Quillette. July 2, 2021
As a Cuba scholar, a student of literature and politics, and an enthusiastic reader of Margaret Atwood’s work, I have collected articles and media clips over the years related to the Grande Dame of CanLit’s many private and official visits to Cuba. Frankly, the file is thin. Generally, scholars engage with her important body of work (more than 60 books, fiction and non-fiction), without mentioning this topic. It is an interesting footnote, no more. Why interesting? Because it illustrates, in her case and as a pattern, how an inquiring mind sincerely committed to human rights and democratic values can turn off its critical antennae. Atwood allowed herself to become a compliant guest in a country that checks almost all the boxes of totalitarianism, minus extensive terror: a single-party state, no rule of law, arbitrary arrests (2,000 of them during the first eight months of last year), stultifying media (even Raúl Castro says so), and a regime of censorship that allows no freedom of speech, association, and only limited freedom of movement; a country with half-empty bookstores selling the same few official writers and hagiographies of the dear leaders.
I am not saying she ever became an enthusiastic apologist, as many Western writers and intellectuals did during the 1960s until the 1971 Padilla show trial. This is not like, say, a Sartre returning from Russia and announcing that cows produce more milk under socialism. Atwood has hardly said anything publicly about Cuba, as far as I know. Rather, Atwood in Cuba is more like a Sartre under the occupation, blissfully unconcerned about what is going on around her. I suspect that, were she asked if she considers Cuba a dictatorship, she would echo Justin Trudeau’s response to the same question back in 2016, and agree that it is. Maybe, like Trudeau, her answer would follow a pregnant pause, but she would be unlikely to deny that reality when forced to confront it. Nevertheless, with a little work, she has shown that she is able to ignore it.
Atwood travelled to Cuba for the first time in the early 1980s. She and her husband, the writer and avid birdwatcher Graeme Gibson (1934–2019), had been invited to participate in a cultural exchange by her former research assistant, who was then working as a cultural attaché at the Canadian embassy. Atwood tells this story in the introduction to a beautiful coffee-table book, entitled Cuba: Grace Under Pressure, written by Canadian writer Rosemary Sullivan with photographs by Malcom David Batty. Sullivan focuses on the private lives of Cubans, not the regime or its politics—“pressure” here refers to economic hardship, not the kind that results from living in a police state, and “grace” is a compliment to the Cuban nation for remaining fiercely independent. So it is a political book after all, just surreptitiously.
Atwood does not say much, but she does address the political question. “Nothing anywhere is as simple as we would like it to be,” she wisely writes, “but there are two verities that can be counted on: 1) no government is its people, and 2) birds don’t vote.” This is particularly true of countries in which neither birds nor citizens can vote. She also writes this:
Graeme promptly got arrested because he’d gone out early in the morning to watch birds, and hadn’t taken his passport—”We have a lot of trouble with people masquerading as spies,” a Cuban quipped later—and he’d wandered too close to something or other. He was stuck in a police station for hours while they tried to find an interpreter. Thus he was late for the hot-shot cultural lunch, and had to explain why. There were quite a few smiles and chuckles: a lot of the people at the table had themselves been arrested, under one regime or another, or at one phase of the Cuban Revolution or another. The story of Graeme’s arrest is still doing the rounds in Cuba, where they think it’s pretty funny.
Fortunately, Gibson, a prominent Canadian guest with a direct line to the embassy, never felt unsafe. It is a rare privilege to be able to trivialise arbitrary arrest in this way, as mere fodder for dinner party conversation.
In 2017, Canada was the guest country of honor at the Havana International Book Fair. A contingent of more than 30 Canadian authors plus several performing artists were invited. Atwood, for whom it was not a first as a Fair’s guest, was the star of the delegation. The speaker of the Canadian Senate presided over the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the opening of the Canadian pavilion. Nobody seemed to notice how highly parametered (from “parameter”: a term used in Cuba to designate the lines not to be crossed) this event always is. The stands overflow with children’s books, but critical literature is a rare commodity. Anyone who wants to see a truly international book fair in Latin America, replete with free discussion and vigorous debates about books and authors, should go to the one in Guadalajara, Mexico, and then compare.
The Havana Times journalist Barbara Maseda reported that during one of the official soirées, Atwood was asked about her favourite Cuban writers. Her response: “Carpentier, of course. Martí. Miguel Barnet. Nancy Morejón. Pablo Armando [Fernández]. Abel Prieto.” She knows there are more, but those were the names that came to mind. Maybe that was just an unrehearsed answer. Atwood never writes about Cuban literature, and her non-fiction work includes just one short comment on a Latin American writer—Gabriel García Márquez, the one every educated Anglo-Saxon knows. Her world is Anglo-American literature, and that is surely expansive enough for one person. But as Maseda perceptively remarks, her choices seemed to be “taken out of a manual of officially approved writers.” “The selection,” Maseda adds, “speaks, perhaps, of the nature of the links that she has kept with the country and its culture: ties built around diplomacy and official events, devoid of the restless curiosity one would expect from the talented literary critic.”
Martí is the nation’s “apostle,” not widely considered to be among the best Latin American writers of his time. Carpentier was indeed a great writer. Barnet wrote one memorable book of ethnology and was the boss of the artists and writers “union” (in the Soviet sense); Morejón and Fernández are respected but minor authors, and Morejón also occupied political positions in Cuba’s cultural bureaucracy. Almost nobody read Abel Prieto’s books, but everybody knows Prieto the minister of culture and cultural apparatchik. Last fall he was particularly vocal denigrating the young artists and independent journalists demonstrating for more freedom of expression in Cuba.
According to the Western Canon of literary critic Harold Bloom, five of the 18 greatest modern Latin American writers were Cubans: Alejo Carpentier (1904–80), José Lezama Lima (1910–76), Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929–2005), Severo Sarduy (1937–93), and Reinaldo Arenas (1943–90). Except for Arenas and Cabrera Infante, the others wrote most of their books before the revolution and often abroad (Carpentier and Sarduy). Lezama Lima was censored for decades on account of his homosexuality, as was Arenas and another important Cuban writer, Virgilio Piñera (1912–79). Cabrera Infante (a Cervantes Prize winner, the Spanish equivalent of the Booker Prize) and Arenas remain censored on the island to this day. As were Fernández and Morejón during the 1970s. Arenas and Cabrera Infante were fierce and vocal critics of the dictatorship and died in exile. Until very recently, they were officially and completely ninguneados in the island, meaning they were actively erased from official memory. To put it in the parlance employed by Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale, they were “unpersoned.”
The performing artists who were part of the Canadian delegation may not have known all this (although, when I visit a country, I am always curious to know if people like me are well treated there.) But Atwood is a patron of Index on Censorship, a vocal champion of Amnesty International, and a recipient of the English PEN Pinter prize for her work defending writers’ rights. And, as mentioned, she is a frequent visitor to the island. Imagine visiting Moscow for the nth time during the Cold War, attending some Canadian-Soviet cultural event or other, and announcing that the very best Russian writers were Maxim Gorky, Feodor Gladkov, and Alexander Fadeyev, rather than, say, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Anna Akhmatova, and Vasily Grossman.
One needs to work at ignoring reality because it requires a conscious effort to look the other way. Atwood’s particular brand of imagined dystopia—amplified right-wing fantasies—ruffles no feather in the milieu she navigates. Not much bravery is required—at least, nothing like that mustered by precursors like Yevgeny Zamyatin or George Orwell, who is one of her favourite authors.
From 1984 to The Handmaid’s Tale CONTINUE READING
Yvon Grenier is a Professor of Political Science at St. Francis Xavier University and Resident Fellow at the Mulroney Institute of Government. You can follow him on Twitter @ygrenier1.