Inside the skin: “My country is a culture to which I belong in fullness”

Writer, editor, cultural manager, communicator and blogger. This Indefatigable and quixotic man was born in Bayamo, and has a degree in Literature at Oriente University and was part of the founder team of the Festival and the Casa del Caribe in Santiago de Cuba. Based in the Dominican Republic since 1998 and since 2013 he lives in Miami; he has published fifteen books in various genres such as literary criticism, fiction, children’s literature, essay … and it seems he has another fifteen in mind.

The list of prizes he has won includes the Memoria Award (UNESCO Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean, 1997); Juan Rulfo Ibero-American Short Story Award (Radio France International, 2012), where he was a finalist; and national awards on essays (2008) and short story (2013), on Dominican soil.

In his spiritual cosmos, against the grain of set phrases or slogans, he has opted for ” loving consistency of family, friendship, tolerance and solidarity”. This conversation must have taken place long ago, because Jose M. Fernández Pequeño is today one of the key figures of Cuban literature. I believe it’s never too late , if there is time for dialogue.

For a writer who has lived more than four decades in Cuba, fifteen years in the Dominican Republic and now resides in the US, how do you translate into your inner life and literary output such an emphatic statement as that of “I am immune to nostalgia “? Is it possible to go forward without those marks, without revisiting what we left?

First of all, I do not feel that I’ve lost anything. And second, nostalgia is not a way to revisit the past, but to live in the past, which in my opinion is emasculating. I use my life experience to exist in this second that right now is the present, not to mourn what it was. And what is behind (the time it happened) is not a loss; it is a gain that will die with me. Migration has taught me to distrust such lofty symbols in appearance as nation and homeland, which until now have almost always served to chain ourselves to the most ruthless interests. My homeland is a culture to which I fully belong, allowing me to understand and understand me, that helps me be who I am. Cuba (and now the Dominican Republic) is not distance, is where I am.

I got delighted with a fragment of A.M. which earned him the first prize in the Iberoamerican Short Story Contest organized by Casa de Teatro in Santo Domingo, 2001, which tells about a Cuban selling booklets in the Dominican public transport. How did you walk that path of differences of language, customs and culture between Cuba and the Dominican Republic? Where to find that “Caribbean being“ you talk so much in that work?

It was a titanic struggle with what I have called ” the language of bewilderment”. The concern of being questioned by codes that put me against other ways of seeing the world, revealing other ways of living and also questioned some of my strongest perceptions of reality. Between the time I stopped intrigued facing a street sign that said “Se cortan chazo” and that other which surprised me by writing in Dominican, there is a sea of speechlessness and conflicts, but also an explosion of seedlings, the pleasure to see that being Cuban was a noble key to approach Dominican way of life through the most reliable route, that of differences. I like to think the tales of El Arma Secreta are modest testimonies of how the mixture revitalizes Caribbean identity, a nod to a joyful and creative frenzy of mulato people.

El Arma Seccreta received the National Short Story Prize “José Ramón López” 2013 in the Dominican Republic. What aspects would you emphasize in this volume? What stories would you read to illustrate them?

I would emphasize the intimacies that are sewn to the authorial experience and probably very little interest to the reader. First, it is the result of a sensitive and unconscious research for making me a balance within this magnificent fabric that the Dominican culture is. Second, this research led me (also unconsciously) to a revealing discovery: the treasures that sometimes we go out to conquer far away are usually waiting for us in our immediate environment. And third, this tasty interplay that combines various forms of speech, an Aquelarre contest where suddenly everything became impossible for me to tell what was Cuban or Dominican; pure mess and audacity, anyway. What stories from the book would I read to prove it? Anyone, but if I were forced to pick one, it would be El Arte de roncar (The Art of snoring).

How much can say today to the Caribbean culture a figure like Max Henríquez Ureña and the intellectual imprint of a family like that? What is the genesis, like the breath of the assay En el espiritu de las islas: los tiempos posibles by Max Henríquez Ureña?

The Henríquez Ureña are a foundational intellectual milestone in the history of the Caribbean. T oday’s literature of the region would not be the same without the work they bequeathed and they also marked an example of seriousness in research, dedication to society through culture and foolproof intellectual ethics.

I began research on Max in Santiago de Cuba, in 1983 and finished it (if those things ever end) in Santo Domingo, 2003. Twenty years tracking the imprint and work of this Dominican who was the sharpest intellectual manager in the history of Santiago de Cuba until the arrival of the eighties and that motley group in which Joel James was the outstanding ideologue. When Taurus printed its first edition in 2003, it returned me the copyright on the book, I made arrangements for its publication in Cuba, undoubtedly its most natural space, but the results of that effort are best left to go in a soft, chaste and suspension points …

Some claim that the ivory towers have been demolished and that the world has become a global village where everything is within reach of a click. What experiences have left you your blog Palabras del que no esta and how is the relation between the blogger and the books writer?

The information and potential partners are at just a click away, the rest (i.e., how to use that power to generate intellectual value) must be built with sagacity and obstinacy. Globality gets empty without the local as balance and root element. If the blog has allowed me to get in touch with thirty thousand readers living either in Spain than in the United States, Uruguay or China, also allows me to recreate people, events or works that have been instrumental in my development as a writer; i.e. belonging to my local environment. And being thus, the blogger and the writer of books are the same wakefulness.

For example, between 1997 and early 2013 almost everything that I wrote as a storyteller were long stories. Many of the stories I’ve written in the last two years seek for brevity and I’m sure the communication format of the blog has influenced that fact, at least as much as the exchanges across social networks with authors such as Maurice Sparks (from Miami) or Ernesto Perez Chang (from Havana, when he manages accessing Internet), specialists both in the short story.

There is much emphasis on the communicative possibilities of current technologies and very little about the fact that these, as languages, open up new perspectives for thinking about life while transforming our mental mechanisms, the mysterious trails of our synaptic connections. The constraints on accessing the internet suffered by most of the population in Cuba, not only hinder free information management to those people, it also deprives them of a key formative element in understanding contemporary world. Can you imagine the disadvantage that might mean for a person of our environment not to have known the radio, telephone and cinema when the twentieth century progressed towards its first third? Well that’s the same, but worse.

What are the demons that assail or caress the writer now? Which ones can we find in future pages?

The usual ones, those who appear when trying to understand human beings with the help of literature, or glimpsing at least a tip of the truth calling lies. You won´t find no other demons moving between the stories in the book “Memorias del equilibrio”, a return to Cuban affairs that always interested me to tell and, on certain pages, to endearing voices, like José Soler Puig or Virgilio Piñera. Fatiguing other ways, these demons also await for you in the tales of Sutiles, a book that I finished just days ago and that deals with everyday realism and speeches where the temporal and spatial planes interpenetrate and fertilize each other, nothing unusual in the experience of those who tend to pace the gossip avalanche of social networks.

What lies into your eyes from the windows of your home in Miami? What lies into your eyes when you hear the word Cuba?

From the windows of my house in Miami you can see now the slow peace of Weschester, but also Cuban identity enriched by contact with the many cultures that the city shares. As for the word Cuba, when I hear it I see my family, friends, writers and artists with whom I have shared (and in some cases still share) dreams, memories, lyrics and disagreements, no matter their literary or political orientation, their believe or disbelieve …. And right there I get stronger with reminiscence for nostalgia not to believe things that are not, and I return to literature.

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