makes mistakes and begins to run towards the exit until life demonstrates to you that it’s not over there. Perhaps others have had more luck in encountering what they want. I have always written since I was a child: letters, poems and an intent to write a novel when I was nine years old.
But at the same time, I felt the need to do other things and I hadn’t concentrated on my writing. Life went on taking me where I should go and I went on accepting. I could say it in these terms: I began to understand what God wanted of me. I could say it in another way: there’s a force of will that operates in my life and knows what I need better than certain tendencies of my mind. I discovered that the road already existed, and I went on cooperating with it. When these people wrote me to invite me to the festival, I said to myself: “How simple, it happened by means of the novel.”
In the novel I write that I hope that this mountain of words, so difficult to summarize in clear aesthetic terms, works a miracle like in the fairy tales or in bad movies. In the end, it all happened naturally without manipulating or forcing anything.
HT: What are the possibilities of you publishing your novel in Cuba. Have you thought about doing so?
Veronica: I don’t have that intention because I don’t believe that it would ever be accepted for publication. I would love to, but when I published the original article under that title in Esquife, the editor told me that it had rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Secondly, because Omni Free Trade Zone (LINK) appears in the novel; they were part of my life at that time and right at this moment they are censored. I don’t believe that the publishing companies would be interested in publishing a novel in which they have a presence.
Sincerely, I’m speaking a priori: I haven’t made any attempts. I don’t know if it’s an intuition or a prejudice. Also, here the publication of a book can take years. Nonardo’s book, [a friend that we have in common], took ten years in the process before it was finally published.
HT: When I asked you a few days ago if I should interview you as Veronica Pérez Vega or as Amrit, a writer for Havana Times, you replied that there was no problem in revealing your identity at the site. I felt very surprised, because up until now you have written under a pseudonym. What made you decide to reveal your identity in this interview?
Veronica: I signed my first articles with my name. But at that moment I had ties with people who would feel menaced by the fact of my writing for the site. Some of them were biased against it.
HT: Personally, do you feel that you run any risks by writing for HT?
Veronica: I feel that I’m not responsible for what others may say, but only for what I say. I don’t write under the impulse of rage, I try to do sp according to my conscience, so that I would be able to defend what I write before in any arena.
HT: You are among the few writers who don’t have that little tag where each one expresses why they write for this site. Maybe this is a good opportunity for you to tell the readers why you began to write for HT and why you have continued to do so.
Veronica: My idea was to have a regular column addressing spiritual themes. Circles is a very open person, and he liked the proposal. I began to interview people who had projects that were in some way spiritual, who had been looking for God in dissimilar ways. But I found that I was meeting people whose ways of life didn’t convince me; it began to become very discouraging.
On the other hand, as you pass through new places and try new things, you react against dysfunction, injustice; and you feel the need to express yourself. HT became the site where I could express those discrepancies that I couldn’t discuss in any other magazine here.
Here in Cuba, I’ve been published in the “Caimán Barbudo”, in Extramuros, once in Esquife, but I know that I couldn’t propose articles for any of those publications like the ones that I write for HT; then there’s the matter of how long the printed magazines delay in publication. In the online media everything moves more rapidly. HT is the place where I can express myself and make suggestions for the transformations that I consider possible. If, in addition, I can speak about God, I’d like to do so.
HT: What pains you most about the country in this moment?
Veronica: The animals that suffer in the streets, the quantity of hungry dogs. Sometimes I stop and spend ten pesos on a piece of bread and ham for one, but then another one appears, and it’s because every day there are more abandoned animals. Other things that affect me is the indiscriminate cutting down of trees and all the garbage that has been scattered around. The lack of ethics, a kind of cynicism that young people have developed, also hurts.
Another thing I can’t stand is hypocrisy. Cuban society is imposing a standard of living that is unsustainable for most people if they live honestly; nonetheless people feel guilty or ashamed to say that they can’t, or that they don’t have, or that they earn very little, as if it were indecent to say that one is poor, not because one doesn’t work enough but because the system of salaries doesn’t allow you to live in a minimally comfortable way.
HT: As if being poor was a crime?
Veronica: Yes, as if being poor was a crime. That is, it doesn’t matter if you steal or conduct illegal business to attain that standard of living. The bad thing is to be poor. It’s a phenomenon that I see in people of all ages.
There’s a great lack of freedom, but I believe that this isn’t something that someone can give you. It’s true that the environment exerts an influence, but liberty and security are things that you must discover for yourself.
There’s something else that affects me a great deal and that’s the problem of transportation – it’s terrible. A while ago I was remembering a poem by Angel Escobar that says: “It’s the eternal rite of waiting that you submit me to.”
You know that in Alamar everything is much more difficult: taxis cost 20 pesos and I recently found out that after 12 at night they charge thirty. But, in general, I believe that there’s a great spiritual crisis; we need a revolution at the level of our consciences. I believe that this is above and beyond whatever other economic and political issues we have.
HT: But that’s a problem all over the world, not just in Cuba. So, given that, what would be the difference between leaving and staying?
Veronica: What happens is that you begin to have other necessities. In reality, I don’t know if I’ll leave Cuba, because every day I have more emotional commitments. I’m not going to abandon my animals for example. Emigrating isn’t so simple either. Also, I wouldn’t want to go to a place where I couldn’t work in a field I like – I know I couldn’t stand that.
HT: Vero, is there anything you want to say to the HT readers before we finish?
Veronica: Only that I will never reply to a disrespectful comment, because in doing so the only alternative you have is to get down to the same level, and that will never lead to a dialogue. People have a right to say whatever they want, but I think that if the intention is to arrive at a dialogue, then each person should express their opinion with respect.
HT: Do you believe that this is something we need in our society?
Veronica: Of course. We Cubans have a tendency to not listen and to impose, neither believing nor trusting in what the other person has to say without even giving them the opportunity to express themselves and see if they convince us or not.
HT: I wish you happy travels to France and I hope that upon your return you’ll tell us all about the experience.