Last month in Orlando, Fla., local indie house Burrow Press celebrated Cuban literature and culture as part of its quarterly Functionally Literate reading series, which typically focuses on Central Florida authors, sometimes pairing them with visiting writers from across the globe. The August event featured Phillippe Diederich and Cecilia Rodríguez Milanés, both of whom have new books on Cuban themes.
Sarasota-based Diederich spent a significant chunk of the 1990s as a photojournalist covering Latin America, traveling to Cuba at least twice a year on assignment. His debut novel, Sofrito, released earlier this year by Cinco Puntos, is part mystery, part foodie travelogue, and loosely based on his work in Cuba. He began writing the novel in the early 2000s and says it’s “sheer dumb luck” that the book was released as U.S. relations with Cuba began to thaw.
Milanés, a second-generation Cuban-American who grew up in New Jersey and Miami, is a professor at University of Central Florida. Her short story collections, Marielitos, Balseros and Other Exiles (Ig, 2009) and Oye What I’m Gonna Tell You, released by Ig this spring, offer realistic portraits of the experiences of Cubans who built new lives in the U.S., and of their children and grandchildren.
Floridians have always been interested in Cuba, Milanés says, but now that interest is spreading to other parts of the country. “Everywhere I go people ask me about it,” she says. This spring she attended a conference in Minnesota and says, “Every single person who stopped by my table was talking about Cuba. That’s all they could talk about.”
Staffers at Books & Books, which has several locations in South Florida, are also seeing that enthusiasm expanding. Cuban literature has always done well for the stores, but in the past, Raquel Roque says, events and operations consultant for the bookseller, interest centered mostly on the country’s politics. Now she finds that more customers are seeking books on Cuban culture, arts, and lifestyle. “It’s a good change,” she says. Thanks to a partnership with the Cuban Research Institute, the bookseller holds at least one event a month—sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish—that touches on Cuban topics.
While sales of Spanish-language books on Cuba remain the same, the store has seen an increase in English-language book sales. Also, as interest in travel to Cuba grows, so do sales of related books, says Books & Books’ inventory manager Joanna Clarke. Though it’s too soon to quantify, she estimates that sales of guidebooks, maps, and travelogues have doubled since the beginning of the year.
There’s a lot to look forward to as interest in Cuba spreads from Florida to other parts of the country, Roque says. She’s especially eager to see what new voices publishers will discover as barriers between the United States and Cuba disappear. “That’s the exciting part, literary-wise,” she says. “It’s historic for us to be able to see this change.”