The Cultural History of the Eighties and Nineties

The Azotea and Proyecto DiAspora(s)

As Rojas (2009, 69) points out, in the eighties there was more room for dissent in theater, cinema, and the visual arts than in literature and thought. Films by Andrei Tarkovski or Andrzej Wajda, to name just two directors, were usually playing at the movie theater, and Desiderio Navarro’s theoretical journal Criterios included articles by Mikhail Bakhtin and Yuri Lotman;

meanwhile, intellectuals Milan Kundera, Octavio Paz, and Michel Foucault, among others, were not published in the island (ibid., 70). But the interest in postmodern literature and theory was such that young writers exchanged books brought to the island by friends and family. This is how books by Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, and the like changed hands, “as if in a theoreticians’ cooperative” (ibid.). Rojas’s social metaphor seemingly describes the atmosphere of the azotea (rooftop), a cultural space that the poet Reina Maria Rodriguez created in her home in 1991. It became a bastion of intellectual independence where intellectuals discussed texts that often questioned orthodox Marxism and the national canon of Cuban literature. Rodriguez was instrumental in creating what critics have called the “cultural center of Havana” during the late eighties and nineties. It all began with Paideia in 1989, a cultural project organized by Rodriguez and other young writers. As I will show in more detail in chapter 4, Paideia was an interdisciplinary cultural project opposed to the increasing institutionalization of culture.79

A salon litteraire of sorts, the azotea emerged as Paideia began to wither, and it played a pivotal role in creating the first autonomous, vanguardist, and theoretically sophisticated generation of writers of the revolutionary period. In homage to Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury group, Rodriguez organized meetings every Thursday and gathered large groups of young writers at her house for readings, discussions, and lectures. The group hosted highly regarded writers such as Henri de Louis or Daniel Samoilovich (Real Arcia). During its decade of existence, the Azotea established a reputation on and off the island. Poets of that period remember it as a space of comfort that shielded intellectuals from the most difficult material conditions of the so-called Special Period. During these years, the end of economic ties with the Soviet bloc deprived the government of all its suppliers of affordable food. The resulting period of hunger affected the entire population. This explains why intellectuals in Rodriguez’s circle mystified that period by understanding it as the result of their hunger. As the poet Flores has said, they experienced two types of hunger: one intellectual and the other physical (Real Arcia). Rodriguez refers to it as a period of intellectual plenitude despite the scarcity of means and food. In sum, this period has remained in their memories as the most stimulating and formative years in their careers. There is a certain nostalgia and idealization of those years that seems connected to the dwindling of the group until it eventually disintegrated, as writers began going into exile between 1995 and 1998.

In this space, Diaspora(s) read their first works and became a radical, avant-garde group regarded by many as rarefied and exclusive. Rodriguez, who was not invited in spite of her willingness, considered the project as “the doors to heaven” (Real Arcia). Diaspora(s)’s first idea was to create an interdisciplinary journal that went against the grain. They wanted to create an alternative space to official publications (El caiman barbudo, La union, Gaceta de Cuba, etc.), which would not publish polemical or ideologically independent articles. To understand how the project came to fruition, it is important to recall these writers’ formative years and the always complicated ties that Cuban intellectuals develop with cultural institutions. Like most writers of this generation, Diaspora(s)’s members met each other in talleres literarios (literary workshops) during the early eighties. The talleres, a key institution of revolutionary cultural policy created in 1961, were devised as a space to form future writers, who would eventually join Asociacion Her- manos Saiz (AHS), and then the Union Nacional de Escritores y Artistas Cubanos (UNEAC).80 The talleres were organized by the Union de Jovenes Comunistas (UJC), whose role was the formation of new revolutionary intellectuals. In the late eighties, Sanchez Mejias, one of Diaspora(s)’s founding members, was a UJC member and taught classes in the talleres literarios. The second half of the eighties witnessed the beginning of a cultural renaissance led by all these young intellectuals. By then, Victor Fowler and Jorge Ygle- sias who supported these young writers’ cultural initiatives, were in charge of restructuring AHS. They realized that by increasing AHS’s membership, they could also bring in new young writers and transform its ideology. At the time, AHS enjoyed support from El Caiman Barbudo, which in contrast did nothing to promote the talleres literarios.

As a result of AHS expansion, many writers from the talleres liter- arios became members of the association, which is how they began meeting each other. The state was still providing generous funding for cultural activities, and the group began taking shape. The most interesting events were organized by such poets as Ernesto Hernandez Busto or Rolando Prats. This intellectual dynamism was a result of the socialization between poets, and also with ISA artists, especially Grupo Arte Calle. For example, they organized performances or disruptive impromptus, as when Arte Calle interrupted official UNEAC functions. As a result of the intellectual euphoria of those years and the opening of the Centro Cultural Alejo Carpentier in 1989, a new cultural production emerged in spite of material difficulties. The state reduced its publishing rates due to the lack of materials, but in 2000 the government passed a law to allow small independent presses in the provinces (the Sistema de Editoriales Provinciales [SEP]). These presses were very efficient thanks to “risografia,” a low-cost method based on the use of Riso computers and duplicating machines. There were also more creative solutions, including the making of artisanal books. Ediciones La Azotea, created by Reina Maria Rodriguez, began publishing a literary journal of the same name, as well as first translations of otherwise unavailable works. The most creative and resourceful publisher was Ediciones Vigia (in Matan- zas), which printed small numbers of artisanal books made from cardboard.

The publication of small books or plaquettes became another option, which helped emerging writers and those from smaller cities. In spite of the paper shortages and other material hardships, writers managed to publish, which says a lot about the intellectual fervor of those years.81

A new period of cultural dynamism began when Rodriguez opened the azotea, which became the most cutting-edge and dynamic cultural space in Havana. Intellectual gatherings were organized in a private space and without any state intervention, and poets organized performances, poetry readings, and intellectual discussions. It was then that most of these poets began to publish their first books, including Marques de Armas’s Los altos manicomios (The Upper Asylums) (1993), Flores’s Los pajaros escritos (The Written Birds) (1994), Sanchez Mejias’s Derivas (Drifts) (1994), Ponte’s Asiento en las ruinas (Seat in the Ruins) (1997), and Carlos Alberto Aguilera’s Das Kapital (1997).

As young authors, they had written for El caiman barbudo, the supplement of Juventud rebelde (Rebel Youth) and the UJC and AHS ideological platform. Most were still members of the AHS, but many wanted to distance themselves from it. The answer was the creation of an alternative journal, Naranja dulce (Sweet Orange), which became the literary supplement of El caiman barbudo. The editorial board consisted of young writers from the same generation: Victor Fowler, Ernesto Hernandez Busto, Omar Perez, Luis Felipe Calvo, Emilio Garcia Montiel, Atilio Caballero, Antonio Jose Ponte, and Abelardo Mena. In the words of Gerardo Fernandez Fe, Naranja dulce was “elitist, frivola, diferente (^alguien dijo coqueta?) [elitist, frivolous, different (did anybody say coquettish?)]”82 The journal’s interest in sexuality (not the topic for debate that it is now) caused considerable ideological controversy and condemned it to a short life. It celebrated erotica as a genre and non-heteronormative sexual behavior. One issue included articles about homosexuality and homoeroticism, heterosexuality, and erotic literature, many of which were written from a Freudian perspective.

In sum, since this generation was the children of the revolution, as Guevara proclaimed, its members wanted to reform the system from within and obtain some intellectual autonomy. As Norge Espinosa put it, “Creo que nosotros quenamos discutir la Revolucion, exigirle desde la voz de los hijos que somos un reajuste que nos dejara un espacio propio, una autonomia que renovara los mecanismos de la propia Revolucion [I think we wanted to discuss the Revolution, to demand from it, with the voice of its children that we are, an adjustment that would give us our own space, an autonomy that would renew the Revolution’s own mechanisms]” (Cabezas 2012, 469). This was not the political position embraced by members of Proyecto Diaspora(s), who instead used official institutions as a platform for their own agenda. Aguilera, Marques de Armas, Ricardo Perez, Sanchez Mejias, and Rogelio

Saunders created Diaspora(s)’s group in 1993. By the time the first issue of their samizdat Diaspora(s) came out in 1997, they had already organized numerous cultural events (performances, talks, videos, courses, etc.) (Aguilera 2003, 7). For example, in April 1994 Aguilera gave a reading and performance of his poem “GlaSS,” and in October 1994 Marques de Armas and Sanchez Mejias read their polemical essays about Origenes.83 In the nineties, they began publishing their own books, mostly essays, poetry, and short stories, and they were awarded national prizes. As essayists their main subjects were the totalitarian state and Cuban national discourse. They all had many theoretical readings in common (Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze) and, in addition to Lezama Lima, they were particularly fond of Lorenzo Garcia Vega and Virgilio Pinera, the betes noires of Origenes.

The more active members of Diaspora(s) were Sanchez Mejias, Aguilera, Marques de Armas, and Ricardo Perez; the first three were also leading poets from that period. Like any other published Cuban writers, they had been members of AHS and then UNEAC. Sanchez Mejias had even been a UJC member. He had been in the army as a subcommander and then had become a high-ranking civil servant in the Department of Culture’s National Center for Community Culture between 1987 and 1988. As a teacher in the talleres literarios, he was able to create a type of intellectual environment that exceeded the expectations of official institutions. As a result of ideological disagreements, Sanchez Mejias decided not to become affiliated with the Party. He nevertheless was awarded the Premio Nacional de la Critica in 1993 and 1994. He also defied the UNEAC’s ideological pressure, such as when he and other writers were ostracized for attending the “Encuentro de Estocolmo” conference, which produced the “Stockholm Declaration” on May 27, 1994.84 During the next decade he, Aguilera, and Marques de Armas won important literary awards and had their works published. In addition to Sanchez Mejias’s Premio Nacional de la Critica, Aguilera won the Premio Calendario de Poesia in 1996 (the beginning of his career), and Marques de Armas received the Premio UNEAC Poesia in 2001. Given their iconoclastic views, it is not surprising that within a decade two of the three, Sanchez Mejias and Aguilera, had gone into exile, with the help of European grants.85 Their common intellectual project nonetheless lasted until 2002. Marques de Armas finally left Cuba the following year.

The three poets, along with many other writers of their generation, came to the fore when Fowler was asked to reform the Brigada Hermanos Saiz (BHS), which until then had only promoted “anticonversacionalista poetry.” When Fowler became the BHS’s vice president in 1986, he invited younger poets to submit their works, enabling them to join the BHS (Fowler 2006). The idea was to offset the conversationalist poetics developed by the previous generation, El Caiman Barbudo’s second generation of poets.

The latter cultivated a nonconversationalist poetics that can be found, for example, in the early works of Rodnguez or Angel Escobar. Rejecting the sixties and seventies conversationalist poetics that I analyzed in chapter 1, their self-referential poetry foregrounded voices (especially those of women and Afro-Cubans) that had been silenced by the New Man’s white and male-oriented culture of conversationalist poetry. The new younger poets cultivated a more abstract and hermetic style that brought them closer to Orfgenes than to the previous generation. Their coming together in the BHS was key to the development and official recognition of late eighties posto- rigenista poetry as it materialized in the early works of Almelio Calderon, Ismael Castaner, Juan Carlos Flores, and Marques de Armas.

Most of the poems included in Aguilera’s anthology Memorias de la clase muerta, share Diaspora(s)’s aesthetic. The “clase muerta” (“dead class”) of the title emphasizes the group’s marginality vis-a-vis the revolutionary cultural project. Theirs is a group that has no place in the teleological revolutionary history, or in Cuban social stratification. It is a group without a relation and place. These poets were the heirs of a sublime revolutionary ideal that never materialized, and that existed only as an object of desire. But this group was not only a product of its time, it was, in general, a group that existed in a permanent state of exile. Diaspora(s) were never welcomed by official cultural institutions, but they also marginalized themselves politically and aesthetically from most writers of their generation. Marginality was, as a matter of fact, part of their aesthetic and their ethos.

 
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