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Cuban Revolutionary Literature  

Lanie Millar

Fidel Castro’s arrival in Havana on January 1, 1959, marked the triumph of Cuban revolutionaries over dictator Fulgencio Batista, initiating a new era in Cuban culture. While critics generally agree that Cuban revolutionary literature began after this watershed event, their opinions on when the revolutionary period ends range from the mid-1970s to the end of the 1980s. Among the revolutionary government’s earliest priorities were to bolster Cuban cultural production and the infrastructure to print and circulate it, as well as to develop a literate public who would read new Cuban works. The state invested in new institutions and established new publishing venues that disseminated both Cuban and international literature. Meanwhile, independent publishing outlets briefly played an important role in the early revolutionary years. Accompanying these new opportunities, however, were debates and polemics over what kind of literature was suited to the revolutionary moment and who got to decide on its parameters. While Cuban literature boomed and publishing opportunities increased, by the 1970s, top-down authorities exerted increasing control over the cultural realm. Especially during the 1970s and 1980s, other kinds of diverse Cuban literature flourished, as Afro-Cuban and women writers gained prominence and pushed literature in new directions. Questions of race, gender, and sexuality came to the fore in works depicting both past and contemporary times. Much of the earliest literature of the revolution sought to respond to the social and political changes underway, either by describing the recent past or by writing with new styles considered to be suited to the new revolutionary landscape. Trends such as literatura de violencia (literature of violence) portrayed repression in the prerevolutionary years and the fight against Batista’s dictatorship, while the new genre of the novela testimonio (testimonial novel) sought to highlight marginalized voices and experiences, particularly those of enslavement or oppression. These developments accompanied Cuba’s new view of itself as a leader to the decolonizing world. After 1959, narrative and poetic experimentation abounded. However, by the 1970s, cultural authorities eventually converged on literary movements like socialist realism and conversational poetry as the preferred literary styles for the revolutionary society. Certain themes such as homosexuality, social criticism, and portrayals of racism in Cuba’s postrevolutionary society, as well as literary styles that deviated from the realist social engagement in vogue with Cuba’s institutions, resulted in tensions between state cultural authorities and writers. Sometimes, writers would face censorship and persecution. As the worst strictures of centralized cultural control lessened in the late 1970s and into the 1980s, Afro-Cuban and women writers pioneered trends in social commentary, humor, and irony. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 initiated profound political and economic crises in Cuba, remaking society and changing the direction of Cuban literature again. The revolutionary period had come to a close.