The Cuban poet, writer and cultural critic, Carlos A. Aguilera, (b.1970 in Havana) has been living in Frankfurt since August 2007. Aguilera had studied literature and published several books of poetry in Cuba by the time he received the David de Poesía award from the Cuban Writers' and Artists' Union (UNEAC) in 1995, followed by the Calendario de Poesía award. In 1997, he co-founded the magazine Diáspora(s), which during its brief lifespan became the leading space for critical debate and alternative culture and an open platform for intellectuals and writers interested in publishing beyond Cuba's state-controlled media to the world beyond. Because the journal also published authors from outside Cuba who were not liked by the authorities, Aguilera was increasingly harassed.
In 2002, publication of the magazine was officially discontinued by the state's cultural administrators and Aguilera and his friends were effectively banned from publishing in the established media. When German PEN invited him to come to Germany for a scholarship, he was made to wait for 9 months before he could take up the scholarship in Bonn in 2002. Following other residencies in Graz and Dresden, Aguilera was invited to come to Frankfurt and continue his literary work.
Carlos Aguilera has forged intensive dialogue and exchanges with writers from the former Soviet Bloc. Influenced by the works of Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi and Elias Canetti, his writings reflect on life under totalitarianism, not only in Cuba but in China (home to his maternal ancestors). Aguilera is also part of a growing intellectual forum outside Cuba that has fashioned new critical forms of engagement and diasporic citizenship. Even as artists and writers envision a democratic process for the country, this generation of young Cuban intellectuals consider themselves to be on the left of the political spectrum, and they reject the totalitarian aims of any government, regardless of its ideology.
The following is excerpts from an interview with Carlos A. Aguilera by Lidija Dimkovska.
Q: For three years, you, your wife and your small child have been living in Europe, supported by various cultural organizations. You lived in Bonn and for more then one year in Graz, as a writer-in-exile. Who is your next ‘good fairy'? And what do you think about the writer-in-residence programme, especially the ‘writers-in-exile' scheme, supported by West European countries? Do these programmes really help writers?
Yes, I believe they help. At the same time, they should be more carefully thought out. We shouldn't be talking about bringing a writer, setting him up with a standard of living for a year, then giving him a couple of pats on the back and wishing him luck as he climbs the stairs to the plane. Things are more complicated than that. In general, the people who take part in the programme are writers who have been able to leave their countries only under the most trying circumstances; who often arrive in Europe suffering from serious emotional problems stemming from trauma (psychic trauma), and for whom it is going to be very difficult to return. This because, among other things, of the climate of ‘liberty' that is generally enjoyed in Europe, where you can speak and think publicly without fear that you will be escorted directly from the room where you gave your talk to jail. For this reason, I think there should be agreements between the cultural organizations that organize these programmes and political institutions, so that writers and their families can apply for permanent residency in an expedited manner and, from that point, move towards integration with the host country. A person who knows that in a year they will have to uproot from where they are, is someone who is never going to fit in. Not because they are always on the move, but because they are never really settled. All of this, in addition to problems with the language, culture shock, individual relationships, etc., which turn the whole situation into a kind of perverse jigsaw puzzle.
Q: What is your definition of a Cuban writer? Do you consider yourself ‘a Cuban writer', or do you see your identity as a writer in another way?
I understand identity as a becoming, as something that is realized in the moment, is transformed, as a phase. Identity is not something fixed or absolute, or, as Eric Hobsbawm has said, what nationalists and holocaust revisionists might wish it to be. For this reason I live - like everyone else - in a kind of struggle between the ‘gypsy' I must be and the ‘maker of order' that I tend to be; between what empties and what fills. The term ‘Cuban writer', while it speaks to me of a determined geographic space, of a political caricature, of a tone... really says very little. Beneath this label are gathered Vitier as well as Piñera, which, except for a few generational coincidences, have very little to do with one another. They are mute to each other because of their differences. Beneath this same label are gathered Rosales and the infinite mediocrity of Cuban writers of the 1980's: but fortunately, that's a long way off now.
Q: It seems that you are the youngest Cuban writer-in-exile. How did it happen? When and why?
If we understand the exiled as those outside their ‘natural space' solely for political reasons, then I am not in that exile. I didn't leave Cuba only because its totalitarianism was abhorrent to me. I left Cuba because its intellectual space, the intellectual climate, and the people who occupied them, combined with a ‘culture of complaint' (which seems to be characteristic of former socialist countries), together with state fascism, were abhorrent to me. Which means that I already occupied a kind of exile, or insile, while I lived in Cuba. The decision to leave depended strictly on the opportunity to do so; the right doors opening, so to speak.
For this reason, having struggled for ten months against the Cuban government's travel ban to Bonn, where a German PEN Club fellowship awaited me, I was finally able to leave in March 2002. This was ultimately made possible thanks to repeated requests by the writer, Edward Said, who was president of the PEN Club at the time and who sent several letters demanding my ‘liberation'. It was also thanks to the mayor of Bonn, who successfully intervened with the Cuban authorities.
I received the fellowship because, for five years between 1997 and 2002, I helped to publish a review that was totally independent of cultural or religious institutions, financed with money from our own pockets, while facing overt threats from the Cuban secret police [seguridad del estado]. (Bearing in mind that in Cuba there are laws that punish, with up to ten years in prison, those who publish pamphlets or magazines that are not authorized by the state.) At the end of this period I was living in a marginal state, with two books censored. The review, entitled Diaspora(s), translated a series of writers ‘prohibited' on the island (prohibited precisely in the way despotic regimes do when they refuse to sell or allow the circulation of certain books). Diaspora(s) also published, for the first time, Cuban writers who had left the island, like Cabrera Infante and Padilla, as well as a series of texts that tried to rethink the relationship between intellectuals and power on the island. Writing about this relationship was extremely provocative in Cuba because it assumes a tragi-comic quality there, where power operates like a mad ninja: it minces anything that moves within it.
Q: When you lived in Cuba you received two awards for your literary work. Who gave you these awards? Were the juries pro or contra Castro's system, or ‘neutral'? Is ‘an awarded writer' a positive or negative term in Cuba?
In Cuba, like in other countries, what matters is not whether you have received a prize or not, so much as the level of complexity in your writing. Which is to say that if your books praise the State - and we know from Brodski that there are a variety of ways to sing the praises of the trite little machine that is the State, or the trite little machine Literature-Nation - in the different ways this happens in Cuba, you will always be an ‘official writer', above and beyond the prizes you may have received elsewhere in the world.
There are no neutral literary juries. (Is this possible anywhere?) In order to be part of a jury, a person must be ‘accepted' by the Cuban cultural police. No one thinks that a writer openly ‘against' could ever be part of a jury in a State competition. And all literary competitions in Cuba are State competitions. So the trick is more about whether your book or your poems can manoeuvre through the subtle mouse-trap, which the State builds into everything. Getting through the mouse-trap is easy. It boils down to being silent, or not thinking within the areas of conflict that determine Cuban society/tradition, or looking the other way when someone tries to think publicly about what is happening in the country. If a person can do this, and Left totalitarianisms have demonstrated that almost anyone can, then they should have no problem as writers. In fact, by this route you could even get to be on the jury of a literary competition.
Q: When did you realize that you lived in a country under a dictator? When you really felt Castro's slap in your face?
As a child. When I was six or seven years old, I found a small golden crucifix in an old drawer in my mother's room that clearly belonged to her (though I had never seen her wear it) and I decided that I would put it on a chain I wore sometimes. My mother's scream, the sternness of her words, the strange mix of pedagogy and physical blows and the fear that transformed her face into a bad copy of [Francis] Bacon, were like being struck on the head with a brick. From that moment, I began to understand that things were not quite as beautiful as we were told in school.
Q: Could you give me a picture of your literary generation: the themes, characteristics and fields of interest in contemporary Cuban poetry and prose?
It's hard because there are many differences and a kind of civil war between all parties. On one side there are those who try to speak about everyday life, who in reality only talk about the stereotypes born there and of the symbols the market puts into circulation. There are those who want to do ‘something' with concepts (play with the relationship between writing and language). And others who craft a gay literature, complete with sex and satire. There are those interested in the world of rock music, drugs and marginality, and those who would make a cult out of ‘race' (in this case blackness). Others try to combine an ideological underworld with the novel of narrative ideas. Still others ridicule tradition, nationalism and identity, all the while trapped in a pastoral reading of things ‘Cuban', complete with the Great Ideas that always accompany this concept. In the end, you have more or less what you see in other places, were it not for the historical difference that Cubans have thought of themselves during the last four centuries as a chosen people, a new kind of cosmic race (or comic race, to parody Vasconcelos) and this has been fatal. There is nothing worse than when a people, an ideology, or a leader, believe the world should pay them homage.
Q: Can we speak about two general poetics of Cuban literature: one of literature written on the island and the other, written abroad?
Better, I think we can talk about many poetics. Two, three or four will always be too few, far too few, and at once too many. The Cuban state, in its despotism, has felt this since the beginning, in that anyone who left the island became morally corrupt and their literature disappeared from the literary-ideological canon. In reality, I don't think there is a general poetics, either on the island or outside it. Each writer is his or her own vacuole, beyond the few constants that are repeated over and over again. We will always encounter zones we won't know how to read; that won't fit within the context or historical reality in which a particular writing happened. That is, dead zones. There are neither two general poetics, nor a single unitary one, like the one that is presently for sale on the island. It would be better to say that there are many poetics, like the scene from Pasolini's Decameron, where the devil spits out millions of monks.
Q: How do you understand the following over-used and stereotypical terms, according to your own experience as a writer and as a Cuban: literary tradition, national literature, liberty, and nationalism?
These days, I consider them repressive. They are the terms used by the Cuban state during the past 46 years to punish, to control, to separate families, to lobotomize the population, to confuse those that were already confused, etc. I think, as I have sketched in a previous dialogue with another writer on the island, concerning the concept of fatherland, it would be best to get away from these terms and let them disintegrate into nothing. Though in the Cuban case, we would also have to escape from that entity called ‘repressive state' and learn to live with the idea that there is no perfect democracy, only caricatures of it. Perhaps in this way we might begin to think more about ourselves, about the horizon of our own relationships, and not so much about the public, or pure symbol - that ultimate killer. When we manage this, then concepts like nationalism, literary tradition, and national literature will become little more than what they are: reference cards for historians.
Q: It is obvious that your life is quite complicated and not very easy. Do you think that one day you will benefit from these difficult years? As a writer-in-exile, there may be certain priorities: to receive literary awards, to be translated in other languages, to be invited to many conferences or festivals, etc. As the Croatian writer, Dubravka Ugresic, says, "the media likes heroes" and a writer-in-exile is always a media hero. How do you see your status as a writer?
I see my status as that of a mouse, forever afraid of being crushed by the apparatus of power. I don't believe in heroes or in any kind of heroism - which basically means I'm a bad fan of Hollywood. A person who lives forever hidden away among the chatter of little public lunches, or strikes poses for newspapers, is not a hero. Actually, they are the opposite. They become a kind of Good Soldier Schweik and all of a sudden lose their bearings. On another note, if there were heroes under a totalitarian regime, it would not be those who leave, but rather those who stay, who have to continue suffering the disaster.
Q: I know that you prefer the term ‘nomad' to ‘exile', but the nomadism is a surrogate of the exile. Dubravka Ugresic, in her great essay, The Writer in Exile, offers some very interesting points of view about exile. Can you comment on some of her statements, according to your own experience as a writer-nomad, or a writer-in-exile?
- "Exile is a neurosis, a restless process of testing values and comparing worlds: the one we left and the one where we ended up." Do you do this?
- "The exile is a person who refuses to adapt, but also, the exile is a process of adaptation." Is this true in your case?
- "The true exile rarely returns, even when he can." So, if Cuban politics changed, would you go back to Cuba?
Ugresic is right. But I think I should make it clear that this "restless process," as she calls it in her essay and throughout her book, Thanks For Not Reading (Zabranjeno citanje), is always a process imposed from the outside, and not because of the writer's desire to go out and see the world (which of course he has, like anyone). Rather, what is at play is the danger that exists - often the divorce - between the precise sense that a writer tries to achieve in a given moment, and the overriding political dimension through which this sense is interpreted in a given country. This overriding political dimension is always nefarious, because power (fascist, communist, African-despotist, Chinese-Maoist...) doesn't understand middle terms. When power decides to act, it acts, and it almost always crushes.
My case is one of being ‘adapted', if this is possible. To return to Cuba, to live again on the island, these things don't interest me, they are beyond my everyday obsessions. From this point of view, I consider myself more as a nomad, as someone who lives eternally in a process, that keeps an eye on himself, but who once in a while is lost even to himself, and is not under an obligation to ‘find' himself.
Q: In an interview, you said that in exile you actually became a writer. Does it mean that in exile, or on a long trip, a writer has time, space and liberty (or biographical distance) to think about himself, to browse through his past and his life, so that he can transform his experiences into literature? In your own literature, you write very rarely (or never?) about yourself.
Yes, though not as an absolute principle. There have been great writers who have had the lucidity to establish a distance from their lives or their personal fictions without having to leave where they are, without having to ‘get away'. A fine example is Kant, who never left Königsberg, that tiny city in eastern Prussia. Yet he wrote the most lucid and intelligent books about liberty that exist today. Another is Lezama, a Cuban. With the exception of a couple of insignificant trips out of Havana, he lived as a recluse in his house for seventy years, among the dust of his books and the "dust" of his "madness" (or his fat), which in the end were nearly the same thing.
Q: I read once in an article that every tourist in Cuba with money actually helps Castro's politics to remain and that it would be much better for Cuba if tourists stayed away. Do you agree?
Idiotic tourism not only helps keep Castro in power, but also the lousy politics in force in other countries. Tourism is a phenomenon of social decongestion, of political hypocrisy. It's not only the reward for a long period of work, but also an escape from the ideological frustrations that many tourists feel in their own countries. The Italians are a fine example. They all hate Berlusconi, his fascist façade, but they all love Cuban beaches. It makes no difference to them if there is a dictator in Cuba or not. Now, if we are talking about a tourism that really wants to ‘see', to think about what is happening there, in this space called Cuba (which is a mix of circus and laboratory), then I don't have a problem with it. Just the opposite. I value highly this possibility to get involved and reflect on the world.
Q: Can you compare Castro's politics with the politics of other countries that have (or had) dictators?
Yes and no. Talking with people in Zagreb, in Prague, in Berlin, who have lived under communist terror, I've noticed how many similarities there were between these regimes and Castro's; the way despotism and manipulation (of language, for example) have functioned in analogous ways in these places, not to mention the architecture. Many times in Zagreb, or in East Berlin, I've had the nightmare of being back in Alamar. However, it's best not to compare. Fidel Castro is a product of Cuban history, of its many colonial eras: Spanish, American, Soviet... and also a product of Cuban crudeness in the 50's, when the relationship between civic culture and the mafia was strongest. So...
Q: Is there any cult in Cuba of the writer as a national bard?
All totalitarian systems attempt to impose this cult, above all the cult of ‘the national bard', as you call it. To do so, they organize cultural programmes and they train or recruit thousands of people in their institutions. However, I don't think that within the Republic of Letters this cult is respected in Cuba, although it operates there. Most people I know are disgusted by this kind of puppeteering.
Q: Ernesto Sabato said that the aim of great art is not to change social relations in a community. For this aim there are other instruments: i.e. politics, theory. In a way, with Diasporas, you and your friends tried to change at least one segment of the political system in Cuba. Also, your engagement with the Cuban writer and your friend (please give me his name) who is ill and in prison in Havana, you changed at least one piece of Castro's politics. How do you see your role as a politically engaged writer? (Please explain the case of your Cuban friend, what exactly happened.)
Well, I don't think I have a politically active role. As an intellectual, or better, as a person who puts his ideas to the test, which is to say, who places his ideas in a public space, I actually struggle to disengage myself from people who are forever doing politics, who desire to have a constant mediating and ideological presence. I believe in dialogue, and in the symbolic role certain actions can assume, though I am very sceptical about the idea that a given book, or a literature, or literary group, can topple a given power from its pedestal, ruin it. This is what certain governments think in a cynical way (what they make-believe) and use as an excuse to repress "to the bone," as an Argentine writer would say. But history has shown that it's not literary reviews or intellectual opinion that has removed an oppressive regime from the scene. At best, the only thing they are good for, and this only at times, is to force people to consider their conscience, to mobilize something in a more clear way, to raise awareness. But in order to change a political system, as Sabato would say, for that you have politics (or politicians) and theory. It also helps that most people are sunk into an infinite condition of ‘mass'; that ‘ontology' that makes them move like cattle when they hear certain speeches...
Q: Nietzsche said that a pessimist is an idealist with resentments. Do you see yourself as a pessimist, a sceptic or a cynic in your literary work? How do your critics see your work?
I see myself as an angel, as someone who has at times been unjustly criticized and often misunderstood. But above all, as an angel. When someone writes that I'm a cynic, or a sceptic, or a terrorist, I spend a lot of time trying to understand what they are trying to say: their ‘language'. How can an angel be everything this other says? I tend to beat my chest and look towards the sky. Later, I figure out that most people don't know what they are talking about. An angel will always be attacked, precisely because of this. But as all classical painters show, the angel will always be the victor. For that reason I am, and will continue through life, as an angel, until life itself, or the more convincing critics, prove the contrary. Nothing more...
Translated from Spanish by Todd Ramón Ochoa