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.

And yet several of Uria's short stories have been included in anthologies of new Cuban fiction published in Cuba. Here in the U.S., Faber and Faber included one of his stories, "Princess Caucubu Goes Shopping," in the 1992 collection Columbus' Egg: New Latin American Stories on the Conquest, published to jibe with the quincentennial of Columbus's voyage to America.

"┬ĘPor que Llora Leslie Caron?" which finally appeared in print in a 1988 issue of the cultural journal Letras Cubanas, garnered an underground following. But when an actor performed it as a one-man play in private homes and in a Havana theater, Uria says the public had a mixed response to the work. "People are always attracted to controversy, so they talked about it," shrugs Uria, who seems a trifle weary of being asked about what he calls "that gay story." "A lot of people liked it, a lot of people didn't like it. Some people couldn't understand the character's situation -- it's about a person in crisis who suddenly sees himself at odds with society and with his family. He stands in front of the mirror and says. 'Who am I? Where am I going? What have I done up to now?'

"Some people have found it tragic, some sad. Others have said that what the character really needs to do is dress up like a woman and march down the street and reaffirm his identity," he says with a laugh. "In the end everyone always writes their own story, no?"

For 35 years, Uria's life story unfolded in Old Havana. Once the city's majestic harborside colonial capital, marked by cathedrals, fortresses, and grand homes -- and later one of the city's major tourist magnets -- the neighborhood has undergone severe social and physical deterioration in the last two decades. Currently a layer of grime covers its labyrinth of historic buildings, which contain crowded encampments and collapsed beams. Residents hang out in groups in front of the area's faaades, or walk up and down the narrow sidewalks.

"Living in Old Havana is not the same as living in Havana," asserts Uria. "Not just from an urban point of view, not just because of its architecture, but from a sociological point of view, too."

Home for Uria was a colonial house near the Plaza del Cristo, the oldest plaza in Havana, where he lived with his mother (a secretary) and his younger sister, who married a police officer and now has a school-age daughter of her own. Uria's parents divorced when he was a child, and afterward he infrequently saw his father, who remarried and had another family.

"Old Havana is a very marginal place," Uria states. "There's a lot of delinquency and a lot of loneliness, too. It has a reputation as a problematic neighborhood -- drugs, guns, prostitution. Living there is an experience that marks you forever, in good ways and largely in bad ways. What I mean is I should have been a delinquent."

Instead he went to the theater. In addition to offering more prurient pleasures, the neighborhood was surrounded by theaters and movie houses that he began to attend by himself when he was nine years old. Books also fascinated him at a young age. In the early years of the revolution, bookstores abounded in downtown Havana, and novels could be had for a few pesos. The budding writer spent hours combing the stacks.

"If you didn't read in Cuba, it was because you didn't want to, not because the books weren't available," Uria says, going on to describe his own book collection -- most of which remains in his mother's house -- of hundreds of volumes by writers such as Cuban patriot Jose Marti, nineteenth-century Cuban author Julian del Casal, persecuted gay Cuban writer Virgilio Pinera, Spaniards Miguel de Unamuno and Federico Garcia Lorca, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Kafka, Alejo Carpentier, Milan Kundera, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortazar, and Juan Jose Arreola.

But when asked to name his favorite book, Uria immediately mentions The Rubaiyat, a slim volume of epigrammatic quatrains written by Omar Khayyam, the eleventh-century Persian poet and mathematician. It may seem like a strange choice, but there are definite echoes of the symbolic characters and minimalist structure of Khayyam's philosophical parables in Uria's contemporary tales.

"My preoccupation has been a curiosity to discover what's behind people, my neighbors, especially those who are considered marginal," Uria explains. "In a certain way I've also felt like an outcast for philosophical or metaphysical reasons -- in my family, a preference for art and literature was always something a little weird. So you start to feel like an outcast, if you like to read and all that."

Uria found his niche when he entered the University of Havana in 1977. He studied literature and began composing short stories, always writing longhand in pencil, then marking his revisions in ink. He won several prizes in poetry and fiction before receiving the 13 de Marzo award, in the process becoming one of a handful of young authors recognized as leaders in new Cuban fiction.

The mid-Eighties marked a turning point in all of the arts on the island. In fiction changes were brought about by young writers who broke away from the literary precepts previously established under the Castro regime. While the officially sanctioned writers in the Seventies used fiction to create positive role models and put forth the lofty goals of the revolution, this younger generation turned to their grittier everyday reality for inspiration.

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