The phone booth on the corner

David Iaconangelo explains why he founded ZafraLit, a new blog featuring writing by contemporary Cuban authors translated into English

ZAFRALIT is a blog featuring short fiction by contemporary Cuban authors, translated into English by student translators drawn principally from undergraduates at Johns Hopkins University.

I created the blog for the same reason that I think people will want to read it: because I’m curious about Cuba and because I believe you can glean more about a place and its people from fiction than any other source.

I also know that curiosity toward Cuba is growing within the United States, and ZafraLit is partially an attempt to capitalize on that. But once I started reading the stories these authors were sending, I got caught up in their energy, their wit, their poignancy, the muscle of their locution. In other words, these stories are really fucking good.

As you might expect from a project of this nature, many of the stories portray the island’s political and cultural institutions (by which I refer to entrenched public attitudes as well as state apparatuses) rather dimly. Because ZafraLit translates and promotes literature whose portrayals of modern Cuban life are so frequently critical, including the work of authors who might also be known for penning more explicit condemnations of the current government, it has obvious potential for use as a political tool. After all, for many readers, the blog’s main point of attraction will be the politics that the stories seem to enforce or endorse; the “contemporary Cuba” that the fiction is advertised to depict will often code for “Communist Cuba”.

What readers seek in ZafraLit I can’t control – but I can control how the blog operates. Its ethos will remain resolutely apolitical in the sense that while the writing we post may feature criticisms of all kinds of institution and ideologies, ZafraLit itself doesn’t actively advocate a certain course of governmental action nor align ourselves with organizations that do.

Fiction being fiction, what these stories say is only as important as how successfully they say it. And stylistics vary from text to text. Some, like Juan Cueto-Roig’s “Look What Time It Is”, confront dysfunction and corruption (in this case, that of a group of Cuban police) with unflinching grimness. When ten bombs explode in various parts of the city – as they did in Havana in 1997 at various tourist spots, killing an Italian businessman – a young man finds himself scapegoated:

“The street was deserted. For the first time he felt fear. He was the only person on that corner. Suddenly, from the shadows, as if created by the night itself for the sole purpose of changing his fate, a cop approached him, slapped him in the face, and accused him of being one of the revolutionaries that had planted the bombs.” (Cueto-Roig, “Look What Time It Is”).

Similar feelings of helplessness and the conviction that the world around the narrator conspires to break down his identity and impose another upon him appear in other stories, albeit in different forms. Many of these cloak tragedy in comedic dialogue or absurd premises. In “National Theater”, for example, a brief piece of satire by Johan Moya Ramis, the unnamed protagonist invites a group of canonical Cuban authors to his home. They jabber in the hallway, his parents get upset at the noise that keeps them from their telenovelas and they berate the authors for trespasses that range from the sexual to the political. The story reaches its climax when Reinaldo Arenas, the author of classics like Farewell to the Sea and Before Night Falls, shoots himself in the head:

“And I just cleaned that doorway this morning!, my mother complained.
It’s your fault for consenting to all this, said my father, pointing at me. I said nothing. I got up and accompanied Severo to the phone booth on the corner.” (Ramis, “National Theater”)

The narrator’s household, of course, mimics the climate of official repression and public apathy against which Cuban writers struggle. Authors who have trouble being published on the island due to material considered too critical of Cuban state apparatuses are most obviously affected, but even those on the “inside” of the literary scene suffer. What the angry response by the narrator’s parents in “National Theater” seems to hint at is an internalization of repression that breeds a non-selective surliness toward ideas; that is, the mother and father don’t object to particular sentiments, but rather the process of cognitive rigor itself.

That they (and thus the Cuban public, this being an allegory) reject whole modes of expression means all writers end up being punished, even those whose stories work well within the framework of the state’s ideology and official stances.

One common response, for those with the means to do so, has been to seek a new life in foreign lands. In other words, to go down to the phone booth on the corner and try to hook oneself up to someone who will listen.

What ZafraLit strives to be is the operator, the link between an author and an audience that would otherwise see the author’s work as inaccessible. And whether the call they place is angry or jovial, impassioned or light-hearted is ultimately immaterial.

David Iaconangelo is a senior at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and the founder of the ZafraLit blog

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