The Literature of Uprootedness: An Interview with Reinaldo Arenas

Ann Tashi Slater writes about the late, great Cuban writer, poet, and lover of freedom, Reinaldo Arenas, and an interview she did with him thirty years ago.

Via The New Yorker:

The Literature of Uprootedness: An Interview with Reinaldo Arenas


On a fall afternoon in 1983, I interviewed the exiled Cuban author Reinaldo Arenas at Princeton University’s Firestone Library. I was writing my senior thesis on his work and, as part of my study, translating some of his fiction. (My translation of “La Vieja Rosa,” a novella, was later published by Grove.) Though I was nervous about meeting the great man, one of Cuba’s most admired writers, Arenas immediately put me at ease. “Encantado,” he said, smiling and taking my hand. Forty years old at the time, he had thick, curly black hair and enormous, sad eyes; his face was lined and leathery.

We talked for a while in the library and then went for a drive to a nearby apple orchard. “Ah, a day in the country!” Arenas exclaimed, happy to see the trees and smell the fresh air. We concluded our conversation a couple of hours later on the platform of the train that would take Arenas to Princeton Junction and then back to his derelict apartment in Hell’s Kitchen. In a soft, melodic voice, Arenas answered my questions about his writing process, his influences, and the experience of exile with a natural eloquence and often startling profundity. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation, which is being published on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of Arenas’s brilliant memoir, “Before Night Falls.”

Arenas was born in Cuba in 1943, in the eastern province of Oriente. An only child, he spent his time roaming the fields and forests around his family’s farm, captivated by the natural world. In 1959, he joined Castro’s rebels in the mountains, but he soon grew disillusioned. After toiling as an agricultural accountant at a chicken farm, he studied politics and economics in a government-sponsored program at the University of Havana and began working at the National Library, a job that allowed him time to write. His first book, “Celestino Antes del Alba” (published in the United States as “Singing from the Well”), won second prize in the 1965 UNEAC (Cuban Writers and Artists Union) competition, and was published in 1967. It was the only book Arenas was allowed to publish in Cuba. “El Mundo Alucinante” (published in the United States as “The Ill-Fated Peregrinations of Fray Servando”) was smuggled out of Cuba and published in France in 1968; a collection of short stories, “Con los Ojos Cerrados,” was published in Uruguay in 1972. Persecuted by the Castro regime for his homosexuality, counterrevolutionary writings, and publishing activity, Arenas spent two nightmarish years in prison. He was released in 1976 and, in 1980, he escaped to Miami, slipping away in the chaos of the Mariel boatlift.

Unhappy in Miami, which he would describe in his memoir as “a caricature of Cuba,” Arenas moved to New York after a few months. There, in addition to writing poetry, essays, plays, and stories, he continued work on his semi-autobiographical “Pentagonía,” a passionate indictment of tyranny consisting of five novels.

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4 thoughts on “The Literature of Uprootedness: An Interview with Reinaldo Arenas

  1. “The writer who is for freedom is, by definition, not for any totalitarian system.” And a real freedom-fighter is, by definition, not for any totalitarian system, either. Unless, of course, his name is Nelson Mandela. Well, at least Arenas is one Cuban who would have called BS on Mandela’s sacred cow status.

  2. “Históricamente, Cuba había escapado siempre de la realidad gracias a la sátira y a la burla. Sin embargo, con Fidel Castro, el sentido del humor fue desapareciendo hasta quedar prohibido; con eso el pueblo cubano perdió una de sus pocas posibilidades de supervivencia; al quitarle la risa le quitaron al pueblo el más profundo sentido de las cosas.”
    ? Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls

    “Los dictadores y los regímenes autoritarios pueden destruir a los escritores de dos modos: persiguiéndolos o colmándolos de prebendas oficiales.”
    ? Reinaldo Arenas, Before Night Falls

  3. One of the best writers to have come out of Latin America and an extraordinarily brave individual to have confronted the brutal regime that with all of its evil might tried to utterly destroy him. Most importantly, I admire Arenas for his unwavering intellectual honesty and for never selling out. In writing, he confronted all of Latrine America’s most important leftist [and therefore stylish] writers including Mexico’s utterly detestable Carlos Fuentes, Argentina’s almost as detestable Julio Cortazar and Colombia’s repulsive Garcia-Marquez. He, also, satirized important cultural and political figures who played up to castro, everyone from Barbara Walters to Monsignor Zacchi the castro loving papal ambassador to Cuba. He did this knowing that going up against the cultural and political leftist power establishment would hurt him as a writer.

    He also understood like no exile before him how to attack the regime. What better way to attack castro than from the left? His award winning film, “Improper Conduct” documented that castro was no friend of gay rights, a movement that is often associated with the left. It therefore successfully for the first time started to erode castro’s support on the left. Reinaldo was so extraordinary that he was able to get traditional intellectual leftists to sign a petition that was printed in the most important newspapers of the world asking for castro to hold a plebiscite as Pinochet had done earlier on.

    R.I.P. Reinaldo, you did more for Cuba than nearly anyone else.

  4. If Arenas hadn’t been gay and persecuted for it by the Castro regime, I doubt he would have had much of a leg to stand on, so to speak, as far as the outside world was concerned. He probably knew that and put it to good use, but you know what I mean. The world, basically, is full of shit, and its reasoning, for lack of a better word, is all too often hypocritical and perverse. If there had been no gay angle, Arenas could easily have been ignored regardless of talent, or certainly have gotten much less “play.”

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