Beyond Havana, beyond the nation? Peripheral identities and literary culture in Cuba (2014-2017)

The Cuban Revolution’s survival (over five decades now), defying expectations, can partly be explained by its constant adaptation to a changing world. Whilst the Soviet Union’s collapse presented enormous challenges, for leadership and people alike, the resulting process of rapid economic reform and recovery was underpinned by a continued commitment to a notion of national identity and, in the 2000s, through a renewed emphasis on nation-building through education and culture, the Battle of Ideas (2000-2006) being designed to re-integrate and re-energise the population, especially youth. In our previous (Leverhulme trust-funded) study, we explored the evolution of literary culture (the mass socialisation of literature) and its centrality to Cuba’s post-1959 nation-building process, as seen through the state’s prioritisation of the annual Book Festival, attended by half the Cuban population and selling up to 5 million books across Cuba. We found that, far from the monolithic centrally-imposed vision of literary participation that many expect of socialist or communist systems, the process of institutionalising literature in Cuba – creating a national infrastructure for publishing, writing, and interaction with the text – had provided many spaces and resources for a diverse range of literary practices to emerge.

Through over 100 interviews (with writers, readers, publishers and ‘cultural promoters’), we addressed the complexity of literary culture over more than fifty years. However, by the end, we realised that we had fallen into the common trap of equating Havana with the nation; whilst many key resources are certainly concentrated in Havana, and there is significant prestige attached to the Havana literary environment, the focus on Havana in the study of Cuba tends to assume that the nation is now in a clearly post- or trans-national phase, making national identity decreasingly relevant for individual Cubans. Therefore, this new three-year project aims to shed new light on the interaction of literary culture and national identity in the largely rural eastern province of Granma; isolated from much of the national infrastructure by the Sierra Maestra mountains, and with limited tourist activity. Granma does, however, enjoy a historical and symbolic prestige from its association with the Cuban national anthem (El himno de Bayamo), the first rebellion for independence in 1868, and the guerrilla rebellion from 1956, thus holding an important role as the birthplace of revolution. Culturally, it has some engagement with the national literary infrastructure, including the Book Festival, but also has its own literary traditions and folk and popular cultural practices. Indeed, its isolation brings it ring-fenced state funding, under the Plan Turquino, for culture and education.

1 Street bookstall in Havana jpg

We will therefore use our previous methodology for a longitudinal study, based on interviews, focus groups, participant observation and archival work, to enable us to understand how the lived experience of literary culture in the periphery constructs local, regional, national and (possibly) transnational levels of identity, and how all of these inflect the notion of national identity. Because we aim to question some of the common assumptions and critical approaches of Latin American Cultural Studies (about the irrelevance of ‘the nation’, the all-pervasive influence of globalisation, the dominance of (globalised) urban popular cultures), our approach will certainly attract attention, especially with many US-based Cubanists, most influential in positing a Cuban transnational identity. We looked to the Leverhulme Trust for funding precisely because the Trust actively promotes innovative, adventurous, inter-disciplinary research that challenges the orthodoxy and takes risks.

Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami and Professor Antoni Kapcia
University of Manchester