Havana Does Not Believe in Tears

Prize-winning author Roberto Uria landed in hot water in Cuba. Granted refugee status in the U.S., he must now sink or swim.

Uria writes with a streetwise style that sounds nothing like the careful Castilian he speaks while discussing his work over lunch in a Bayside restaurant on a busy weekday afternoon. The conversational tone of his story brings validity to a character that the author says is a composite of people he often observed in Havana.

"I was influenced by the abundance of this type of person in Cuban society and especially in Havana," Uria recalls as he carefully approaches a steaming bowl of French onion soup, a dish he has never even seen before, much less eaten. "It was contradictory and interesting to me that such a macho culture produces the great number of gays that it does. The Cuban machismo is really more theatrical than it is real. Machismo is a great Cuban myth, and one that the government tries to promote. It's a very phallocentric culture. It's as if the phallus were the center of virility, of courage, of valor, of everything that creates this supposedly great macho. But he's not so macho and he's not so grand."

In reality, Uria explains, diverse sexual postures and practices have actually served as an anecdote to the rigid dogma of revolutionary Cuba. "In Cuba, sex in all of its manifestations ends up being a way to confront the regime, to reaffirm life, to look for the pleasure and the humor in things -- the things that the dictatorship has taken away," he notes. "You can define your personal identity through your sexual identity. You can't leave the country, you can't live as you like, you can't have the job that you want, but you can sleep with whoever you feel like sleeping with. With so much repression, so much misery, it's a way that you can feel better about yourself."

Although models for his narrator in "Leslie Caron" may have been common enough in everyday life, Uria found that they were not represented in contemporary literature published in Cuba. (The late writer Reinaldo Arenas and others had written previously about gay life in Cuba but their work was blatantly censored by the government.) "Until I wrote this story, homosexuals were forgotten in Cuban fiction," contends Uria, who, when asked if he is homosexual, retorts somewhat incredulously, "Are you a mammal?"

According to Cuban literary critic Salvador Redonet Cook, Uria's story "contemporized the theme of homosexuality. [It] reopened the subject." Writing about Uria and "Leslie Caron" in a 1993 issue of the magazine Revolucion y Cultura, Redonet states that, as a result of the story, "being gay now doesn't seem to be a taboo, in literature at least, and everyone wants to have a gay in their story. It's like an axiom, 'You too can have a gay in your book.'"

"®Por que Llora Leslie Caron?" which Uria wrote in 1986 when he was 27 years old, served as a catalyst for a wave of short stories with gay protagonists, including "El Lobo, el Bosque, y el Hombre Nuevo" ("The Wolf, the Forest, and the New Man"), upon which the 1993 Academy Award-nominated film Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate) was based. That story's author, Senel Paz, was a member of the committee that awarded Uria the 13 de Marzo prize.

If Uria's story represented a breakthrough among Cuba's literary avant-garde, it was not so well received by the powers that be at the Cuban Ministry of Culture. Although the 13 de Marzo winner's manuscript is supposed to be published in book form, ®Por que Llora Leslie Caron? never was, even though the 13 de Marzo publishing house went so far as to pay Uria for the rights to his work. He says now he was never given an adequate reason why his book went unpublished. "Every time I asked about it, they had a different excuse," sighs the writer. "They kept saying, 'There's no paper,' or, 'It's not good enough to be published.' The contradiction occurs when a jury gives a prize to a book and they say they're going to publish it and they never do. And then they say it's a bad book. If it's so bad, why did they give it the prize?"

Uria believes that "Leslie Caron" and other stories in the collection were ignored because they featured marginal characters or espoused points of view that did not toe the government's party line. "They wouldn't publish my things because they said I had ideological problems," he relates. "I wanted my literature to reflect real life. I didn't invent the problems A the problems are there."

The writer's friend, Carmen Duarte, a Cuban playwright and actress who also now lives in Miami, says that Uria's frustrating situation is not uncommon. "In Cuba censorship is very ambiguous," she explains. "Some people are officially accepted and others are not. They recognize you for your work and then they try to block you, and then sometimes they accept you again. The official reaction to your work can depend on a lot of things. It can depend on international politics, on the image that Cuba is trying to project. It can even depend on if an individual bureaucrat favors you or not."

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