Homosexuality in cuban literature: An Approach to a Taboo
By Marilyn Bobes
Cuban writer Alfonso Hernández Catá's novel El Angel de Sodoma or Sodom's Angel vindicated the homosexual as an alleged accident of nature, as it was almost common in Spanish tradition on the subject, and set a distance and moral difference between his and that "vicious villain whom lust had made him become a sexual renegade."
Spanish poet Federico García Lorca adopted the same position some years later when he published his extraordinary Oda a Walt Whitman (Ode to Walt Whitman) in which he described "the obscure tearful pansies, fodder for tamer's whip, boot or bite."
Lorca's poem also carefully distinguished between two types of gays, only accepting those who lived their eroticism with guilt, suffering and silence. However, this poem, along with Hernández Catá's and Montenegro's works such as Men without Women, is another great precursory document in defense of gays in Spanish speaking literature.
On the other hand, no Cuban poet at that time was able to take the subject to its ultimate consequences. However, in Emilio Ballagas' work we can find a shy and hidden approach to the issue, shown in poems such as Elegía sin Nombre (Nameless Elegy -- with revealing quotations from Whitman and Cernuda) or an inexplicable regret and guilt in his poem Declara qué cosa sea amor (Say What Love Is) -if you don't appeal to a gay reading.
Other texts by Ballagas such as De otro modo (Another Way), where he calls for a change of life the other way around -- "if things that you hide were right" -- thus suggest a deep pain coming from the fact that a kind of love clashing with a "centuries-old" social and human order cannot be fulfilled. On the other hand, this approach is simple critical speculation since poet and journalist Vladimir Zamora recently found some of Ballagas' unpublished poems, where homosexuality is dealt with explicitly.
In the case of the novel, we had to wait for another 30 years to see a Cuban author write about the issue. But this time the subject is dealt with so skillfully, meaningfully and profoundly that it's hard for critics to define up to what extent it becomes another metaphor among the many metaphors appearing in Paradiso (Paradise), José Lezama Lima's masterpiece.
In fact, despite its coarse description, the novel's famous Chapter VIII is a metaphor about knowledge rather than an esthetic delight in an erotic gay relationship. Undoubtedly, throughout Paradiso, homosexuality has an important place as a subject for reflection, and even extends to what was going to be this monumental work's part II: the unfinished notes published under the title "Opiano Licario."
It's not in Chapter VIII but in IX in which the issue is extensively dissected by Lezama's omniscient capacity. When Baena Albornoz's gay episode was discovered, Fronesis, Foción and Cemí extensively talked about that sexual variant from a theological, psychological and cultural points of view.
For Lezama as well as for Fronesis, it's obvious that "sex is like poetry, it's an unequivocal rather than problematic subject. Therefore, the issue is dealt with dispassionately and philosophically. "Man's grandeur -one of the characters says- lies in the fact that he can assimilate what is unknown" . "To assimilate in depth -Lezama says- is to give an answer."
In the chapter the writer also analyzed the subject from a cultural point of view, both in the myth as well as in music and literature, including the Count of Villamediana's case, Casanova's disguise or Gide's so-called syncretism.
I think I wouldn't be mistaken to say that Paradiso -as well as Opiano Lilcario- is the Cuban novel that has dealt with homosexuality more deeply and in a more unbiased way, releasing it from both its morbid aspects and the sociology that intends to turn it into a political rather than an individual definition.
Such is the regrettable case of writer Reinaldo Arenas. Arenas turned his testimony Antes que anochezca (Before the Night Falls) into a political statement in which a trivial erotic relationship is reduced to a sort of uncontrolled desire for pleasure cruelly punished by institutions. In his stories, that desire seems to be socially accepted and allowed by community members.
This can be seen in his short story Viaje a la Habana (A Trip to Havana), in which the protagonist's only tragedy is that a court sentenced him for having sexual intercourse with a minor. The remaining characters, including the protagonist's wife, seem to naturally understand and accept the event. The narrator even refers to a homoerotic relationship between father and son provoked by the latter without scruples whatsoever and without the slightest affective and emotional importance for both.
Paradoxically, in previous books by Arenas, in which the protagonists' sexual trends are not explicitly declared, the author is very sensitive and in some of them he reveals important clues of the sociology of gay children, though this concept is not consciously expressed. We should remember his touching books Celestino antes del alba (Celestino before Dawn) and El palacio de las blanquísimas mofetas (The Palace of the Very White Skunks) which reveal the tragedy of the "different" child and teenager.
A recent short story by Senel Paz entitled El bosque, el lobo y el hombre nuevo (The Forest, the Wolf and the New Man) deals with a similar issue but not in the same way. In this story, the author also focuses on the institutions' intolerance to integrate gays into society. But unlike Arenas, according to Paz, the origin of that "official" intolerance is a reflection of a collective consciousness.
His main character, Young Communist League member David rejects homosexuality by conviction. He's biased toward that sexual tendency. The somewhat provocative attitude of Diego -the homosexual character- is a reaction to discrimination.
Diego is not socially accepted, above all, due to the prejudices prevailing in the individual conscience of his contemporaries. Of course, this individual conscience determines the "institutional" rejection, which is more dangerous, because institutions are made up of people whose subjective opinions influence general views.
Unlike Arenas' memoirs and some of his short stories, Senel Paz's El bosque, el lobo y el hombre nuevo is not ideologically aimed at "politicizing" a conflict which we have inherited from a cultural tradition that rejects homosexuality. Its objective is to create awareness in all spheres of society, including the political sphere, against the absurd attitude to discriminate against people for their sexual preference.
The emergence of the gay issue in Cuban literature over the past few years is a sign that the curtain behind which the subject has been traditionally hidden is being drawn back.
Among the best examples of contemporary young literature we could mention the stories Mi prima Amanda (My Cousin Amanda) by Miguel Mejides, who explores the lesbian world -even more taboo than that of male homosexuality-; El cazador (The Hunter) by Leonardo Padura, and Por qué llora Leslie Caron (Why is Leslie Caron Crying) by Roberto Urías. The short stories are a serious analysis on a difficult and somewhat thorny theme in Cuban literature and in our societies.
With regard to poetry, a genre less suitable for such a reading than prose, due to its current characteristics, we should mention the dramatic and brilliant poem Vestido de Novia (Dressed as a Bride) by Norge Espinoza, whose courage and formal values place it among the best texts written on the subject in our country.
In June 1990, the magazine Unión published some autobiographic pages by another great master of the island's literature: Virgilio Piñera. In the pages he tells how he came to the conclusion that he was gay. This is done with a poetic, natural and intelligent language. The discovery of Piñera's complete biography might enrich a subject which the author of Cuentos Fríos (Cold Stories) never openly dealt with in his works.
Before ending, we cannot miss Severo Sarduy's almost unknown but splendorous and important work. The main theme in them is the world of transvestites rather than homosexuality. His characters, including some of them feeling that they are women, are filled with a marginal Cuban spirit in which phrases, expressions and the syntax of the Cuban homoerotic jargon abound.
We should also add to the above mentioned texts another short story published by the Spanish magazine Quimera in December 1982. The story was written by Calvert Casey and translated from English into Spanish by Rafael Martínez Nadal.
Piazza Margana2 seems to be the only chapter that Casey saved from a destroyed novel, and constitutes a beautiful and openly gay lyrical and erotic testament. It was originally written in English -as it's known the author was born in the United States and English was his mother language - and because he wrote it in English some critics have wanted to see a sort of shyness since the statement he wanted to make was "too compromising" to be released in the language that the writer chose.
Despite Sodom's destruction by fire, homosexuality has been condemned and ignored by humanity throughout centuries but it is like any other subject in the literary and artistic life of human beings. Recent scientific theories describe it as a sexual option and old formulas that considered it an aberration are making way for more tolerant views.
In our country, like in many others, mainly Latin American nations, in which resistance to accept it has brought about painful discriminatory consequences and suffering for such a minority of human beings, gay literature could be a good exercise for people to learn how to accept a sexual option which, though different, is not foreign to human nature.