Last April, I finally made it to Cuba.
I’d been dying to go for nearly a decade, after becoming infatuated with the island while writing my second novel, The Crimes of Paris.
The book’s actually about a love affair in Paris. (But not that love affair—and not that Paris.) Casey Merkin washes up in the City of Light, where he falls in love with a Cuban woman named Elena. Slight problem: she’s married and has a young daughter. But in the last quarter of the book, Elena returns to Havana to take care of her ailing mother and sort out whether she wants to start a new life with Casey or stay with her husband … I won’t spoil the ending.
Right from the start, I knew I wanted my female protagonist to end up someplace where it would be virtually impossible for her lover to follow. Since North Korea seemed a little overkill, I opted for Cuba.
The novel’s set about eight years before the U.S. reopened its embassy in Havana, back when Americans had to be either very legit or very sneaky about traveling there. (See below for a note on recent unpleasant developments.) Casey does follow Elena to Havana, but he knows for sure he cannot stay.
I was happy with my choice of setting, but I’d chosen a country and a culture I knew very little about. Thus, I had to do a whole lot of mental tourism—via books and movies and photos. But the thing about Cuba is that once you’ve broken the surface, you want to plunge in deep.
From the 400 years of Spanish domination following the arrival of Columbus to over half a century of American exploitation, and from the Revolucíon through the Período especial to the present day (not to mention all that Hemingway shit), Cuba is a profoundly fascinating place. The palimpsest of cultural influences to be discovered in the country’s landscape, people, music, art, dance, and architecture is uniquely captivating.
Seriously, check it out:
Long story short: I happened on this place by accident—and for somewhat arbitrary narratological reasons—but immediately I was hooked.
The Cuba scenes of my novel were based on extensive research and imaginative reconstructions derived from trips to other tropical and socialist or communist countries. I’d spend a month in Bali (a beach in Sanur became the inspiration for a scene between Casey and Elena’s daughter) and a month in Vietnam (the cramped streets of Saigon underwent a sort of cultural transliteration in more than one chapter).
I wrote parts of the book in Key West (borrowing a hotel courtyard for Casey’s casa particular in Centro Habana) and at a beachside bar on the Yucatán peninsula (where I also stole some pelicans), and I took notes on the Caribbean climate in Jamaica. Together with bits of novels and blogs and films and songs, I cobbled together my own imaginary Cuba.
But just how similar to the real Cuba my reconstructed version actually was I couldn’t know. I had only a keyhole view of the island and its culture—which was only slightly more limited a view than my character himself has.
I had to—had to—had to expand that view by actually going there. When I learned about the Cuba Writers Program run by Tim Weed and Alden Jones, I signed up with reckless abandon. Here at last was a legitimate way to explore Cuba in person and confirm the details of my book!
Now, at the time, I didn’t quite realize just how easy it was toward the end of the Obama era to visit Cuba. In those halcyon days, there was little enforcement of “person-to-person exchange” requirement. So little, in fact, that many American tourists didn’t even bother to come up with a cover story.
One of my traveling companions stumbled upon a pair of American college girls at the Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s estate just outside Havana. After a brief exchange, they asked, “But wait—what’d Hemingway write again?” Their cultural exchange apparently consisted of mojito afternoons on the Plaza Vieja and rum-shot nights along the Calle Obispo. (And, frankly, you could do worse while in Havana.)
I knew that pictures in books and journalistic accounts, even when coupled with analogous sensory experiences, would never be enough to convey authenticity. And I also know that my nine-day trip to Cuba did not supply me with that authenticity either. But it did, as I hoped, stretch that keyhole open just a bit wider. And with the much-appreciated help of the other writers in my workshop group, it allowed me to correct some pretty embarrassing mistakes in my fictional re-creation of the place. I’ll share some excerpts from the novel in future posts.
Now, as I was preparing to write this introduction—getting my pictures together and, with the help of my wife, making them look reasonably presentable (I’m no photographer)—I was thinking to open with a call for people to book their flights to Havana this instant. In fact, the opening line of a Great Courses pitch I wrote a few weeks back for From Columbus to Castro: A Traveler’s Guide to Cuba read: “Today Cuba is more accessible to American travelers than it has been in nearly sixty years.”
Then this past week, a certain White House squatter announced his knee-jerk rejection of the carefully negotiated Obama-era policy on Americans traveling to the island. Lucky for me I went when I did! So now Cuba’s not quite as open as I hoped it would be for readers of these posts. (You can be sure I’ll have more to say about this in future installments.)
That being said, even with the tightened restrictions, it’s still possible to go to Cuba with relative ease. And you should.
You should find an approved reason to go, and you should spend money at Cuban paladares (private restaurants run by regular Cuba folks) and you should stay at casas particulares (bed-and-breakfasts run by regular Cuban families). Not just because doing so is really helping regular people make a living and improve their towns and cities (and that’s the number-one reason), but also because Cuba is unforgettable and goddamn life-alteringly beautiful!
In the series of posts I’ll be producing over the next month or more, I hope to show you why you should go—through the pictures that I took on my trip, through stories of my experiences while I was there, and through some of the stories I’ve read and others I’ve written.
Here’s a little foretaste: some shots I took from the top of the cámera oscura building on the northeast corner of the Plaza Vieja:
I hope you’ll come back for more.