Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
I was curious to meet Carlos Eire, the Cuban writer who for us Cuba followers came out of nowhere. A Cuban-American no one had heard of had won the National Book Award for nonfiction. The author of Waiting for Snow in Havana had stunned everyone (read: he was criticized) when, at the awards ceremony, he said that he would have been imprisoned if he had written this book in Cuba. He was immediately labeled a right-winger.
There are rabid, unapologetic anti-Castro rants in Eire’s book. “Fidel’s Cuba is the deepest circle of hell,” he writes. But mostly there is a beautiful story filled with subtle and nuanced remarks and the most whimsical and evocative imagery of growing up in a Caribbean island where fruits and peanuts are given to you by shop-owners because your dad is an influential person, where you go to birthday parties and are given your own leather holster and where you play cowboys and Indians with bullets and bandoliers left behind by real revolutionaries. It is any eight-year-old boy’s (and girl’s) fantasy.
And then one day, Fidel comes in and it all disappears.
I spent an afternoon with Eire this fall. Two things surprised me. First, how in order to survive his loss of his childhood, Eire stripped himself of all his Cubanness—a Herculean feat. I have met a lot of Cubans and I have never met a non-Cuban Cuban before. I did not think they could exist. But there he was, the only non-Cuban Cuban in the world, in the most non-Cuban setting possible: the graduate studies center of Yale University, where he teaches religion and history. His office is lined with books about 200-year-old crusades, convents, monks and miracles.
The other thing that surprised me is Eire’s candidness about how little he knows about Cuba, then and now. He is not a Cuba expert and does not pretend to be. He is upfront about the factual mistakes in his book. He is not an activist either, not for the right or the left. Because he has no agenda, he makes comments that get him in trouble, in anti-Castro Miami and in pro-Cuba New York.
Carlos Eire is a man who was robbed of his childhood, a man who, in order to survive, abandoned his Cubanness just like his father abandoned him. And yet in his fifties he felt the need to go back to the Cuba of his mind, the only one he knows.
Silvana Paternostro The question of language is a good place to start. Is English your first language?
Carlos Eire No, but my thought structure is in English. When I speak Spanish now I translate some English words into Spanish, and as you and I both know that doesn’t always make sense. I tried to translate my own book, but I gave up after chapter one.
SP Whom do you speak Spanish with?
CE Well, my mother doesn’t speak any English, and I call her every day, so I get a daily dose of Spanish. But my vocabulary is limited, and with her it’s always at a basic level. We never discuss philosophical issues or literature. And there’s nobody else I speak Spanish to on a regular basis.
SP Nobody? Not friends that you knew from Cuba?
CE We all speak English. And I don’t have that many that I stay in touch with. One of the characters in the book called me, Gerardo Aulet, and we spoke in Spanish, and he had a lot of funny stories to tell me. So some people have come alive.
SP That’s one of the questions that I wanted to ask you: when people read a memoir, they think they’re getting to know you, and maybe they actually are.
CE Yeah, but here’s the deal on this memoir. I played a trick on myself. I didn’t write it as a memoir. I wrote it as a novel, and I sold it as a novel. It said on the title page of the manuscript, in nice big letters, A Novel. I wanted to pass it off as a novel because I didn’t want anyone knowing it was me.
CE Many, many reasons. First and most important, I’m a very private person, and there are many things in that book that I did not want anyone to know. I also thought that the book would have a different, and I thought at the time a much better, impact if it were fiction rather than a memoir, because when you write a memoir there’s always this risk you run, having people think that you think you’re so important. And that’s not why I wrote it. But they wouldn’t let me publish it as a novel when I confessed that it really wasn’t fiction. There are many things in that book that I would have left out if I had been self-consciously writing a memoir. I would have been constantly tempted to make myself look better or to excuse myself, or maybe even distort my own memory, because that’s a temptation one always has when revealing oneself. I don’t think anyone ever really reveals themselves.
SP I agree with the really, but there is some revealing.
CE In the case of this book, the memoir is unintended.
SP Right, but it lives as a memoir now, and people read it as one, in the process feeling like they know you. Do people whom you don’t know contact you to tell you their very private story?
CE It happens every day. I got an email today from a woman who left Cuba in ’88, telling me her story in some detail.
SP When you were writing the book, you were working on your recollections, and how would they come out? There are so many and they’re so evocative. Did they just jump out at you?
CE My mind was flooded with images, once I started. It was like I opened a door, and all this stuff was in there, and it just kept coming out, rushing out like lava. When I would sit down at my screen to write every night, I had no outline or plan. But what I did in a very intuitive way was pick the image that fit best chronologically. I basically wrote the book as chronologically as possible. I let the image determine the story.
SP I can see that from the strength of the images. Were these stories you had told people before?
CE No. All of this had been locked away in what I call my Vault of Oblivion. I mean, there were a few I would tell my kids.
SP What happens when you go to family gatherings at your mom’s house? Do you feel Cuban then? I relate to this myself. I feel like I have a split personality when I go to Colombia.
CE I think I’ve always been successful at placing some sort of screen between the Cuban me and the American me. I can be very Cuban with other Cubans up to a point. And I can be totally non-Cuban with non-Cubans up to a point. The hardest of all is being in a mixed environment. If there are Cubans and non-Cubans it’s hard. Then I just jump in and out of one culture rapidly.
SP How would you relate that to your book?
CE Well, I wrote it for non-Cubans.
SP Do you think if you wrote it for Cubans it would be a different style or language?
CE I would not have written it at all, because it would have scared me too much. At the time I wrote it, I had no idea how Cuban I really was. I’ve been living apart from the Cuban community since 1973, when I left Chicago: that’s 30 years. The six years I was here in New Haven at graduate school I didn’t meet a single Cuban. Not one. One day at the library, I heard someone in one of the private study carrels swearing in Cuban Spanish, this string of five words that only a Cuban could put together. I almost knocked on the door, but I could tell that whoever was in there was so angry that it wasn’t the time to knock. So I didn’t. Now every time I meet a Cuban who studied at Yale I say, “Oh, were you the one who one afternoon at the cross-campus library let out a string of swear words?”
I think that one of the reasons for the wealth of detail in the book was that I very much wanted to get across to non-Cubans that Cuba is a place they could recognize, that what happens in this book didn’t happen in some far-off place that’s very different.
SP But it kind of is.
CE It is and it isn’t all at the same time.
SP It’s very interesting, because I identify with your story, but I’m wondering if it’s because I also come from a Spanish-speaking Caribbean culture.
CE Well, I’ve gotten emails from Hong Kong and Australia that say, “I identify.” One thing I do know: I wrote this book from some other part of my brain, a part I’ve never used before.
SP Yes, your other books are very serious.
CE Very logical, very linear, very well planned. Here, the images drove my writing. In a purely intuitive sense, I picked details that I thought would get across the universal nature of childhood and therefore also something about the universal nature of being human. I realized later that if there is anything human beings can relate to across cultural differences, it’s childhood. It’s a period of life that has certain set qualities regardless of culture. And it’s a special time in life that we all in very important ways still relate to. It’s who we are.
SP Yes, of course. People talk about their childhoods in the past tense, and yet they persist. And they talk about them all the time. There is no end to childhood.
CE What I’ve found is that many things I thought were long past, and even forgotten, were not. It was a surprise. I went through something that was probably some kind of self-hypnosis. I’d never have believed it, that you take somebody back to their childhood and they remember details. I’ve always thought that that was nonsense. Until I wrote the book. Because you can go there.
SP Oh, yeah.
CE I wrote about this place where we went, the sand piles. I vaguely remember they were near a peanut oil factory. They say smell is one of the most potent of memories, and writing about the sand piles I literally smelled the peanuts. And it’s funny, people who are in the book, or who could have been in the book, have been telling some of the same stories, and their version of the story has details mine does not, and my story has details that theirs does not.
SP Of course. And you only write about what’s in your memory. You didn’t go back to fact check, to see if your memory was playing tricks on you. When I go back to Colombia, sometimes that new visit triggers certain other images, but it also pollutes the ones I have.
CE Yeah, I’ve had that happen to me when I’ve gone back to my Miami neighborhoods. I only checked a couple of facts while I was writing. I would ask my mother or my brother. Now that my mom is reading the book—
SP But she can’t read English.
CE A very nice Cuban woman goes to her house and reads the book to her in Spanish, little by little, translating as she goes. They are up to chapter 14. So when they got to the second chapter, when we get caught in crossfire in the family car, she called me and said, “How come you didn’t mention the dog?” (laughter) I said, “What do you mean, I didn’t mention the dog?” She said, “The dog was going nuts, he was jumping up and down. I was as worried about the dog as I was about you! Even more worried because we left him in the car when we ran into the neighbor’s house. I thought he was going to get killed.” And I have no memory of that, nothing.
SP Memory is selective, I guess.
CE Well, I never trust it. I rely on a lot of first-person accounts for my work as a historian, testimonies from the 16th and 17th century. But I’ve never trusted my own memory. And my memories are actually wrong in a few places. It’s been pointed out to me. For instance, I say that the day the presidential palace was attacked, they wanted to kill Batista but he was off in the countryside. But he wasn’t—he was there.
SP Right, he was in Havana; he escaped through a secret door in his office. So what happens to Carlos the historian when he realizes he can make these historical mistakes?
CE Oh, it’s no problem. Because this book is what it is. There are other things historians often try to sort out, not just what happened, but how what happened made an impact in people’s lives. And any good historian is very conscious of the fact that any account, especially a first-person account, is only one part of a much larger scope.
SP Let’s go back to writing from memory. Would you go into one particular room where you became Carlos, age eight, or would the memories just come to you?
CE The way it worked was that once it started, once that door was open, the images just came out.
SP When did that door first open? What was the first image?
CE The first image is what’s in the first chapter, waking up on New Year’s Day. I had this totally intuitive sense that I’m going to tell a story of a child who grows up during the revolution, so I begin with that moment when the world changed for me. I went back to that day and went through the whole house room by room thinking, basically, who was doing what? Everybody was in their place in the house doing their daily thing when everything else changed. And once that door was open, I was gone. When I was writing the book, whenever I was awake—and I didn’t sleep much—I was gone. I thought I was there, but I wasn’t. I was teaching most of that summer. I taught my class, but all the time I was thinking, What do I write today?
SP And you did this every day?
CE Yeah. I knew that any image that came was not going to go away, so I didn’t worry about losing images. I just sorted through what I had in my brain. I wrote every day, between 10:00 PM and 2:00 AM, or sometimes 3:00 or 4:00, for four months. It was like I was under a magic spell.
SP You play a lot with style when you write. Your writing is very playful in many ways; your onomatopoeia is very daring.
CE I actually had a hard time in graduate school with my writing, because it just didn’t flow. I had no style, basically. But I had a mentor. My dissertation director was brutally honest. He was the one who turned me into a better writer. He would hand me back my drafts all marked up and say, “Any idiot could do this. You should do better.”
SP But now this is confident writing, to the point that you can play around with it.
CE It’s like art, or any craft. You begin with simple projects, and when you finally become a master, you can do all the things that nobody had ever dreamed were possible. But you need the confidence, and you need the experience. And, in my case, writing gives me the confidence. Writing history is very hard work. The difference between writing history and writing this book is like the difference between climbing a mountain with a 50-pound backpack and taking a walk in the park, a nice park.
SP Right. I’m thinking of that passage where you’re really having a nice walk—
CE Oh, that one. My acid trip. That’s, you know, I was thinking about disjointed memories. And I tried to think in terms of language. If you are having a psychedelic experience, what happens with sound? I was actually more playful than that, and the editor made me clean it up because the letters that make up the word bang just trailed off at the end. It was like a little curl, like something going down the drain.
SP Do you read any contemporary Cuban writers now?
CE No. My problem is I have to keep up with my field. I read what I have to read for my day job. I started to read Reinaldo Arenas’s Before Night Falls in English. I liked the movie a lot.
SP So what happens when you see images of Havana—well, that film was not actually shot in Cuba, but it sure looks like it. But when you see images like that, what happens to the Cuba in your head?
CE I fall apart. The emotions are totally out of control. I’ve seen several films that I’ve actually been able to watch all the way through, like Strawberry and Chocolate and Guantanamera. I could watch Strawberry and Chocolate because most of it is indoors. And Guantanamera I could watch because it’s all out in the provinces, where I never went. I could not watch Buena Vista Social Club. I rented it, and 15 or 20 minutes into it, I was crying uncontrollably. I had to return it to the video store. The scene where I turned it off is where they’re walking along the street, one block from the Malecon, and at the end of the street you can see the waves coming over the wall, just like I remember them. There’s something about Cuba and its culture that is so wonderful, which is what you see in this film. You see that these old men, their professional lives were wrecked, but that nobody could kill their spirit. You know, the neutron bomb is the opposite. It kills all the people, but leaves the buildings intact. It’s as if kind of a reverse neutron bomb had gone off in Cuba.
SP To me Buena Vista Social Club looked melancholy and nostalgic, which is maybe from the desire, I think, of people who come to Cuba from industrialized countries and see a certain romance in places like where you and I come from. But to me it missed something. I’ve been to a Cuba that is very alive. It missed that. It missed life in the streets of Cuba. I would love to make a film about that. It would be the antithesis of Buena Vista. That spirit that is so relentless in those old men is also there in the youth culture of today.
CE There’s this paradox, this terrible, awful paradox. Everybody is still alive, but look how they live. It’s one of the last places on earth where I think anyone would have predicted a communist revolution that would last 45 years. It’s beyond comprehension. I read an essay in college that said that the motto for Cuba should be Relajo con Orden, rowdiness with order. Because Cubans are not methodical or organized. They make fun of everything, they don’t take anything too seriously, and yet everything about the official Cuba is completely serious.
SP There is still that same relajo; young people who grew up during the revolution still find ways to keep the relajo con orden going.
CE I have to laugh, because my uncle who still lives in Havana has come to visit me twice and spent a month with me last summer. He likes the yard sales. That’s what he likes about America. The fact that you can sell your stuff and nobody will bother you. You can buy your neighbor’s stuff. The first time I took him to a yard sale, he kept asking, “Is this illegal?” We found a little wooden sculpture. He took it back with him. He said, “I’ll see if I can get the guys at my shop to reproduce this. I’m sure it will sell well.” That paradox, that juxtaposition. But when I see those rallies, those thousands of people waving their Cuban flags, I just want to die. I still can’t go to a sporting event, or any mass gathering of people. Nothing terrifies me more.
SP I know, our countries’ histories plays some deep psychological games on us. I can’t get on the subway because I feel the same fear that I felt as a child growing up in a place filled with violence. So do political groups contact you?
CE No, this is a funny thing. I didn’t set out to write a political novel or a political memoir. I’m not driven by ideology. I’m driven by absolute abhorrence for totalitarianism in any way, shape or form. What I wanted to do in the book was show how a political system can try to crush an individual soul and also how it can crush and demolish families and the price one has to pay for an ideology. That’s all I wanted to do, to show it without making any arguments. I think because of that, people who read the book don’t see it as political.
SP So Cuba hasn’t reentered your life?
CE Oh, it has. All of a sudden I’m talking about Cuba all the time. It’s one of the oddest things about this book that I’ve written, because people now think that I’m an expert on Cuba. I get asked the same question wherever I go. “What’s going to happen?” And I have to say, “I don’t know.” Nobody knows. But the funniest thing that has happened concerning the political dimension to all of this was that I was in Miami giving a talk at Florida International University, and it was the biggest crowd I’ve had, five or six hundred people, most of them Cuban. This one man stands up, a Cuban, and asks, “What does our exiled political leadership think about your book? What does so-and-so think?” and he listed about six people, and I said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t know who any of these people you’re mentioning are.” And everyone started clapping and laughing, this room full of people; these Cubans were so happy to hear somebody say, “I don’t know these people.” And I think that’s what Cubans find so refreshing about the book: it cuts through all of this rhetoric.
SP What about the non-Cuban, American liberal, and what about the literary community?
CE Well, the literary community has ignored this book. The New York Times refused to review it.
SP What do you attribute that to? It won the National Book Award.
CE Almost every book review made statements such as, “Eire still seems clueless about the social realities that led to the revolution.” Or even worse, that I’m not only clueless but self-centered, egotistical for refusing to accept the revolution as good. Or I am a talented writer, too bad I wrote this story! Because this is the wrong story, it would have been much better if I were a sugar cane cutter’s son.
SP My own first book, which is part memoir and part reportage, is about machismo in Latin America. My upbringing relates a little bit to yours: it’s privileged as far as North Americans are concerned. And in most of my reviews, it wasn’t that my indictment of macho culture was not valuable, but who am I to complain or know what it’s like to be an oppressed woman if I’m not poor? What’s interesting is I only get this criticism in the United States. I get letters from Latin Americans and no one has accused me, no one has said my story is tainted because I come from a so-called privileged background.
CE This is because you and I and all Latin Americans are still inferior colonial subjects of North America and Europe. I’ve finally figured out what’s going on. This is how I put the puzzle together: we were interviewing candidates to teach Latin American history, and I noticed that there is a narrow range of subjects covered in Latin American history, and they’re always the same—class, race, and gender. Those are the only three topics covered by North Americans who do Latin American history. Because this is all they can see in Latin America: an inferior society that is totally determined by machismo, extreme class differences, and racism. People who live in Europe, including the Spanish, and people who live in North America don’t like to think about what’s wrong in Cuba now and prefer to overlook it or even have a positive outlook on it, because they can only conceive of it as a very primitive place that was once full of inequities that have been flattened by the revolution.
SP Because it’s nice to go to a place that looks like Buena Vista Social Club.
CE It’s a colonialist and imperialist mentality: my voice and your voice don’t deserve to be heard because they can only think of Latin America as this place where 2% of people own everything and 98% are poor, and this is of course not true. What I’ve tried to do now, and I can do this because I live here in New Haven—the seventh poorest city in the United States; more than half the people who live in New Haven are below the poverty level—is to tell people, “This is how you can think of Latin America: it is not as bad as New Haven. Yet you don’t think of yourself in terms of class first and foremost; you think you are living a normal life.” Especially my colleagues, you know, they wouldn’t give their house to the poor. But New Haven could have a revolution just like Cuba and the same concepts of “fairness” and “justice” would apply here. The big difference is that these well-off New Havenites don’t realize that they are just like all of the people they consider oppressors in Latin America.
SP To me the criticisms of your book were very confusing, because you do talk about the injustices you grew up with. What I find refreshing about your book is that you do it differently. It’s unapologetic. I mean, you’re writing as an eight-year-old, and you let him speak with no politically correct filters.
CE Well, with the Spanish translation I’m inserting comemierda wherever I make some comment on prerevolutionary Cuban society, so that everyone will know. I wasn’t poor, even though at the time I knew what it meant to be poor. And not only that, but I had to come to terms with racism as a child, as anyone does, whether you are on the oppressed side or are the oppressor. If you are a child and you grow up in a racist culture, you have to make choices in how you act, who you believe, what you start thinking about your elders, even your own parents when they say things about other people that you don’t want to hear. Or perhaps you actually grow up hearing these racist things so much that you believe them yourself. Even as a kid I was aware of racism as racism, even if I didn’t have a name for it. It’s like a disease, it infects you, and to this day I still don’t know what to make of the racism in Cuba. The racism that exiles brought with them. The racism that still exists there, in Fidel’s Cuba.
And then I have had a few reviews, and a few letters or emails that try to portray me as a member of a corrupt class, and therefore everything I have to say is worthless because my class is equivalent to a slave owner’s class in colonial times. There was one review that said, “This is a piece of trash just like Gone With The Wind, because all it does is complain about what the slave owners lost, which is what they deserved to lose.” And that enrages me, because what it shows is that some people are unable to read the book and see those places where I point to all the injustices that led to the revolution, where I point to the complexities of what happened. And they refuse to see it for anything other than what they want to see it as. Which is a lament.
SP But your book is also about your relationship with your father. What was he like?
CE Oh, he was not very Cuban. He didn’t dance, he didn’t drink, and he didn’t listen to Cuban music. He actually thought most things Cuban weren’t very important.
SP And yet you would think that, being a judge, he would have to deal with a lot of Cubans doing very Cuban things.
CE Oh yeah. I have a photo of him—it must have been taken in the early ’50s; you can tell by the clothing. It’s my dad, sitting at a table with all these other judges. It is a hilarious picture; my dad was totally out of place, because these other judges were thoroughly Cuban, real characters. Some of them look pretty shady. There’s one guy in particular, a little guy with a little thin mustache and his hair slicked back; he has this look on his face like he’s not the most trustworthy judge at that table. Who knows what the system was really like? I never got to talk to my dad about what went on. Cuba is a very peculiar place. Unlike the rest of Latin America. Very different. Even Puerto Ricans and Dominicans are very different. You’re lucky you get to travel there, and go and come back.
SP Yes. I feel very lucky I can go. You know, I have to tell you, I’ve done your favorite thing: I’ve been car surfing at the Malecon.
CE You have? With the frente frio, the cold front coming from the Gulf, the waves were so huge. How big were the waves you’ve surfed? They can get pretty big.
SP They were pretty big.
CE I can’t believe it—they still haven’t closed down the Malecon. A lot of control they want to exercise over everything, and they still don’t close it down. That’s good.
SP Yeah, you can still car surf at the Malecon.
CE Well, when I go back, that’s the first thing I’ll do. If there are waves.
SP This time you’ll be driving.
CE Well, maybe by the time I’ll get to do it my kids will be driving and I’ll be in the backseat. Just like I was when I was a kid. That will be fun.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Vargas-Suarez Universal and Rocio Aranda-Alvarado, Vladimir Cybil and Jerry Philogene, Carlos Eire and Silvana Paternostro, David Scott and Stuart Hall, Evelyne Trouillot, Sibylle Fisher, Carlos B. Cordova and Daniel Flores y Ascencio, Damas “Fanfan” Louis and Michael Zwack, and Peniel Guerrier and Yvonne Daniel.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.