Antonio Benítez-Rojo by Robert Antoni

BOMB 82 Winter 2003
BOMB 082
Benitez Rojo 01 Body

Courtesy of Antonio Bení­tez-Rojo.

Cuban writer Antonio Benítez-Rojo is best known for his monumental study The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective (1989). In these essays he probes deeply and illuminates as never before writers ranging from Bartolomé de las Casas to Alejo Carpentier and including such contemporary authors as Wilson Harris, Derek Walcott and Gabriel García Marquéz; at the same time, and in the midst of these literary critiques, he uses strategies including the simulacrum and theories of fractal mathematics and Chaos in order to define the indefinable, one of the least known and most elusive regions of the modern world: the Caribbean.

This immense global effort is also a personal endeavor: it is a passionate attempt to understand, and to come to terms with, Benítez-Rojo’s heterogeneous Caribbean self. Accordingly, the essays of Repeating Island are but one member of a “trilogy” that includes an historical novel, Sea of Lentils (1985), bearing tribute to Benítez-Rojo as one of the most learned historians of the region, and a collection of stories, A View from the Mangrove (1998), acknowledging him as a celebrated writer of fiction. Yet the various forms the trilogy employs do not seem at all delineated; they have instead an uncanny tendency to bleed into one another, so that a critical essay sometimes feels like imaginative fiction, a historical account turns into highly blown fantasy and magic, and in still other places pure fictional invention takes on the veracity of established history. Remarkably, all of this formal shape-shifting does not seem to affect the equilibrium of what, ultimately, becomes a kind of “system” that the trilogy represents. On the contrary: it is its very heterogeneity that makes it cohere. In the end—or in the process of reading Benítez-Rojo, since for him the Caribbean is a meta-archipelago with neither boundaries nor center—writer and region become inseparable.

This interview was conducted via email between Barcelona, Spain, where I live, and Amherst College, in Massachusetts, where Benítez-Rojo is Thomas B. Walton, Jr., Memorial Professor.

Robert Antoni I’m interested in your literary origins as a boy growing up in prerevolutionary Cuba, and of your later development as an established writer after the revolution. When did the notion of becoming a writer occur to you? What were your interests, influences? What was your education? Do you have any formal musical training?

Antonio Benítez-Rojo My literary origins, including my interest in the Caribbean, are linked to my first experiences. I was born in Havana, but when I was one year old my parents settled in Panama. The first things to interest me were the ruins of old Panama City, which had been sacked first by Francis Drake and then destroyed and burned by Henry Morgan. Naturally, the violence of those events became part of the country’s folklore. So it was that, during my childhood at least, stories about pirates and corsairs were quite popular among the children. Later my parents moved to the city of Colón, on the Caribbean coast. Nearby are the walls and fortress of Portobelo, a city that was also attacked more than once, for it was there that the Spanish galleons loaded up with gold and silver from South America. In some of the stories that were taken as true, it was said that in the Panamanian jungles there were huge treasures that the pirates had buried; furthermore, they said that the pirates’ ghosts would appear in people’s dreams and pose riddles to them. If the riddle was solved correctly, the ghost would indicate where the treasure was buried. But if a person couldn’t solve the riddle he would die. As you can understand, all these stories fascinated me and set my imagination flying. And also, the sea was right there, the Caribbean. And the ships, too, for my mother traveled to Havana twice a year to see her family. In fact, my first coherent recollections are of the old Spanish forts and the sea passages. That’s why my first favorite book was Treasure Island and my favorite movie Captain Blood.

Havana was very different from Panama City and Colón, but it had things in common with them—for example, the old colonial castles, still with their cannons. And they were all seaports. At any rate, to me, Havana also had its interesting tales. They were told to me not by members of my family but by an ex-slave, old and cross-eyed, named Felipa. As you know, Cuba was one of the last countries to free its slaves (1885). So Felipa in 1940 would have been a good 80 years old. She had been my grandfather’s family cook and had chosen to stay with the house. Of course she didn’t work any longer, but she was always there in the big kitchen, seated on a wooden box, soliloquizing. Whenever she saw me, she called me over and began to recount Yoruba stories to me. And so, on top of the stories about pirates and naval engagements that I was storing in my memory fell the legends of the Yoruba orishas, Shangó, Oshún, Oggún, Yemayá, Obatalá, Babalú Ayé… . As you can see, by the age of eight or nine I was a caribeño. If anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d answer invariably: a writer. This profession was to me then the noblest one that a person could have. It also happened that my father, when I turned 12, gave me a collection of classic novels, works of Alexandre Dumas, Eugène Sue, Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Poe, Verne… . In short, readings that would strengthen my desire to one day be a writer.

Nonetheless, my parents’ wishes took me down another path. I studied for 12 years in a Jesuit school and then entered the University of Havana to study what was called commercial sciences, consisting of accounting, economics, finance, statistics, etc. After that, I studied labor economics at American University, in Washington, DC, and thanks to a United Nations scholarship I studied labor statistics at the US Department of Labor. I also studied music, first theory and then guitar, an instrument that I learned well enough to play in an amateur jazz group. Jazz is still my favorite kind of music.

RA Your winning the 1967 Casa de las Américas prize, and the subsequent publication of your first collection of stories, would seem to have been a dazzling introduction as a professional writer. Yet you published only one other book during the decade that followed, even though during those same years you were director of the editorial department of Casa de las Américas itself. Did the demands of the job interfere with your own creative output? Could you talk about the literary climate in Cuba during those years, and your involvement with it, and later, while you were also director of the Centro de Estudios del Caribe (1979–80)?

ABR I started to write in 1965. I was working as an economist in the Ministry of Labor, but because of an accident I had to stay in bed for many months. I grew so bored that I began writing stories inspired by the pieces of Lafcadio Hearn, Borges and, above all, Julio Cortázar. In 1966 I had a manuscript ready and I entered it for the Casa de las Américas prize. To my great surprise, I won the short story prize with a collection titled Tute de reyes (1967). As I still had doubts about my possibilities as a writer, I wrote another collection of stories, El escudo de hojas secas (1969), which also won an important prize. That same year my wife, Hilda, left for the United States with our two children. María, the girl, was very ill and her doctor advised us to take her to be treated at Boston Children’s Hospital. I would have liked to go along, but the Cuban authorities would not let me leave the country for fear that I might stay to live in the United States. At that time the policy toward intellectuals was quite hardline and they only allowed those who had committed themselves to Fidel Castro’s regime to leave the country, which was not the case with me. It was a very bad time for writers and, since all of the publishing houses and printing presses were run by the state, they published only authors favored by the cultural apparatus. For seven years they wouldn’t let me publish. Fortunately I had found a job in the Casa de las Américas, which was one of the country’s least politicized institutions. Its library had hundreds of books on the Caribbean, and I devoted myself to reading them methodically. Without realizing it I turned into a specialist on the region. As the years passed I was bettering my position at the Casa de las Américas and finally I was named director of the publishing house and, shortly thereafter, head of the Centro de Estudios del Caribe. That happened between 1976 and 1979. And it happened because after ten years of being separated from my wife and my children, the Castro authorities thought I was no longer interested in living with them in Boston. So then they lifted the prohibition against my publishing and I sent to press five books at once, which were published in succession: Heroica, a voluminous collection of stories (1976); Los inquilinos, a short novel (1976); Fruta verde, another story collection (1978); El mar de las lentejas, a historical novel (1979); and El enigma de los Esterlines, an adventure novel (1980).

RA In 1980 you walked away from a Cuban delegation in Paris, eventually making your way to the United States. What brought about your final decision to defect, and how did you manage the transition?

ABR In 1980 the University of Paris invited me to participate in a symposium on the Latin American short story and I was permitted to attend. Hilda had traveled to Cuba (up until then, Cubans who had left the country could not visit it) and I had told her that given my new importance as a writer, it was possible that they would let me travel at any moment. So as soon as I arrived in Paris I called her on the telephone to arrange a meeting with her there. Finally we got together in West Berlin and, after a few adventures that would take too long to narrate, we traveled to Boston. When my daughter María saw me, she asked Hilda whether I was really her father.

So I had reunited with my family in the United States, but what was I going to live on? Hilda, unable to practice her profession as a lawyer because of the difference between the two legal systems, had decided to study Spanish at Boston University. She had already gotten her master’s and was teaching part-time not only at BU but also at Wellesley and at Boston College. Of course, she was working a lot and hardly making money. María was still sick and Jorge, the younger one, was autistic. All this is by way of saying that I needed to find work in a hurry. Then, suddenly, something like a miracle happened. A professor at the University of Pittsburgh who had learned that I was in the United States called me on the phone and offered me a visiting position for the next academic year. I hadn’t the slightest notion of what teaching was, but of course I accepted right away and thus began a new life.

RA You once told me a story about yourself that I still find incredible: that when you came to the United States, you realized almost immediately you could never fully enter into the academy of the university until you “taught yourself” the complex language of (French) literary criticism; so you sat yourself down and for two years did precisely that. You must have had a tremendous background in philosophy, psychology, anthropology, sociology. How is it possible that a scant few years later you wrote The Repeating Island, recognized by many as one of the most important and radically innovative texts of literary criticism of the Caribbean region? The text, perhaps, that will usher and accompany Caribbean literature into the era of postmodernism and the new millennium?

ABR After working as a visiting professor at several universities, I realized that to have a stable life I would have to get a tenured position. So I spent two years studying structuralism, semiotics, and psychoanalytic theory, and from there I went on to the works of the poststructuralist masters: Foucault, Derrida, Certeau, Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard… . Since I was scarcely sleeping and I was smoking and drinking tons of coffee, I had a heart attack in California, while I was teaching at Irvine. Luckily I survived and after a few months of convalescence, I was invited to teach as a visitor at Amherst College. Thanks to the recommendation of the department of romance languages, the college offered me the position of associate professor with tenure in three years. Hilda, who was then a graduate student at Boston College and was teaching at Wellesley, decided to reunite with me in Amherst. Thus, in 1984, we could finally live in peace like any family. In time I would reach the rank of professor. At present, Hilda directs the program of Spanish language instruction at Amherst College, and I have an endowed chair.

In 1986, during a night when I was driving in my car at 15 miles per hour in a snowstorm, I turned on the radio. On an NPR station they were interviewing a man named James Gleick. He was talking about a new science called Chaos. The theme interested me greatly, because I had a solid background in mathematics and he was talking about Benoit Mandelbrot and his fractal mathematics. That interview was an illumination for me. Right away I thought that everything I had learned in my life had now been uttered within the theory of Chaos. And so emerged The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective. The book was published in Spanish in 1989 and in English in 1992. It soon became a best-seller in the academy.

RA I’m intrigued by your opening statement to A View from the Mangrove: “With this collection of stories I am finishing an old effort: to write a trilogy of works on the Caribbean using three different genres. The present book is preceded by a novel, Sea of Lentils, and the essays in The Repeating Island, which were published in English in 1990 and 1992, respectively.” What is astonishing, and what seems to me unprecedented, is that the singular project of this trilogy is so blatantly heterogeneous in terms of the forms it employs: historical novel, essays, stories. My question is, how premeditated is all of this, and what does it mean in terms of your own Caribbean identity and sensibility? Is your trilogy also emblematic of the region itself? Could you talk about the “system” that this trilogy represents?

ABR Years earlier, before The Repeating Island, when I was in Cuba writing the Spanish version of Sea of Lentils, I had decided that the book would be the first of a trilogy of novels. On ending it, I realized that the complexity of the Caribbean could not be rendered in three novels. It was then that I conceived the idea of writing a trilogy based on three different genres. The novel, with its four different stories, would refer to the sixteenth century, the century of the Caribbean’s founding. After that, in a book of essays, I would try to define the society and culture of the Caribbean. Finally, a collection of stories, whose plots would take place in various places and historic moments in the Caribbean, would serve to illustrate the violence that dwells within the Caribbean: conquest, colonization, slavery, piracy, wars, revolutions… . The last book of the trilogy would be A View from the Mangrove.

Nonetheless, I think my trilogy is incomplete. For example, in 1996 Duke University Press published a second edition of The Repeating Island with three additional chapters, and in 1998 a Spanish publisher came out with a third edition that contains two chapters more than the previous one. Since the work was now taking on the size of a telephone book, I decided to leave things as they were. The same thing happened with A View from the Mangrove. After I’d finished it I realized that I still had many important things left to cover. In short, I was experiencing what I myself had said in the first chapter of The Repeating Island: the Caribbean can’t be captured within any system; it is a sea archipelago whose history, societies, and cultures are connected to the entire world. The phenomenon of the slaveholding plantation, which for me is the womb of the Caribbean, is an inseparable part of the history of capitalism and its expansion through Europe, America, Africa, and Asia.

RA In addition to a writer and literary critic, many would consider you to be one of the most informed historians of the Caribbean region. How do you research your historical writings? What are your sources? I’m also curious about the intersection in your writing between established history and invention: how do you decide where to draw the line? How much free range do you give your own imagination?

ABR As I told you, during my childhood I lived surrounded by ruins, ruins that had a particular significance within the Caribbean world. They spoke of pirates and corsairs, of haunted treasures and Spanish galleons. To me, Stevenson’s Treasure Island wasn’t an exotic reading. Long John Silver, Captain Flint, and The Hispaniola were very much alive in my mind, a part of my reality. More or less the same thing can be said about slavery. Old Felipa was there, a real person, and her tales were ruins of a past that we shared during the time she was talking to me. In short, I think that since my earliest years my imagination was nurtured by Caribbean history and its consequences. Naturally, I became a reader of history books, chronicles, journals, memoirs, and travelogues. There was a point where my curiosity about past events oriented my interests toward architecture, fashion, ships, furniture. Let’s say I wanted to know what kind of uniforms the British were wearing when they took Havana in 1762. So I learned about all that. But of course my knowledge is very limited. I know nothing about the Middle Ages, simply because they aren’t part of the Caribbean world.

Now, you asked me how I decide where to draw the line between history and invention. I don’t have a simple answer to your question. I’ll tell you what I do. First, you have to realize that when I think of 1762 Havana, I know how the city and its inhabitants looked at that time. Of course I’m intentionally fooling myself. Nobody knows how Havana looked in 1762, not even the people who used to live there. But the important thing here is to fool oneself into that thought because you have to convince the reader that what you’re writing is true. In any case, once I feel I’m in control of the event, which I repeat is an illusion, I let my characters go. Since they are self-propelled constructs, I don’t pay too much attention to their behavior, virtues, or flaws. They are what they are, that is, creatures of my invention moving around the city, doing their job within the truthful event. Sometimes I use a historical character, which is much more demanding because his or her personality is already established. In those cases I have to watch over my own imagination.

RA In speaking of the “polyrhythmic density” of Caribbean literature, you have stated your belief that it may be the most universal of all literatures. Could you defend this? How is this universality compatible with the tendency you have noted of writers in the region toward formal experimentation? And the tendency toward regionalism?

ABR When I say Caribbean literature has a polyrhythmic density I am thinking of a rumba, a complex Cuban dance, whose master rhythm guides an array of different rhythms. Now, it has been established that all of those rhythms belong to Bantu music, but only if you speak of internal pulsations because the rumba sound doesn’t come out of any African instrument. What the musicians play are an empty Norwegian salt-fish box, a smaller box used to pack candles, a couple of hardwood sticks used in naval architecture, a cowbell, and so on. Then you have that the rumba is sung in Spanish and its dance steps and body gestures come from many cultures (Bantu, Yoruba, Fon, Efik, Flamenco, European, and even American). And finally you have the dancers, sweeping the floor with the soles of their shoes, and also the clapping… . Yes, no doubt, all of these sounds and gestures make a kind of harmony. Not an exclusively African harmony, nor a European one, but a Caribbean harmony that is universal and regional at the same time.

RA I wonder if you could speak about the phenomenon, popular among postcolonial critics, of “creolization,” and particularly your own take on how it relates to the concepts of plantation, rhythm, and performance.

ABR As you know, the term “creolization” was first used in linguistics to name the process by which broken English or French or Spanish became standard English, etc. It’s an ethnocentric approach similar to the anthropological concept of acculturation. Now, the notion of cultural creolization came up in the early 1990s. As a matter of fact, the term wasn’t necessary because in 1940 Fernando Ortiz, a Cuban anthropologist, had used the term “transculturation” for the same thing, that is, the various manifestations of the never-ending phenomenon of cultural exchange that began in the Caribbean when Africans, Amerindians, and Europeans met one another. Creolization is a mutual exchange—a give-and-take of cultural fragments rather than the acculturation of subjugated peoples to the colonizer’s culture.

The slaveholding plantation is also the womb of cultural creolization. The cultural fragments this game brings into play come from all epochs and from everywhere in the world, and this is so because if creolization emerges fundamentally from the plantation, it is an unending phenomenon that’s always in the present tense, combining old elements with the new ones that come to Cuba or Jamaica or Haiti or Trinidad from different places in the world. This existing inside a continual present makes creolization not a process but a permanent state. Furthermore, as these fragments do not align with any type of hierarchies of time or space, the form that any kind of Caribbean cultural artifact will take is unpredictable. Not only that: given that these elements are cumulative, they contribute toward the making of a culture of great density, great complexity and above all, universality. The latter is reflected primarily in music, although also in literature and in systems of religion and beliefs that more and more frequently find alternate forms belonging to the Caribbean.

Clearly, in lectures and symposia on the Caribbean, there is a lot of talk about creolization, but there is still a lot left to be investigated. My most recent reflections about this have led me to think that rhythm plays a very important role. I’m not referring to musical rhythm exclusively. In fact, rhythm is present in everything that exists on earth, since everything vibrates. If we start with this point of view, held by many cultures in Africa and Asia, the syncretic artifact owes its existence to the secret harmony that holds two or more rhythms together. I mean by this that not all of the cultural fragments that arrived and are arriving in the Caribbean are going to express themselves in syncretic artifacts; only those that present a certain type of affinity will do so, an affinity in the rhythms that make them up. For example, it is known that the Cuban son has existed since at least the 19th century. The worldwide success of the Buena Vista Social Club’s music demonstrates that it is still an acceptable musical form. Nevertheless, I can recall other forms of Cuban popular music, constructed also out of African and European elements, that lasted for only a short while, such as the forms called pachanga, mozambique, pacá, sucusucu… . Another important aspect of creolization is social. I mean, if the son exists it is because there were people who were putting it together as time went on, people who were musicians, dancers, singers, or composers; that is, performers. So I think that the principal factors that precede the artifact in its state of creolization are: the presence in the culture of fragments of diverse places of origin, the presence of rhythms in those fragments, and the presence of performers in the society, for they are the ones who, bringing together and taking apart fragment rhythms according to their affinities, are constructing the artifact in a state of creolization. I say “are constructing” because none of these cultural products acquires a definitive form, just as no living being does.

RA In considering your first collection published in English translation, The Magic Dog (1990), which in large part consists of the kind of stories we’re familiar with from other Latin American and Caribbean writers—that is to say, magical realism—and your latest novel since the trilogy, Woman in Battle Dress (yet to appear in English), which, like much of your more recent work, might be described as “historical fiction,” am I correct in detecting a wish on your part to move away from that familiar (and immensely popular) magical text, toward a kind of fiction that is closer to literary realism, more founded on “verifiable” history? Could you speculate about the reasons for this shift in your own writing?

ABR You ask me if I notice any changes in my works of fiction. I do. I see a movement outward, a change that corresponds to my interpretation of the Caribbean. My first stories not only occurred in Cuba, but they also belonged to the genre of the fantastic. And that was not just because my principal models were the stories of Hearn, Borges, and Cortázar, and the novels Aura by Carlos Fuentes and Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo. Rather it was because as a child I had developed an imagination where the supernatural was possible. In my second book of stories you can already see, in some stories, the magic realism of Cien años de soledad, which is actually a Caribbean work, and also there is a story entitled “Heaven and Earth,” whose characters are Haitians. In my third book, Heroica, there are now two realist stories that take place in the United States and derive from my own experiences. Then came Sea of Lentils, whose four independent plots take place in Spain, the Canary Islands, Florida and Hispaniola. And in my last novel, Woman in Battle Dress, which consists of the supposed memoirs of Henriette Faber (1791–?), a real person, the action takes place in Russia, France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Haiti, Cuba, and the United States. As you know, though the novel’s style is primarily realist, there is the magic episode in the Smolensk hospital, and the influence of the picaresque novel in the chapter on student life in Paris, also that of the romantic novel in the part about Henriette’s first love, as well as the novel of migration or the road in the part about the circus, and the war novel in the section on Napoleon’s Russian campaign, and that of the abolitionist novel in the story that Henriette’s friend tells, and lastly there is the legal novel, the part that illustrates Henriette’s trial in Cuba. Furthermore, this is a novel that a critic could classify at the same time as historical, epic, autobiographical, a bildungsroman, and even a postmodern work. Naturally, I’d say that it’s a Caribbean novel; a profusely mestizo novel; a form of creolization. Except that in this case the form has been projected over the map of the world.

—Robert Antoni is a novelist based in New York and Barcelona. His first book, Divina Trace (Overlook press, 1991), won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and is considered a landmark in Caribbean literature. Recipient of The Paris Review‘s AGA Kahn Prize for 1999, his second novel is Blessed Is the Fruit. A collection of his short fiction, My Grandmother’s Erotic Folk Tales, was released by Grove Press in 2000.

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