Ponte, Antonio José 1964-
PONTE, Antonio José 1964-
Born 1964, in Matanzas, Cuba; Education: Received degree in hydraulic engineering from University of Havana.
Home—Havana, Cuba. Agent—c/o Author Mail, City Lights, 261 Columbus Ave., San Francisco, CA 94133.
Author. Taught Cuban literature and creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, c. 2001. Worked as an engineer for five years before becoming a screenwriter and author.
Asiento en las ruinas, Editorial Letras Cubanas (Havana, Cuba), 1997.
In the Cold of the Malecó & Other Stories, translated by Cola Franzen and Dick Cluster, City Lights Books (San Francisco, CA), c. 2000.
(With Méonica Bernabé and Marcela Zanin) El abrigo de aire: ensayos sobre literature cubana, B. Viterbo Editora (Rosario, Argentina), 2001.
Contrabando de sombras (novel, title means "Trafficking in Shadows"), Mondadori (Barcelona, Spain), 2002.
Cuentos de todas partes del imperio, translated by Cola Franzen as Tales from the Cuban Empire, City Lights Books (San Francisco, CA), 2002.
Also author of Las comidas profundas (satire; title means "Profound Meals"), Ediciones Deleatur.
Author's work has been translated and published in France and Spain.
Antonio José Ponte is a Cuban author with a growing reputation in Europe and North America as a deft writer and remarkably unrestrained critic of the Cuban government. His work includes screenplays, poetry, short stories, a novel, and essays. Two collections of his translated short stories, In the Cold of the Malecó & Other Stories and Tales from the Cuban Empire, have been published in the United States. These stories have been described as charming, playful, and subtle in their depiction of Cubans living in their homeland and abroad. Ponte is considered an important representative of a new generation of Cuban writers.
As a child growing up in Cuba, Ponte loved writing and briefly published a magazine for his friends. He became an engineer, a career he pursued for five years, because there was no equivalent training program for writers. Subsequently, he has created works that show the difficulties and hardships of life under Fidel Castro's dictatorship, but has escaped the obvious threat of censorship from the government. In 1997 he became the first Cuban writer to be featured at the Miami Book Fair International and in 2001 he was teaching Cuban literature and creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania on a temporary basis. At that time, Ponte planned to return to Havana before taking another teaching assignment in Iowa. In an interview with Fabiola Santiago for the Miami Herald, he would not conjecture about why he was allowed such freedoms, but did comment that "the fear of being arrested and the fear of a literary misstep" had in the past kept him from naming the Cuban Revolution or Castro in his fiction.
Ponte's first fiction to be translated into English was six short stories collected as In the Cold of the Malecó & Other Stories. Several of the tales share a theme of disconnection. In "Coming" Cuban students return from the Soviet Union to discover that their skills in the Russian language are not needed any more. In another, a historian and an astrologer fall in love; one has a fatal illness and they become vagabonds. A character in "Heart of Skitalietz" philosophizes that when the electricity is turned off in his neighborhood and turned on in another, someone else is doing things for him.
The stories were admired by critics for their literary value as well as for their insight into a hidden world. Library Journal's Mary Margaret Benson described them as "stark ironic views of life in contemporary Cuba" and credited the author with creating "elegant prose." A reviewer for Publishers Weekly said the tales provide "a picture that will strike the U.S. reader as surreal in its simplicity." The reviewer concluded, "Cool, assured and quietly insightful, these tales provide rare glimpses into a Cuba often lost behind newspaper headlines."
With the translated collection Tales from the Cuban Empire, Ponte casts himself as a modern-day Scheherazade in the prologue. He hopes that the reader will not be bored by his account of a Cuban woman who hides in an airport bathroom, trying to escape all men in "Because of Men." In "Tears in the Congri," Cubans studying physics in the Soviet Union go to amazing lengths to make the rice and bean dish called congri. "At the Request of Ochon" is told by a Chinese butcher who is teaching a student how to gently guide his knife through the meat without dulling the blade, while also commenting on his life and how to butcher an elephant.
Reviewers of Tales from the Cuban Empire noted Ponte's vivacious style and comic touch. In Kirkus Reviews a critic said that the collection included "elusive, defiantly barogue tales" and called their combined effect a "virtuosic mingling of melodramatic intrigue, sociopolitical commentary, surrealism, and parody." In a review for the Miami Herald, Fabiola Santiago called Ponte "one of the most daring young intellectuals on the island" and reflected that both of his English translations "open a window into those hermetic spaces where suffering and joy often come hand-in-hand." Santiago advised that the stories merited re-reading, an opinion shared by Susan Salter Reynolds, who said in the Los Angeles Times, "Each story loops back upon itself, arrives at an inconclusive end, and should be read once more." According to Jonathan Kiefer in the San Francisco Chronicle, the collection shows Ponte to be "a compulsive storyteller" who makes good use of an "impish, conspiratorial tone." Kiefer found the stories to be refreshing and crisply written. He remarked that the opening of "At the Request of Ochon" is characteristic of "the nimble snap with which Ponte unfurls his written tapestries." Commenting on Ponte's audience, the critic said, "To call him under-appreciated misses the mark, because upon discovering him people often become as compulsive about reading his work as he is about writing it."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Kirkus Reviews, September 1, 2002, review of Tales from the Cuban Empire, p. 1265.
Library Journal, November 15, 2000, Mary Margaret Benson, review of In the Cold of the Malecó & Other Stories, p. 100.
Los Angeles Times December 29, 2002, Susan Salter Reynolds, review of Tales from the Cuban Empire, p. R11.
Miami Herald, March 12, 2001, Fabiola Santiago, "Cuban Author Antonio Jose Ponte Straddles Two Worlds"; January 15, 2003, Fabiola Santiago, review of Tales from the Cuban Empire.
Publishers Weekly, review of In the Cold of the Malecó & Other Stories, p. 59.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 15, 2002, Jonathan Kiefer, review of Tales from the Cuban Empire.
City Lights Web site,http://www.citylights.com/ (October 1, 2003), interview with Ponte.*