I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Nancy Morejón is the most internationally successful and widely translated Cuban woman poet of the post-revolutionary period. Morejón was the first African Cuban student to take a degree in faculty of arts at Havana University, where she majored in French. She was the first black woman poet in Cuban history to be given the opportunity to publish widely and to acquire a professional status as a writer, critic, and translator. Deeply influenced by the black liberation movement, freedom fighters, and intellectuals like Angela Davis in the United States, and in Cuba by the example of her literary mentor, Nicolás Guillén, Morejón was one of the first Cuban women to celebrate blackness in poetry. But like Guillén she has refused to separate black politics from the wider revolutionary process. In her view there is not a distinct African Cuban identity but a Cuban identity-which cannot be understood without taking into consideration the black cultures of the Americas. And thus, while Morejón focuses on the experiences of black Cubans (particularly women) in her poetry, and while she is keen to inscribe Cuban culture within a pan-Caribbean framework, she is always careful to do so within the parameters of Cuban revolutionary thought.
As an African-American woman novelist and poet, I was particularly struck by Nancy Morejón’s poems about black women written in the context of a personal and collective struggle for freedom. I asked her about these and other poems she had written over her more than 30-year career, and about the intersection of race, gender, and class in today’s Cuba. The interview was conducted between Havana and Brooklyn via e-mail, in English and Spanish, with the aid of translator and scholar Jason Weiss. Our interview, which began during the late days of August, was interrupted by the devastating September 11 attacks on the United States. We finally concluded in the beginning of October. I found Nancy Morejón a cautious and careful interviewee of penetrating and wide intelligence, unwavering in her love for her country and the revolution that has transformed her life.
Sapphire The art critic Peter Schjeldahl has argued, “Nationality is one of the most significant and interesting things about anyone, and therefore any art. It affects content and character of art as least as much as, say, gender does.” What are some of the ways in which being Cuban has shaped who you are as a writer?
Nancy Morejón The quote from Peter Schjeldahl is interesting, I agree with it. Although I perceive some differences between nationality and identity, I can say that my condition as a Cuban woman is present in my most important writings; above all in those that have had the greatest circulation and been met with a special understanding in countries and cultures that are quite different. As you know, I have written poetry and essays. These genres have allowed me to express my condition as a Cuban in complementary ways. That Cubanness is affected as well by the times in which we happen to live. The nature of being Cuban in the 19th century is not the same as in the century that just ended.
S You have been quoted as saying, “For me a poem is not a poem until it is published, because I think there must be a social communication between people.” And in your work you talk about the consequences of silencing, for instance: “Subitamente tengo que hablar / de mis temores a no convertime en eco.” You’ve had two prolonged periods of silence in your career, the “literary disappearance,” as you refer to it-from 1968 through 1979; and the second beginning in 1988 after the publication of Piedra pulida [Polished stone]. Can you talk about the circumstances that contributed to those periods of silence and the effect they had on you as a writer?
NM You are an astute reader. However, I must clarify an idea: a poem does exist even if it is unpublished. Its true essence appears when it is published. The purpose of any piece of writing is its existence before a reader’s eyes. It’s one thing to write and another to publish. A writer exists when he fills the blank page. A writer fulfills her task when she can be read by readers. The important thing is to write, first of all. We know the instructive experience of Kafka, who ordered his writings burned. Only thanks to his friend Max Brod have we been able to know a body of work that is emblematic of the 20th century, work that exemplifies the relations between an author, his or her writing, and the society to which it belongs. I did not have silences. I never stopped writing. I stopped publishing. Especially in the 1970s, my poems didn’t interest the bigger journals and newspapers. No publisher brought out a book of my poetry. The reasons why such a thing happened still remain a mystery. At any rate, what’s important is that I wrote—I wrote and I have never stopped doing so. For me, writing a poem means enormous enjoyment that reaches its culmination when the poem appears in print.
I should clarify that Piedra pulida was published in 1986 and received the Critics’ Prize in Cuba that year. Already the ’80s marked an appreciable difference.
S In poems like “La Cena,” I hear respect and love of family in lines like: “papa Ilegar mas tarde / con sus brazos oscuros y sus manos callosas / enjuagando el sudor en la camisa simple / que amenaza dulzona con destrozar mis hombros / ahi esta el padre / accrrucado casi / paraque yo encontrara vida / a pudiera existir alli donde no estuvo.”
And in poems like “A Rose,” about Abel Santamaria, one of the most famous heroes of the assault on the Moncada barracks led by Fidel Castro, July 26, 1953, Santamaria’s eyes are torn out by Batista’s men in a futile effort to make him talk. And in “Mythologies,” about Camilo Cienfuegos, another legendary hero of the revolution; his small plane lost at sea, the reader hears a love and adoration of country and the country’s heroes and the revolution they died for. In “Mythologies” you write, “Oh pueblo mio insurrecto, / tu que lo vieras nacer in el discurso I y arder in los vertiginosos rios de la Invasion: / Para tiderribo madrigueras impias.” What I don’t hear in your poems are any criticisms of the institutions of family and state. Why is that? Or do you indeed use your poetry to criticize the institutions of family and state?
NM It all depends on how you understand the word criticism. In my case, I understand it as the exercise of critical judgment and not necessarily as an act of censure. A book like Richard trajo su flauta [Richard brought his flute], for example, in my opinion is a fresco about the family from a very intimate perspective that assumes a critical regard in the sense I just spoke of. The family is a center. Explicitly, in that poem, there is also a tribute to a Cuban musician whose work is legendary, the great flautist Richard Egües, author of a classic tune “El bodeguero,” which Nat King Cole had a big hit with in the fifties. The working class districts of Havana shaped my outlook, which the sound of that flute was able to convey—as renowned in its time as the rustic world of Oriente Province in the Buena Vista Social Club.
In another sense, my view of those institutions is critical—that is, exercising my critical judgment. Not censoring. Naturally, the state is not close to me and does not deserve as much attention as the family. For my generation and for the generations that came after, Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara preside over an irreversible constellation of heroes and, for that reason, have become integrated into the most beautiful popular imagination on the planet. Yes, I think my critical sense is found in many poems because “I don’t live in a perfect society,” as Pablo Milanés has said. You can form part of the state or not, but it’s not the same with the family. I also believe there are very marked differences between one institution and another. I belong to my family, just as I do to the vast family of Cuban culture, wherever it may be found. That sense of belonging causes me to defend it above any other reason or sentiment.
S In the poem “Mythologies,” “Eleggua’s Eyes,” “Elegy for Nieves Fresneda,” and others, you draw on aspects of Afro-Cuban religion. Can you speak about that aspect of your work and how the practice of an Afrocentric religion coexists with a materialist Marxist-Leninist ideology?
NM Interesting but difficult question. Cuba is Cuba. For many years I have said, following the tradition of Nicolás Guillén, Fernando Ortiz and Alejo Carpentier, that whoever wants to understand Cuba cannot ignore its mestizo condition in which the Hispanic and African components cannot be divided because they have created a cosmovisión that is authentically original. Cuban Santeria—like candomblé in Bahía, in Brazil, and Haitian vodú—is an open body of religious values whose mythology takes off from the one religious value system brought to all the Americas by African slaves of Yoruba descent. So that in Cuba, the Caribbean, Brazil and Uruguay, for example, these mestizo religious systems should not be considered Afrocentric because that would be mistaken. Africa in America—even by way of these diverse systems that make up a religious system—has experienced a vast process of transculturation. My poems, like those of many other poets in this hemisphere, sing of the cultural resistance outlined by these expressions always in favor of progress and independence. The poems that you quote capture revealing moments, instants, details of a social psychology in Cuba at the end of the 20th century. I don’t think one can find in those poems, nor do I think I’ve included, any element of Marxist-Leninist ideology; much less the stereotype of that ideology that we have had here in the Western Hemisphere.
S Speaking of the revolution and your childhood, you have said, “I witnessed a world that was coming to an end, and another one that was beginning. But that world was the world of someone who was also new to it.” Can you elaborate on that statement and talk about what it meant to be a young girl who had been born into a racist society, where for better or for worse, blackness was an integral part of your identity, and to then enter a new society where the paradigms of race and class had been so fundamentally changed?
NM I thank you for your precision in elaborating the question, which is one of the most important in this dialogue. In 1959, when the revolution triumphed, I was an adolescent. I had only lived 14 years in the other society. Today, with the passage of time, we see how different it was in 1959 to have the power of reasoning. I was a person whose sensibility, intelligence, and knowledge were in formation. Various members of my family-and I myself—were the objects of many racist demonstrations. In addition, I was a witness along with them to many others. Thus, the transformations that were starting to take place were obvious, unobjectionable. Notice that I use the word transformations but not changes. I do so because I think that when I’m speaking about transformations the reader must think of a process that moves forward in a progressive way; whereas if I speak about changes, one thinks of a magic leap toward some paradise. We have made extraordinary advances in this terrain. And yet it has been neither easy, nor by way of a magic wand. The social gains in this domain respond to a long-standing, well-defined awareness that supports the full dignity of all Cubans, whatever their class or ethnic origins or their sexual or religious preferences. Racial prejudices still exist, which these 40 years of efforts have not been able to eradicate completely. This is a reality. I can tell you that, in this sense, racial prejudice is defeated but not dead.
S Critic Janet J. Hampton has said, “Perhaps Nancy Morejón’s most precious gift to both readers and listeners is her complex portrait of empowered black women.” Can you respond to that statement and also talk about the poems “Mujer Negra” and “Amo a Mi Amo”?
NM Janet J. Hampton, with her usual seriousness, has said something fundamental, and I am very grateful for her observations in the various studies she has done on me. The most dynamic and precise way to answer your question is to refer to my poems “Mujer negra” and “Amo a mi Amo.”
The first poem is almost the emblem of a history of displacement forged in this case by the condition of race. It is the epic vision of that displacement which was the forced transplant of millions of African slaves to American lands. I wrote it in a dreamlike state. Its wide distribution and success do not inhibit me from saying that I wrote it in a spontaneous manner with no forethought. When this poem was useful for antiracism movements, to elevate racial awareness, I felt satisfaction and joy. While writing the poem, I never thought it would have the reach it has nowadays.
The second poem is a recompense for the first. They are very connected to each other. Where the first takes an epic perspective, the second is marked by an introspective mood. The first has an “I” who is a we. In the second, that “I” shows its race as an important category that is clearly conditioned by its physical and moral existence as subjected to a system of slavery. I wanted to paint the psychic disorders that slavery has left in every society that it marked. Our literatures spoke of its horrors more in global terms, in external aspects. I wanted to sketch a feminine psychology that suffered the depredation of the body to the same significant degree as that of its inner world, which was weighed down in turn by the insurmountable condition of its physical and moral being. That is why she resorts to a supreme act of violence such as murder.
“Mujer negra” and “Amo a mi Amo” are two sides of the same coin.
S You said, and I quote, “The originality that can be perceived in my poetry derives, I think, from my conditions as a woman and from my conditions as a black.” In the beginning of the interview I asked you about being Cuban-can you now talk specifically about how being black and female has shaped your artistic vision?
NM My whole vision of the world, beyond the perspective of art, literature and specifically poetry, is affected by those three conditions, which cannot in any way be separated. I have never tried to claim that my poetry is original except as a literary expression bearing this mixture of conditions that form a physical being and her corresponding psychology. I cannot deny that I am, at once, Nancy Morejón, an individual, a unity, who cannot be subdivided into parts as one does when learning math. In my poems, I have wanted to be what I thought I was. Perhaps some aspects are insufficiently expressed, or are blurred, or are vivid in a dreamlike way, as described by the poet Nicolás Guillén, whose centenary we will celebrate next summer. I am not more of a black person than a woman; I am not more of a woman than a Cuban; I am not more of a black person than a Cuban. I am a brief combustion of those factors.
S What role does the artist play in Cuban society today? Why have you chosen not to join the Communist Party? And how has that affected your role as an artist in Cuba today?
NM We Cuban artists have played a decisive role not only in the Cuban society of today but also in its greatest definition throughout our history. We Cuban artists have contributed to improving our values, to articulating our character, to stimulating the clearest cultural resistance, to understanding ourselves better, to creating a world where, as the poet José Martí demanded, the most important currency is the full dignity of man and woman. We have offered that contribution through our work and, in many cases, through our efforts to transform the country. Sometimes utopian, sometimes feasible, our art operates in the spirit of modernity, service and independence.
S What Cuban writers are you excited about today?
NM In the 1990s forecasts about our existence were ominous. Few thought we would survive. Here we are. Literature and art flourished in various ways, almost without resources, with no international distribution. Here we are. An infinite number of young poets, playwrights, fiction writers, essayists, philosophers emerged onto the intellectual scene who had a great freshness and a sense of social responsibility that was not without certain risks. It would be unfair to mention some names and leave out others. Taste can be ordinary if not capricious. My taste is not always directed toward truth, nor even toward the highest quality. In Cuba we must respect all those writers who have maintained their space and their dignity beyond the question of making a hit at book fairs or in the commercial world. I respect all of them even if all of them are not to my taste or don’t make me happy. I do not want to be partial.
S Where do you see yourself as an artist 10 years from now? And Cuba, where do you see your country 10 years from now?
NM First, I want to be alive. Of course, that’s not up to me, but it would be the first requirement for bringing to fruition various literary projects that I have long dreamed about. My country will remain there where it is, washed by the Gulf Stream, the Caribbean Sea and by that desire to exist and remain and last with its windows open to the purest elements in human civilization without renouncing social justice. I would earnestly hope that there is a greater understanding between our cultures, in favor of civilization, against war, against terrorism, against every regressive atavism. Art is the magic that will take us by the hand along the most beautiful of paths.
Translated from the Spanish by Jason Weiss.
Sapphire is the author of two books of poetry, American Dreams (Serpent’s Tail, 1994), and Black Wings & Blind Angels (Knopf, 1999) and the award-winning novel Push (Knopf, 1996). She lives in New York City, where she is working on a new collection of poetry and another novel.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee