Abilio Estévez and His Exile from Cuba [Month of a Thousand Forests]
Abilio Estévez is next up in the Month of a Thousand Forests series. Arcade brought out a couple of his books a decade ago, but the piece he chose as his “aesthetic highpoint” (excerpted below) has never appeared in English translation.
Just a reminder, you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
I’ve chosen this excerpt for three compelling reasons: the first, that I had a hard time writing it, much more than any other section of El navegante dormido, a novel to which I feel a particular connection. The material resisted me for some time, and that struggle, far from discouraging me, always excites me and spurs me on. There is a combative part of me that is nourished when I write. The second reason: it is a section that someone I love, my companion, finds moving. The third reason might seem like a boutade (and, of course, it is), but it has to do with me, with my own inner Mamina fleeing a great fire, not knowing whether the flight will be worth it, not knowing whether salvation exists or what that even means.
As a writer, how has your exile from Cuba affected you?
My exile from Cuba has been good for me as a writer, so far. As a person, I don’t know. The world I lived in was very small, very closed, very provincial, to put it one way. All of a sudden, I discovered that the world was a big, unfamiliar place. I discovered that no one is the center of the universe, that you’re just one passion among many, and that everyone has the same problems. This awareness is very important for a writer. There is an element of humility there that has been really useful for me. Beyond that, I’ve been able to read books that I couldn’t before; I didn’t have access to many cultures. From this perspective, my exile has suited me. From a personal perspective, it’s painful to know that you have to leave a place and won’t be able to go back. Or that if you do go back, your return implies a failure of some kind. It’s like going home not because you’ve decided to go home, but because you’ve decided to die before your time. It’s going back to the feeling of being on that island and wanting to travel and not being able to because they keep you from leaving, or make it too difficult; I have to get foreign money and visas, and then there’s the reality of coming back and having to ask permission to enter, which can be denied. The feeling that I’ve lost everything is always with me, the feeling that I couldn’t leave my home closed up and ask someone to take care of it while I’m gone, but instead that I abandoned it, and that’s a terrible feeling. It’s starting over, now, at fifty-five—I’ve been here for ten years—dealing with problems I should have faced when I was twenty, not now.
Full of danger were the roads Mamina had to travel to find refuge at the beach with no name.
It took her sixty-seven days, and the setbacks she faced were even greater in number. Two endless months and a week full of unthinkable violence. Fleeing from one end of the island to the other, from the distant soil of Oriente to arrive, without knowing why, at an unstable and Babylonian Havana.
“My own Stations of the Cross,” she would say on those rare occasions her spirits were high, or low, enough for her to talk about her journey. Accompanied by the pain of the dead left behind and under the sign of other massacres, deaths no less personal and terrible for their having been strangers, she reflected and suffered along the brutal roads of an island possessed.
Sixty-seven days amid the disasters and consequences of a race war and, to make things worse, bearing the worst possible letter of passage: her dark skin and her face—beautiful, yes, but that of a colored woman born to slaves, the pained, fugitive face of a daughter of the Mandinga and the Embuyla.
It was 1912. It had been only fourteen years since the Spanish Empire, already in terrible condition, lowered its flag, and ten since, the island having become a precarious state—a timid, intermittently democratic republic—a new flag (created by Teurbe Tolón for Narciso López) was raised from the battlements of El Morro and La Cabaña, alongside that of United States. In only fourteen years of independence, there had already been countless strikes, two wars, and two American interventions, as though the ten years of deaths, machete violence, epidemics, starvation, and internment camps between 1868 and 1878 hadn’t been enough, or as though they set the stage for the catastrophe that was, without a doubt, soon to befall the young and afflicted republic.
No one called her Mamina back then, they addressed her by her real, full name: María de Megara Calcedonia. She and her brother Juan Jacobo had been lucky enough to be born, respectively, in the relatively happy years of 1886 and 1887, when the Spanish Crown found itself obligated, after a bloody war which neither side had the distinction of winning completely, to abolish slavery on the “ever Loyal island of Cuba.”
The siblings were born in the mountains near Alto Songo, out between Dos Amantes and La Maya, in the quarters of the El Calamón coffee plantation, which at that time belonged to a formerly wealthy and still legendary family of the area, the Pageries, who, as their name suggests, were French or, rather, of French extraction. From Martinique, the Pagerie family arrived first at Saint Domingue, and from Saint Domingue, fleeing in terror from the armies of Toussaint Louverture, they ended up in the mountains of Cuba’s Oriente Province. As their surname also suggests, they were close relatives of the woman who had been Empress of the French, Josephine de Beauharnais, who was born, as everyone knows, Tascher de la Pagerie. As such, the owners of El Calamón had that air typical of the Bonaparte nobility, something between stately and wild, a little coarse, that same affected haughtiness accented by a surprising touch of insecurity. Not only the stateliness, but also the wildness, the haughtiness, the affectation and the insecurity were amplified by the distance from that heart shared by every French person known as Paris, and by the everyday struggle of surviving in a land where even the most mundane undertaking becomes an event, vacillating between the tragic, the apocalyptic and, ultimately, the absurd. The Bonaparte nobility felt nobler there, but also more common, more parvenu, if that were possible.
Not very large, El Calamón was by then hardly a coffee plantation at all: it was more like a country house. It still produced a few hundred pounds of coffee, but that was not enough to maintain the familiar standard of luxury, which had not been all that luxurious for some time. The war drastically reduced production. Most of the family’s colored workers had run off to join the fight, which was as long and bloody as it was disorganized and futile.
(Translated by Heather Cleary)