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Donde no habite el olvido

Marzia Rosti
Valentina Paleari

El testimonio y la denuncia

Arenas’ voice in exile: Can libraries and technology transcend banishment?

Katia G. Karadjova

Texte intégral

1Reinaldo Arenas.

2Some Cuban friends –university peers– in my native Bulgaria brought the name to my ears for the first time in December 1990. They were already exiles themselves, in their late teens or early 20s when the communist regime in Bulgaria went down in 1989; Fidel Castro withdrew immediately all Cubans studying there. My friends refused to go back and were thus automatically deprived of Cuban citizenship.

3Anybody who has read Arenas’ books has experienced the tragic poetic beauty, the witty satire and the call for justice in his voice. Reinaldo Arenas’ literary works possess the inevitable impetus of «giving voice to the voiceless» (Soto 1994: 13). Had he not dared to speak out by putting into writing the brutal injustices committed in Cuba against homosexuals, he might not have been so vehemently persecuted and censored by the Cuban revolutionary government (Soto-Foster 1998).

4Reinaldo Arenas is one of many Latin American writers whose literary careers are interweaved into the sociopolitical realities in their countries. He was born on July 16, 1943 in a Cuban countryside marked by rural poverty. How could we qualify his childhood if his first memories were those of eating dirt because of food scarcity? Yes, we can describe it as wretched but Arenas saw his childhood as the most creative period of his life considering the freedom it afforded him. «I think the splendor of my childhood was unique because it was absolute poverty but also absolute freedom» (Arenas 1993: 5). To escape the surroundings of the poorest social stratum of society young Arenas populated the fields around his house with mythical creatures and supernatural characters as his imaginary friends and everyday companions. Apparently, these daydreams turned out to be the impetus behind his future literary aspirations. As he says:

What literary influences did I have in my childhood? Practically none: no books, no teaching… But regarding the magical, the mysterious, which is so essential for the development of creativity, my childhood was perhaps the most literary time of my life (Arenas 1993: 23).

5As many other idealistic teenagers did, Arenas supported Fidel Castro’s movement against the dictatorial government of Batista. In his autobiography, Before Night Falls, he states that he never took part in any single battle or even witnessed any fighting; since he was on the winning side, however, he was awarded a scholarship to study agricultural accounting after the triumph of the revolution. After graduating and working for a while on a state-run chicken farm he moved to Havana and changed careers. He started to work at the National Library where he met writers and artists who influenced his future literary development. It was at the library that he wrote his first novel, Singing from the Well (Celestino antes del alba), which was published in 1967. It was the story of a child who must rely on his imagination to survive the impoverished conditions of his rural existence and family persecution. The revolutionary cultural policy makers were demanding at the time social realist literature that advanced the creation of revolutionary consciousness and the free-falling lyrical narrative of Arenas’ novel easily fell out of favor shortly after publication. Arenas became an author in exile long before his actual escape from Cuba and relocation in the United States in 1980. For example, while his novels were being read and praised in Europe and Latin America during the 1970s, Arenas was censored in Cuba. He moved constantly and worked odd jobs to survive. He was imprisoned for a time.

6Year after year Reinaldo Arenas was an outspoken critic of Cuba’s politics through the characters and their stories in his literary works (see bibliography). At first a supporter of the Cuban revolution, Arenas turned away from the communist regime in the mid 1960s when the open persecution of homosexuals by Castro’s government began to escalate tremendously. His criticism of Castro’s regime was more than an attack on communism. It was a furious shout against a system, which was persecuting him, along with many others, just for being homosexual.

7After his relocation in the United States he settled in New York City where he reworked old manuscripts and wrote new texts. As Soto-Foster (1998: 3) highlight, Arenas has always regarded writing as a refugee, «an act of self-expression in which he challenged and subverted all systems of power that are predicated on exclusion and closure and that attempt to silence variant forms of human expression». Although Arenas was finally able to express himself freely, life in exile, as we can imagine, was very far from a nice walk in the park. His autobiography, Before Night Falls, was published first in French as Avant la nuit, as many of his previous works. The original Spanish version, Antes que anochezca, was published a few months later. The English translation was chosen as one of the best books of 1993 in the United States by the American Library Association, the New York Public Library, the Village Voice and The New York Review of Book. The book is the transcription of more than 20 cassettes Arenas dictated and then hastily corrected and edited during the last two years of his life. Emotionally and physically exhausted, his health deteriorating with AIDS, he could no longer write, which was the act that had given the most meaning to his life. He committed suicide on December 7, 1990. As one of the most prominent literary scholars on Arenas, Francisco Soto, outlines Before Night Falls is «one of the most sexually inhabited and liberating texts ever to come from Latin America» and «it marks an important milestone in the history of Latin American letters, because it is the first openly homosexual autobiography ever published» by an author from «an area in the world traditionally known for its machismo and homophobia» (1998: 3).

8Those lucky enough to reside outside of Cuba in any of the democratic parts of the world can freely dive into Arenas’ chronicling of the anguish of 20th century Cuba. Many of his books are translated into English and other languages. University library collections include his works in their original Spanish language as well as in translation.

9What about his native country, though? Is his voice heard there? Can traditional institutions like libraries employ current technologies to overpower intellectual censorship and oppression? Can Arenas’ voice reverberate back in his homeland today while the communist regime is still in power?

10For many years a movement called Friends of Cuban Libraries has advocated tirelessly on behalf of what have become known as Cuba’s ‘independent libraries’. A New York Public Library librarian named Robert Kent led the movement and the group used blogs, e-mails, letters and many public forums prompting the American Library Association to take a strong statement against censorship and in support of human rights in Cuba. Many prominent voices of authors, journalists and librarians joined the crusade in support of these independent libraries in Cuba and the Cuban dissidents –librarians who operate them. Since 1999 the American Library Association (ALA), the Canadian Library Association, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA, of which ALA is a member), and other organizations have all passed resolutions or produced key documents opposing the U.S. posture of hostility and embargo of Cuba, while at the same time calling on Cuba’s government to respect human rights and intellectual freedom. Several delegations of American librarians have visited Cuba in the years following the 1994 IFLA conference in Havana. In 2001, a group led by then ALA president elect went to Cuba to attend the plenary session of the Association of Caribbean University, Research and Institutional Libraries (ACURIL) especially to improve the understanding about libraries and librarianship in Cuba. The group toured the national library and a number of public libraries that are part of extensive system serving the highly literate population of Cuba. In addition, the group visited several independent libraries located in the homes of political dissidents and members of the opposition movement. Council at the 2001 ALA conference passed a resolution that called on the U.S. government «to put policies in place… to improve access to information in Cuba… and oppose all efforts to limit access to informational materials by Cuban libraries and library users» (McDonald 2008: 101). In 2003, the Cuban government rounded up, tried, and imprisoned some 75 Cuban journalists, activists, writers, and other citizens. Among these dissidents were several individuals who operated private book collections in their homes. A few months after the arrests ALA became even more vigorously to debate the matter of Cuba’s independent libraries through the International Relations Committee (IRC) and the Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) producing a report on Cuba in 2004.

11There is undoubtedly targeted censorship in Cuba. Even if available, that is, listed in the library catalog, books in libraries are under strict censorship. A Cuban college student requesting such books, i.e., copies of novels by the exiled writers Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Reinaldo Arenas was refused by the librarian, who stated that the books are «counterrevolutionary» (Llloyd 2001). At the same time Cuba annually hosts, what is arguably the second largest book fair in Latin America after Guadalajara, where book dealers from all over the world can sell their materials with scant government oversight (McDonald 2008). Per capita, Cuba supports one of the best public library systems in the developing world, which could be considered a miracle given the poor state of its economy. According to UNESCO, Cuba’s literacy rate is third in the world. The U.S. by contrast stands at 15th.

12Advanced technologies have acquired a very important role in library operations in the democratic parts of the world. Library and information science has encompassed new, larger dimensions as a discipline (Kiwuwa Lugya 2014). Digital access to bibliographic information as well as to full-text articles is an everyday experience we are very much used to. E-books, electronic books, are available in abundance either as downloadable PDF or other format files, which people can read on their personal device of preference offline, or as 24/7 online accessible reading materials. Most of the times both options are available for the same title. Academic, research, public and special libraries provide that access at the user’s fingertips on computers, tablets and smart phones.

13Where does Cuba stand in relation to all these possibilities? The intellectual freedom is still a long distance from the island. In 2009 Fidel Castro’s revolution marked its 50th anniversary, but unfortunately 25 writers remained in Cuban prisons, arrested for their allegedly anti-government positions. Twenty-two of them had been in jail since March 2003 (Shook 2009). A book collection has a great value to users when it is accessible and transmissible. Thus the private independent libraries in Cuba have somewhat assumed the responsibility for transmission unmet by the public and academic libraries, which are institutions to be charged by default with that mission (Unruh 2013). The Cuban government only barely lifted its near total ban of Internet access in 2008, but it also legalized PCs, mobile phones, DVD players, and TV sets up to a certain size for personal use (Conti 2008). On the other hand, practices of informal digital media circulation have emerged not only in Havana but also in urban Cuba between 2005 and 2010. In the context of long economic crises, consumer shortages and a dual economy, Cuban people use both informal and state-sanctioned networks to acquire different kinds of goods. Apparently, external hard drives turned out to be very popular mobile media. Furthermore, IT administrators for large state operations with Internet accounts would consolidate individual worker Internet quotas to download media content using file-sharing networks (Pertierra 2012). The way Cubans are supplementing their television consumption, for example, appears to be also the way they defy censorship and welcome back home the voices in exile. Finally, in December 2014 the world listened to speeches of Raul Castro and Barack Obama about the re-establishment of relations between Cuba and the United States. One of the demands to be met by the longest-standing totalitarian regime in the Western Hemisphere was «the dismantling of the apparatus of repression: shameful assaults on so called counterrevolutionaries, arbitrary arrests, demonization and intimidation of those who think differently» (Sánchez 2014).

14Reinaldo Arenas was one of those who faced these shameful assaults because he was thinking differently and daring to voice it. In a brief yet moving farewell letter sent to friends and various Spanish-language newspapers in the United States and abroad, Arenas made it quite clear that his suicide should not be regarded as a sign of failure (Soto-Foster 1998). His final words revealed the self-determination and invincible spirit of one of Latin America’s most innovative literary voices of the twentieth century.

15«I do not want to convey… a message of defeat», Arenas declared, «but of continued struggle and hope. Cuba will be free, I already am» (Arenas 1993: 317).


Arenas R., 1969, El Mundo Alucinante: una novela de aventuras, México, Editorial Diógenes.

―, 1976, Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Life and Adventures of Friar Servando Teresa De Mier, Harmondsworth, England-Baltimore, Penguin.

―, 1980, Celestino antes del Alba, Caracas, Monte Ávila.

―, 1980a, El Palacio de las Blanquísimas Mofetas, Caracas, Monte Ávila.

―, 1980b, La Vieja Rosa, Caracas, Editorial Arte.

―, 1981, El Central: (poema), Barcelona, Editorial Seix Barral.

―, 1981a, Termina el Desfile, Barcelona, Editorial Seix Barral.

―, 1984, El Central: a Cuban Sugar Mill, New York, Avon Books.

―, 1986, Farewell to the Sea: A Novel of Cuba, New York, Viking.

―, 1986a, Necesidad de Libertad, Argentina, Kosmos-Editorial.

―, 1987, La Loma del Ángel, Miami, Mariel Press.

―, 1987a, Singing from the Well, New York, Viking.

―, 1987b, The Ill-fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando, New York, Avon Books.

―, 1989, Old Rosa: A Novel in Two Stories, New York, Grove Press.

―, 1990, El Portero, Miami, Ediciones Universal.

―, 1990a, The Palace of the White Skunks, New York, Viking.

―, 1992, Antes que Anochezca: Autobiografía, Barcelona, Tusquets.

―, 1993, Before Night Falls, New York, Viking.

―, 1994, The Doorman, New York, Grove Press.

―, 1996, Adiós a Mamá: de la Habana a Nueva York, Miami, Ediciones Universal.

Arenas R.-Hurley A., 1994, The Assault, New York, Viking.

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College Librarian Humboldt State University


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