The Buena Vista Reading Club: Havana Libre Brings 1997 Havana To Life
Havana Libre is as much about macro-international politics as it is about the micro-family relationships and friendships, which is to say Robert Arellano’s latest novel, a follow-up to Havana Lunar, sets giant world events (like the decades of Cuba’s strained politics) against the small day-to-day flirtations, friendships and family matters—or, perhaps it is vice-versa, that those interpersonal relationships, the frictions between family members, the kindness of strangers and the small daily ambitions of individuals collectively make up a giant story about terrorism and nationalism. Either way, the novel is compelling, detailed read that reconstructs 1997 in Havana and Miami, with the smoldering core of the novel, a series of bombings at hotels in Havana.
Arellano is the founding director of the Center for Emerging Media and Digital Arts at Southern Oregon University, and on sabbatical this year, touring his book. The Messenger caught up with him at the tail end of his tour, at Powell’s in Portland.
RVM: You were born in New Jersey and attended undergraduate and graduate school at Brown. Can you explain your or your family’s connection to Cuba?
RA: I am the baby in a family of immigrants. In 1960, my parents left Cuba with three of my siblings (and another “on the way”). The militarized political situation in Havana was getting extremely hot leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, and like a lot of “liberal,” anti-Battista Cubans with small children, they thought they’d go to Miami for a few months, a year at most, until things cooled down.
It was in 1961 after the Bay of Pigs that my family realized we’re going to be staying here awhile, and my father found work in New York City and eventually bought a house in northern Jersey, the second-largest Cuban-American community in the states after south Florida. We packed for six months, but we’ve stayed for six decades.
RVM: When was your first trip to Cuba?
RA: In 1992. It was the winter after I finished my undergraduate degree, and I was still living in my college town when I bumped into a dean on the college green. His name is Armando Bengochea, and he told me excitedly of an educational exchange with Cuba, which was rare at that time, coming up that summer. “There may be scholarships available,” he told me. “You should apply.” ¡Gracias, Armando!
RVM: Are you a Graham Greene fan? In tone and plot, there seem to be some echoes of The Quiet American.
RA: Oh, yes! And his following book Our Man in Havana is one of the great “unlikely spy” novels of all time.
RVM: The book is set in 1997, with a series of bombings as the smoldering “mystery” driving the plot. Why did these incidents stick with you?
RA: I was in Havana during the summer of ‘97. There’s a line of dialogue in the book lifted from a conversation with a friend who was putting me up at the time: “I don’t feel safe walking anywhere near the hotels.” Very quickly, people in Cuba knew that the bombers were being funded by an exile in Miami. When I got back to the States, I thought that everyone would be calling for the suspect’s arrest, but it made barely a blip in U.S. news. To this day, the main perpetrator of this terrorist campaign—a man who bragged to the New York Times about it—as well of a Cuban airliner bombing that killed 73 people in 1976, is free and, last I heard, living in New Jersey.
RVM: Ashland seems about as far away culturally and geographically/climate-wise from Havana and Miami. How did you reconstruct the details from 90s Cuba?
RA: After my first trip in 1992, I returned to Cuba 10 times over that decade. I have enough notes in journals, as well as audio and video recordings I made in those days, to fill several more “Cuban noir” books. I am also a musician, and I have led many groups of artists to the island, including a historic concert exchange, Rock the Blockade, which in 2000 united a half-dozen US and Cuban bands across three stages. Just last year I returned twice, and in November my band Havanarama performed at Metal City, Cuba’s longest-running rock festival, in the central province’s capital city of Santa Clara.
RVM: You are such a pioneer and proponent of “e-publishing,” why a “traditional” book?
RA: Yes, and I also teach a course at SOU called Writing Nonlinear. My mentor, the author Robert Coover, said it best: By teaching (and occasionally working in the medium of) electronic writing, we’re not expecting our students to create the Great American Hypertext Novel, but to think about literature “outside the box” of the printed page. Nonlinear writing—and interactive reading—can cause entirely new stories to emerge.
That said, I still prefer a good, musty book.