HAVANA TIMES — The author of several works published in Cuba and abroad, Miguel Angel Fraga sets out to capture the truth of a difficult and misunderstood era, the experiences of those who became Cuba’s first victims of the terrible HIV-AIDS epidemic. “I can say that it is thanks to HIV that I am a writer today,” he tells us during his interview for Havana Times.
HT: Why do you take refuge in the act of writing?
Miguel Ángel Fraga: It happened at a crucial point in my life, the 90s, when I began to turn my demons into literature. At the time, I was a patient at Cuba’s AIDS clinic, then known as Los Cocos, located in the Santiago de las Vegas sanatorium, in La Habana. I was going through a rough time. I was practically a vegetable and I thought the only thing ahead of me was death.
I based my first stories on my experiences with AIDS. It’s a little ironic, but I can say that it is thanks to HIV that I am a writer today.
HT: What was the first work you published in Cuba?
MAF: My first book was published by Cuba’s Extramuros publishing house. It was a collection of five stories, taken from the myriad stories I would collect at the sanatorium, not only my experiences, but also those of other patients and the medical staff at the clinic.
HT: What literary genres have you tackled, mainly?
MAF: I’ve written short stories, novels, short plays (which are really adaptations of my stories). I’ve also written testimonies. Those are the genres I’ve worked in my writing career. I think I enjoy prose the most, particularly the type of prose that uses direct, simple language. That’s what I’m motivated to write, for the most part.
HT: Tell us about Un rincon cerca del cielo (“A Place Close to Heaven”).
MAF: It was published in Spain in 2008. I was later able to launch it in Cuba, through the Cuban Writers and Artists Association (UNEAC). This book is something like the culmination of the work I did at the Los Cocos sanitarium. It gathers testimonies from patients, doctors, psychiatrists, nurses and even the relatives of patients, everyone who lived those agitated years of the late 80s and the 90s, telling of their experiences and feelings.
It is important to stress that Un rincon cerca del cielo complements the great work of Dr. Jorge Perez and his two volumes titled, Confesiones de un medico (“Confessions of a Doctor”).
HT: You continued to publish works on this controversial issue after leaving Cuba.
MAF: Yes, 20 years later, while living in Sweden, my book Hibernacion came out. It’s a play on words, “hibernation”, for I feel AIDS is in a state of hibernation – it’s out there, but there’s a kind of silence that surrounds it, it’s latent, both in the human body and in society, even though it is no longer as deadly thanks to medical breakthroughs today.
In this book, I start from the same idea but focus directly on what happens in Swedish society, where I have been living most of the time for several years now.
One of my interviews deals with a curious case, a Swedish woman who adopted an HIV-positive child. She brought him from Ethiopia, taking him to Sweden at her own risk, knowing that he would receive the medication and treatment he needed there.
The child’s parents had died of the disease. The little boy was in a very delicate state of health. They even recommended that he not take the trip, because they gave him only a few months of life. This woman assumed the risks and, today, the child is 7 years old. He enjoys good health and has a good life.
HT: There’s talk of a fifth book that will also deal with the issue of AIDS.
MAF: Yes, this is something of an exclusive interview, because I haven’t announced it publicly yet. I am thinking of publishing one last book to close off the series of works focusing on the disease. It will be a rather blistering collection of testimonies that will gather different anecdotes.
It will focus on one very curious thing, sexuality. It’s going to be a fairly sexual book, based on my experiences back when we were isolated in that sanatorium in Cuba, where one wasn’t supposed to have sex with others in order to prevent the spread of the disease. What took place in that clinic was actually the complete opposite: we were isolated from the world and we were freer in that sense, we were like an experimental city.
All sorts of things happened there, surreal in the way Carpentier described, and sexuality was something constant at the time, despite the risk of reinfection and the fear of death. The book will be titled “La casa rosada” (“The Pink House”) and I would like to approach a publishing house in Cuba to see if I can publish there first.
HT: Tell us about the award you received in 2011.
MAF: It was the Perl Oloff Person In Memoriam Award. Person was diagnosed HIV-positive in the early 80s and, as of his diagnosis, began an intense campaign to raise awareness about the disease. He passed away in the early 90s.
His mother created the award as a tribute to her son’s memory and to acknowledge the work he carried out as an activist in the struggle against AIDS.
I received the award in recognition of one of my works, a story I adapted for the stage, titled “Gunila”. It tells the story of a Cuban transvestite who I had the opportunity to get to know.
Our ability to experience extreme situations without giving up on our happiness or our capacity to dream are the issues explored by the story. “Gunila” is the play I have staged the most in Sweden. The interesting thing is that the main character is portrayed by a Swedish actor who doesn’t know the environment where the person lived in. Even so, he’s done an exceptional job.
HT: Is there any particular reason you decided to write and direct plays?
MAF: I do it to reach a broader audience, because people don’t buy that many books these days (they’re expensive outside Cuba). One alternative is the theatre, turning my stories into dramatic plays.
HT: How long have you lived with AIDS?
MAF: It’s been 22 years since they first diagnosed me with HIV-AIDS. Today, thanks to many breakthroughs, there are many more options than we had back in the sad times it was our lot to experience. It was something immensely tragic for us back then. I have memories that continue to affect me psychologically. But I think I have overcome all that and I can confidently say I am a survivor.