by Leslie Layton
In her spare time, whenever that is, Professor Sara Cooper has taken on the modest task of building a footbridge between two nations with icy relations. Cuba is far closer to the U.S. mainland than any of the Hawaiian Islands, but to most Americans, far more a mystery.
The footbridge is a non-profit book press, Cubanabooks, which Cooper launched in May 2010. Cubanabooks today released its second book in this country, a bilingual edition of “Disconnect” — in Spanish “Desencuentro” — by Cuba’s popular Nancy Alonso. Without Cubanabooks, Alonso’s short-story compilation probably wouldn’t have made it across the Florida Straits.
For the past 52 years, the United States has had a tough embargo against Cuba in place that limits trade and restricts the ability of Americans to travel to an island that is no further from Key West, Fla., than is Sacramento from Chico.
The book press is a product of Cooper’s passion for writing by Cuban women, and in particular, that body of literature emerging in an increasingly open cultural and political environment. A Chico State University professor specializing in multicultural and gender studies, over the past decade Cooper has traveled frequently to Cuba, connecting with women writers and becoming increasingly determined to make their work accessible in this country.
In the United States, there’s a booming market for Mexican-American literature, but little attention to the work emerging from Cuba. “We have a direct line to top women writers in Cuba,” Cooper said of Cubanabooks. “I’m tired of them not having a voice.”
On a recent Wednesday, Cooper pleaded for patience from a reporter waiting outside her small university office to snap her photo. She laughed about the fact that she was “doing five things at once.” Three were obvious: She was eating lunch, advising a student who wanted to add her class and preparing to meet with a Cubanabooks intern.
A newspaper cartoon tacked to the hallway bulletin board shows a crowd of people who want to ship items to family members or travel to Cuba, all facing a tall stone wall that is labeled the “Ironic Curtain.”
Alonso’s short stories in “Disconnect” are often about the kind of subtle drama everyday life delivers, and are sometimes populated by lesbian characters. The characters often fail to make promising human connections because of chance or missteps. The stories also reflect the difficult living conditions Cubans struggle with.
In an e-mail interview, Alonso said those living conditions are due in part to the embargo, which she said has obviously been a policy failure. The embargo was created to encourage a popular uprising that has never happened. But Alonso, who also sits on the Cubanabooks editorial board, said bureaucracy and corruption in Cuba are also to blame.
Cooper said el bloqueo is only one of the obstacles to accessing the literature that she has come to love. There’s also an intellectual embargo, she argued, erected by the Cuban immigrant community in this country. It’s been particularly challenging for women to break through that blockade.
Many Cuban immigrants in this country have adopted a “violently anti-Castro, anti-revolutionary stance,” Cooper noted. “They try to block anyone living [in Cuba.] They’re depicted as toadies of the revolution. Then, on top of that, there’s the machismo.”
Cooper said a “tiny niche market” has developed for work by Cuban-Americans, but she described that work as mostly comprised of “commercially-viable potboilers, sex-spectaculars, anti-Castro diatribes.”
“That kind of stuff goes over like nobody’s business,” Cooper stated.
In Cuba, meanwhile, the arts have flourished since Castro’s 1961 “Words to the Intellectuals” speech, when he charged his country’s elite with encouraging the arts and humanities and promised support. “A bunch of cultural organizations sprung up,” Cooper noted. “There was government support for those who could make artistry… they spend much more per capita than [is spent] here supporting artists.”
For a couple of decades, the cost was “indirect censorship,” Cooper added. “There was government support if you were in line with their ideology.”
But the government has grown increasingly lenient and now supports artists “even if they are critical,” Cooper said. “They wouldn’t support film or theatre lampooning Fidel Castro. But a lot of the works are showing the physical deterioration, the scarcity issues, people getting tired of being watched all the time.”
Today in Cuba, Cooper said there’s a “huge mistrust” of writers who are committed to dogma of any kind. “Anybody who’s too in favor of anything gets called names.”
Years ago, Cooper, who has a doctorate in Spanish, became interested in Cuba’s women writers when she realized that gender roles in Cuba had been “developing differently than anywhere else in Latin America.”
“Women have an entirely different position there,” said Cooper, who would eventually become one of this country’s Cuba scholars, making it possible for her to travel to the island. “A primary tenet of the revolution was gender parity.”
Cuba was slower to accept homosexuality, but persecution had ended by the 1990s, and this year the country’s lawmakers will consider legalizing gay marriage. The transformation that has taken place probably influenced the work of gay writers like Alonso, whose gay characters struggle with universal themes. Cooper said Alonso doesn’t feel the need to write with a “social justice agenda.”
Alonso may in some ways be typical of Cuba’s successful women writers. Cooper said: “They’re less flashy, less likely to take advantage of the trend of Cuba-bashing. They’re really not interested in establishing a political agenda.”
Alonso’s stories are replete with references to American films and TV. But the embargo, though it has been responsible for much suffering, has provided a shield for the island’s artists. “The embargo has provided the luxury of focus on their own excellence and cultural identity,” Cooper said. “They have not had to be in direct competition with U.S. culture.”
Yet, Cubans are hungry for intellectual stimulation from outside their country, and Cuban writers would like to reach an American audience.
With the publication of “Disconnect,” Alonso has published her second book in this country. An earlier book of hers was published by Curbstone Press, which has since shut down. “I think the distribution of any artistic creation in another country… suggests possible communication bridges that can help mutual understanding,” Alonso wrote in Spanish in an e-mail. “Even more so in our case — two neighboring countries so separated in recent decades.”
When Cooper launched Cubanabooks almost two years ago, she admits it was a “one-person shop.” She financed the publication of the first book, Mirta Yáñez’s “Havana is a Really Big City,” by teaching summer school.
Now, the press has an eight-person editorial board that includes representatives of six American universities. Cooper hopes the press can eventually support itself on sales, donations and grants. Yáñez and Alonso have both applied for visas that would allow them to speak in San Francisco in May at the Latin American Studies Association Congress.
“It’s important to understand that there are strong, courageous Latin American women only 90 miles from the United States,” Cooper said. “We have a limited and twisted idea of what Cuba is, and it’s only a matter of time before these borders open up. This will prepare us for a real relationship with Cuba.”
The public is invited to attend a book release event for “Disconnect / Desencuentro” at 3 p.m. March 15 at the Chico State Cross-Cultural Leadership Center.