“Havana is the set for my novels as it’s the place I know best"
Interview with Cuban writer Ahmel Echevarria
Born in Havana in 1974, Ahmel Echevarria graduated in mechanical engineering but exercises, in his own words, the writer's craft. He has published five books, the first being Inventory, a collection of short stories, which was followed by two novels, Esquirlas (Splinters) and Días de entrenamiento (Training days). These three books make up what Ahmel calls "the memory cycle". Indeed the narrator-protagonist is called Ahmel and seeks to describe what has happened to a typical Cuban family from late 1958 until 2000. These titles were later joined by the novels Bufalo camino al matadero (Buffalo to the slaughter house) and La Noria.
Echevarria won one of the most prestigious prize in Cuba in 2017, the Alejo Carpentier prize for novel.
We met Ahmel in the house he shares with his partner, artist Cirenaica Moreira, in Cojimar, the fishing village loved by Ernest Hemingway. The house looks on to the sea and has a view of the dock where Hemingway moored his boat.
How did you move from being a mechanical engineer to writing?
How can I explain this to you? After I graduated as an engineer, I did my “social service” time, and I met new friends, some of them writers. I served my “social service” in the Military Unit and in the early months the work was not so heavy. I slowly began to write small things, mini-short stories, as well as what I called at that time poems. Then a friend, Michel Encinosa, currently a translator, writer and editor, suggested to me that I join a literary workshop which at that time was coordinated by the author Jorge Alberto Aguiar.
I went along and in doing so I met someone who I wouldn't hesitate to call the ideal person. He began to talk about literature not just from the point of view of narrative technique. He invited us to “think literature”, understanding the society we live in, and the factors that affect it, such as politics, the economy, culture. As time passed my texts began to distance themselves from my experiences. I stopped writing from my own personal biography to create a sort of biography of "the other".
How would you assess contemporary Cuban literature?
Many young and not so young people write in Cuba. They are men and women, heterosexuals and gays, and the themes they write about are as various and diverse as are their ways of approaching them. It could be said to be in a fairly healthy state. However, above and beyond this healthy state, I am interested in the “less healthy” state of our literature: those writers who have decided to embark on the more tortuous path, the path taking them away from the rules, and who launch themselves out into this unexplored space without a parachute or a net. I am talking about those who take a gamble where the pain is no small thing, nor is the emptiness, the delusion, the defeats that they suffer.
There is a generation of writers whose fundamental approach I consider very interesting. Quickly naming names I could mention for example Jorge Enrique Lage, Raúl Flores Iriarte, Osdany Morales, Orlando Luis Pardo or Daniel Díaz Mantilla, when it comes to fiction. The literature of the first two writers is full of elements of the absurd, Hollywood superstars, famous international singers and writers in a context as real as Havana; these luxurious mammals stroll around and interrelate with ordinary Cuban people. Lage is very political, Raul on the other hand is more candid and naive. Osdany sets out to craft a plot where literary elements have multiple layers: plot, as well as structure as well as mystery. Daniel is like a time bomb sitting in the livingroom of a house looking pleasant. Orlando Luis Pardo is a political animal, putting his stories 'out there', risking it all with his speech, his language: in his work the word itself has more importance than the conflict.
When it comes to essays, I could talk about Jamila Medina and Gilberto Padilla. Jamila is a poet and storyteller, her prose is difficult and intense and this makes the militancy in her work twice as deep and inspiring. Gilberto situates himself on the opposite field and his literary criticism and essays have the lightness, weight and lethal power of a silver bullet.
As for poetry I could name Jamila and then Oscar Cruz, José Ramón Sánchez, Sergio García Zamora and Javier L. Mora. It's a long list, really.
In the same way that I talk about this group of writers, I can go a little further back and mention writers who are no longer in their 30's or 40's, but whose approach is very appealing. I think for example of Marcial Gala, Victor Flow as essayist and as poet, Alberto Garrandés as writer, essayist and critic (he has written some very interesting literary essays and essays on the cinema, focusing on the relationship between eroticism and sex in films, for example). I would add to that list Ricardo Alberto Pérez, Rito Ramón Aroche, Soleida Ríos, Nara Mansur, Antón Arrufat...and I stop here knowing I've left someone out.
In your work of literary criticism and in other places you often speak of groups and authors who don't live in Havana. Likewise many of your articles appear in cultural magazines that are not edited in the capital. Do you argue for the decentralization of Cuban literature, so that it is not confused with what is produced only in Havana?
The thing is, there are interesting literary projects, of great rigor as well as taking risks, being created outside of the capital. I could mention for example what is happening in eastern Cuba. As well as being poets, Oscar Cruz and José Ramón publish a magazine called la noria. There they invite Cuban writers who share a similar creative imagination, interests and other cultural connections to collaborate with them. This magazine is also a window out onto the world through translations of and collaboration with, Cuban authors living outside Cuba as well as foreign writers.
Another example would be Yunier Riquenes born in Granma and living in Santiago de Cuba. Apart from being a prolific children's writer he also has a digital project, Claustrofobias, that goes beyond the region and aims to show the world what is being created in literary terms in Cuba. In Holguin there is poet Luis Yussef who directs a small publishing house called La Luz that has become one of the most important in the country. In Villa Clara there are Anisley Negrín Ruiz and Sergio García Zamora. Although some of them live in Havana and some outside Cuba, we also have to mention from Camagüey, from Nueva Paz, Osdani Morales (in New York), from Holguín, Jamila Medina, from Pinar del Río, Agnieska Hernández.
The list could be longer, but we can leave it there, better to leave someone out than to put someone in who doesn't deserve it!
Let's talk about you. You are from Havana. How does the city influence your writing?
Havana is the environment I know, because of this it has ended up being the main stage for most of my books. However there is some of my work that goes beyond this personal space, as what also intrigues me is writing or inventing a different biography, other scenarios.
With the book Búfalos camino al matadero (Buffaloes to the slaughter) I leave the national context. Let's say I “traveled” to the United States as I was interested in the life context of a marginal guy who had been in the Iraq war and returns to his country with a plan: he is going to come up with a plan.
Thanks to correspondence with a Cuban friend who lived in New York and was a social worker, I got to know the substance of this life. I decided to explore a different universe because I wanted to disconnect from a scenario that could have become a prison. As you move away you are also going back. I feel that this novel, which does not happen in Havana, nevertheless has a point of contact with this city and with Cuba.
Undoubtedly, I think that yes, Havana has a place in my work.
What influences would you acknowledge for yourself and your writing?
For me a very strong influence has been Pablo Picasso, especially with his painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. I am very interested in the visual arts, hence one of my literary models is Pablo Picasso, because of the way he shows an interest in what is happening, how he cares for other artists and cultures and then produce a sort of translation of what has captivated him.
Among my influences are also cinema, music, and of course literature. I like Reinaldo Arenas, Virgilio Piñera, part of Cervantes and Guillermo Rosales' complete oeuvre, which is not much. There are others: Claudio Magris, Chéjov, Borges and Eco... As you have noticed, I try to define genealogy not just in terms of its starting point, because it is also from that context that I like to be understood. I try to produce work that is not afraid to look at other writing, work that is able to take on board the proper tools that will help me situate myself on the path towards the masterpiece of the future... even if I won't achieve it. With my own resources, skills and mistakes, I want to move forward, like the clock's hands.
What do you think of Cuban cultural policy, especially with regard to the field of literature?
This is a pretty tough question to answer given that the Cuban state sees culture as both the sword and shield of the nation. A word is enough to the wise: in a fortress under siege, the shield is for defense, the sword for attack.
There are more than a few cases of authors and books considered politically incorrect or inappropriate because of the conflicts they address. The moment we are living in now is not the same as that of the '70s; let's say cultural, or editorial, policy now allows itself some license: prostitution, racism, sexual diversity, painful chapters of our history post '59, but it is just “some license”. Until more than part of the work of an author is published, or that of other authors who cannot be mentioned, not even on TV, until an entrepreneur – with his own resources and taking the risk himself – will be able to establish a publishing company and circulate a catalogue of authors and a magazine to the newsagents, then cultural policy will still maintains this siege mentality.
What would you propose in this regard?
The job of an intellectual is to observe, connect with and analyze, in a critical way, the context in which he lives and then to share and circulate his work. Of course, it's almost a duty to choose not just who you want to address but also the way of elaborating and distributing the content. It's not enough on its own just to open a blog, a digital magazine, or become an independent publisher.
To think is to create, and to create is to resist.