Hi Everyone! Happy Springtime wherever you are. Here on Hornby Island, I have 85 tulips blooming, and 3 rhododendrons in full bloom so far, with the garden showing plenty of promise, especially from the rose bushes, and garlic bed.
Cuba is always on my mind, and now comes news of a collection of my stories & novel excerpts – La Comedora de Pecados (The Sin Eater) – launched at last week’s Havana International Book Fair, presented by my Cuban publisher – Ediciones Holguin. After a 2-year hiatus, the International Book Fair has resumed, with Mexico as guest of honor.
I was unable to attend this year due to travel restrictions, though I had been a regular visitor in Cuba for fifteen years until Covid, and each time I’ve returned I’ve been taken anew by the visceral experience of the island – its vibrant culture, its beauty and contradictions, and above all by the warm welcome of the Cuban people.
I was invited to the 2017 Book Fair to launch a Spanish translation of my novel, Sounding the Blood, a novel set on a Haida Gwaii whaling station in 1915. The Book Fair attracts an average of 600,000 visitors; publishers and writers from over fifty countries; with the participation of more than seventy Cuban publishers. An estimated four million books are sold during the two-month Fair, which begins in Havana at the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabana, an 18th century Spanish Fort, and spreads to many locations around the city before touring the length of the island, ending up in Santiago de Cuba.
But Cuban book sales are not about money. Among the vast number and variety of books offered, most sell for a few Cuban pesos, amounting to 50 cents or at most a dollar. If Cubans are to read, their books must be affordable because Cuba is a country without an economy, struggling to survive since the collapse of the USSR which had been their major sponsor and oil provider since the enforcement of the US embargo that followed Fidel Castro’s successful revolution in 1959. Few Cubans have the means for travel without help from family or friends abroad, so literature provides an outlet for the wanderlust of people hungry for narratives about life outside of Cuba.
After the triumph of the revolution, a Cuban Literacy Campaign was initiated. Brigades were sent into the countryside to teach reading and writing to Cubans of all ages with the result that literacy rose from 60 to 98%. Twenty-three years later Cuba was ready for its first International Book Fair, with a population of avid readers. The fair was held every two years until 2000 when it became an annual event.
Canada was the guest of honor in 2017. Seventy Canadian writers and publishers were invited, including Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Madeleine Thien, Rawi Hage, Keith Ellis – known for his translations of Afro-Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén – Margaret Pokiak Fenton, Inuit author of many children’s books, including Fatty Legs: A True Story, accompanied by her daughter-in-law, Christie Jordan Fenton.
Concurrent with the book fair a Canadian studies conference was held at the University of Havana, featuring Thomas King and Sheree Fitch, the works of Naomi Klein, and a presentation by Karen Dubinsky of her ‘inside Havana’ book, Cuba Beyond the Beach, which counters some of the misinformation that abounds about this unique and complex country, setting the reader on-the-street for a rich Havana experience.
Canada was represented musically by The Jerry Cans, a five-member group from Iqaluit, Nunavut – a huge hit with Cubans and Canadians alike with their unique fusion of throat singing, Inuktitut country swing, reggae and blues. In a country famous for the Cuban beat of salsa, meringue, cha-cha-cha, The Jerry Cans did Canada proud as they magnetized everyone onto the dance floor with their amazing energy and haunting Arctic sounds.
The Book Fair took place in a dozen locations, many in the leafy embassy area of Vedado, such as UNEAC – the Writers and Artists Union – and the Casa de las Americas where Margaret Randall (Daughters of Sandino, Cuban Women Now) was fȇted in her 81st year at the launch of a memoir about her years in Cuba. But the principal location is La Cabaña, the impressive Spanish Fort with its dramatic history. The British took Havana in 1762, aiming their cannons at the Spanish-occupied city from the hills overlooking Havana’s port. Eleven months later, when the British traded Havana for Florida, Carlos III of Spain ordered the building of a Fort on the hills across the estuary. It was completed a decade later and La Cabaña Fortaleza served as both military fortress and prison until the late 19th century, with cannons firing at sunset to announce the closing of the Havana city walls. The ceremony continues today as a tourist attraction, as witnessed during a late afternoon panel discussion when the speakers had to pause as colonial-clad soldiers marched past beating their drums. Cuba gained independence from Spain in 1902 and the fort continued as a prison. Fast forward to January 1959 when Che Guevara set up his offices as Minister of Finance in La Cabaña; and to 1986 as defense minister Raul Castro turned La Cabaña into the military museum that today houses the annual Book Fair and the Havana Arts Biennale.
A joyously vivid memory persists, capturing for me the spirit of the Havana Book Fair: riding the bus from downtown Parque Fraternidad to La Cabaña, crammed in like sardines with Cuban book lovers, careening under the estuary tunnel with high-spirited youth screaming us through the darkness, then bursting into the light and spilling from the bus to join the throng.
Amanda Hale was in Havana in 2017 to launch a Spanish edition of Sounding the Blood, her novel published by Raincoast books in 2001. Translated by Manuel Verdecia, published by Ediciones Holguín. Hale acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts in funding her travel to Cuba.