Literature of Exile: Cuba in the fiction of Cristina Garcia, Ana Menendez, and Achy Obejas

“…where we come from the greatest achievement is to leave.”

Arguably one of the richest traditions in exile literature is that of Cuban Americans. Given the strong economic and cultural ties between the two countries before Castro’s revolution in 1959, it was hardly surprising that so many Cubans who fled the Communist takeover made the perilous boat journey to the US. Unlike many other refugee groups, Cubans were generally welcomed in the US and given substantial government support as anti communist heroes. Vibrant and successful Cuban American communities thrive in Florida and New York.

Nonetheless, even 2nd generation Cuban Americans experience a profound sense of displacement and uncertain identity, whether they were born in the US or came here as very small children. This “betweeness” is present in the work of 3 remarkable Cuban American novelists, all daughters of Cuban exiles, each of whom struggles to integrate different aspects of her Cuban-American identity.

Cristina Garcia has a journalist’s love for quirky people, and her novels tend to feature diverse casts of characters: Iranian princesses, bi-racial female matadors, retired generals, ex-guerilla fighters, peripatetic poets. She loves wanderers, people who are never quite at home in any country. Although most of her novels do not take place in Cuba, each has at least one Cuban character, and 2 of her best received novels examine the revolution from radically different perspectives.

Dreaming in Cuban, her first novel, is a multi-generational saga featuring characters who flee to Cuba from Franco’s Spain, and then flee to the US from Castro’s Cuba, in both cases leaving loved ones behind. Garcia underlines the tragedy of family separations: the del Pino family is divided by geography (“the sea was a great comfort… It exists now so we can call and wave from opposite shores”) but also by politics. Yet decisions on whether to stay or go are as likely to be based on chance or familial squabbling as ideology. For the second generation, (Garcia’s generation) there is more choice but greater loss:

I love Havana, its noise and decay and painted ladyness. I could happily sit on one of those wrought-iron balconies for days, or keep my grandmother company on her porch, with its ringside view of the sea. I’m afraid to lose all this, to lose Abuela Celia again. But sooner or later I’d have to return to New York. I know now it’s where I belong – not instead of here, but more than here. How can I tell my grandmother this?”

Garcia has admitted that she is not always comfortable with Cuban American politics and its unrelenting anti- Castro-ism. In a more recent novel, King of Cuba, Garcia’s two protagonists represent the polar opposites of the Cuban struggle: Goyo, an aging exile in Miami, still plotting vengeance against the Communist takeover that ruined his life; and “El commandante” a thinly veiled version of Castro himself. As these grumpy octogenarians rail against distant enemies and their own crumbling bodies, Garcia suggests that the difference between them is perhaps not so wide as we might think.

Historical ambivalence derives partly from the question of who gets to tell the story. Ana Menendez , raised in Florida by parents who had fled the Cuban Revolution, explores these tensions in both satire and swoony historical romance. In Loving Che, a young Cuban American woman has been misled about her origins; she knows her grandfather escaped with her to Miami during the Revolution but she has never been told who her parents were. (You can probably guess from the title). The questionable history of her birth thus creates a dual identity crisis, both politcal and deeply personal.

Yet what happens when your story is stolen by someone else? What if Cuban history was “collected and curated” by, say an Irish emigrant drop out who scammed his way into a professorship at the National Library? Such is the premise of Adios, Happy Homeland!, ostensibly a collection of Cuban writing edited by “Herberto Quain”, an Irishman living in Havana. Quain is the ultimate colonizing poseur; he falls in love with Cuba while reading a children’s book about…

“a poor farmer who lived in a land far, far away and had three sons named Pedro, Pablo and Juancito…In that book I learned of a place where there is good sun, and water of foam and sand so fine. I learned that it snows because the door to heaven is open…It seemed to me that whoever had written this book had written it especially for me”.

Of course, if you believe another country’s culture was “written for” you, how meaningful was your connection to that culture in the first place? Menendez’s tongue in cheek satire (she even includes herself and characters from her other books in the “Contributor’s Notes”) lampoons both sentimental exoticism, as well as pseudo intellectual cultural appropriation.

Identity is complicated and multi-faceted, as Achy Obejas well understands. A lesbian writer in a tradition often associated with machismo, her fiction skewers traditional Cuban gender roles and concepts of family. In her hilariously titled short story collection, We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? and her first novel Memory Mambo, Obejas describes her simultaneous exile from her Cuban homeland, and her alienation, as a gay person, from the Cuban American community. Her most recent collection, The Tower of the Antilles , interweaves stories of Cubans and Cuban Americans endlessly crossing borders and barriers, both politcal and sexual.

Obejas’ background brings yet another strand to her tapestry of exile and alienation. In Days of Awe, she explores the story of a Cuban exile family that is descended, (like her own) from the conversos, secret Jews who hid their identity to escape persecution. When the San Jose family flees to the US, their exile echoes centuries of Jewish history of persecution and loss. Yet Obejas refuses to oversimplify; she points out that exile was a privilege of the lighter skinned, wealthier Cubans, whereas darker skinned Afro-Cubans were forced to remain behind. Her sophisticated depiction of levels of privilege: racial, religious, and sexual; remain pertinent to the contemporary discourse of identity.

For more on these 3 authors:

Cristina Garcia website

Ana Menendez website

Achy Obejas website

Lesley Williams is a 25+ year librarian and a reviewer for Booklist magazine where she specializes in African American, Muslim, and LGBTQ authored literature. As a public librarian she created public programs emphasizing the literature of colonized peoples, leading year long discussion programs on Latin American history, Muslim cultures, and the plays of August Wilson. She currently tutors English reading and writing to first generation students at City Colleges of Chicago.

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