When we told friends we were planning a trip to Havana, the reaction—across the board— was very interested: “I’d love to go there!” one friend said. “Ooh! Let me know what it’s like!” another said.
The reaction to Havana was like nothing we’d seen. Over and over we heard, “You have to get there before Americans ruin it.” This, of course, frequently uttered by Americans.
The two of us write as Alex Flynn and are coauthors of two middle grade books: The Misshapes: The Coming Storm and The Misshapes: Annihilation Day (both from Polis). We’ve had the privilege of reading at bookstores and schools, meeting readers of all ages, and talking about our fictional ensemble of teenage superheroes. But recently we read in a place we’d never imagined: Havana. Our reading at Cuba Libro, an English-language bookstore in the Vedado neighborhood, was one of the best and most surprising opportunities that has come with the books’ release. We had an opportunity to catch a glimpse of an intriguing culture. Conner Gory, founder of Cuba Libro, says that even after 14 years, she still finds Cuba beguiling.
We stayed in Vedado, which has changed significantly since Graham Greene described it in the 1950s as “little cream and white houses owned by rich men.” The mansions are still there—but they’re now home to average Cuban citizens. It’s a neighborhood with a band around one bend, a movie around another, and a photo exhibit next door.
We read at Cuba Libro on a Saturday at 6 p.m., Cuban time—which means give or take an hour. The bookstore functions as a community center, where people relax with an espresso or discuss philosophy in hammocks. It draws a crowd of university students, expats, and tourists. The audience, which was mostly English speaking, was engaged and had questions about our book and the process of worldbuilding. We talked about our books’ subtext and the role capitalism plays in perverting mythologies, or how identity, the locus of all coming-of-age stories, is branded for an age of celebrity. After the reading, we gave away our books, since U.S. prices are too high for Cubans, who, on average, make $25 per month, and we donated some English-language books as well. It was a thrill to donate Infinite Jest and Ulysses.
We traded recommendations, turning a comics fan on to Love and Rockets and The Tick, and receiving a list of new Cuban writers from a college student—a list that started with Cuba’s national hero, José Martí. (The airport is named after him, and white marble busts of him are almost as common as billboards featuring Che Guevara.) It’s easy to take access to books, information, and ideas for granted in America. The Cubans we met had to work for that access—with the black market, work-arounds, pirating, and file sharing—and it gave us new respect for the power of literature.
On our last day, we attended the Feria Internacional del Libro de La Habana (Havana International Book Fair), held in La Cabaña, one of the largest forts in the Americas. Inside the fort were hundreds of publishers from around the world, but mostly the Americas, selling book-related items in warrens that once held munitions and prisoners. The fair attracts 300,000 people. We picked up a few Cuban novels and books of poetry. To see a book festival with Junot Díaz translations in one corner and love letters to Fidel Castro in the other was overwhelming, a vivid picture of Cuba’s curiosity.
Two weeks in Havana is hardly enough time but talking to booksellers and buying books in Spanish by Cuban authors whose work is obscure in America, such as Jóse Lezama Lima and Ana Lidia Vega Serova, was a way to learn something new, and an opportunity to read about a vibrant culture we’ve been cut off from for too many years. Seeing how art worked, on its own terms, in a society structured so differently than our own, gave us an appreciation for its power. In Cuba, we were able to delve deeply into our book, to talk about its ideals. That experience was an honor, and something we won’t forget.
Elisabeth Donnelly and Stuart Sherman are coauthors of the Misshapes series (Polis).