Arriving in Reykjavik in September, Pardo came straight from an IWP fellowship at Brown University, a residency scholarship given to writers subjected to political harassment, imprisonment, or oppression in their country of origin.
Now, Orlando plans to fall in love with Iceland and to recognize the Havana that lies hidden in Reykjavík. Read the interview with Pardo Lazo below.
Art and social activism
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo left Cuba in 2013, following the advent of migratory reforms launched by the government of Raul Castro. Labeled variously a ‘dissident’ and ‘counterrevolutionary’ in his native Cuba, Pardo Lazo was often targeted for his critical writings and peaceful activism. His struggle for freedom of expression in art and in social activism made Pardo Lazo subject to official censorship, including public defamation in governmental websites, job exclusion from the Cuban Radio and TV Institute (ICRT), anonymous threatening, interrogation by the political police, and arrests without charges.
Graduated a molecular biochemist in 1994, in 2000, Pardo Lazo began working as a freelance writer, blogger and photographer, publishing nationally-awarded short-fiction books in Cuba, including Collage Karaoke (2001), Empezar de cero (2001), Ipatrías (2005) and Mi nombre es William Saroyan (2006). His latest collection of short stories Boring Home (2009) was censored from being published in Cuba.
Pardo Lazo represents a movement in Cuban literature often called Generación Año Cero (Generation Zero), a group of writers in Cuba who started publishing in the 00’s. Seldom translated into English or distributed internationally, most of the new Cuban literature is rather unknown in the rest of the world. In 2014, Pardo Lazo edited an anthology of 16 short stories from “post-fidel” writers, translated into English, revealing a deconstruction in the perception of Cuban reality and mentality. The anthology is entitled, “Generation Zero: An anthology of new Cuban fiction”.
Creative activism online and underground
Pardo Lazo is also a prolific contributor to renowned Cuban magazines and international digital and printed journals. He publishes literary criticism, creative writing and opinion pieces on a range of topics, including the human rights situation in Cuba. Among others, they include La Gaceta de Cuba, Diario de Cuba, PanAm Post, Sampsonia Way Magazine, The Huffington Post, In These Times, All Voices, Penúltimos Días, Cronopio magazine, Qué Pasa, The Prague Post, Cubaencuentro, Letras Libres, El Nuevo Herald, and El Nacional (Venezuela).
Since 2008, Pardo Lazo has edited a number of underground literary online magazines including Cacharro(s), The Revolutionary Evening Post, and Voces. He also runs a blog Lunes de Post-Revolución (and its English version Post-Revolution Mondays). In a parallel blog, Pardo Lazo publishes his photography. His photography has been celebrated by the New York Times Lens blog. See his photos Abandoned Havana on Restless books.
He has also written the prologue to Yoani Sánchez’ book “Generación Y, el blog de Yoani” (Editorial Hispano Cubana: 2013) and the epilogue to “Cuba”, a book of photographic works by Andrew Moore published in 2013. During his residency at Brown University he published “Cuba In Splinters”, an anthology of Cuban short-stories (New York, 2014).
Most of your books before Boring Home were published in Cuba. What makes the content of this book more controversial to the Cuban government than your previous publications?
Boring Home was going to be published in Cuba too. The communist censors on the Island has learned not to openly censor books, it gives them a bad image in terms of all the money that they receive from the European Union, the United States, and the academic left worldwide. In 2008 I started to publish a critical opinion blog, Lunes de Post-Revolución. I started to edit and circulate underground digital magazines, like The Revolution Evening Post. I expressed solidarity with peaceful pro-democracy social activists in Cuba, like the assassinated Oswaldo Payá (July 22, 2012). I became a free voice in the land of the Fidelists. Then, the communist censors decided to censor my civic commitments by erasing all of my literary works, including Boring Home, a book that was ready to be printed by Letras Cubanas and then it was removed from the press. Again, the following Cuban bureaucrats were those who took each despotic decision, so certainly they can give you much more information than me: blogger Iroel Sánc hez (President of the Cuban Book Institute), essayist Abel Prieto (Minister of Culture), ethnologist Miguel Barnet (President of the Union of Artists and Writers, UNEAC) and poet Nancy Morejón (President of the Writers Association of UNEAC).
Is there such a thing as a free literary or artistic society in Cuba? Is there a large underground culture of artists and writers? How does the state interfere in publications in Cuba?
In 2015, the Cuban state is still the owner of each and every single line published in Cuba, whether digital or printed. Every event in the literary and artistic and cultural society in Castro’s Cuba has belonged during decades to the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC): this is what in Europe they admire most of a radical anti-Imperialist Revolution. Yet, many artists are tired and angry with our pre-historical establishment, but they are also so underground that they hardly ever reach the ground to let their opinions to be heard in public: this is why in Cuba the concept of “intellectuality” doesn’t exist. Fear made us fail.
You say in the prologue to your book Generation Zero that a new generation of writers and artists are deconstructing the common perception of Cuba? What does Cuba look like from the perspective of Generation Zero writers of Cuba? The writings of this generation, are they published in Cuban publishing houses and/or underground?
Part of the literary works of Generation Year Zero has been published in Cuba, as long as we do not trespass the limits of certain questions considered "sacred" (in a regime with no god, the State replaces the notion of the absolute infalible, in this case, the Communist Party of Cuba, the only one legal for the last 50 years).
In terms of form, there is a lot of experimentation and criticism of our literary national tradition, and even the Hispanic legacy. We are in the search of the lost influences. In terms of themes, this new narrative focuses on the appropriation of the political imaginary, fictionalizing topics and icons and even real-life characters (like Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara) in a deconstructive manner. To become intolerable might be our goal to broaden the cultural coordinates of what may or may not be published in Cuba. To be in-tool-erable, impossible to be used as a tool by the official institutions (and all of them are official).
Thus, an important part of our literary works is published only abroad, or in underground digital magazines edited by ourselves, like Cacharro(s), 33 1/3, The Revolution Evening Post, DesLiz, Voces, etc.
You started out as a molecular biochemist, what caused the drastic change in profession in 2000?
In April 7, 1999, I was fired from my job as a molecular biologist in the Division of Human Vaccines of the Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB) in Havana. I still do not know what happened. They only explained to me that they were imposing me a punishment for having plans to (legally) travel outside my country, for keeping in touch by e-mail with my colleagues that had decided not to be scientists in Cuba any more but to stay abroad, and that therefore I couldn’t work again as a science professional in Cuba, because I was not “idóneo” (trustable) for any position. Ph.D. Gerardo Guillén Nieto, the Head of the Human Vaccines Division should be able to explain this better than me.
What literature were you introduced to/taught in school? With time, did you discover that there were literature and art that you were excluded from experiencing in Cuba?
Cuban school books include fragments of most literary masterpieces and authors of the world. It’s a shame that we couldn’t study also most of the literary masterpieces and authors from Cuba: Reinaldo Arenas, Heberto Padilla, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Guillermo Rosales, Enrique Labrador Ruiz, Lino Novás Calvo, Lydia Cabrera, etc.
What was it like growing up in Cuba? And were you always skeptical to the revolutionary authorities?
I was happy as a child in the 70s. My parents were very poor and very wise: they gently taught to me not to talk the truth in school. I have no trauma at all. The totalitarian repressors are the ones that are quite traumatized: the anthropological damage affects not only the victims in Cuba. I miss my people. I miss my family. I miss my friends. I think I could never fall in love with anyone that hasn’t shared with me those years of sadness and urge for freedom. We trusted in the moral solidarity from the European democracies and from the United States of America. But nowadays European enterprises and President Barack Obama have proven us sadly wrong. Cuba is on its way to a centralized model of capitalism without fundamental freedoms.
You are also a political activist. How do you imagine the road to change in Cuba?
General Raúl Castro and his successor son Alejandro Castro are the reactionary road to stagnation. He is eager for foreign investments but he will give no political freedoms at all to our people and exiles. Castro’s Cuba is a State capitalism much in the style of neoliberal values, still with the blackmail of keeping free certain social programs for the people, but in exchange for our unlimited loyalty. In the present conditions, only with a plebiscite is possible to carry out what the Cuban government has never risked to do: consult our own people in free, pluralistic and fair general elections. That’s why I support the citizen initiative CubaDecide.com led by Rosa María Payá, in order to mobilize our population and allow them to participate in our own national destiny.
Do you think that you will ever be able to return to your island?
We will all return someday to our beloved homeland. We all belong to the future of Cuba. Castroism is about to become just what the Castros aspired all of their lives: history.
During the past couple of years we have seen quite a few changes towards Cuba, like the loosening of rules governing travel, commerce and investment restrictions by the US. What impact does this have on Cuba and the Cubans and how do you perceive these changes?
Change is external in Cuba, it comes from abroad. The regime has only accepted certain concessions that hardly restore our national situation in January 1st, 1959, when the Revolution overtook power after a civil war. To travel without an exit permit. To sell or buy your own house or car. To sell foods and music and clothes and other services in your own home. To be able to buy a cell line and rent a room in a hotel. That’s the Realpolitik of Raúlpolitik. The impact might be huge for the Cubanologists. For me the impact is zero, as guaranteed by our Communist Constitution, where only one political party is legal and this monopoly is specifically forbidden to be ever modified. Cuba has no sovereignty, only the Castros are free, in a feudal way.
What are your plans for your residency in Reykjavik, what are you working on right now?
I plan to fall in love with Iceland. I plan to recognize the Havana that lies hidden in Reykjavík.
I am now working in my first novel, the only one that I am ever to write. And editing in a single book all of my post-chronological chronicles and provocative opinions, which are dispersed in one thousand and one websites. Both volumes will be my revolutionary revenge against Cuba and Cubans in the time of Castro.
Pardo Lazo’s books and awards
- Collage Karaoke (Letras Cubanas, Havana: 2001), won the 2000 Pinos Nuevos Prize for fiction.
- Empezar de cero (Extramuros, Havana: 2001), won the 2000 Luis Rogelio Nogueras Fiction Prize.
- Ipatrías (Unicornio, Havana: 2005) won the 2004 Luis Felipe Rodríguez Fiction Prize, while
- Mi nombre es William Saroyan (Abril, Havana: 2006) won the Calendario Fiction Prize in 2006.
- Boring Home collection of short stories (Garamond, Prague: 2009 and El Nacional newspaper, Caracas: 2013), won the Franz Kafka Novels for Drawers Prize 2009 – a prize dedicated to censored Cuban fiction – and was re-published by.
Generation Zero: An Anthology of New Cuban Fiction (Ed. OLPL, Sampsonia Way Magazine, Pittsburgh: 2014)
CUBA IN SPLINTERS: Eleven stories from the new Cuba (Ed. OLPL, 2014)
Reykjavik city of refuge
The City of Reykjavik joined ICORN in 2011. The Human Right Office in Reykjavik manages the ICORN programme, partnered with Reykjavík library, The Writers‘ Union of Iceland, Reykjavík UNESCO city of Literature, Reykjavík Academy, PEN in Iceland and Institute of International Affairs.
In the media
Iceland Monitor: Cuban writer finds refuge in Reykjavik
MBL.is: Landflótta rithöfundur fær skjól í Reykjavík
Visir.is: Borgin veitir landflótta rithöfundi skjól
Visir.is: Kúbverskur rithöfundur fékk hæli á Íslandi: Telur að hann verði handtekinn snúi hann til baka