Online newspaper The Scotsman has published an article recommending Mike Gonzalez's new book "A literary guide for travellers, a journey through Cuba with artists and writers" as the standout on their must-read wish-list. Read on and find out why!
A literary guide for travellers, breaking Cuba's cliches
Cuba doesn't struggle with identity. If you asked for five separate images of Cuba from five different people, whether they'd visited the Caribbean island or not, you could more or less bet on them listing 1950s American cars, cigars, mojitos, Che Guevara, and The Buena Vista Social Club.
This is all fine, but does it describe the real Cuba? In a country so full of fascinating history and profound nuances, is it appropriate to list five stereotypes to define a nation's identity?
Cue Mike Gonzalez's new book "A literary guide for travellers, a journey through Cuba with artists and writers", listed in an article by The Scotsman as a "must-read" for anyone with a love for travel.
"There are many different faces of Cuba, captured often in images. Old Havana, the decaying colonial city, once the meeting point of Europe and the Americas, is now a UN Heritage site. It has been partly restored in recent years, but much of the city still suffers from decades of neglect."
It's not your typical Cuban guide book by any means but shines a completely new angle on this grand old island.
Will the real Cuba please stand up?
The book delves into Cuba's past chronologically, starting with Columbus's landing in 1492 and when the Spanish met the indigenous Arawaks. As you can imagine, despite the fact the native peoples were "gentle and welcoming", white European settlers with gold in their sights usually make any story more sinister.
"The Indians resisted the forced labour demanded by the Spanish, and rebelled under their leader Hatuey. He was burned at the stake, but his name is commemorated in the local beer."
As The Scotsman articles tell us, Gonzalez's book addresses the difficult themes of the tobacco trade and the sugar trade, the latter involving the transportation of almost a million slaves from Africa.
"Sugar is tough and grows mainly in the east of the island, under intense tropical heat, cut down by slaves wielding their machetes under a foreman's whip. By the 19th century Cuba was the world's leading producer of sugar. But the fear of the colonists that the 1799 Haitian insurrection might be repeated in Cuba produced harsh repression of any black resistance. Spain held on to its last American colony until 1898, crushing all resistance until the mainly black armies of independence finally won."
An island of poetry
Although many countries in the "New World" were colonised with a cross in one hand and a sword in the other, it isn't just the blood of this generation's forefathers that stains the soil. There's poetry in the roots too.
As Mike Gonzalez's book describes, Jose Marti, the young revolutionary poet and author of the verses that are used with the famous "Guantanamera" led the war of independence from Spain, but tragically did not survive to see its outcome. He was killed in one of the first battles of that war but remains the symbol of Cuban nationhood and one of their best-known poets, thinkers and writers.
There are also countless pieces of oratory from Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, the men who stood in the face of the United States, and seemingly the whole Western world, just to follow the ideology they had for their country.
Then, there are the stirring words of the historically repressed. The descendants of the slaves make up the poorest and most marginalised part of the Cuban population. Always denied a voice, they spoke through their music and their resistance.
The hope was that the 1959 revolution under Castro and Guevara would address the racism that still prevailed. Cuba's leading black poet, Nicolas Guillen, expressed his optimism about the revolution in his famous poem "Tengo" (I have).
A stirringly profound poem, it translates as:
"I who had nothing just yesterday, today have everything, and I look at myself again and again, asking myself 'how could this have come to pass?'"
Discovering Cuba, the pearl of the Caribbean
Gonzalez leaves no stone unturned, and explains the lead up to the revolution in acute detail, throughout the glory years of the 1920s, and the extravagance of the 30s and 50s when mafia bosses like Meyer Lansky ran the show, and American millionaires like the powerful Dupont family, built mansions, hotels, casinos, and brothels.
Today, however, it's the new literary and artistic voices that have made it possible to see Cuba in this new light, by showing the island through its own eyes.
We all know the cliches of Cuba, the marketing campaigns, and the travel brochure blurb. But they don't scratch the surface of what lies beneath. The real Cuba lies simmering and sizzling with history, literature, tragedy, triumph, music, art, and politics, coming through to the other side still with a smile on its face.
The pearl of the Caribbean remains, in the words of her most famous 19th-century poet Jose Maria Heredia, "full of living light".