In This Article Cuban-American Literature

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Collections of Critical Essays
  • Anthologies
  • Interviews

Latino Studies Cuban-American Literature
by
Gustavo Pérez-Firmat
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0013

Introduction

Shortly before his death in New York City, the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas remarked: “Someone who’s been uprooted, exiled, has no country. Our country exists only in our memory, but we need something beyond memory if we’re to achieve happiness. We have no homeland, so we have to invent it over and over again” (Rozencvaig 1991, p. 81, cited under Criticism of Reinaldo Arenas’s Fiction). Cuban American writing begins at the place where memory and invention meet, where history, identities, and languages encounter one another. The writer who attempts to define his starting point as well as the place where he now finds himself is also defining himself, even reinventing himself. As the great Cuban ethnologist Fernando Ortíz pointed out many years ago, Cuba has always been a culture of migratory birds, aves de paso; political and economic upheavals have sent Cuban writers into exile since the early 19th century. However, it is only in the latter part of the 20th century, following the Castro revolution, that so many Cubans, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, have been forced to leave their country. No attempt can be made here to discuss the work of all the post-1959 diaspora writers who settled in the United States, and classifying them all as Cuban American would be misleading. Although the themes of exile—the loss of a homeland and, in some cases, even its language of expression—may be viewed as a constant, this traumatic displacement can be approached from different generational, linguistic, and ideological perspectives. The work of the first group of post-1959 exile writers, who were educated and reached maturity in Cuba and wrote for a Cuban audience—Eugenio Florit, Lydia Cabrera, Ángel Cuadra, Lino Novás Calvo, and Hilda Perera, among others—is filled with the anguish of loss and nostalgia and was written almost exclusively in Spanish. Writers who were born in Cuba but left as children in the 1960s and 1970s were “made in the USA,” with the resulting confusion of identity reflected in their work and choice of language—some writing in English, some in Spanish, and some in combinations of the two. Virgil Suárez, Roberto Fernández, Ricardo Pau-Llosa, Lourdes Gil, and Orlando González Esteva come to mind in this group. A further exile group, those who left the island in the Mariel boatlift of the early 1980s (Reinaldo Arenas, Guillermo Rosales, and Roberto Valero are among these writers) resembles those of the first migration in that their work is almost exclusively in Spanish. Their writing reflects their anger at the persecution and betrayal they suffered in Cuba and their difficulty in adjusting to exile in a new country. Finally, the output of Cuban American writers born in the United States (among them Oscar Hijuelos, Ana Menéndez, Richard Blanco, and Rafael Campo) may be properly labeled “ethnic literature.” These writers write solely in English, and in their work Cuba may figure only as a shadowy unseen presence or atmosphere.

General Critical Overviews

The works included here present critical studies and collections of essays that analyze generally the literature produced by Cubans in exile. For purposes of clarity these overviews have been divided into three sections. The first section includes analyses of works written by Cubans in exile throughout the world, often discussing diaspora writings in the context of Cuban literature. The second category includes critical essays on Cuban exile writers working in the United States, frequently dealing with issues of assimilation, bilingualism, and biculturalism. The third section investigates the writers who left the island in the Mariel boatlift of the early 1980s, and the themes of sexual, political, and creative struggle in their work.

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