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from the September 2014 issue

Exilium Ergo Sum

In Cuba, I was an exiled writer.

First, because I wanted to isolate myself from that pair of collective hypnoses called the literary field and the national tradition. In Cuba, I didn't need to sail so much as to sink my way upstream. To think dangerously. To fight against the consensuses of the correct, the same in aesthetics as in politics. To be a freak. To practice the word till it was made unknown and, thereby, recognizable. Like someone who invents a new language and must imagine at the same time its first dictionary.

Second, because during my final five years in Cuba, since I began to publish opinion columns on my blog Lunes de Post-Revolución, the sergeants of official censorship banned me from the contests, publishing houses, and literary magazines of my country. Since all of these are state property, their officials had no choice but to obey the resolutions of the Ministry of Culture which, ultimately, are dictated by State Security, the control organism of the only political party permitted on the island: the Communist Party (a party presided over for half a century by two brothers, Fidel and Raúl Castro, and which now readies itself for succession to two offspring of the latter: Mariela and Alejandro Castro).

Being so isolated got me used to creating while believing myself to be an island within the island. In another period, the lack of solidarity with which the majority of the Cuban intelligentsia (even personal friends who think the same way I do but hide it) withdrew from me would have caused a trauma for any writer. However, in the last decade—the 2000s, or the "Noughts"—the repression of my work and of me became, paradoxically, my most effective strategy as an author.

In effect, in claustrophobic settings, provoking the censors is a way for fear and mediocrity to not paralyze our inspiration. I am convinced that it is impossible to find one's own path in literature without a certain verbal violence, without creating a short-circuit that disconnects us from clichés and opens us to the new abyss of creation. If "there is nothing new under the sun," as Ecclesiastes declares, at least everything should be new under socialism, if we do not want silence to be our suicide.

Thus, between 2001 and 2007, I published four radical books in Havana whose titles still intrigue me: Empezar de Cero (Starting from Zero), of course; Collage Karaoke (Karaoke Collage), breaking my inertia thanks to the memory of music); Ipatrías (a neologism for "without a fatherland"); and Mi nombre es William Saroyan (“My Name is William Saroyan”), almost a plagiarism transplanting Armenia to my neighborhood. My fifth book, called Boring Home in English, was the one that condemned me to repudiation in terms of socialism. Since 2008, I have never again been able to publish or speak in public on the once-called "Island of Freedom" and "First Free Territory of America." Humor in Cuba is always a symptom of horror.

The entire planet ignores it, but our government, today in 2014, still doesn't offer the population private access to the Internet. Luckily, every wall has its cracks. And with the boom of tourist hotels, wi-fi also arrived in Cuba, even if at prohibitive prices of up to $10 an hour for a rather slow connection. That was how I began to blindly toss my bottles into the sea: the hundreds of half-fictionalized, half-journalistic posts of Lunes de Post-Revolución, which various volunteers translated into English on the blog Post-Revolution Mondays. 

In this way, being now a nonauthor of the national canon, suddenly I had an even larger readership in a foreign language and far beyond our borders (even in the Antipodes!). Being a pariah went from being the worst thing to being a sort of perverse promotion (just as a prestige of the exiled exists, so does one of the censured author). But the price is almost unpayable: I was interrogated, mistreated, spied on, defamed, and arrested three times under Section 21 of the Cuban G-2 (Department of the Fight against Subversion).

To be a non-author made me feel like one of those Cuban-American authors who had never been published in Cuba. To make matters worse, the Revolutionary government also wouldn't let me travel, denying me an exit permit—that tyrannical procedure which, after decades of migratory apartheid, was eliminated only in January of 2013. As people say, just yesterday.

So in the spring of that year I flew to New York with plans to return in three days. Which in practice turned into three weeks. Which was impossible not to then extend to three months. Who knows if these will be prolonged for three years more. Or perhaps up to three entire lifetimes. Without realizing it, I had ceased to be an inner exile and had fallen into the category of just an exile. Cuba remained there out of reach, within me, perhaps as a punishment for having deconstructed it so much when I had it around me every day.

I confess that I write this and I can't believe it at all. My mind was very ready to act like that of a hermit within Cuba. But the experience of really being one took me too much by surprise. The silent H of Havana was my tactic to waken the delirium and the delight of my readers: to make me intimidating in intimacy, illegible to the point of being intolerable, with luck unavoidable. But Exile is written without an initial H, and the notion of that nation-without-a-place situates me on the edge of the unpronounceable.

In Cuba, I was besieged, trapped in place. Without Cuba, I don't have a place to be. As a reborn author, I know what to say, but I don't know how. I seek to at the same time remain there and transform myself here, although here continues to be Cuba for me, and there is the now, for example, this weightless waking nightmare from one coast of the United States to the other.

For many of my compatriots, it is a consolation to know that a chronic lack of Cuba has been the fate of the most emblematic writings of our literary history. José María Heredia, Cirilo Villaverde, and José Martí, in the nineteenth century. Severo Sarduy, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Reinaldo Arenas, and Guillermo Rosales, in the twentieth, which is our current century, for in more than one sense Cuban literature is stagnant and resists the creation of new sensibilities, seeking now only to reiterate the stereotypes of The Cuban. And behind those uppercase letters hides the Castro that we all incubate a little within, the Hollow Man more than the New Man imposed by Ché Guevara, a puppet in the image and likeness of the Caudillo who sentenced us to life imprisonment, as early as the summer of 1961, when, with his pistol upon a bureau of the National Library, Fidel Castro announced: Within the Revolution, Everything. Against the Revolution, nothing.

As a nonauthor, I would instead bet, if I knew how, on the marginal miracle of a volatile, volcanic, Balkanized Cubanism: unbelievable for being so true, and de-Cubanized. And I would conspire in favor of the assassination of all capital letters—and also of all the maiuetics. Please don't try to understand me about this, because I am not trying to explain myself either.

Before me, in this adventure toward borders and emptiness, came the pocket bible of exiled Cubans: a wunderkammer, an exciting diary of boredom bearing the byline of Gustavo Pérez-Firmat, who emigrated (more precisely, was forced to emigrate with his family) at the beginning of his adolescence on the island. It's called Cincuenta Lecciones de Exilio y Desexilio (Fifty Lessons of Exile and Dis-exile). And this tiny volume is full of certain uncertain verses which I now read as if they had been noted down by myself before I abandoned the island (or is it the island that abandons one?):

The only possible return is inward, not backward.

The opposition between extraño (stranger) and entraña (entrails) is found in the etymology of exile, no less, which some dictionaries derive from ex-ilia, to excise one's ilia or entrails.

At fifty, destierro [becoming landless, e.g. exiled] turns into destiempo [out of step/time].

This means that I have a limited time to accept or repudiate my condition as an organless body. Regressive counting. I thought that in exile no one died. And that no one would die in Cuba while I didn't return there. What callowness. I am regressing here. Pérez-Firmat was taken out of Cuba with his childish entrails. I had to leave on my own, to recover a biology that wouldn't age. Nor will it degrade. Because surviving after any dictatorial debacle is always base.

Finally, it's true that escaping from Castroism is an escape from the loyalty that fossilizes my country's futures. But it is also, after five years of in-sile as a social activist under the media spotlight, a search for barbarism, my vocation of being an absolute target: page, dwelling, apotheosis, apathy. From the tropical sol to a totalitarian solipsism, where there's no room for anyone besides myself. And that's why I drag from city to city an eternally in-progress novel that will be called The Life We Lost in Alaska. A freewheeling book that zigzags from New York to Washington, DC, from Durham to Philadelphia, from Miami to Madison, from Pittsburgh to Atlanta, from NOLA to LA, from Boston to Anchorage: infinite inertia that does nothing more than anchor itself time and again to the womb of Havana, and which secretly only aspires to reconcile with Havana after the revenge of erasing it in the virgin whiteness of Alaska.

Cubanness is Alaskanicity. Starting from zero, postnational karaoke of the lost but un-lose-able fatherland. If only someone would try to understand me in this point. But, please, let no one dare to explain it to me.

“Exilio ergo Sum” © 2014 by Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Lawrence Schimel. All rights reserved.

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