Notes from Havana
Cuban author visits Chico State, highlights her country’s culture and U.S. relations at Chico State
“Nochemala” was never intended to be translated into English or read outside of Cuba.
Yet on Monday evening at Chico State’s Bell Memorial Union, María Elena Llana read the short story from her latest book, Domicilio Habanero/An Address in Havana, sharing Cuban culture and history with about 150 attendees. Llana was the keynote speaker at the annual Spanish Symposium of Literature and Hispanic Culture, hosted by Expresiones Literarias, Artísticas y Culturales de Chico (ELACC), where students shared their research on Hispanic writing and poetry through three panel discussions.
Llana grew up in Havana, Cuba. Although most of her books explore fantastical themes, some stories are based on real events, she told the audience. Sharing her past is a way of highlighting a culture during a time in which the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. is starting to normalize.
“Nochemala” describes a much different era in Cuba, when people were joining a revolution to overthrow President Fulgencio Batista and his allies in the 1950s. It depicts a husband, wife and son who face hardship and despair as the son, Manolito, joins the revolution and the husband, Manolo, holds a position of power within the Batista regime. The wife, who remains nameless, is dichotomized as she is divided between her husband and son.
The book was published by Cubanabooks Press, a nonprofit publishing house led by Sara Cooper, an international languages professor at Chico State. It was founded in May 2010 to showcase female writers from Cuba and share their stories. “It’s a project that’s very beautiful,” Llana said.
Hosting such events is crucial for the student body and the community as a whole, said Joanna Herrera-Van Sickle, an ELACC member and Cubanabooks Press intern.
“It’s really relevant to what’s happening right now in the political landscape and I think that’s also really interesting for students,” she said.
Navi Atwal, another member of ELACC, said she considered Llana’s reading important in understanding a part of history students might not be well-versed in.
“It makes Cuba not an abstract idea,” she said. “For me, it makes it more real—that this is actually going on. And not just from political outlets, but from an actual person who went through it all.”
Llana’s reading brought back distant memories of leaving Cuba for one audience member, Barbara Ely. The Paradise resident was born in Cuba, she said, and still recalls leaving her extended family behind around the age of 5 in 1958, before Fidel Castro took over the country. Her parents left everything behind—even her birth certificate. As Llana read aloud, it brought back the emotions of her family nucleus being torn apart amid the country’s turmoil.
“During the revolution, if you told on your neighbor or your family, you would get perks from that,” Ely said. “It just tore the family unit apart because it became a survival thing.”
Ely plans on going back to Cuba someday, but it’s not so straightforward. Even though relations between Cuba and the U.S. are open, it’s not easy for people born there to go back once they’ve left, she said.
Llana refers to a story from her book that it is partly autobiographical. She discusses what it feels like to go back to a country in a haunting economic crisis. Family and friends say to her, “You’re crazy; you came back?” Because no one understands that she wanted to stay. There are some who can’t leave for sentimental reasons, which the case for Llana.
“I have to live in Cuba,” she said. “It’s where I’m happy. I feel self-realized. Of course there are some challenges, but there are challenges everywhere in the world.”