Cuban Literature at the Beginning of a New Era
On August 14th, the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba re-opened after 54 years, signaling a thaw in relations after a long, tortuous, painful Cold War.
The U.S. government’s trade embargo and travel sanctions have made Cuban literature out of bounds for most American readers, and many of our literary impressions of the island come from a few novels: Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, and Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, which is set primarily in New York.
Contemporary Cuban literature is alive and vital. As relations between the United States and Cuba improve, we can expect (or at least hope) that new translations of Cuban books will appear and that Americans will once again get to know the literature of the complex and beautiful Carribean island just 70 miles to its south.
Below is a list of some of the best books by Cubans, by Cuban-Americans, and/or about Cuba that are currently available in the U.S.
A Planet for Rent by Yoss, Translated by David Frye
One of the most successful, decorated, and controversial science fiction writers in Cuba, Yoss (a.k.a. José Miguel Sánchez Gómez) is known as much for his unrepentant rocker aesthetic as for his acerbic portraits of the island under Communism.
In his bestselling A Planet for Rent, Yoss critiques ‘90s Cuba by drawing parallels with a possible Earth of the not-so-distant future. Wracked by economic and environmental problems, the desperate planet is rescued, for better or worse, by alien colonizers, who remake the planet as a tourist destination. Ruled over by a brutal interstellar bureaucracy, dispossessed humans seek better lives via the few routes available — working for the colonial police; eking out a living as black marketeers, drug dealers, or artists; prostituting themselves to exploitative extraterrestrial visitors — or they face the cold void of space in rickety illegal ships.
This inventive and raucous book marks the English-language debut of an astonishingly brave and imaginative Latin American voice.
Whether he’s hustling his way into Mike Tyson’s mansion for an interview, betting his life savings on a boxing match (against the favorite), becoming romantically entangled with one of Fidel Castro’s granddaughters, or simply manufacturing press credentials to go where he wants–Brin-Jonathan Butler has always been the “act first, ask permission later” kind of journalist.
This book is the culmination of Butler’s decade spent in the trenches of Havana, trying to understand a culture perplexing to Westerners: one whose elite athletes regularly forgo multimillion-dollar opportunities to stay in Cuba and box for their country, while living in penury. Butler’s fascination with this distinctly Cuban idealism sets him off on a remarkable journey, training with, befriending, and interviewing the champion boxers that Cuba seems to produce more than any other country.
In the process, though, Butler gets to know the landscape of the exhilaratingly warm Cuban culture–and starts to question where he feels most at home. In the tradition of Michael Lewis and John Jeremiah Sullivan, Butler is a keen and humane storyteller, and the perfect guide for this riotous tour through the streets of Havana.
This mesmerizing novel, reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, is a sciencefiction survival story that captures the intense pressures—economic, ideological, psychological—inside Communist Cuba. A Legend of the Future by Agustín de Rojas, the father of Cuban Science Fiction, takes place inside a spaceship on a mission to Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, while back on Earth, warring super powers threaten the fate of humanity. When the ship malfunctions on the return journey, the crewmembers must face their innermost fears amidst experiments in psychological and emotional conditioning and aliens that may or may not be real.
Longlisted for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize
Named a best book of the season by Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, Harper’s Bazaar, Redbook, Bustle, NBC Latino and Men’s Journal
The arresting debut novel from award-winning writer Jennine Capó Crucet
When Lizet-the daughter of Cuban immigrants and the first in her family to graduate from high school-secretly applies and is accepted to an ultra-elite college, her parents are furious at her decision to leave Miami. Just weeks before she’s set to start school, her parents divorce and her father sells her childhood home, leaving Lizet, her mother, and Leidy-Lizet’s older sister, a brand-new single mom-without a steady income and scrambling for a place to live.
Amidst this turmoil, Lizet begins her first semester at Rawlings College, distracted by both the exciting and difficult moments of freshman year. But the privileged world of the campus feels utterly foreign, as does her new awareness of herself as a minority. Struggling both socially and academically, she returns to Miami for a surprise Thanksgiving visit, only to be overshadowed by the arrival of Ariel Hernandez, a young boy whose mother died fleeing with him from Cuba on a raft. The ensuing immigration battle puts Miami in a glaring spotlight, captivating the nation and entangling Lizet’s entire family, especially her mother.
Pulled between life at college and the needs of those she loves, Lizet is faced with difficult decisions that will change her life forever. Urgent and mordantly funny, Make Your Home Among Strangers tells the moving story of a young woman torn between generational, cultural, and political forces; it’s the new story of what it means to be American today.
Assimilation is founded on surrender and being broken; this collection of short stories features people who have assimilated, but are actively trying to reclaim their lives. There is a concert pianist who defies death by uploading his soul into his piano. There is the person who draws his mother’s ghost out of the bullet hole in the wall near where she was executed. Another character has a horn growing out of the center of his forehead—punishment for an affair. But he is too weak to end it, too much in love to be moral. Another story recounts a panda breeder looking for tips. And then there’s a border patrol agent trying to figure out how to process undocumented visitors from another galaxy. Poignant by way of funny, and philosophical by way of grotesque, Hernandez’s stories are prayers for self-sovereignty.
¡Cubanísimo! is the first book to gather Cuban stories, essays, poems and novel excerpts in one volume that summarizes the richness and depth of a great national literature. From the turn of the century to the present, from Havana to Miami, New York, Mexico City, Madrid and beyond, the spirit and diversity of Cuban cultureconverge in one vibrant literary jam session. Cristina García has ingeniously grouped her selections according to “the music of their sentences” into five sections named for Cuban dance styles.
Cuba Straits by Randy Wayne
Part of the Doc Ford series, Cuba Straits is written by a Floridian who has been a frequent visitor to Cuba and helped rescue Cuban refugees off the coast of Key West during the Mariel Harbor crisis of 1980. Author Randy Wayne is something of an expert on Cuban American politics, and they are front and center in the plot of Cuba Straits, which involves the smuggling of Cuban baseball players and a plot to extort Fidel and Raul Castro.