In the words of Cubanas

Chico State professor starts small press devoted to female Cuban authors

Cubanabooks founder Sara Cooper.

Cubanabooks founder Sara Cooper.

Photo by Christine G.K. LaPado

Book release:
A Cubanabooks release party for Nancy Alonso’s Disconnect/ Desencuentro, Thursday, March 15, 3-7 p.m., at Chico State’s Cross-Cultural Leadership Center.

Chico State Spanish professor Sara Cooper is an unabashed Cubanophile—a lover of all things Cuban. Or, as she prefers to put it in her impeccable Spanish accent: a cubanófila.

It’s no surprise then that Cooper, in May 2010, founded Cubanabooks, a small independent press aimed specifically at bringing the writings of female Cuban authors to a larger audience. As the Cubanabooks website puts it, “Publishing select literary gems in English or in bilingual English/Spanish volumes, Cubanabooks aims to correct the current U.S. unavailability of excellent literature from Cubans living in Cuba.”

So far, Cubanabooks has published Havana Is a Really Big City and Other Stories, a collection of short stories by widely known Cuban author Mirta Yáñez (translated into English by Cooper), and has just released Nancy Alonso’s bilingual Disconnect/ Desencuentro, which will be the focus of a book-release party on Mar. 15 at Chico State’s Cross-Cultural Leadership Center.

“I’ve always been a leftist,” said Cooper, explaining her love of Cuba (which she has visited a number of times) and Cuban writers, “but I didn’t know a lot about the Cuban Revolution.” That is, not until she moved from Texas—where she was “ABD” (all but dissertated) at the University of Texas at Austin—to California “for love” in 1995.

“Love didn’t last,” as Cooper put it, but after getting involved in Oakland’s lesbian community, Cooper had the good fortune to meet Dutch-American filmmaker/ activist Sonja de Vries, who had just completed the documentary film Gay Cuba. The film was made, as Cooper pointed out, “to document the shift in the official stance [of the Cuban government] toward homosexuality.”

“[The film] intrigued me, and started me reading a lot more about literature and culture in Cuba,” said Cooper, who also teaches Latin American literature and multicultural/gender courses in Chico State’s English Department. “Through that, I realized that gender roles and attitudes toward sexuality had developed completely differently in Cuba in contrast to the rest of Latin America,” as a direct result of the Cuban Revolution.

“In 1959, [Cuban] women found themselves with a new role, a new set of expectations,” said Cooper. One of the tenets of the revolution, she noted, was that “all humans are equal, and should be treated equally regardless of gender or race—no class divisions. … All of a sudden the [male-dominated] Catholic- and European-imposed role of ‘the angel at the hearth’ was blown out of the water.”

Add to that the structure of women’s roles that had been integrated into Cuban society from African cultures—“the slave trade resulted in women and men contributing equally [as workers] in the fields”—and Cuba became ripe for the creation of the modern Cuban woman: “Strength and subversiveness was built in from the very beginning.”

“Castro and Che Guevara, from the beginning, started stirring up participation by women,” Cooper said, and while there was “a lot of documented participation” in guerrilla warfare on the part of women, women still found themselves expected to do all the cooking and cleaning when they got home after they were done “toting rifles … and bombing federal soldiers.” Even today, “Cuban women know they are supposed to be the equal of men, yet they are still struggling with the same glass ceiling and the same double standard that women are facing in the United States—and they’re pissed!”

Next on the release schedule for Cubanabooks is another collection of short stories, Aida Bahr’s Ophelias/Ofelias; two poetry collections, one by Georgina Herrera and another by black feminist author Nancy Morejón; as well as another work by Yáñez, a novel called The Bleeding Wound.

“I consider her a close friend,” Cooper offered admiringly of Yáñez. “She’s got such a mouth on her. She’s so funny. She’s the quintessential outspoken Cuban woman.”