And Then There Was a Revolution
An Interview with Nancy Morejón
by Kathleen Weaver
Nancy Morejón is a renowned Cuban poet as well as a critic, translator and cultural worker. She is the author of many volumes of poetry, including translations into English such as Looking Within/Mirar adentro (Selected poems 1954-2000) edited by Juanamaría Cordones-Cook. A recently published selection is Homing Instincts, translated by Pamela Carmell, Cubana Books, 2014. Where the Island Sleeps Like a Wing, Selected Poetry by Nancy Morejón, Black Scholar Press, appeared in 1985, translated by Kathleen Weaver. Morejón's poetry has received many awards, including the Cuban National Literature Prize in 2001, the Rafael Alberti Award (2007), and the Latin American Studies Association Award (2012). In 2013, she received the Order of Arts and Letters of the French Republic. Presently she works in the Caribbean Studies Center at Casa de las Américas, Havana, and is Director of the Cuban Academy of Language. In 2008, she was elected president of the Writers section of Cuba's Unión of Writers and Artists (UNEAC), a position she held until 2014. This interview took place on September 3, 2014, in Berkeley, California.
Kathleen Weaver: I'd like to start with the following remarks about your family background that emerged from a conversation we had in Havana in 1983—
Nancy Morejón: My father, Felipe Morejón, was born in the countryside and grew up in Camagüey. When he was seven or eight his mother died, and at twelve he ran away to Havana where he sold newspapers on the streets. At seventeen he went to sea. His life as a sailor took him to many places—Great Britain, Latin America, the United States. He knew New Orleans and a few other U.S. cities and experienced racism firsthand. When he traveled to the States, the Martin Luther King movement was just beginning. He had seen the passivity and abnegation and now felt very proud of the nascent social struggle led by black Americans. His own generation just sat in church. He told me—this is your time. He discussed these things with me, the importance of social struggle.
After he married, he went to work on the docks. He was a member of the most powerful trade union—of sailors, dockworkers and stevedores. From his position on the docks he helped Fidel and the 26th of July Movement. My parents were social fighters, part of the trade union movement. Before she was married, my mother, Angélica Hernández, worked in a factory. Later she worked at home, doing embroidery and delicate work in lace. She was a member of the seamstresses' union. In our household there was always the sense of being part of the working class and sharing in its tradition.
KW: Your mother's family background?
NM: She was part of a large family. They were very drawn to music and the arts. Some of her relatives went to New York to play Cuban music, but they always came back. An aunt on my father's side became an American citizen. She traveled to Chicago, Harlem and New Orleans. She wanted me to go to school in the States, but my father said no—he didn't think I would be content to live in a country where racism existed so outrageously. Nor could he send his daughter to such a place.
KW: Continuing in the present, I would like to know more about your family and their concerns.
NM: My mother in her very first youth worked in a factory with her sister Clara. They worked with tobacco. They had to prepare the leaves, making cigars. She also worked as a seamstress. My father and mother married around 1943. He was involved with the Second World War as a sailor. Shortly after I was born (on August 7, 1944), he left the sea and settled down in Havana to work on the docks as a stevedore. All that work, I remember that. At the time of Batista's dictatorship they were both very active.
KW: Was there repression of trade unions?
NM: Yes, very much. It was somewhat dangerous. It was done in a very secret way, selling journals, other publications—you know, denouncing the dictatorship and putting forward an awareness to others that being a worker was something worthy.
KW: Did they have a Marxist tendency?
NM: Yes, both of them. Very against the dictatorship. At one point I was taken by a cousin to sell the journal. Hoy was the name of the journal. It was for militants, for workers. I didn't know what I was selling. I remember that around 1958 we had a great friendship with a barber who lived near our house. This barber had a relationship with the government, and he came once to warn us that we should burn all of the journals and papers; there was going to be a search. We were living in a neighborhood where there were terrible sicarios, you know, hired killers.
KW: You are talking about where you grew up, at 52 Peñalver in old Havana?
NM: Yes but it's 51 Peñalver, The poem I wrote titled "52 Peñalver" refers to what I saw across the street from #51.
KW: Did the search happen?
NM: Yes, but there was nothing there. I will never forget that.
KW: Did your parents talk to you about what was going on in the country?
NM: Yes, yes, yes. By 1958 the country was in a civil war absolutely. My father used to sell bonds, you know, for the 26th of July Movement. Fidel Castro attracted many, many working-class people. My father did a lot. I will never forget December 31. The man fled, Batista fled, to the Dominican Republic. And my father went out with his gun; he was going to the headquarters in order to join the new forces. Fidel came into the city on January 8, 1959.
KW: And the atmosphere in your household?
NM: My parents were very happy of course. It was very open then. My father had been worried about my university, because I had very good grades, but he did not have the money to pay. I think it was 100 pesos to get into the university. I finally entered the University of Havana on February 14, 1962. This is not propaganda but a historical fact I will always appreciate. My father thought of me as becoming a professional, not a worker, and because of the revolution we could make it, at no cost, no expense.
KW: You mentioned that one of your aunts wanted you to study in the States.
NM: Yes, Ida, my father's sister. She left the country for the States on the day I was born. Before leaving she went to see me. She was able to see me although my mother could not. Because they had taken me away and put me in an incubator, since I only weighed two pounds-and-a-quarter and was very weak. My mother thought I was dead—"Is she alive?" she asked my aunt. "Yes, she's alive; I saw her," my aunt said. "Don't worry, you have a baby; she's very, very little, very thin." I was lacking many details of my body.
KW: Your mother was very devoted to you.
NM: Yes, always taking care of me, taking care of me because they saved me.
KW: You did not have brothers and sisters?
NM: No. You know in the African traditions they say I am an abiku, which means "after me nothing."
KW: (laughter) Oh, where does this end?
NM: (laughter) It began there! two pounds, you know. I know what resistance is! I survived.
KW: When you were being raised were you exposed to the traditional African religions that were practiced in Havana?
NM: No, because my parents were trade unionists…afterwards the neighborhood gave me the flavor. My father was atheist; my mother was very free. She used to bring flowers for the gods. She knew who Ochún was, who Yemaya was.
KW: At the University how did you decide to study French?
NM: Our bachillerato is a mixture of junior high and senior high, mostly senior. I didn't like sciences or mathematics. I preferred humanities and made up my mind to study literature, letters. To graduate I had to learn French. The first semester on my French exams I got forty-five out of a hundred. Second semester was even worse, thirty-three out of a hundred. I could not graduate, so I joined the literacy campaign.
KW: But it was necessary for you to graduate?
NM: Yes, so between the literacy campaign and everything I discovered a wonderful teacher, Zaira Rodriguez. Her class allowed me to graduate. It was my last chance to take the examination, and I got one hundreds. At the university I did a specialty in French, and I started to speak French. I was a volunteer guide and translator for French visitors who used to come. This is how I met Nicolás Guillén for the first time. His books were in my father's modest library, in Losada editions from Argentina. In 1961, I was already working as a guide. For example there were some international workers in transportation, and I was the guide, and there was a big lunch at Santa María beach. Someone in the delegation wanted to say hello to Nicolás Guillén because they were friends in Paris. Guillén had been in exile in Europe and Argentina. So I was able to find Guillén for them. But I was absolutely frustrated because I could not be a translator. His French was excellent; oh my goodness, I did not dare talk. At that time I started to collaborate with UNEAC [Union of Cuban Writers and Artists], which was created in August of 1961. So that's it, these are my beginnings.
KW: It is often said that Guillén was your mentor. Did it seem so?
NM: Let me tell you that being a black woman, being of working class origin, you know, Guillén was part of my tradition, my upbringing. He did not come from the outside. I was invited to write a text on all of this. I don't know if I have that text, which is about my experience at this time, including my two pupils, people I taught in the literacy campaign.
KW: This raises the question of memoir. Do you think of writing a memoir?
NM: Yes, it is what I should do. I have many things to say, but not to write in a chronological way. Anything I can remember, to just, just let go and write, then afterwards to make something.
KW: Your connection with Guillén was an important one. Could you say more about it?
NM: Yes, I was associated with UNEAC then, and we always said, "Hello, how are you?" He remembered me from the beach but nothing more. Roberto Fernández Retamar at that time asked me to write the rules for the youth organization, which was supposed to be a branch of UNEAC. I was very young then, seventeen years old, but always very active in cultural promotion. I was working at UNEAC.
KW: In terms of your sense of race, is it fair to say you had a background and a consciousness because of your parents?
NM: Yes, and Nicolás was a paradigm, an example, and my parents were also very active against racial discrimination, very important for us.
KW: You became involved with a small press at that time. It was very dynamic—ediciones El Puente, which after a number of years was suppressed by the Cuban authorities. This was an important episode in your young life, so please talk about that time.
NM: Let me tell you it was a very, very small press started around 1960, simultaneously with and an alternative to Lunes de la Revolución, which was the official journal. Padilla worked on Lunes, and Carlos Franqui and others. We were teenagers, eighteen, nineteen years old. When I published my first book I was seventeen. We wanted to be something else, an alternative possibility. But later there was a homophobic perspective, and José Mario Rodriguez, who created this press, was arrested and put in UMAP [A detention camp for gay men]. That was around 1968. There was in existence the national press; it was a wonderful press, which everyone recognized as such, but the alternative was not able to survive.
KW: Please say a bit more about ediciones El Puente, which published your first two books of poetry.
NM: There were several generations, and we were the youngest. There were also others, the playwright Jose Ramón Braney, Nicholas Door. One of the youngest was Miguel Barnet. There were different viewpoints.
KW: Who financed this small press?
NM: It was Jose Mario's money, sometimes with the help of Ana Maria Simo and others. I paid nothing for my two publications. They published Mutismo in 1962, and Amor, ciudad atribuida in 1964.
KW: The closing of the press by the authorities must have been disturbing for you, if not shocking.
NM: For all of us, yes, when he, Mario, was sent to prison. And Ana María had a controversy with Jésus Diaz. Nicolás Guillén spoke out against this. He said—you do not have the right to say this and that—and there was a great controversy.
KW: Following this episode, certain writers were evidently on shaky official ground. Your third book of poems was caught up in this atmosphere. You entered your manuscript in an official contest. But the judges decided not to award prizes in poetry and another category, but only gave "Mentions."
NM: Yes, I received a first mention for Richard trajo su flauta y otros argumentos [Richard brought his flute, and other arguments, 1967.] One of the judges was Lezama Lima. He said to me, "It was not me who did not want to give you the award; I was for the award; it was the younger jurors." I said to him, "…but you were there; it is the best award that you were there." The other jurors were Nicolás [Guillén], Yannos Ritsos, Regino Pedroso, Roque Dalton, Jaime Augusto Shelley. In the rules of the contest you had to be anonymous, to have a nickname. I took for my nickname a line from Stéphane Mallarmé, Une negresse par le demon secoué, which means "a black woman shaken by the devil." And I chose that because I knew he [Lezama] would like that. Padilla was in charge of a whole issue of La Gaceta de Cuba dedicated to Lezama, who was very important. He asked me to contribute an essay, my very first essay, in 1970. He was very happy with it, and he published it.
KW: This essay is in your collection, Fundación de la Imagen, 1988. As a young poet, were you attracted to José Lezama Lima's way of writing?
NM: Yes, we were. We were students at the time. Me and another poet—José Rodriguez Rivera—we invited Lezama to the University of Havana. We went to the National Library. We listened to him and also took him to the School of Letters. He said to us, "This is the first time I have been invited to the University, never before." He was not that established in those years. For us it was a wonderful time, and he explained to us his poetic system. But you know what? He was not able to get into the car we rented. It was very small, a Volkswagen, so we called a volunteer who brought a Buick.
KW: Lezama has been referred to by one of his interviewers as being, in Cuban letters, "the figure of obscurity par excellence." What did you make of his poetry?
NM: Metaphors, metaphors! No I didn't understand his poetic system, but we were reading a lot of poems then; we were familiar with surrealist poems and language.
KW: Lezama was respected by the revolutionary officialdom?
NM: Yes, early on he was elected as vice president of UNEAC. The trouble was only later, after the Padilla affair, around 1968, not before.
KW: What was your connection with Heberto Padilla?
NM: I knew him, of course, a wonderful poet. We started to be friends around January 1967. Casa de las Americas was celebrating a centennial for Rubén Darío. There was a symposium. He was invited, and I was invited. There was a sympathy, but mainly he was close to Belkis Cuza Malé, and she was my close friend. She wrote a blurb for my second book for El Puente.
KW: In terms of the Padilla affair, when he was arrested and left Cuba, did you feel threatened by that?
NM: After that it was a time in which I was not able to publish a book of my poems for twelve years. It was a consequence of the circle, because those poets praised my poems and they said, this lady, she is close to them.
KW: You have mentioned that one of the jobs of a writer is to read. What are you reading now?
NM: Oh many journals, the Internet, I'm reading June Jordan's essays. [Life as Activism: June Jordan's Writings from The Progressive, by June Jordan, edited by Stacy Russo]. I was pleased that Angela Davis wrote a preface for that book. I'm also reading [The First to Escape, poems, and Babouche Impromptu and Other Moroccan Sketches, both by Clara Hsu], put out by Jack Foley [and Poetry Hotel Press].
KW: Please say something about the Internet as a problem of access for Cubans.
NM: For example, it is very important to me that you can have an email address. You may not have an access to the Internet, but you have your mail. Many people don't understand how you can have an address with no Internet. But it works.
KW: You have access?
NM: Because I am a professional.
KW: Has the Internet changed your way of being in the world?
NM: Absolutely, yes, let me tell you, but I am not addicted.…the Internet is a whole job; the Internet is just to do that. If you write you have to be very cautious.
KW: Cuban literature matters to you of course, the island culture. Could you speak to that as part of your formation?
NM: Yes, I am part of it, and have written about it. My mother took Spanish and Cuban literature. My tool is Spanish. You need to work on your language to have an achievement as a writer. You have to read well. You have to write well. If you don't, you have completely failed.
KW: You grew up with this in your household?
NM: Yes. You have to cultivate yourself. Otherwise, how can you address a message to someone else?
KW: It seems as if you had a good start for a writer.
NM: Absolutely. I was privileged. There was culture, and [a sense of] the importance of culture, the importance of writing, the importance of knowledge. And then there was a revolution.
KW: I wanted to mention one of your poems, "Marina," which for me is your saddest poem, even despairing, an attitude that had to do with the Special Period following the fall of the Soviet Union. There's an image of an emaciated horse.
NM: Yes, at that time there was an uncertainty, a despair, because we didn't have markets. We were almost out of the world because the Berlin Wall fell down. The Special Period in Cuba is a period in which we did not have support. Politically our world disappeared. That's why I am always saying that Cuba was not a colony of the former Soviet Union, because if we had been a colony—
KW: To what extent is there recovery?
NM: There is recovery but our resources are limited. The main problem is the embargo. When I was in Paris I found out that there was a very big tax on a French bank that had trade with Cuba, as a punishment. So imagine if we had trade with the Turkish, the Turkish will be punished. It's very hard, very difficult for a small country, a Third World country.
KW: We heard that Cuban publishing was devastated, that there was a paper shortage.
NM: Yes, paper is very expensive. Now it is much better.
KW: During that period, if that particular poem is an indication, your spirits were low, even depressed. Is that so?
NM: Yes, of course, as someone who is taking a look at the horizon, at what is going to come. And we did have much hunger. And we did not have energies and supplies for anything. And that is the mood of the poet.
KW: Within the community of writers and artists, did people come together?
NM: Yes We did handle that, with the Diaspora, we overcame the Period. Now things are in another direction; things are more standard, more stable. But it was not only writers that came together, architects and everybody, because it was a very hard, hard time in terms of material life and of course spirituality. For instance, I started to draw because of the blackouts. My mother was very, very ill, and I had to take care of her, still on Peñalver, yes. My father died ten years before. The blackouts were very long, many hours of blackouts. When the electricity came back, and I had finished seeing to my mother with candles and everything, I started to try to write, but I could not write. I could not. Since I couldn't write I started drawing. It was what I could do. It was so painful. I knew my mother was dying. It was the last time with my mother.
KW: For you losing a parent, both parents, must have been traumatic.
NM: Tragic, because we were a very tight community, three people together against everything. They meant a lot to me, and the very first to go was my father. And my mother was alone. You can imagine those years.
KW: Your father was a major influence?
NM: He shaped me, yes. His experience with this country, [the U.S.] with segregation. He knew the South. They were trade unionists, you know, and once upon a time they thought of coming to the U.S., because they were harassed by the Batista government. I remember that we did have passports for coming to the U.S. But there was the triumph of the Revolution and Fidel. You did not have to flee. And my father was very involved, both of them [of the parents].
KW: The militant is only one of your attitudes in poetry, along with the elegiac and various other moods.
NM: Yes, you realize as you get older that you are very far from your childhood. The past is always there. My writing is always a support, a fresh air. If I feel bad, I write, and I heal. It is healthy for me. I don't see my writing as something which is going to give me money. I write never thinking about a market.
KW: It seems like you are less angry now in your poetry. We are not seeing a poem like "Amo a Mi Amo," ("I Love My Master"), in which an enslaved woman imagines murdering her master, who is her lover.
NM: It's hard to talk about this sort of issue, but I wouldn't say that tone is never going to come again. There is a continuity.
KW: I wanted to ask you if there is anything similar in Cuba to our MFA Programs in the U.S.?
NM: We have lots of workshops, but I think that you never teach someone to write. You can improve the writing, but if a person is going to become a writer that person has to do it on his own or her own. Sometimes if you attend a workshop directed by a great personality, your writing is going to be completely influenced, which is a danger in the sense that you lose spontaneity, you lose transparency, or authenticity. You may have a wonderful technique, but it is just an imitation of someone else.
KW: The workshops are held by the Writers' Union?
NM: No, there are many other local institutions that work on that, and there are writers that do that kind of job and writers that don't, like myself.
KW: Do the young writers generally want to participate?
NM: They do and there are many [of them].
KW: I have to ask you what your writing process is—how do you go about it? Do you revise over many drafts, for example?
NM: I do, a lot. I trust inspiration but I trust craft. I may have two or three lines, but a poem grows because of a technique that I have checked out; you need that, and you need reading. You have like a laboratory; you put your poem through that. That's it. Work, you have to work. Sometimes I don't make drafts. The poems just arrive. Other times I make five versions, others ten and more than ten. [Then] I run away from the poems I write. I don't like to read them again.
KW: Has the computer changed your way of working?
NM: Especially for essays. Not exactly for poems. But sometimes I write poems on the computer because these things come. I'm always quoting Hemingway. Hemingway used to say that inspiration comes when you are working. I am not waiting for it. But reading, even reading, is work, and it is your food.
KW: Are you reading in French as well as Spanish and English?
NM: I read a lot in French because I am on a jury, a contest created by Éduoart Glissant, in 1990, in Haiti. So you have to read, novels and so forth.
KW: You are a translator of poetry, especially Caribbean poets, Jacques Roumain, Éduoart Glissant, René Depestre, Aimé Césaire, and others. Could you say something about translation now in Cuba?
NM: We have had a section dedicated to translators in the Writers Union, which is an example of the devotion to translation, but in the history and the tradition of our country, translations belong to magazines, periodicals. I'm talking about Orígenes, or La Gaceta del Caribe, La Gaceta de UNEAC, CASA, or UNION, or whatever. There used to be a very important magazine done by the Institute of Cuban Books. It was called Opciones. They translated a lot, by many translators, not all Cuban. We need to go back to this tradition. I mean not only to publish Cuban translators' work, which is essential, but to share with other translators, the Spaniards, the Mexicans, the Argentineans, who are going to give us the flavor of the actual moment. The point is to have not only a good magazine but a magazine that is current, timely. An annual magazine, okay, a three months magazine, okay, but the point is to be out, to be published on time, very contemporary. For example we have been able to do some things on Chinese literature, but we need specialization because few know Chinese, the different Chinese languages. And the Middle East, there is a great presence. I will never forget that I made a quotation from Rumi in one of my poems, a citation from Julio Cortázar, whose centennial we are celebrating, and I want to remark that we have in our publishing house at UNEAC a collection called Projecto Sur, Southern Project, and they have published a beautiful book of poems by Mahmoud Darwish. In our country we need to know more about Middle Eastern poets, to be in touch.
KW: I was wondering about how the blockade might interfere with translators.
NM: If you are in the mainstream world, royalties are very important. Sometimes with poetry, poetry is so powerful, poets will not request royalties; it works. Even if we have been affected by the embargo, also we have felt that the embargo is a strange force, a reliable force for us in the sense that many friends, poets, other writers—they agree to be translated and to be published, and magazines are the best. We need that and to have more connections, to network on that.
KW: Did the Special Period damage these connections with other countries?
NM: Yes, but I think also it is the presence of war which is bad for interchanges, and there is also economic crisis. We have to resist that. So a little booklet made with onion paper, that helps break the blockade.
KW: Some time ago you went to Macedonia to receive a prize, The Golden Wreath. How did this happen?
NM: I don't know how this happened or how they knew my work. We have good relations with Spain, which publishes Latin American writers, maybe it was that, because Latin American writers are represented in their festival. This was in 2006. A selection of my poems, bilingual in Macedonian and English, was published at that time. I was with the Macedonian writers—we were speaking in French and in English—and they took me to a very high hill and asked me, "What do you think is up there?" I saw a little town. "That's Serbia." They showed me that and explained that they had been through terrible times. They said that war was evil and the furthest thing from a dialogue or exchange among cultures. They were very, very organized and determined to fight against war.…
This interview is dedicated to poet, editor, and teacher Robert Chrisman (1937-2013) who, as director of Black Scholar Press, first published Nancy Morejón's poetry in English.
Kathleen Weaver is a translator from Spanish and anthologist of international women poets. Her poems have appeared in magazines and journals including Chariton Review, Poetry Flash, Permafrost, and Isthmus. Her biography of the feminist revolutionary Magda Portal appeared in 2009, Peruvian Rebel, The World of Magda Portal, with a Selection of Her Poems, from Penn State University Press. Kathleen Weaver's recent, debut collection of poems is Too Much Happens.
— posted November 2016