Many Americans -- at least the ones who don't live in Miami -- assume that Cuba is a tropical paradise, a place where smiling, happy people salsa dance and drink rum all day, while the dutiful Socialist government educates and cares for its citizens like a benevolent papa. After my first trip to Havana, my friends (especially those up north and out west) would ask dreamily: "How was it! It must have been amazing!"
Amazing yes. But not in a good way. Havana is a dark, sad place, filled with people who are poor and waiting for something, anything, to happen to their country. The entire place has been suspended in time and memory. Everyday life is an assault on dignity -- I met distinguished professors using newspaper for toilet paper and saw men try to "rent" their girlfriends to tourists for a couple of hours, while the girlfriends held babies in their arms. The reality of Havana was far, far different than what my American friends want to believe.
Maybe all of this is why I liked Havana Noir, a collection of short, dark stories about the island. The 18 stories tell the truth. There's no salsa dancing communistas in this anthology -- but there's lots of drinking, depraved sex and desperation. For those who are curious about the real Cuba, not the sugarcoated version, this is the book to read. If you're interested in hearing one of the authors, (and the anthology's editor) Achy Obejas, speak, she'll be at Books and Books tonight at 8 p.m. in Coral Gables.
For more on the book (in English) and an excerpt from one of the stories (in Spanish), go here.