“For me everything started in a literary workshop”
Extracts from an interview with Ahmel Echevarria by Orsola Casagrande
Ahmel Echevarria is one of Cuba’s most acclaimed younger writers. Born in Havana in 1974, he 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, and 4 novels, Esquirlas (Splinters) and Días de entrenamiento (Training days), Bufalo camino al matadero (Buffalo to the slaughter house) and La Noria. Ahmel currently lives in Cojimar near Havana. His work features in a new collection of short stories – ‘The Book of Havana’ published in June 2018 and edited by Orsola Casagrande.
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, Legna Rodríguez, 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. Legna is pure delirious with language and the body, openly coarse, 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 Legna, again, 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.
Are you in contact with Cuban literature which is produced outside the country?
Yes, there is often personal contact with those Cuban writers. Social networks, e-mail, and invitations to international fairs and literary events are the spaces for dialogue, exchange, polemic. Those who come and go bring the books of these authors, then these books pass from hand to hand, and this is another way to keep in touch. At the same time and in the same way, our books also find, and circulate among, other readers.
What is meant by Generation Zero?
Critics have used a label to gather together in one place a group of young people and that label is Generation 0. This comprises a group of writers, poets and essayists who began publishing in 2000, hence the name: 2000 being the year 0 of the new century and the millennium.
This label is also a variation on an objective along with a name. Before being modified, “Generacion Aňo 0” (Generation Year Zero) was the name of a group of young writers, not of a generation, trying to find a place in the Cuban literary scene. Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo was its intellectual author. By the way, not all those gathered together under the name were feeling part of the group, but that is another story. The important thing was that for Orlando, Jorge Enrique Lage and myself this represented the theatre of our operations.
Regarding the general characteristics of this generation, I think the “brand”, so to speak, is indeed the variety and multiplicity of themes and of the different ways to approach them.
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, Legna Rodríguez Iglesias (in Miami), 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.
You work at the Centre of literary formation Onelio Jorge Cardoso.
I am the web editor there. Like any twenty-first century institution this one has a physical space as well as a virtual space: my work is in the virtual space. In this space we try to gather all the work of the Centre Onelio, whose reason to exist is the young people joining its annual course on the craft of writing. The content of the web is various: news related to the work of the students, reviews of books by Cuban and foreign writers, interviews, calls for literary awards, publication of the winners of the Onelio short story award, more information about the centre.
I select, edit and publish the content of the site, and often I also write it. I am also one of the specialists at the Centre and I help in the selection of students, as well as being a juror of the prizes given by the Onelio, and produce articles for El Cuentero, the magazine of the Centre.
The Book of Havana: A city in short fiction (Review by Trish Meehan)
Edited by Orsola Casagrande, Comma Press, April 2018
The editor of this new collection of short stories by Cuban writers describes the essence at the heart of these ten tales as “physical, emotional and psychological deterioration”. Of course the use of crumbling buildings as a metaphor for a crumbling society has become a cliché in fiction and the news, and is no truer for Havana than for any other place in the world. But this book actually reveals a short story scene that is full of life – with different styles, observation points, approaches and ages of writers as well as different views of the city.
A common theme in Cuban fiction, and film, over the last 25 years since the Special Period (and especially stories by non-Cuban writers set in Cuba) has been the focus on unequal relationships between Habaneros (or Habaneras) and foreigners, and young people’s desire to travel abroad.
“Are you in love with him?...Or are you going with him because he can get you out of your 8 square metres?...Do you really want to go?” – the friend asks in Cinthia R Paredes’s story. But this theme is at last refreshingly disrupted in this collection by some more universal human dilemmas.
Francisco Lopez Sanchez’s ‘An Ali Khan Day’ plays around with the power relationships between the young Havana man who, with his superrich foreign girlfriend, is enjoying “the easy life” that his Cuban girlfriend “could not give me”.
Eduardo Angel Santiesteban, the youngest writer here at 21, considers youthful hopes and dreams of adventures into the unknown – without foreign intervention.
In Eduardo Heras Leon’s ‘Love in the big city’ the young poetry-reading man from the provinces, feeling misunderstood by his own small town, arrives in the capital. “No kidding, guajiro…you’re the rookie of the year!” He is an innocent amongst “the city’s rotten teeth”, but resiliently maintains his ability to be kind.
Other stories also approach familiar themes with fresh eyes, such as that eternal gold mine, bureaucracy. Laidi Fernandez de Juan’s story of people’s Havana is hilarious and full of human warmth. Eduardo del Llano offers a darker but still funny take on keeping up with the neighbours.
The oldest writer, the crime author who died this April, Daniel Chavarria, gives a revealing but fictional testimony of the El Salvadorean mercenary Cruz León, who planted bombs in Havana hotels in 1997 on orders from terrorist Posada Carriles. Cruz’s mantra: “I believe life is just a jungle: the bigger animals eat the smaller ones” floats in complete contrast to the Cuban spirit of solidarity.
The last 15 years have seen the city (set to celebrate 500 years next year) undergo a carefully planned process of regeneration and renovation, of public buildings and homes, providing jobs, training and community and cultural centres, but it has also been wrecked by several hurricanes, not to mention economically strangled by the US blockade.
These stories, by male and female Cuban writers living on the island, from different generations, with different approaches, reveal Havana life as equally complex, diverse and in constant change.
The Book of Havana is available on our shop here or call 0207 490 5715