Category Archives: books

books

Poetic Justice

This is the fifth of a six-part series of essays written on behalf of the Montclair Public Library Foundation. Read previous essays in the ‘Love Your Library’ series online at northjersey.com/montclair.

Poetic Justice

Alexis Romay

When you are actively
looking for poetic justice, you may find it in the oddest places. I was invited by the Montclair Public Library to submit an essay on the value of libraries during Banned Books Week, a project sponsored by the American Library Association that highlights censored books and the importance of free and open access to information. I’m originally from Cuba, that gorgeous island in the Caribbean in which, under the stewardship of the Castro brothers, banning books has lasted 56 years. And it is still going strong!

Libraries were of little to no use in my native land. Most of the authors and books I wanted to read were not in their catalogs. Or they were, but could get you in trouble for merely asking to borrow them. High on the verboten list: Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Cuba’s James Joyce. Cabrera Infante – in exile since 1965 until his death in 2005 – used to pride himself on the knowledge that in a country where its citizens had nothing to eat, readers were willing to trade up to three cans of condensed milk for one of his books. The magical combination of having those three precious cans and knowing a person with one of his books never materialized for me, which means that among the long list of things for which I do not forgive the Castros, I add this: not having read Cabrera Infante’s work in Cuba, a country he so loved and recreated so thoroughly. When I managed to escape, as an adult, in 1999, one of the first things I did with my newfound freedom was to seek out his books.

Writing about the importance of public libraries is, of course, writing about the importance of language, and the freedom to express ideas in society without fearing repercussions. Words have a definitive weight in my homeland. Graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado Machado just spent almost 10 months in prison without trial following accusations of “aggravated contempt.” Amnesty International considered him a prisoner of conscience. The reason for his arrest: painting the words “Fidel” and “Raul” on the backs of two pigs. He was going to release the animals as a performance in an art show in Havana. He was arrested before the performance took place.

In an overnight raid in 2003, the Cuban regime arrested a group of 75 independent librarians, journalists, and human rights activists. They were accused of crimes against national sovereignty. The charges against the librarians had to do with their willingness to make available to the public books that had been banned by the Castro machinery. Sentences for the independent librarians, the only conduit to banned books in the island, ranged from 6 to 28 years. At the time, the American Library Association showed no solidarity with their Cuban colleagues, opting to side with official, government-approved libraries. The institutional position of the Cuban libraries supported the governmental narrative that private citizens opening their houses to lend banned books were CIA spies.

Although it was a controversial decision amongst its membership, the ALA has not publicly changed its stance on the issue. If freedom of speech is a fundamental right in the United States, why should it no be so in Cuba? I take this opportunity to invite ALA to revisit its position on the independent Cuban librarians. In doing so, the American Library Association will continue to defend the importance of free and open access to information, and deliver some belated poetic justice.

Alexis Romay, the author of two novels and a book of sonnets, teaches at Newark Academy.

Tax-deductible donations to the Montclair Public Library Foundation’s annual fund drive, now underway, may be made to the Foundation at montclairplf.org or by mail to 50 South Fullerton Avenue, Montclair, N.J., 07042.

[This essay was published originally in the December 10th edition of the Montclair Times.]

World Book Night 2012: reaching out to light- and non-readers

20120424-204145.jpg

On the night of Monday, April 23, 2012, I participated in World Book Night 2012, an initiative with an ambitious goal: handing out 1 million books across the United States, in one night. I did it in Penn Station, and live-tweeted about it. Here’s a chronological account of the experience, which includes photos of the future readers. Having shared the joy of reading, and twenty books lighter, I invite you to keep an eye out for World Book Night 2013. If you love books (and if you are reading this, you probably do), you’ll be happy you joined the book-giving ranks.

WORLD BOOK NIGHT 2012 (#wbnamerica)

Your mission, should you choose to accept it: give away 20 books. Your target: light- and non-readers. #wbnamerica. http://t.co/jc1ITaRO

I’m giving out books at Penn Station, NYC. Here’s the first future reader! http://lockerz.com/s/203649579 #wbnamerica

Second book recipient of the night: the flower vendor. #wbnamerica http://pic.twitter.com/sBAn4hg0

Third book recipient of the night: woman with red coat. #wbnamerica http://pic.twitter.com/ovMtyQmw

Fourth book recipient of the night: looking for her train, she still found time to be part of #wbnamerica. http://pic.twitter.com/OOvYfq6D

Fifth book recipient of the night: even the dog will read this novel. #wbnamerica. http://pic.twitter.com/7k5uz2Qr

The sixth book recipient of the night was shy (no paparazzi); this is the seventh, making books hip. #wbnamerica. http://pic.twitter.com/MTJaj3Pm

The eight book recipient of the night was also shy, but we found a solution for the photo. #wbnamerica. http://pic.twitter.com/rrc6geR8

The ninth and tenth book recipients of the night already have two people for their future book club. #wbnamerica http://pic.twitter.com/nMwjgGSh

The 11th and 12th book recipients of the night could not wait to dive into the novel. #wbnamerica http://pic.twitter.com/duvwpQbx

The 13th book recipient of the night was wearing a uniform. Thus, the hand. #wbnamerica http://pic.twitter.com/geRzDCOO

The 14th book recipient of the night told me he had never owned a book. Until today, that is! #wbnamerica http://pic.twitter.com/0iMxoFym

The 15th book recipient of the night wanted no photos. But she’ll start reading tonight during her trip. #wbnamerica http://pic.twitter.com/HBl7vGkr

The 16th book recipient of the night: close up of a redhead. #wbnamerica. http://pic.twitter.com/t9dLozKZ

It took effort to convince my 17th book recipient for #wbnamerica. When she said “no photos,” I settled for this one. http://pic.twitter.com/pUpu3C4S

My 18th book recipient for #wbnamerica was wearing a uniform as well. Here’s the hand of a future reader. http://pic.twitter.com/N2ZEv49o

My 19th book recipient for #wbnamerica holds his gift with the bookmark that marks the date when he decided to read. http://pic.twitter.com/PPSttcVl

“I haven’t read since November. I left school to have my baby.” “Welcome back to reading!” She was the 20th. #wbnamerica http://pic.twitter.com/FWR6mqfy

Highlight of #wbnamerica: “Where am I going to put the book?” he asked. “In your head!” I said. He laughed… But didn’t take the book!

#wbnamerica’s goal was to reach light- and non-readers. When I was approached by readers, I told them: “You already have the gift. Enjoy it!”

MISSION ACCOMPLISHED

Judge this book by its cover

My book of poetry Los culpables [The Guilty] features on the cover artwork by Cuban visual artist José A. Vincench. Vincench lives in the island and, since 2005, has incorporated onto his work iconic images from the Cuban Black Spring of 2003, when 79 peaceful dissidents where arrested throughout the island and sentenced in kangaroo court trials to prison terms ranging between six and 28 years. Their images are among the many things that the Castro regime, for obvious reasons, would rather keep away from the public.

I invite you to visit the artist’s page and, while there, peruse a series entitled “Abstracto parece pero no es” [It seems abstract, but it isn’t], where you can find the faces of several Cuban political prisoners, as well as images of the human rights activists group Ladies in White during their pilgrimages through Havana’s Fifth Avenue, or in front of Santa Rita’s Church, the point of departure for most of their walks demanding the release of their unjustly incarcerated loved ones.

The artwork that I selected to illustrate this text (as well as the cover of my book) is entitled “The things I can tell you with Rachel Whiteread, what History hasn’t told you” (2007). I chose it not only because I found it visually appealing, or because it was made out of a collage of books; not even because the face it portrays is very similar to that of XIX Century Cuban writer and patriot José Martí, a feature that all my fellow countrymen have pointed out. The main reason it graces my book is that “The things I can tell you…” is a re-creation of the portrait of a specific human being, a Cuban political prisoner. It is the face of Dr. José Luis García Paneque, who was unfairly incarcerated during the Black Spring of 2003 and whose sentence, after seven years behind bars, was commuted by the Cuban regime to a forced exile to Spain.

Other than in the cover of my book, a canvas version of Vincench’s work is featured at the entrance of my home. It is the first thing people see once they cross the threshold. And, thus, here’s a likely first question: whose portrait is it? Not intending to be heavy-handed, that is a natural segway for the “repression in Cuba” topic, which means that at the end of the visit, the non Cubans walk away with a clear picture of the hellish conditions faced by anyone willing to think for him or herself while living in Cuba. Selecting that image for the cover was not fortuitous. The first cycle in the book carries the Kafkaesque title of “The Trial” and consists of “Spring with a broken corner,” a 23-sonnet suite named after the aforementioned and unfortunate Black Spring that inspired it. One of those poems, XVIII to be precise, earned me the friendship of Ernesto Ariel Suárez, after appearing in “Fe de erratas (link in Spanish)” [The Corrections], an article of mine published in May 2003 in the online edition of the much-maligned by the Cuban government and Madrid-based quarterly Encuentro de la cultura cubana [Encounter of Cuban Culture]. Some of the political prisoners from the Black Spring were charged with having published their writings in Encuentro…. Five years later, and perhaps to close a cycle, Los culpables received a laudatory review (link in Spanish) in that publication, signed by Jorge Salcedo. (A side note: alongside Suárez and Salcedo, among other human rights activists, I was a member of the organizing committee of the campaign #OZT: I accuse the Cuban government, which demanded the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in the island. Both, Salcedo and Suárez, went on to become dear friends of mine. And not only in Facebook. From here, once again, I salute them.)

And now you know: in this occasion we cannot apply the age-old axiom that states that appearances can be deceiving. Whether you buy the book or not, whether you read it or not, whether you decide to ignore it or you prefer to keep it by your night table, friend and foe, please be kind enough to judge Los culpables, The Guilty, also by its cover.

An unusual photo of a(n) (un)common Havana

My friend Santos Rodríguez visited Cuba recently. He walked the streets of Havana (the real city, not the one that appears in touristic pamphlets) with a good camera, a good eye and a happy-trigger attitude: ready to press the shutter whenever there was a scene begging him to grant it the immortality of the still shot. He took amazing (and heartbreaking) photos, which he was kind enough to share with me and I will publish here, giving him his due credit, to illustrate some of my musings.

After this preamble, let’s get to the photo that inspired this note. Santos was wandering around Centro Habana (I’d like to think he was nearby the corner of Belascoaín and Neptuno, my former address, the two streets that name my blog in Spanish), when he witnessed an unbelievably unusual setting for a country kidnapped by an ideology that brags about the high literacy rate of its population and, still, the only things it produces by the truckload are ruins and exiles. On an unspecified corner on his way to nowhere in particular, abandoned in a trash container, he saw loads of books. This shocked him. But the main course was yet to come. As he approached the container to zoom in, one book caught his eye. He was surprised that nobody had bothered to cover that book by placing it under one of the many volumes that surrounded it. “Alexis, I swear I didn’t touch anything; I just took the photo,” he told me. And we would have to believe him. It is hard to imagine a Spaniard rummaging through Cuban garbage.

Poetic justice does exists. Thanks to her, the generations of Cubans who grew up forced to scream everyday at school “Pioneers for communism: We will be like Che!” can see here the final destination of the Writings and Speeches of the blood-thirsty argentine:

20110603-091331.jpg

(Photo: Santos Rodríguez).

Tyranny for Dummies

Coming soon to a bookstore near you!

My next book: Cuba for Dummies!

In Other Words: A Conversation About Translation

Dear friends,

I’d like to invite you to a lively conversation that I’ll be part of, alongside poets Jessica de Koninck, Mark Statman and John J. Trause, at Watchung Booksellers (54 Fairfield Street, Watchung Plaza, Montclair), on Friday, July 30th at 7:30 pm.

I am talking about the panel In Other Words: A Conversation About Translation, which is part of “Writing Matters,” an initiative of Watchung Booksellers that seeks to do something a little different from a typical author’s reading or signing: these events are characterized by give and take, informal chat, refreshments and fun.

If you’re interested in the challenge of rendering words from one language to another, please come by! The panel will be in English, with Polish subtitles.

See you on Friday!

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine