How pleased was I, to flip the calendar to March and see Havana. Later last year, writing a review of Teresa Dovalpage’s new mystery novel for The Chicago Review of Books, I realized just how little I knew about Cuba. And #HereandElsewhere started with my wanting to look for small – even incidental – ways to widen my world, to counter the inclination to withdraw when the news seems menacing, so here was the perfect excuse to widen it further.
Coincidentally, I started the new year by reading a Cuban-American author: Margarita Engle. That’s her All the Way to Havana (2017) in the photographs. Mike Curato’s bold and richly coloured illustrations urged me to request this title from the library. (Not familiar with the history of the 1950s American cars in Cuban culture, but curious? This CNN article not only outlines the history, but illuminates the Cubans’ business savvy in recognizing the potential for new income sources in changing times.)
“Some of this island’s old cars purr like kittens, but ours is so tired that she just chatters like a busy chicken…” Engle writes. Normally, I would be much more interested in a storybook about a chicken, but these illustrations pull me into the story, even if it is about cars (the endpapers have sketches of the most popular models which are pictured in full-colour in the book).
Also, the fact that the illustrator was careful to draw the cars accurately (which creates the impression that he has made mistakes, because the Cubans have to work with older parts, so they might replace a model’s steering wheel with one from another model) made me wish that I could recognize those details myself.
One of my favourite spreads is of the road along the seawall, the red and lime and aquamarine vehicles being driven all in contrast with the worn and tired buildings up ahead. It looks like so many of the shots in the two videos I also watched recently: Discovering Havana (2005) and Free Havana (2012).
At first, Discovering Havana: In the Footsteps of Hemingway (2005) was much more about Havana than Hemingway. And because I’m not a massive Hemingway fan and because the film eventually does get around to sharing the writer’s haunts, it was satisfying in the end. The major tourist destinations are pictured and there are longer segments on sites like the Partagas Cigar Factory (still in production and all hand-made), the Museum of the Revolution, and the Grand Theatre.
On the Hemingway side of things, the segments on Finca Vigia and Ambos Mundos are detailed. You also get to see inside his study and an assortment of the collectible items on display there (although apparently he never wrote in this room, but preferred to be surrounded by everyday noises and activities).
But perhaps most importantly, you can learn to make a daquiri and a mojito exactly like Hemingway preferred his. (Hopefully I can still remember this when the weather warms.)
Free Havana: Six LGBT Cubans Speak Frankly about Their Lives is the first documentary of its kind to have been featured at Havana’s International Festival of New Latin Cinema. Remarkable given the country’s systemic persecution of LGBT(Q) citizens, the film also captures the movement towards acceptance in text that plays out against a backdrop of still photos and video footage of the city. This combination of personal anecdotes and storytelling with historical information allows viewers to situate the stories in context, even if you know little-to-nothing about the policies.
Two of the men chose to keep their identity private (they are pictured in shadow, or from an angle that masks their features) because the climate remains hostile in some respects. And perhaps this also explains why there was only one woman interviewed in the group. Some interviewees were old enough to be able to recount tales of the re-education camps (literally concentration camps, before the Nazi party equated concentration camps with death camps) that they’d been sent to when they were young. Overall, however, the filmmakers were clearly striving to present a balance of sombre and inspiring stories.
My desk calendar is by a Toronto artist (each month with a quotation from the work of an author associated with this city and printed on 100% recycled paper with VOC-free inks). It’s the perfect fit for my desire to widen my world, on and off the page.
Where have you been visiting on the page recently?