Arenas, Reinaldo: 1943-1990: Cuban Writer
Reinaldo Arenas: 1943-1990: Cuban writer
Viciously oppressed in his native Cuba for both his literary attacks on Fidel Castro's revolution and his open homosexuality, Reinaldo Arenas became a literary star by smuggling his books overseas. His extraordinary novels, flush with magical realism and sensual detail, won several prestigious awards abroad. Interview magazine wrote, "[Arenas's] writing is so exquisitely evocative and truthful and free it's as though his words have wings that could take him—artistically, sexually, and even politically—anywhere on a physical or emotional level." Yet, under the totalitarian regime of Communist Cuba, Arenas couldn't travel anywhere. For twenty years he endured harassment, surveillance, and imprisonment. Arenas finally escaped to New York in 1980.
By the time of his death in 1990, Arenas had completed nine novels, an autobiography, scores of poems, plays, and short stories, as well as dozens of political and literary essays. However, he had long-since gone out of literary favor. As he noted in his autobiography, Before Night Falls, "Ironically, while I was in jail and could not leave Cuba, my chances of being published were better because I was not allowed to speak out." As an exile in the United States, he was much less compelling. He died in relative obscurity; barely a dozen people attended his funeral. Yet, a writer often finds immortality through his words, and Arenas, whose work resonated with viscerally wrenching imagery, was no exception. Following his death Before Night Falls was published to critical acclaim and turned into a 2000 film of the same name. The film brought Arenas's work to a wider audience and helped prompt his posthumous rise to take his place as "one of the truly great writers to come out of Latin America" according to the Chicago Tribune. His work is currently widely available and is required reading in several university programs. However, in Cuba it remains banned.
Escaped Poverty Through Stories
Reinaldo Arenas was born in rural Cuba on July 16, 1943. Abandoned by his father, Arenas was raised by his mother on her parents' farm. At the time Cuba was ruled by the dictator Fulgencio Batista and Arenas recalled to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "The situation under Batista in the countryside was terrible." Poverty was ever-present and hunger a constant companion.
At a Glance . . .
Born on July 16, 1943, in the Oriente province of Cuba; died on December 7, 1990, in New York, NY; son of Oneida Fuentes. Education: La Pantoja, Cuba, studied agricultural accounting, 1959; University of Havana, Cuba, studied economic planning, 1966-68; attended Columbia University, 1980s.
Career: Accountant, early 1960s; National Library of Cuba, assistant, 1963-68; writer, 1967-90; Cuban Book Institute, editor, 1967-68; La Gaceta de Cuba, journalist and editor, 1968-74; International University of Florida, visiting professor of Cuban literature, 1981; Center for Inter-American Relations, visiting prof, 1982; Cornell University, visiting prof, 1985; guest lecturer at Princeton University, Georgetown University, Washington University of St. Louis, University of Stockholm, Sweden, University of Kansas, University of Miami, and University of Puerto Rico.
Awards: First place for best novel, Singing From the Well, Cuban Writers Union, 1965; Prix Medici for best foreign novel, Singing From the Well, France, 1969; Best Foreign Novel, Hallucinations, Le Monde, France, 1969; Cintas Foundation, fellow, 1980; Guggenheim Foundation, fellow, 1982; Wilson Center Foundation, fellow, 1987; The New York Time's top ten books of the year, Before Night Falls, 1993.
Arenas often ate dirt just to have something in his stomach. His only solace was nature. "I think the splendor of my childhood was unique because it was absolute poverty but also absolute freedom; out in the open, surrounded by trees, animals …," he wrote in Before Night Falls. It was there that he began his literary career, composing songs and stories to keep himself company. "I would perform them in those lonely fields as if they were theater pieces," he wrote.
By the time Arenas reached his teens, his family had sold their farm and moved to the dreary town of Holguín. About this time Arenas took a job at a guava paste factory, working 12 hour shifts for one peso a day. The work was mind-numbingly boring and Arenas began channeling that boredom into stories he churned out on a small typewriter. Eventually the boredom of Holguín, as well as the continued hardships under Batista, convinced the 14 year-old Arenas to join Fidel Castro's rebel forces. However, his youth—and more importantly his lack of a rifle—kept him from fighting. Nevertheless, when Castro took control of the island in 1959 Arenas was swept up in the revolutionary fervor. "I believed, or wanted to believe, that the Revolution was something noble and beautiful," he wrote. However, he soon began to notice that the new government was wrought with hypocrisy. It would not be long before he would come to believe that he had helped overthrow one dictator only to replace him with another.
Arenas received a scholarship to study agricultural accounting and was assigned to work on a government chicken farm after graduation. It was a tedious job and Arenas leapt at the chance to move to Havana when he was offered a scholarship to study economic planning at the University of Havana in 1961. Not long after arriving in Havana Arenas began to immerse himself in the then-thriving gay subculture of the city. He had realized he was homosexual when he was still a child, but during his years in school he hid his feelings because of the persecution that gays were subjected to by the government. Many were fired from their jobs, kicked out of school, or sent to concentration camps to be rehabilitated. One of Arenas's earliest boyfriends was taken to such a camp. "I never saw him again, nor have I heard of him since my exile," he wrote in Before Night Falls.
In Havana Arenas entered a storytelling contest sponsored by the National Library and won. However, the judges were less interested in his storytelling ability than in the story he had told. Rather than read a well-known tale, he had written his own. The library directors, impressed with his literary skill, immediately offered Arenas a job at the library. "My transfer there was decisive for my literary education. My job consisted in looking for the books people requested, but there was always time to read," he wrote in Before Night Falls. There was also time to write, and his first book, Singing from the Well, was written in the library. The story of a mentally-impaired child growing up in rural Cuba won an award from the Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC) in 1965 and became the only one of Arenas's books to be published in Cuba. According to an article in the Village Voice Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes called the book, "One of the most beautiful novels ever written about childhood, adolescence, and life in Cuba." Arenas's next book was Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Life and Adventures of Friar Servando Teresa de Meir. It was a fantastical rewriting of the autobiography of a revolutionary Mexican friar who defied the Spanish conquest of his country and was mercilessly persecuted for it. It was also an almost eerie foreshadowing of the fate that was to befall Arenas.
Imprisoned For His Books
Though Hallucinations also won an award from UNEAC, it was banned by the government for its anti-revolutionary tone. The following year, with the help of French friends, Arenas smuggled Hallucinations out of the country. It was published to acclaim in Mexico and Spain; in France it was named the best foreign novel of 1969. "If I had been living in the free world, this would have served me well," he wrote in Before Night Falls. Instead, "in Cuba, the official impact … was for me absolutely negative." For publishing abroad, without the consent of the government, Arenas was labeled a counterrevolutionary. "By the year 1969 I was already being subjected to persistent harassment by State Security, and feared for the manuscripts I was continually producing."
In 1970 Arenas—along with many other young intel-lectuals—was sent to work on a sugarcane plantation. "Unless you have lived through it, you could not possibly understand what it means to be in a Cuban sugar plantation under the noon sun, and to live in barracks like slaves," he wrote in Before Night Falls. It inspired his long poem El central, which was smuggled out and published in Spain. Meanwhile Arenas was working on Farewell to the Sea, one of five novels to make up his Pentagon series detailing the history of Cuba. Set at a beach resort, the novel reveals the inner thoughts of a Cuban couple and the way Castro's revolutionary government damaged their lives. That the book was written is a testament to Arena's determination. The original manuscript was lost when he placed it in hiding with friends. He rewrote the book, only to have it confiscated by the police. Finally, he was able to smuggle his third rewrite of the book to France in 1980. Other books in the Pentagon included Singing From the Well; The Palace of the White Skunks, which was also smuggled to France; The Color of Summer; and The Assault. The latter two were written in the United States.
In 1973, after an altercation on a beach, Arenas was arrested and charged with "ideological deviation." While out on bail he made a daring escape and eluded police for several months. During that time he attempted to leave the country several times. When that failed, he tried to commit suicide by slicing his wrists with a broken bottle. When that also failed, he resorted to his oldest companion—writing. He wrote an open letter to international agencies and free governments. "I wanted to report all the persecution I was being subjected to," he wrote in Before Night Falls. The letter was smuggled out by a French friend and was published in France and Mexico. When Arenas was finally captured he was sent to El Morro prison—coincidentally the same prison where Friar Servando had been incarcerated. The prison was loud, hot, and overcrowded. Excrement piled in corners, urine flowed like rancid rivers, bugs were everywhere. Murder was common and vicious. Food was scarce and barely edible. In addition, Arenas was subjected to intense interrogation. The government wanted him to confess to being a counterrevolutionary and a homosexual and to vow to change. Arenas eventually gave in. It was a bitter, demoralizing defeat for him. "Before my confession I had a great companion, my pride," he wrote in Before Night Falls. "After the confession I had nothing; I had lost my dignity and my rebellious spirit."
Though Arenas was released from prison in 1976, he continued to live in fear. He was regularly visited by the police and his room was occasionally ransacked. He had to write in secret and could trust no one. "That was my life in early 1980; surrounded by spies and seeing my youth vanish without ever having been a free person," he wrote in Before Night Falls. In 1980 Arenas decided he had had enough and, after doctoring his identity card, joined the over 130,000 Cubans who were allowed to leave the island during the Castro-sanctioned Mariel Boat Lift. On May 4, at one in the morning, Arenas boarded a boat for Key West. "When officials in the government realized I was gone, I discovered later, they sent a boat after me, but it was too late," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. By the end of the year Arenas was living in New York City, 37 years old, and free for the first time in his life.
Wrote Furiously in Freedom
In New York Arenas entered a creative frenzy. He completed the Pentagon series and wrote Journey to Havana, Mona and Other Tales, and The Doorman. He also completed Before Night Falls which he had begun during his days as a fugitive hiding from the police. When it was published three years after his death it made The New York Time's top ten list. Along with other exiled Cuban writers he founded the short-lived literary magazine Mariel. When not writing, he taught Cuban poetry and lectured at universities including Cornell, Princeton, and Georgetown. In 1982 Arenas won a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 1987 a Woodrow Wilson Center Fellowship. In addition he relished his new freedom, traveling throughout Europe and road tripping across the United States. He wrote of his travels in Before Night Falls: "for the first time we were able to enjoy the sense of freedom and the thrill of adventure without feeling persecuted; in short, the pleasure of being alive."
Despite his hard-won freedom, Arenas continued to suffer. His foreign publishers either refused to pay him for his books or paid him a pittance after much hassle. "None of this surprised me: I already knew that the capitalist system was also sordid and money-hungry," Arenas wrote in Before Night Falls. He continued, "In one of my first statements after leaving Cuba I had declared that 'the difference between the communist and capitalist systems is that, although both give you a kick in the ass, in the communist system you have to applaud, while in the capitalist system you can scream. And I came here to scream.'" His screaming did not win him a lot of friends. The intellectual left tended to side with Castro without really knowing what the Cuban people suffered. Other exiled Cubans were busy building wealthy new lives. It was suggested that Arenas forget his past and go on. "But after twenty years of repression, how could I keep silent about those crimes?" he asked in Before Night Falls. At the same time he longed for Cuba and loathed his exiled state. He wrote, "I ceased to exist when I went into exile."
In 1987 Arenas was diagnosed with AIDS. He rapidly deteriorated and was hospitalized several times. Each time he recovered, crediting his works for his returns to health. "Writing those books kept me alive," he told the author of A Sadness as Deep as the Sea. "Especially the autobiography. I didn't want to die until I had put the final touches. It's my revenge." On December 7, 1990, not long after completing the manuscript, wholly debilitated from the disease, Arenas took an overdose of pills. In his suicide note, reprinted in Before Night Falls, he wrote, "Due to my delicate state of health and to the terrible emotional depression it causes me not to be able to continue writing and struggling for the freedom of Cuba, I am ending my life." He went on to blame Castro for his life's sufferings and concluded with the type of defiant hope that had allowed him to create brilliant art despite the darkest oppression: "Cuba will be free. I already am."
Celestino antes del alba, Cuba, 1967, translated as Singing from the Well, Viking, NY, 1987.
El mundo alucinante, France, 1969, translated as Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Life and Adventures of Friar Servando Teresa de Mier, Harper, NY, 1971.
El palacio de las blanquisimas mofetas, France, 1975, translated as The Palace of the White Skunks, Viking, NY, 1990.
El Central, Spain, 1981, translated as El Central: A Cuban Sugar Mill, Avon, NY, 1984.
Otra vez el mar, 1982, translated as Farewell to the Sea, Viking, NY, 1986.
El portero, 1988, translated as The Doorman, Grove Press, NY, 1991.
El asalto, 1990, translated as The Assault, Viking, NY, 1994.
El color del verano, 1991, translated as The Color of Summer, Viking NY, 2000.
Antes que anochezca, 1992, translated as Before Night Falls: A Memoir, Viking, NY, 1993.
Mona and Other Tales, Vintage, 2001.
Arenas, Reinaldo, Before Night Falls: A Memoir, Viking, NY, 1993.
Interview, January-April 2001, p. 46.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, February 23, 2001, p. E1.
"A Sadness as Deep as the Sea," Eminent Maricones, www.actupny.org/diva/CBmanrique.html (May 20, 2003).
"The Revival of Reinaldo Arenas: After Night Falls,"
Village Voice, www.villagevoice.com/issues/0049/manrique.php (May 22, 2003).