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North American Books I Read as a Child in Castro’s Cuba

October 19, 2011 | by

Havana, Cuba. Photograph by Jordi Martorell.

In the spring of 2007, I was invited to a dinner organized by The Paris Review in honor of Norman Mailer. The novelist had just published what would be his last novel, The Castle in the Forest, and would have a conversation with E. L. Doctorow. That evening, when Mailer entered the room, with his very distinctive mien—that of a rather solid and stout man who, because of his age, used two canes—I was deeply moved. I told him—what else do you say in those circumstances?—how much I admired his books and that I started reading them when I was very young, many years ago.

A few days later I told a friend about this experience. “But, how?” he acted surprised, “Did you read Norman Mailer in Cuba?” And added, “Wasn’t he supposed to be one of the banned North American authors on the island?”

My friend had imagined, perhaps for a good reason, that you couldn’t find American literature in Cuba, that it was banned because both countries were at more or less declared war, an openly proclaimed enmity. I patiently explained to him that nothing like this ever happened. Mailer’s books and those of many other North American authors were not censured in Cuba; in fact, they were widely sold. You could find them in every library; they could be read by everyone.

However, his comment did make me reflect on the impact of our neighbor’s literature in Cuba. It made me think about how these books got past censorship and political fate, and it caused me to recall an intellectual itinerary, to take a brief inventory of the North American books I read as a child in Castro’s Cuba—and to consider how greatly that literature influenced my literary education. I’m talking about authors like Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, J. D. Salinger, Carson McCullers, William Saroyan, Sherwood Anderson, James Fenimore Cooper, Thornton Wilder, and many others: an endless list. These books demonstrated to me—and demonstrate to me today—the way literature can permeate borders and, above all, perforate the wall of hostility.

I was a child during the Vietnam War, when the newspapers were covered with the most damaging anti-American caricatures. The U.S. was blamed for every calamity, for everything that happened to the country: every death, every natural catastrophe. America was a heartless place, where people took drugs, violence had reach unprecedented levels, and racism dominated everything. That’s what you would find on the radio and television every day.

And if you didn’t listen to the radio or watch television, you might participate in study groups, which were organized to analyze the Maximum Leader’s latest speeches. These study groups were one of those public interventions that lasted for hours and hours, accusing the U.S. of the most treacherous aggressions—provoking the masses and agitating the imperialist aggressor’s puppet.

But what I want to call your attention to—what still surprises me today—is that all of that didn’t end up deeply indoctrinating me. It didn’t end up shaping my opinion of the outside world and of the United States in particular. It’s not that it didn’t have an effect, because of course it did, and my vision was tinged for years by the most common stereotypes; but it didn’t end up ruining everything for me.

I attribute my salvation to books. It could have been a book by Henry James that I surreptitiously read while the Communist youth leader monotonically spelled out a speech that we had all heard only a couple of weeks before. The Political Commissar’s speech couldn’t have differed more from the elegance I found, for example, in a story like Daisy Miller by James. That book captivated me. I fell in love with its extraordinary heroine to the extent that many years later, I titled one of my first short stories, written in Russia, “Daisy,” a name we also have in Cuba.

In my opinion, it’s obvious that the people in charge of publishing policies during the first years of the Cuban Revolution had a humanistic focus; it wasn’t very ideological. I think they considered major works by American authors books that should be part of the intellectual training of any educated person. And I don’t think that any library was purged of North American books. That wasn’t what happened, for example, at my school library, and I attended the famous Lenin school, where the nomenklatura sent their children.

Although it may sound paradoxical, my passion for literature, and particularly for North American literature, was cultivated by state-run publishing houses. They favored literature about social matters; priority was given to authors who in some way complemented the work of the Cuban Ministry of Truth or to books that denounced, in a sophisticated way, the Big Neighbor to the north. As a result, there were always North American titles among the books my mother—a big reader herself—would buy for us every week. One week it might be In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, which must have been published to show the climate of unstoppable crime that existed in the U.S. The next week it might be Reflections in a Golden Eye by Carson McCullers, a book with no explicit criticism (I don’t think) and that I thought was full of mystery, and still do. Then she might bring home An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, which was published to show the ugly side of capitalism. It was easy to find They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy, or The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. I still clearly recall an image from The Jungle that made me tremble as a young boy: There are giant cooking pots into which some always tired workers throws the entrails of the animals killed in the Chicago slaughterhouses, and one day one of them stumbles, trips, and falls in. But they leave him in there, because capital’s miserable logic impedes them from throwing out all that meat. Then, in a Chicago diner, a customer bites into something hard with his molars. He takes it out and examines it in the light. It turns out to be a button from the cooked worker!

Other books that sold well were the ones that talked about the exploitation of blacks in the U.S. I read them with particular interest. For example, I read Black Boy by Richard Wright when I was very young, and it painted segregation in the South in a tremendously vivid way. I can still clearly remember entire passages from the book and the names of many characters: Shorty, Richard’s fat, cynical friend who let people pat his behind for coins; Mr. Falk, the Irishman who let Richard use his library card to check out books that a young black boy couldn’t; the compassionate Mrs. Ross and her daughter, Bess, who helped little Richard so much.

I also read the “socialist” novel Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell. I read the U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos and his Manhattan Transfer. I read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. I read Sinclair Lewis and Ernest Hemingway, of course. Hemingway was the epitome of the good North American writer: a lover of Cuba (fondly portrayed by him, we were told, in The Old Man and the Sea) and an author committed to the Spanish Republic (For Whom the Bell Tolls). In Cuba he was worshiped.

I read a lot of William Faulkner. I particularly remember an afternoon in which I should have been with my father, on one of his doctor’s visits, but instead stayed in the car and read. I was reading an ugly edition of As I Lay Dying from the state-run publishing house and, toward the end, when the family is carrying the mother’s body and must ford the overflowing river, I experienced a total acoustic immersion, a kind of sonorous hallucination: I could hear the wind’s roar, the water hitting the wheel hubs, the rustle of the tree branches. When my father finally tapped on the little window of the car to let me know that he was back, I had the impression that everything had gone completely silent because the book had stopped happening.

Ironic as it may seem, the books that were censored most were books that were light and cheap. Bestsellers, pulp fiction: in other words, books that could be a source of entertainment. As a result, it became a status symbol to have one of these books, even when it was something as insipid as Airport by Arthur Hailey. The children of Cuban secretaries and diplomats went around with those books in my school because they were exactly the types of books that the Cuban secretaries and diplomats would buy on their trips abroad. I managed to read almost all the best sellers of the time: Jaws by Peter Benchley, The Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth, and the most ingenuous, Papillon by Henri Charrière.

Alas, this early liberalism regarding culture in Cuba, from which I benefited as a reader during my childhood and adolescence, has today yielded to greater inflexibility, to a more dogmatic focus that doesn’t allow for such intellectual flirtations. Cuban readers’ vision of North American literature today is, to be very optimistic, from the seventies. In other words, it’s thirty years behind. In Cuba, nothing has been published by Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, or (I believe) Toni Morrison. Important aspects of life in the U.S. have thus been largely ignored: in particular, the enormous ethnic diversity of the U.S., the rise of minority authors that has characterized the American literary scene in the last decades, and the gay revolution.

However, if my history of the American books I read as I child in Castro’s Cuba explains anything, it’s the power of literature to undo any stereotype, to annul even the most terrible accusatory campaigns and propagandistic platforms. Literature does more for the rapprochement of nations than thousands of well-intentioned speeches.

For me, literature was an antidote to propaganda—one that helped me gain a more human idea of the country presented as our main enemy, as always spying on us and ready to invade us. What image did I have, after all of these books, of Americans? They were obsessed in Faulkner, candidly provincial in Lewis, neurotic and scrawny in Salinger, brutally alone in Carver. A population—how to put it?—of humans, perfectly ordinary.

José Manuel Prieto is a New York–based novelist and translator. His latest novel, Rex, was published by Grove. He teaches literature at Seton Hall University.

Translated by Regina Galasso.

14 COMMENTS

9 Comments

  1. Jude | October 19, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. Music, art and films do just the same as well..

  2. margot sheehan | October 20, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    “North American” books? I don’t see any Canadians. You start off talking about a couple of Jews, Mailer and Doctorow. Later on you talk about Faulkner and the Capote person, and the pioneering Negro Richard Wright, all of whom deserve some regard. But why “North American”? Where are the non-American North Americans? What about Margaret Atwood and, um, all those other great Canadian authors?

    NORTH AMERICAN books indeed! You mean *American* books!!!!

  3. Jim Stallings | October 21, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    Very glad to read about reading in Prieto’s youth. Again, we see the deepest truths of human experience come from writing that is labelled “fiction” as in “made up” or “invented”. At the heart of great prose writing are distilled poetic moments of the infinite depths of human experience. Gracias, Manuel.

  4. John P. | October 22, 2011 at 8:25 am

    Easy there, Margot, “North American” is almost certainly just a logical enough translation of the Spanish “norteamericano,” which Latin Americans use–seeing as they themselves are also “americanos”–to refer to the inhabitants of the Evil Colossus to their north.

  5. Dan Newland | October 23, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    You took the words right out of my mouth with your comment, John P. Many Latin Americans would find it as insulting to hear the mention of American writers without the inclusion of a single Central or South American literary figure as Margot seems to find the reference to North American writers without including a single Canadian.
    I notice too, Margot, that you yourself didn’t include, say, Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz or María Luis Puga in your complaint, who, by your definition, are also North American writers, even if from “south of the border”.
    Nitpicking aside, my hearty congratulations to Mr. Prieto (and The Paris Review)on an extraordinary testimony and a thoroughly enjoyable article about the Cuba most of have never known.

  6. Dan Newland | October 23, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Correcting my typo…María LUISA Puga

  7. Raquel | October 24, 2011 at 6:07 pm

    Prieto, me acabo de leer la version en ingles y me ha gustado mucho tambien. Gracias por esas memorias. Tambien lei los comentarios q te han dejado. Me alegra y llena de satisfaccion tu exito. Carinyos.

  8. Juan | October 25, 2011 at 8:06 am

    Margot: Please take into account that Prieto refers to the period between 1962 and 1980. I believe Margaret Atwood started writing in the late seventies but at that time she was not the prolific author she became later. I can assure you that she was, and probably still is, totally unknown in Cuba. As for other Canadian authors I believe that none of them was ever published in Cuba.

  9. Marisa | November 9, 2013 at 1:16 pm

    Wonderful article. On the flip side, I’ve always wondered about prolific Cuban authors whose work may not be widely available in the US. I’ve really only been able to find Jose Marti.

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