In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd
By Ana Menndez
(Grove Press: New York)
The Pearl of the Antilles
By Andrea O'Reilly Herrera
(Bilingual Press: Tempe, Arizona)
$26/hardcover or $16/paperback)
Editor's note: This is the last in a series of three articles on contemporary American women authors who will be speaking at UCCS in upcoming weeks.
Cuba's dichotomy of politics and pleasure fascinates us.
On one hand Cuba is Fidel Castro and the communist country where conditions are so poor that deciding whether or not to return Elian Gonzales there -- to his father -- was, for better or worse, an international incident ultimately involving armed federal agents.
On the other hand Cuba remains, for many, one of the great destinations. The largest island in the Greater Antilles conjures visions of white sand beaches, sprawling sugar cane fields, and Havana's nightlife. A new generation has been captivated by the musical strains of Ry Cooder and Ibrahim Ferrer or the joy of a good Cohiba.
Still another view of Cuba comes in two recent works of fiction written by women of Cuban decent: In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd, a slim collection of 11 short stories by Ana Menndez, and The Pearl of the Antilles, a novel by Andrea O'Reilly Herrera, an associate professor of English and director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS.
Both Menndez and Herrera show us a literature of exile and immigration that explores the immense sadness and longing for a free Cuba through the eyes of Cuban migrs in Miami's Little Havana and elsewhere. The literature, however, is one step removed from that of a Boris Pasternak or an Ivan Klma because both Menndez and Herrera were born in the United States.
Menndez's book is wonderful and was recognized last year by The New York Times Book Review as a "notable book." Her imagery is evocative and poetic. The title story communicates perfectly the pain of exile through four friends playing dominoes in Little Havana under the ignorant, relentless eyes of gawking tourists. Many of the other stories address this theme.
"The story of exile and immigration is such an eternal story, especially in the 20th century," Menndez said in a recent telephone interview from her Hoboken, New Jersey residence. "There are very few people who live where their grandparents ... or great-grandparents were born."
Two or three of the stories seem clumsy, "Miami Relatives," among them, which Menndez describes as "draw[ing] very heavily on the Cuban tradition of storytelling ... There's a lot of ... inside cheekiness in there that a lot of people can take or leave."
The Pearl of the Antilles is a sort of epic novel that traces four generations of a family from their arrival in Cuba to the exile of some of their family members in the United States. Most of the novel takes place in pre-revolutionary Cuba and gives a solid glimpse of life among the wealthy, landholding gentry, who were later targeted for obliteration in Castro's pursuit of a classless society.
Historical references are subtle and presented peripherally. Instead of landing in the Bay of Pigs, for example, we learn of the propriety and manners of the Old Country through generational comparisons and through the contrast between life in Havana and life in Cienfuegos, a southern Cuban city.
The story is told from a woman's point of view and communicates well a certain sensibility, especially in the treatment of the complexity and intensity of one character's first menstruation and in the portrayal of Tata, a wise, earthly woman servant. The anxieties and traditions of Roman Catholicism are also well recorded.
The book was published by The Bilingual Press, an academic press partially funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and administered by the Hispanic Research Center at Arizona State University.
This book might have benefited from a stern editor. At times the reading was laborious, and an excessive use of flashback was rather distracting.
"I am trying to represent a lost world," Herrera said, "but a very complicated lost world."
In the end, we are left with a strong sense of why Cuba is the pearl of the Antilles.
-- Andrew Gorgey