Pacing the Lion’s Path in Cuba: A Conversation with Carlos Manuel Álvarez

March 29, 2021
translated by Anna Kushner

A black and white photograph of Carlos Manuel Álvarez bookended by the covers to his books The Fallen and Los caídos

Carlos Manuel Álvarez’s debut novel, The Fallena withering portrait of a Cuban family with conflicting visions of their country and their roles within it—was published in June 2020 and has helped establish Álvarez as one of the leading writers of Cuba’s new generation. The book’s schisms reflect deeper rifts within the country today. Armando, a diehard Marxist, clings to his idea of the sanctity of the Cuban Revolution, even as he becomes the pawn of a corrupt bureaucracy. Meanwhile, his son, Diego, disillusioned and distraught, chafes under the demands of enforced military duty. Mariana, the mother, is prone to mysterious dizzy spells and is slowly losing her grip on reality; while their daughter, Maria, finds herself entangled in a web of betrayals in the black market of the island’s tourist economy. Revolutionary idealism has run up against the harsh realities of modern life. The deprivations of the “special period” of the 1990s, in fact, still loom over the present. “Now, thinking back, all we can remember is a cycle of hunger, a state of siege in which there was nothing,” Mariana recalls, “an emptiness in every plate, an emptiness in the shops, an emptiness in the freezer compartment of the fridge, an emptiness in the fields and in the factories, and an emptiness, larger than all the rest, in our hearts and in our stomachs.”

This past December, Álvarez came under fire from Cuban authorities for his support of the San Isidro Movement, a collection of artists and activists protesting government censorship. He was interrogated and held under house arrest in Havana, then physically assaulted as he was transferred to his family home in Cárdenas, Matanzas province. Álvarez responded by posting a video on Facebook and publishing an editorial in the New York Times,They Call Us Enemies of the Cuban People,” in which he condemned the charges against the San Isidro leaders. We recently connected over Facebook Messenger and then conducted this short but pointed interview via email—about current dissent in Cuba, the intentionally suffocating structure of his novel, and the writing life in both Havana and Mexico City. (His answers were translated by Anna Kushner, whose translation of Cuban writer Marcial Gala’s novel, The Black Cathedral, also came out last year.)

Anderson Tepper: Carlos, thank you so much for doing this. First of all, how are you now and where are you?

Carlos Manuel Álvarez: I’m in Mexico City. I’m reviewing the edits on a novel of mine that comes out in April, listening to [Argentine rocker Luis Alberto] Spinetta, and I spend my evenings meeting up with friends I haven’t seen in months. I suppose this all leaves me feeling okay.

Tepper: Tell me more about the San Isidro Movement in Cuba—how it started and how you became involved.

Álvarez: It’s a movement made up of artists who are not recognized as such within Cuba’s institutional culture. For the most part, they come from poor neighborhoods, they’re Black, and they express their discomfort with a system that doesn’t support them, doesn’t legitimize them, and, in fact, actually represses them.

I became involved with the movement after several group members, and others who were not members, decided to hole up in their headquarters and go on a hunger strike [last November] to demand the release of one of their colleagues, who had been unjustly imprisoned.

I felt like I should be there; I felt physically ill watching it happen from New York. I’m no stranger to them, and some of them were already friends of mine from before.

Tepper: What is happening with the San Isidro activists now?

Álvarez: One of the movement’s members, Maykel Osorbo, just released a song along with some other rappers and reggaeton artists who are famous in the Latin music industry, like Yotuel and Gente de Zona. In it, they sing to the leaders that “ya se acabó” (it’s over, their time is up). That has caused hysteria within the regime. Everyone from the president to television [shows] and even the most important newspapers have slandered the artists, like Trump used to do on Twitter when he got a bee in his bonnet about Lady Gaga or Colin Kaepernick. I would say that, despite the surveillance and repression, San Isidro is going strong since it reveals the reactionary, classist, and racist nature of Castroism like no other social movement has.

This is how we, in Cuba, tackle the constant lynching by the press of artists, writers, and any individual who resolves to stand up to them.

Tepper: How have you been able to use social media and other means—articles, interviews—to spread the word of what is happening in Cuba?

Álvarez: This is how we, in Cuba, tackle the constant lynching by the press of artists, writers, and any individual who resolves to stand up to them.

I speak on social media with the same gravity with which I speak in my articles and interviews, and I speak in my articles and interviews with the same levity with which I speak on social media.

What is happening in Cuba is simple, and the way to explain it is also simple.

Tepper: How has the pandemic affected the protests and the movement’s ability to organize?

Álvarez: The pandemic has worked as another form of police control, but the pandemic will end and the state of things that has led us to protest will still be there.

Tepper: I’m curious about your novel, The Fallen, published by Graywolf here in the US last year. What did you want to show or explore about contemporary Cuba in this book, and why did you choose to structure it around the different perspectives within one family?

Álvarez: I was looking for a story in which illness would serve as a state of clarity, like I learned in [Thomas Mann’s] The Magic Mountain, and also in which material poverty would intermingle with the private effects of a battle that played out in the field of the body. That speaks of Cuba, it seems to me.

The structure helped me create a closed, repetitive, claustrophobic atmosphere. Exactly what the novel relayed. I think that in every text, form is a basic plot element.

Tepper: Each family member recalls the hardships of the “special period” of the 1990s, and it informs their approach to the present. Does this time still occupy a major place in Cuba’s collective memory?

Álvarez: Not just in memory. This time, in many ways, is not yet over. There are people who never left it. That’s why San Isidro came about.

Tepper: Was The Fallen published in Cuba, and, if so, what were the reactions?

Álvarez: No, it was not published in Cuba, so, of course, there was no reaction. But I suppose a book that receives no publicity from the mouth of totalitarianism should be happy.

Tepper: You are also the director of a digital magazine, El Estornudo (“The Sneeze”), and you just received the prestigious Don Quijote Journalism Prize in Spain for your 2020 article, “Tres niñas cubanas.” Tell me about the mission of El Estornudo and the challenges of keeping it going.

Álvarez: El Estornudo just celebrated its fifth anniversary. It is a modest long-form journalism project that tried to make the crónica, or reported essay, a regular part of the Cuban journalism scene. With time, we’ve transcended national borders to become a magazine that dialogues linguistically, politically, and aesthetically with other editorial projects in the region. El Estornudo is censored in Cuba, many of its main contributors have emigrated or gone into exile, but somehow or another, we’ve managed to reconfigure the work teams and establish new guidelines for publication, which has guaranteed our survival. State security has made a deliberate effort to disappear the magazine. Those of us who have collaborated on it have endured interrogations, threats, arrests, psychological pressure, and blackmail. They’ve tried to turn us against one another. Suddenly, those in power are treating us not as if we were just a magazine, but rather a clandestine political cell or the armed wing of a foreign power.

Suddenly, those in power are treating us not as if we were just a magazine, but rather a clandestine political cell or the armed wing of a foreign power.

Tepper: You live in both Havana and Mexico City. What are some of the differences in the literary communities and publishing worlds?

Álvarez: There is no literary industry in Cuba, and publishing houses don’t seem to respond to any more or less fixed lines, be they cultural or commercial. There is, certainly, ideological coherence, which is apparent both in what is published and in the pamphlets that are promoted.

In Mexico, I can only really speak to what happens at Sexto Piso, my publishing house. But the same types, here and anywhere, always make up the literary community: A bunch of bad writers, another handful of arrivistes, friends who only promote their own friends and tell each other how magnificent they are, and only two or three folks who try to remember against all odds what writing is all about.

Tepper: In 2017 you were included in the Bogotá39 list of best Latin American writers under 40. Do you feel especially connected to other young writers across the Caribbean and Americas? What about other new Cuban writers, at home and abroad?

Álvarez: Yes, I feel close to [Dominican writer] Frank Báez, [Colombian] Juan Cárdenas, [Cuban] Legna Rodríguez, [Mexican] Rodrigo Márquez Tizano. I don’t know what’s going on with other new Cuban writers, but I hope they find the lion’s path in Mishima’s Thirst for Love: an animal who is not satisfied, “for there is no third world that is neither the world of the cage nor the world outside the cage.”

Tepper: Your book opens with a quote from Philip Roth: “We all have homes. That’s where everything always goes wrong.” Who are some of the other North American writers who have had a particular influence on you?

Álvarez: I love Cheever, I love Lucia Berlin, I love Denis Johnson. Roth is good, but perhaps [Faulkner’s] Absalom, Absalom! is enough. “Why do you hate the South?” they ask Quentin Compson. “I don’t hate it, I don’t hate it,” he responded.

Translation from the Spanish

Anderson Tepper is co-chair of the International Committee of the Brooklyn Book Festival and curator of international literature at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair, and Words Without Borders, among other places.

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

Anna Kushner’s translation of Marcial Gala’s The Black Cathedral was released in 2020 to rave reviews in the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and other major publications. It is newly out in paperback. Her translation of Leonardo Padura’s The Transparency of Time is forthcoming from FSG this summer. As a writer, Kushner has published poetry, essays, and creative nonfiction in Crab Orchard Review, Cuba Counterpoints, Wild River Review, World Literature Today, and elsewhere.