That is how it happened for five-year-old Elian Gonzalez, who was plucked from the Gulf Stream on November 22, one of three Cubans who survived from a boatload of 13 refugees. He floated without food or water for three days before he was picked up by American fishermen off the coast of Fort Lauderdale. But rather than being the end of his struggles, his rescue has sparked a full-scale war of words and pictures between Cubans in Cuba and exiled Cubans in south Florida. The boy's father, still in Cuba, is on American news channels, pleading for the boy's return, but distant relatives in Miami are also tearfully claiming the boy on television, with Cuban American congressmen and lawyers for the ultra-right-wing Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) vowing to keep the boy from returning to the "communist prison" that is life in Cuba. Meanwhile, the boy's cracked skin and bruised face are held up by both sides as an example of the political barbarism of the other side.
There is a clear need for newer, darker similes to reflect the overwhelming divide that separates Cuba from the United States. Hemingway had a colonial attitude toward the Cubans, and never could have provided a voice to the real tragedy caused by the politics of the Gulf Stream. The greatest value of Dream with No Name, a short story anthology from Seven Stories Press, is that it brings Cubans from both inside and outside of Cuba under one roof in a homegrown search for the great allegories and similes of the Cuban condition.
In Dream with No Name, the instant diversity and intentional ambiguity of the 19 stories effectively communicate a Cuban reality that is much more complex than either side is willing to acknowledge. The stories, some from authors already known in the States (Virgilio Piñera, Reinaldo Arenas) and some from writers never before published here (Jacqueline Herranz Brooks and others), all offer a slightly different perspective on Cuban life on and off the island. The protagonists range from a small boy who plants a pipe bomb in Old Havana, to confused and angry soldiers roaming through Angola, to a German tourist who finds that she's been robbed by her Cuban boyfriend. Although the anthology is arranged without a stated organizing principle, the sheer variety of voices and perspectives are a direct antidote to the ignorant oversimplification that has often characterized relations between Cuba and the outside world.
The dominant controversy surrounding Cuban literature, of course, is the treatment of dissident writers. American policies rely on old Cold War stereotypes of Stalinist purges to describe Cuba's freedom of speech problems. Americans never hear Castro's name mentioned without the tag "communist dictator" applied to it, and conservative Cuban Americans have traditionally had complete control over the perception of Castro as a ruthless silencer of criticism. They call Castro's Cuba the "unimaginable purgatory": One imagines that the streets of Havana are rivers of fire lined with Marxist dogs tearing at the impoverished flesh of dissident writers, with the Dark Prince Castro lording over the terror.
Writers have traditionally been persecuted in Castro's Cuba, but Dream with No Name provides refreshingly balanced insights into the reasons why. The stories that are coming out of Cuba are not about secret police making midnight raids, as in the Soviet Union, or poets dying at the gallows, as in Nigeria, but rather, they are of an entire country complicit in silencing its own critics. In his piece "The Storyteller," Onelio Jorge Cardoso describes a group of rural workers' troubled lockstep with a fellow worker who has a gift for telling fantastic stories. His tales of 40-foot snakes and of fish caught on the spurs of his boots both compel and repulse his co-workers, who, like good socialists, are angered by his loose interpretation of the truth. They finally denounce him as a liar and make him swear to tell no more tales, only to find out how dull life in their camp becomes without his stories. It's a fitting allegory for the dual Cuban urges to silence and celebrate the great voices in their midst. As contributing author Reinaldo Arenas once put it, "Part of our people and our tradition have never been able to tolerate grandeur or dissidence; they have wanted to reduce everything to the most flat and ordinary level."
Take the case of poet María Elena Cruz Varela, author of Ballad of the Blood. On November 19, 1991, she was dragged out of her apartment and beaten in the streets by an organized pro-Castro mob who forced her to literally eat her manifesto before taking her to jail, where she stayed for two years. Her story is not necessarily unique -- mob violence, although rare now, was typical earlier in Cuba's revolution, as it was in China's Cultural Revolution. Friends of mine in Havana have said that their earliest memories are of throwing rocks and eggs at gusanos ("worms") who were rumored to be leaving the country. And as a visitor to Havana this summer, I could see the ingredients for such neighborly oppression: The lack of barriers or suspicious distance between strangers that makes Cubans so engaging is also the basis for their self-policing tendencies. "Social health" is treasured in Cuba, and even in these devastatingly poor times, many Cubans still have a strong moral repulsion to anti-social behavior, from begging or prostitution to urinating in an alley. Even in these chaotic times, revolutionary spirit keeps Cubans watchful of their fellow citizen.
Other authors find Cuba's finest moments in this idealism: Arturo Arango's "The Waiting Room" is arguably the best story in the book, because it perfectly describes the absurdity of revolutionary Cuba's isolation, while recognizing its tremendous accomplishments. The premise of the story begins quite realistically for anyone familiar with life in post-embargo Cuba: A man enters a bus station in Havana hoping to get home to Manzanillo in the provinces, only to find impossibly long lines and no sign that a bus will even show up that day. The piece quickly evolves into the absurd, as days, weeks, and then months go by with the passengers stranded indefinitely. Over time, they establish political bodies, set up sanitation and law enforcement groups, see to food procurement, take care of people who are dying and others who are being born -- all in the same bus station. Again, allegory drives home the amazing resilience of a people set adrift on the island of Cuba, fighting history and the entire Western world to carve out dignified lives for themselves. In many respects, the revolution in Cuba is a complete triumph: In the more than 50 years of American influence that preceded the revolution, rural Cubans lived in abject poverty, urban Cubans lived as prostitutes and gangster lackeys, and black Cubans had no rights and were not allowed to pursue higher education. Just the fact that some of Dream with No Name's contributors are of mixed race or purely African heritage is a testimony to the successes of the revolution.
But if the ultra-right-wing element in Miami misrepresents the supposed misfortune of Cuba, do they also misrepresent their own successes as a community in the United States? Two major weapons in the cultural standoff are the patently false Radio and Television Marti: stations which beam testimonies of the riches of American life to Cuba in an effort to spur defections. For some, like Amazon.com king Jeff Bezos, the dream is a reality, but for many more, the promise of a higher standard of living is a mixed blessing.
Although Dream with No Name unfortunately includes too few exiled contributors, the stories that do shine dig beneath the comfort of material things to describe the West not so much as an Eden of consumer goods, but as an empty waiting room of its own. In "Ten Years Later," Marilyn Bobes' protagonist roams the pristine streets of Florence only to mourn the foul-mouthed Cuban lover she left behind. Miguel Barnet similarly writes about a Cuban expatriate who walks in wonder through Switzerland, but obsessively grips the bag of presents that he's taking back to Cuba. Sure enough, when he returns to Cuba, he is not accepted as one of theirs, and feels an irreparable alienation from his homeland.
Because they alone are not afraid to admit that they miss Cuba more than Cuba misses them, the writers of the Cuban American population are the only caretakers of the Cuban soul in the exile community, fighting for emotion in what has often been a soulless migration.
These authors, as well as those who still live in Cuba, find their common ground throughout Dream with No Name: Much like Elian Gonzalez and his father, they are stuck gazing at each other across the Straits of Florida, wondering how they became so separated in the first place.