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 “Fear and expiation in diasporic literature: The Cuban testimonial narrative of the Mariel generation”

Por: Claudia Mare

Octubre 2020


Literature always finds in memory the raw material for the story to be related. Emotional states can therefore be prefigured in texts historically situated and written within and towards a given socio-political condition. In Greek and Latin, the literary witness and the martyr are synonyms, which leads us to the intriguing similarities between testimony and martyrdom (Armand, 2001). Not surprisingly, narratives of personal experiences tend to assimilate the features of an expiatory process. 

As an island—a geographical space with mutable and porous borders—Cuba has never been a fixed cultural, political, or geographical entity. Migration and exile have always informed the Cuban experience, and loss and displacement have figured as central preoccupations among Cuban artists and intellectuals. Narratives from migration generally constitute a discursive field in which narrowly conceived national, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural affiliations are constantly deterritorialized and renegotiated. Through the articulation of identity, History and literature these narratives provide interesting notions from a time when the Cuban nation was seen as a stable and monolithic category nourished by the official rhetoric as a Marxist- Leninist society, in its way to become a Martiana, patriotic and nationalist community. It also provides the lens to understand the lectures of the different, the dissent, and ultimately the ‘outsider’ of the process and its dialogue within the experience of exile when the latest dream of regreso is also denied.

The process of enrichment of the collective memory finds a legitimate path as part of experience, of a knowledge previously established.  This is ultimately recreated in an artistic and subjective way assimilating modes of thinking and feeling external to the subject which are as well endowed with  a coercive power (Santos 2005:146). As a result of this normativity that intents to delineate national creation during the Revolution, literary dialogue is produced from three essential absences: the lack of own language –given that prestigious language belongs to the group in power that dominates spaces where these literatures intend to emerge, spaces already taken over by the national canon; the lack of tradition – since these literatures do not take part of neither the Marxist-Leninist current nor the post-1989 Nationalist Socialism (or at least not in the mode the government expects them to contribute to the process); and finally, the lack of  territory –as in spaces of own enunciation independent of official and established literary institutions.

Within the context of the Cuban Revolution, and following the particular dynamics of its cultural politics, became evident the lack of coherent criticism by giving testimony of everyday life, both from personal reappropiations or from a more activist vocation. During the Revolution a tight relation between ethic and aesthetic, form and content were delineated as part of a social inquiry of culture. Therefore, when negotiating the official message, multiple approaches became opposite concepts, exclusionary and in a certain way, irreconcilable with the political and fictional reality. Especially the trajectory prior to the migratory wave of Mariel coincides with the period of the most rigorous politics where formulas such as real socialism were implemented (Mariel boatlift was a mass emigration of around one hundred twenty five thousand Cubans who departed from Cuba's Mariel Harbor for the United States between April 15 and October 31, 1980). The disruption within the national literary tradition has become known as the Gray Five Years 1971- 1976.

During this epoch, the national canon promoted “a new literature [that] cannot but be historical, political and popular” (Chesterton 1988:397). These contingencies which were intrinsic to the ideological State apparatuses prescribed, legislated, regulated, imposed and enforced particularistic behavioral patterns which individuals, including writers, had to conform to (Althusser 1972: 141–42). Ultimately, it was the period where the cultural discourse demanded a social role from writers, as “the engineers of human souls” (Zhadnov 1978:63). Consequently, disagreement was followed by ostracism and isolation of writers whose works did not fit within the official imaginary.

Standardized elements of the official rhetoric, such as heroism in daily life, equalization of the social consciousness, the reduction of the individual to the ‘will of the people’ and the criminalization and delegitimization of the ‘different’, among other forms of shaping the imaginary, led some writers to a transit from the public, the collective to the private, subjective ambit, from the Us to the Self and hence to a more personal approach when dialoguing with their contexts. When facing the mechanism of official History, for instance, these narrations, by the exposure of frustrations, aspirations, and so forth not only supply the lack of an alternative and autonomous journalism but also call into question the reality as part of a restitution discourse. 

The ability to imagine an alternative before the monological language of authority, the rebelliousness before the daily syntax, and the searching by other means of a reconciling dialogue became an awkward position. Work of Cuban writers such as Calvert Casey, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Lino Novás Calvo, Lidia Cabrera, Heberto Padilla was assumed by authorities as senseless and selfish criticism and an accusing finger to avoid, therefore not published nor promoted while they had to make a living as translators or proofreaders. The aftermath of this deliberative ignoring strategy that also connoted measures of control and coercion, was the exile in the writer´s very homeland. The self-imposed exile, insilio as it is called, had their maximus exponent in Lezama Lima´s life or its similar in the ‘non persona’ described in Virgilio Piñera´s short stories. In this perspective, writers were exiled not in the strict sense of physical (dis)location or (dis)placement from the homeland, but rather in the psycho-social and spiritual dimensions of their existence. This ‘exilic consciousness’ of those who decided not to leave under imposed “revolutionary” patterns is present in works such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante´s testimonial novel Mea Cuba, which has an important sense of imagination as strategy to recover his ‘lost homeland’. This is also the case of some writers of the Mariel migration, becoming an important element when studying transnational literature in the Caribbean.

Framing a literary generation implies bearing in mind a chronological element, but also aesthetic affinities, common social and political experiences and the searching for editorial spaces that can be shared, as in the magazines “Mariel”, “Èxodo” and “Diáspora”. Furthermore, in comparison with former migratory waves of Cuban writers, the case of Mariel remains distinctive. In “The literary Imagination of the Mariel Generation” (Lilian Bertot), refugees, intellectuals and writers of the caliber of Reinaldo Arenas, Carlos Victoria and Guillermo Rosales as a group represented a critical attitude toward the Cuban political, social, economic and cultural reality very different from that exhibited by previous groups (1995:16). These feelings were also strongly depicted by the remembering/fantasizing of their personal experiences. What made the Mariel Generation different from previous generations of Cuban writers was not only the fact that all of these writers came out of Cuba as a group and made the crossing as part of the Mariel exodus, but the fact that their perspectives and viewpoints came from  within Socialist Cuba. The tribulations in the Cuban everyday life of writers such as Arenas for his openly proclaimed homosexuality, Rosales because of the inner clarity of the paranoid and Victoria for his ‘improper behavior’ such as foreign-centered lifestyle and revisionist commentaries about the Cuban political scene, depicted or implicitly exposed in their narratives, operated as catalyst to the group, which facilitates us to refer to them as a relatively homogeneous group.

The exit by Mariel connoted not only the idea of liberation from mistreatment and humiliations, but the resentment for being called gusano, ‘worm’, and stateless as the main official strategy at that time, to criminalize and deprive of meaning the action of emigration from socialist Cuba. Therefore, the wounds that the Mariel generation had to bear had more to do with the inner negotiation before a “Manichean division of the world” (Medin 1990:42), the everyday form of ‘revolutionary moralization’ and the shaping of an ideal citizenship that follows them into the very exile by knowing the impossibility to return but also being aware of the rejection present in the ‘counterrevolutionary’ label. 

The intense self-negotiation associated with exile: the bitterness and resentment for the revolutionary Cuba that repelled them, the nostalgia and mystification for the Cuba that should have been, remembering of the Cuba that was, heads the discourses of memory of Mariel´s writers.  The novels and short stories of Carlos Victoria, Guillermo Rosales and Reinaldo Arenas have in common an existentialist vision and a struggle for exorcizing fears and personal limitations. Victoria, for instances, used past tense verbs when narrating the argument and imperfect to locate the reader within certain relative temporality as in L’Etranger by Albert Camus, where the protagonist lives apathetically as he finds reality meaningless and unapproachable. This resource is present in “Puente en la oscuridad” (1993), “La ruta del mago” (1997) among others works making explicit that the goal is an existential vacuum where codes such as love, friendship and integrity barely survive. It also supports a strong nostalgia for the places of memory, as in the prerevolutionary Havana.

Similarly, denouncement of injustices under revolutionary Cuba became a leitmotif throughout the Mariel literary generation. Arenas´ novel “Antes que anochezca”, for instances, reflects a "...constant denunciation of the abuses of power brought on by institutionalized machismo along with other forms of political and social control that limit and attempt to annihilate creativity and sexuality" (Bejel 2000:300). An attractive mechanism used by Arenas to deal with past repressions was the open expression of homosexuality regularly depicted in his work[1].  The constant theming of sexual behavior was used as ways of re-signifying his experiences, to re-appropriate the poetic "Self" that the government used to exclude from him, the "other." In the creation of his own ‘revolution’ by exorcising his fears and discontents, Arenas went beyond and reversed the scale by pointing out leaders of the Cuban Revolution such as Ernesto Che Guevara as closet homosexuals.

A different negotiation within the exile is illustrated by Guillermo Rosales´s “Boarding Home” (1987). Rosales is the maximum exponent of the memorialized exile as psychopathology, as he was a lifelong misfit diagnosed with schizophrenia. In this regard, Victor Casaus claims that the ‘tragedy’ of Rosales was his failure in becoming known. Far from being an aesthetic judgment, Casaus shows it as political when relating the conflict towards Rosales’ family, but also towards the State and the society that was being created at the time. The dépaysé disruption is portrayed here when Rosales locates the argument of his novel in “those marginal refuges where the desperate and hopeless go” (11), the boarding home. By close reading the work of Guillermo Rosales it can be said that exile here is not assumed as the ‘safe place’ to be, neither the ultimate refuge from the arbitrariness of Cuban official discourse. Rosales’ thoughts are characteristic of a double-exile and react both to Cuba's regime and to the indifference of Cuban-American exiles bent on achieving the American Dream [2]

In a late attempt to enrich the literary pantheon of the island by re-adopting selected works of formerly forbidden writers, a fragment of Rosales´ novel was published in Cuba in 2000. Through the prologue the Cuban critic Ambrosio Fornet dialogues with Cuban diasporic literature, agreeing on that the novel “is not exempt of bitterness; in it a claim for a symbolic settling of scores with the political reality of the Revolution is perceived” (2000:113). More urgent than past demands, Rosales describes his present through the experience of William, “Boarding Home”´s protagonist, up to the point that the novel is considered the writer´s testament. This contributes to Piñeda Pérez’s claims that exiled Caribbean authors search for their homeland from within themselves (2000). Therefore, the novel disturbs while questioning the sense of life and the bounds of reason, and in doing so creates the tragic states of spirit it depicts. Persons misadjusted by life who do not find their spot in society or History surround the protagonist, making explicit the idea of failure and trauma of the Mariel generation. In the same way, the personages living at the boarding home constitute a condensed sector of what was seen at the time as Marielitos, a group of guajiros –persons who come from the capital´s periphery, mestizos, homosexuals and criminals, all marginalized people from the unstopping rhythm of the Cuban Revolution, the failed experiment of the “New Man” of tropical Socialism.

The description of Mariel´s writers as individuals in crisis, a crisis that is almost exclusively the result of external limitations confronted in the changing Cuba, situates them under the same umbrella clamming for vindication. The positions of writers such as Victoria, Arenas and Rosales give rise to a number of questions: What language must be used when there is no access to a given territory and therefore to a given language? What does the writer do when no territory reclaims his literature? Can the ‘minor’ literatures constitute a new way to renegotiate national History, even when it is produced abroad? This living in the "in-between" zone is characteristic of the works of these 3 writers, not just in autobiographical narratives but also as a constant when situating them between life and death, between sanity and insanity, between the struggle for liberation and suicide -like in Rosales case, between light and darkness, between country and city, -as Arenas depicts himself, and between the search for truth and the absolute disdain for all reality, between realistic detail and fantastic hyperbole, as in Victoria´s works.

Cuban narrative written in Miami not only entails formal fractures such as diglossia or the well-known sense of nostalgia and inconformity shared with other transnational literatures. It also offers the demystification of an official history, the depiction of a real situation that, through the subjective language of the author, articulates collective memory and takes position before judgments that even today remain unsolved. In analyzing these fictional testimonies, we can sense the emphasis of a steady reflection - the present emotional need for dialogue with their past realities is the principal motif of writers such as Reinaldo Arenas, Guillermo Rosales and Carlos Victoria. The tribulation that nourishes these narratives comes from the lack of understanding and tolerance, the need for recognition and ultimately from the suffering and affliction from their immediate past.

[1] A common method to coerce undesirable, non grata persons to the regime was to impose sanctions for common crime. Arenas was persecuted and deprived of rights in Cuba given his criminal record as a felon, a homosexual pederast charged with corruption of minors. In 1973 he was incarcerated for ‘homosexual offenses’ as well as for ‘ideological deviation’. During his time in prison, he endured torture, such as isolation in perpetually illuminated cells so small that the prisoners called them “drawers.” The interrogation sessions eventually paid off: Arenas broke down and signed a document in which he agreed that his work published abroad had a counterrevolutionary intention. Bravely, however, he did not reveal the names of any of the Cuban friends who had helped him to hide the manuscripts or to smuggle them abroad.

[2] The sense of never finding the right place to go finally led Rosales to commit suicide.

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