Litro #165: Breaking Borders | Figures over the Strait

Litro #165: Breaking Borders | Figures over the Strait
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Translated by Lorna Scott Fox.

 

Zero

How long is the flight between Havana and Miami?

You settle into your seat, have a soda and some nibbles and gaze for a while through the porthole at the clouds floating over a narrow band of sea, the famous ninety miles. Then you go to the toilet. You might have time to open a book, but the landing manoeuvres will probably interrupt before you’ve read more than a couple of pages.

Around forty-five minutes.

But it’s not a bad idea to get a book out on the plane. Not to read, but to riffle through or just so it’s there, like another passenger. A stowaway. A book to be not read but shown, thousands of feet up in the air, as literary product placement, as performance.

A geopolitical statement written in the air.

It occurs to me that such books should be Cuban ones, at once attesting to (free?) passage, the state of transit, and turning it into something more complex. Books with something to say by their mere presence on this plane, which for the space of less than an hour is neither in Cuba nor in the United States.

Forty-five minutes. But sometimes, especially when you start thinking and choosing what books would fit the bill, it feels like barely five.

 

One

As I write this I’m thinking that next time I fly to Miami (I live in Havana) I could take, for example, the latest edition of Contrabando, by Enrique Serpa (1900–1968), an author who is little known outside the island.

At the start of the novel, first published in 1938, the main character, who owns a fishing schooner, hears about a US writer who likes to fish in Cuban waters. He obtains a photograph of this writer-angler and pins it up in his cabin. “And whenever someone inquired” – I reread, with amusement – “about that broad American face, beaming with health, I would tell them that it belonged to a millionaire friend of mine.”

Ernest Hemingway, of course.

Serpa and Hemingway hit it off during the latter’s first visits to Cuba. Two thirty-something guys wandering the streets of Havana, discussing women (hookers, presumably), carousing at one bar after another. Few close encounters between Cuban and US literature have been as strange and significant as this one.

Hemingway was then on the eve of being famous. He wasn’t yet a millionaire; he was a long way from buying his finca on the outskirts of Havana. He embodied “the good neighbour”: an affable, modern figure, and a moderniser. Serpa’s novel turns the American friend into a picture postcard, a cabin cameo. With a kind of affectionate dig in the ribs, it anticipates the Hemingway of the trope (of the tropics), the Hemingway for Dummies whose subtitle would be The Old Man and the Sea.

The point is, the schooner in Contrabando is not engaged in deep-sea fishing. In times of economic crisis, fishing – suggests Serpa by means of this winking “American Hemingway of Life” – is just a hobby for idle tourists. The title of this novel set in the late Twenties says it all. Prohibition is in full swing. Barrels of rum bought for a song in Havana sail up the corridor of the Florida Strait, borne on the Gulf Stream across the invisible border between Cuba and the United States.

At the end of the story, the boat that was adorned early on with a portrait of the author of The Sun Also Rises drops anchor in darkness, laden with cargo, on the Sanibel coast south of Tampa. A mafia yacht comes to meet it and handle the transhipment. American dipsos (Hemingway himself died an alcoholic) depend on these unofficial transactions for their supplies.

When the liquor has changed hands, rolled from one deck to the other, the crew cheer and throw their caps in the air. Suddenly one of them hoists a Cuban flag on the main mast. The yachtsmen smile, “surprised and tickled by this show of tropical enthusiasm”, writes Serpa with deadpan irony (revealingly, Contrabando is one of the most ironical novels in all Cuban literature).

I think something else is going on here, submerged in the sea beneath the enthusiasm. Something which the Florida mafiosi are unable to grasp. This is a scene of frank complicity, but also of profound lack of communication. A scene that features, besides, one of the best appearances of the flag as “patriotic symbol” that I know of in our literature.

A smugglers’ flag, almost a pirate flag, raised out of sight of the Yankee coastguard, in the dark of night.

What more could one want.

 

Two

The regular Havana–Miami flight is a quick hop over ravaged territory, over a surface teeming with floating ghosts. The passengers know it, don’t know it, forgot about it or don’t think about it.

The wings and portholes of the plane have stopped reflecting the glimmer of fishing boats, though there are still some yachts and cruise ships. What the sea casts most insistently into the sky are darker sparks, the remains of shipwrecks.

Forget the famous Bermuda Triangle, not far from here. Surpassing such hoaxes comes a key figure for Cuban history of the 1990s and early 2000s: the balsero. The raft person, the migrant who sets out to cross the ninety miles of the Strait on his makeshift craft – primitive, cobbled together in haste, almost always preposterous – in pursuit of the American Dream. Which the powerful prefer to call the Empire’s Siren Song, or something.

The balseros constitute an entire artistic, narrative and sociological genre, one that by definition blends the wave and the swarm. We are talking about hundreds and thousands of vulnerable sailors, surrounded by water and sharks, thirsty and famished and exhausted by rowing, sensing perhaps the proximity of death as they lull themselves with optimistic rhymes and songs, not siren songs now but childish ones, the sort their nurses used to sing. The cradle and the grave, so close to one another there, the personal and unique images touching both extremes, fusing and melting together in the stampede of tropical socialism, the destiny of everyone and nobody.

In a poem by Juan Carlos Flores I read:

I would have liked to sign up for that caravan, and play harmonica all the way to the green fires of Miami Beach.

Nana, in celebration, on the other side of it all, if there is another side to it all, save another plastic bag for me.

An artist and poet, a punch-drunk survivor of horror, the author of these lines committed suicide in Havana less than a year ago. His last book, published in 2009, is titled The Counterpunch (and Other Horizontal Poems). It is an extraordinary work, imparting to the reader a solid lesson in impoverished material resources. As I read on, I seemed to see Juan Carlos Flores working with that very thing: plastic bags. I understood how he wrote with his hands full of swatches of nylon, and ropes and rags and home-made masts, and the punctured inner tubes of ancient trucks.

Because the poet, who never did sign up with the balseros, assembles here his texts that they may float, horizontally, like the rafts. His balsa-poems resemble mixed media installations involving plastic, rubber, wooden planks; their tempo is the beat of urgent, improvised hammering. Getaway poems, poems for fleeing into the unknown. The counterpunches of a battered writer.

Now I’m thinking about Flores, whose name means flowers, and thinking about that archipelago blooming with wreckage, that marine graveyard beneath the shadow of the plane, south of the Florida Keys. The balseros are ever fewer, and will soon disappear altogether: many reached their goal, many turned back, but most were drowned, lost, there will never be “another side to it” for them. And yet, floating in our heads, the crucial thing remains. Not the bodies, but the stray leftovers of what once were rafts; all that trash made up of materials as enduring as they are fragile, like a third-world collage.

We still have these materials handy. You can’t easily wipe them off the map. And I say we should keep them, as he wanted us to, the horizontal poems man who killed himself. Just in case.

The border between Cuba and the USA, that bleeding gash, will heal little by little among the waves. But, never forget it, the scarring will be asymmetrical. A reconstruction in which the poorest, the children and grandchildren of the barbarous migrants, the least civilised nomads, will occupy the shabbiest back rooms.

To continue living on this island means to continue finding ways of continuing to deal counterpunches.

 

Three

The migrant stream that defied the Gulf Stream reached its height during the so-called Balsero Crisis of 1994. The year 1999 saw the posthumous publication of what is, for me, Reinaldo Arenas’s masterpiece: The Colour of Summer. In this delirious parody, Cubans take to the water like sharks to gnaw away the island’s rocky moorings, detaching it from the sea bed. The island is cast adrift. The whole of Cuba plies the waves.

We read:

It was off, it was away. The Island was sailing away. This was not some army recruit fed up with the abuses of the military, throwing himself into the sea on a truck tyre; not some muscular black man driven by discrimination to paddle away on a plank; not some family launching themselves into the Gulf on a raft made from the dining-room table; nor was it even thousands of people fleeing on anything that floated in search of an uncertain but at least hopeful future. No, it was the country itself, breaking away in a geological, geographical stampede. A novelty in the history of exoduses: the Island of Cuba, cut loose from its foundations, breasting the high seas like an enormous ship. 

The mother ship of science fiction. Good literature, the best, is apt to pre-empt things. It winds forward like a clock. The great Arenas wrote this fantasy in 1990, the year of his death (suffering from AIDS, he killed himself in New York), and gave us a peek at the future in exacerbated form.

First, barrels of illicit liquor are ferried northward; then the barrels are, like so much else, converted, souped up – hot-rodded – and multiplied into rafts; finally, the whole island becomes a raft and a prodigy of smuggling in itself.

It’s no accident that, in The Colour of Summer, the island’s breakaway occurs after the chapter about the death of Virgilio Piñera. His long poem “La isla en peso” (The Whole Island), one of the most famous works of Cuban letters, begins with this equally famous and oft-quoted line:

“The damned fact of water on every side”.

Among Cubans, it’s enough to mutter “the damned fact” and everyone knows what you’re talking about. It has become a mantra, a hallmark, a national motto.

The weight of the whole island. The weight of borders made of water. And over time, this has devolved too into the dead weight of a dictatorship, the weight of a virtual, unrelenting war footing, the nightmare weight of isolation in an ideological trench.

Reinaldo Arenas worked on these gravitational coordinates. To lighten, to alleviate. Cubans like to say that ours is an “island of cork” – unsinkable. This popular notion has a double cutting edge.

The migrant condition is like a “damned fact” applied to the entire country. It means there are no longer any maritime frontiers: Cuba is motion, a back-and-forth across the sea, and therefore is itself a frontier. A frontier without a country.

The Colour of Summer will be essential reading when Castrism ends. I shall not divulge the ending here; we already anticipate a massive shipwreck. But just before the expected shipwreck, some questions are inevitable: where is this floating island headed? Is there some magnetic pole that draws it along?

We can also anticipate a prompt answer, of course. One that may appear clear, rational and definitive, especially from a plane flying over the Florida Strait. But no, it is thoroughly obscure, and anything but simple.

 

Four

Now I’m leafing through Cuaderno del Bag Boy (The Bag Boy Notebook), by Lorenzo García Vega, brought out last year by the stylish imprint Casa Vacía, of Richmond, Virginia. Another posthumous book: the author, deceased in 2012, left a treasure trove of unpublished papers to be fought over by all the small independent presses in Cuba.

An avant-gardist writer in the minor tradition of Latin American “oddballs”, by the time of his death García Vega was revered as a cult hero, wielding a secret influence over Cuban letters. His unclassifiable, often autistic works are like hybrid scrapbooks mixing autofiction, poetry, journal, dream diary and other highly disparate fragments. In them, the site of his lengthy exile is revisited over and over: the city he learned to live in and where he died.

Miami, the capital of the Cuban diaspora.

Miami, alias the “Cuba of the North”.

Miami as our tentacular projection, “the place in Cuba nearest the States”, as a friend quipped once. A joke seriously intended, a mighty truth disguised as a bit of fun. Because Miami is a frontier: the one we established there. And there, as on any border, forces of attraction coexist with forces of repulsion, the state of passing through with that of being nowhere, ceasing to be one thing with growing to be another.

Miami is where Cubans are more Cuban than ever. At the same time, Miami is where they are more “Latin” and less Cuban than ever.

In Lorenzo García Vega’s books, the border is a part utopian, part dystopian place called Albino Beach. Albino Beach is a spectral version of Miami; a disfigured, rarefied, Cuban-white-trash Miami. A cult Miami, you might say, an auteur Miami: oneiric neon suburbs, supermarkets littered with abandoned trolleys and useless knick-knacks, barren lots that drive you mad or turn you into a mutant.

Far from Flores’s “green fires of Miami Beach”, in Albino Beach the water is no longer on all sides, as Piñera had it, but nowhere to be found. There are no breakers here, no ocean currents, at best a few clogged-up canals are all that surrounds us in the midst of emptiness. Because where there’s no water there’s no enclosure, and without enclosure there’s no hope, no luminous future. The bleak habitat of Albino Beach is our Ciudad Juárez.

“Albino Beach is my way of being Cuban-American,” García Vega once explained. To which I would add: it is also, for many readers including myself, a form of the literary imagination that has redrawn the boundaries – both physical and emotional – of the Cuban-American Dream.

If something like that exists, or ever did.

 

Five

I have a superstitious fear of aeroplanes. As we prepare to land, I tell myself it’s time to stop communing with the dead and to listen to the living.

The last time I flew to Miami it was for the Book Fair, where I was to converse with Gustavo Pérez Firmat, a Cuban essayist, poet and professor at Columbia University, who has lived in the States since he was a child. In our preliminary email exchange, the topic of bilingualism came up, and Gustavo wrote as follows:

“Sometimes when people ask me why I write in English, I say it’s so future generations of Cubans can read my work. Miami may well end up as part of Havana – Ultramar [Overseas] – but Havana could just as well end up as a suburb of Miami: Hialeah by the Sea.”

Gustavo is a scholar of so-called Cuban-American culture (personally, I find the composite adjective increasingly redundant: nowadays, Cuban culture is Cuban-American almost by definition). His most eminent book is Life on the Hyphen, a highly lucid work that approaches hybridity as a phantom zone, swept by currents of contact and contagion between two cultures and two hegemonic languages.

Let me conclude with an admission of ignorance, or obtuseness, something I never told Gustavo: it was only when I read the prologue to the Spanish version that I got what Hyphen meant.

I don’t know how come I never got it before, or why I didn’t look it up. Everything became clear: the book was about life on that hyphen between Cuban and American, the tightrope act on that small borderland line, the bridge between here and there, between Spanish and English, the connection that severs us, the disconnection that also connects.

Until that moment, I swear, I’d always thought the Hyphen in the title was a geographical term meaning Strait. The Florida Hyphen. An aural effect that must have touched off who knows what chip in my Hispanic ears: it sounds vaguely like flujo, flow.

Depths, whirlpools, bottomless wells…

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