Ángel Santiesteban “I am a social reflection of my times”
Ángel Santiesteban: “I am a social reflection of my times” / Luis Felipe
Posted on February 16, 2015
Luis Felipe Rojas, 12 February 2015 — Just days after Ángel Santiesteban
Prats sent this interview to Martí Noticias, he was transferred in an
untimely manner to Villa Marista, the general barracks of Cuban State
Security. However, his replies were already safeguarded, as was he.
This storyteller — who won the UNEAC (Cuban Writers and Artists Union)
prize for his collection, Sueño de un día de verano (Dreams of a summer
day, 1995), the 1999 César Galeano prize, the Casa de las Américas award
of 2006 for his Dichosos los que lloran (Blessed are they who weep) —
later started a blog where he set forth his ideas on human rights in
Cuba, and he did not cease even unto imprisonment.
In 2013, Ángel won the International Franz Kafka “Novels from the Drawer
Prize,” which convened in the Czech Republic, for the novel, The Summer
When God Slept. Today he is responding to these questions from his
improvised cell in a Border Patrol unit of the Ministry of the Interior,
in Jaimanitas, Havana.
Following is a Q&A between Luis Felipe Rojas and Ángel Santiesteban
Luis Felipe: At which moment did the narrator and character Ángel
Santiesteban come to be?
Ángel: I can affirm that he came into existence at the end of the
1980s. I believe that the need to write, to communicate, to transmit my
feelings, were a way of dealing, precisely, with the pain I felt inside
of me. I recall that my first literary sensibility arose at the age of
17, when I found myself imprisoned at the La Cabaña fort, for the
“offense” of having accompanied my family to the coast, with the intent
of seeing them off, as it turned out.
They were later caught on the high seas, and I was charged with
harboring fugitives — but on the day of the trial, the court ruled that,
according to current laws, I could not be so charged, because between
parents and children, and between siblings, such action was considered
reasonable. However, I was prosecuted anyway because, according to the
district attorney, I should have reported my relatives for clandestinely
leaving the country, which is considered an act of treason against the
Notwithstanding, I remained in jail for 14 months. Thus I consider that
before I was a writer, I was already one of my characters, which I used
to share my personal pain with the other characters that, as of that
time, I began to construct. In each character created by me, there is my
pain, or that of my family, friends and neighbors. I am a social
reflection of my times, and there is where my commitment lies: with
myself, with my mother, with history and with my times, with no concern
for the consequences that this posture might entail for me.
I suffer with every word I write, I bleed for every passage that I
execute. I live and die with my characters; but always, I believe above
all, it is through art that is genuine and uncompromised.
Luis Felipe: To what point were your narrative demons fused with your
Ángel: I swear that this was not a goal, nor was it a commitment, and
even less intended as a means to shock or gain attention. I believe, in
fact, that this is not the way to achieve art. My creative seed took
root in nonconformity and social fear — individuals who hid their
antipathy to the political process and pretended, or pretend, to be
sympathizers of the dictatorship — and this reflection of my times
turned me into a voice, an alternative, and it was an unconscious
process, because the foundation of my artistic vision is that which
lacerates me, which strikes or preoccupies me, and then I want to
capture it in the best way, according to the literary tools at my disposal.
When I discover a thought in a personal passage, or hear an evocative
anecdote, a force is ignited in my being, and a different hunch alerts
me that I should attempt it, and almost always this is tied to a social
Luis Felipe: You have assumed the tragic sense of life. Like Severo
Sarduy, Guillermo Cabrera Infante or Reinaldo Arenas, you have assembled
a literature that becomes condemnation. What does Ángel Santiesteban
Prats process or write from within this enclosure?
The author of this interview with Ángel Santiesteban, 20 January, 2010,
in Havana, Cuba.
Ángel: Above all, to recognize that with any artist to whom I am
compared, among those three great Cuban writers, I am honored, and I
appreciate the noble hereditary line in which you have placed me,
because I will always recognize the distances between them and me. I
respect them for their work and life, the suffering they hoisted like a
flag, for choosing the emigration option, looking for those “three
trapped tigers,”* who were them, for having been voices discordant with
the political system.
I have experiences similar to Reinaldo Arenas, in terms of imprisonment
and the cultural marginalization that he suffered; but I identify with
all three in the matter of emigration — only that in their cases they
had to displace themselves from the Archipelago, and in mine, I live
those same consequences, but from the interior, inside the Island. For
this reason, today I write about the reality that surrounds me, the
injustice that I live.
I once wrote in a post that the last place that the dictatorship should
have sent me was here, where I have had to develop myself as a human
being, artist and dissident. I have written a book of stories out of
pain, but which in my view and that of my friends, is still very raw,
and I need to distance myself from the experience to revisit it and
remove a political intention which, inevitably, is reflected in this
collection of stories. I also wrote a strange novel, with a prison-life
theme, which I intend to revise upon my release. I started a novel,
Prizes and Punishments, of a more biographical cut.
My life experience is tragic. I have lived a tragic script that affects
society, caused by the dictators’ political whims. It is known that “we
writers nourish ourselves from human carrion,”** and this system is
quite given to soiling us with the blood of its victims.
Luis Felipe: Your characters appear to be stricken with pain as if there
were nothing else on the horizon. From whence this creation, these
pieces of change contained in every story?
Ángel: At times it is, in a word, an image, or the reflection of an
anxiety. When I perceive that someone is suffering, I feel a need to
help him. I fervently believe that if a writer does not help to change —
to heal — that reality, at least he has the duty to reflect it like a
mirror of his times, as a social function. And, at times, we even seek
alternatives to anemic responses for those sufferers, when they see in
the characters their more immediate reality.
We have the possibility, as part of creation itself, to substitute,
improve, provide, replace, exchange, our given destinies, and to create
for ourselves something better. The variables can be many, to the extent
of the writer’s capacity for talent and his artistic needs. I feel that
I am the reflection of my times and so I try to capture this in my work.
Luis Felipe: If we refer to the backstory you provide in The Summer When
God Slept, your novel is the reconstruction of an era. Describing life
at sea, characters that are not precisely fishermen, the actual
circumstances in which they decide to launch themselves to a new life,
or to death, and the outcomes that come to pass from what we today know
as the “Rafters Crisis,” what we have is a historical novel. What were
your tools — were they historiography, sociology, or a thorough
knowledge of those narrative techniques that you have been displaying
for a long time?
Ángel: When I tackle a subject that I have not experienced, which is
not even found in books that can be consulted, I begin a field study —
in my case, depending on my subjects, with the soldiers who participated
in the African wars, with the rafters who chose to return from the
Guantánamo Naval Base, or marginalized characters who survive through crime.
I always make recordings of their narratives. In a few cases I had to
turn off the recording equipment at the interviewee’s request, when they
incriminated themselves in their testimonies and fear forced them into
self-protection, upon revealing delicate matters — for example, terrible
orders from a high-level military commander in Angola that produced
innocent victims, or acts that they themselves committed and for which
they are now ashamed.
I have the need, when I begin to treat a subject, to know every event —
the history, the culture, the color of the earth, the scents, the
vegetation — details that help me to transport myself and live in my
imagination, to recreate, to go back in time and see, and feel, what I
The majority of the characters in my novel, The Summer…, are based on
relatives or friends. Manolo is my younger sister’s husband. It is true
that he was involved in the conflict in Africa, that he was a combat
engineer, that he risked his life in the Florida Straits on a raft with
other relatives, and that he later crossed the minefield [around the
American naval base at Guantanamo] to return to Havana with his family.
In him, in that character, are composites of many characters. I
interviewed every rafter I have met, producing hundreds of hours of
cassette recordings — which is what I would use in the mid-90s — and in
every one I captured the pain that burst from their words, gestures and
Luis Felipe: There is a period of “painful apprenticeship,” as Carlos
Alberto Montaner might say. Why are your stories loaded with victims?
Ángel: I am convinced that every Cuban who is a participant in the
political processes — not only since 1959, but from before — is a victim
of the whims, ambitions, and bad intentions of those leaders who have
arrived at positions of power in the nation. In particular I base my
view on the experience, the suffering, of the generations since that of
my parents, through today, and I consider them victims of the regime.
And not just those who were opposed, but I also add those who were
deceived, those who like my Uncle Pepe, bet on a better country,
democratic and humanist, until they discovered that they had been
deceived, but then no longer had the youth or courage to confront the
deceivers — and they decided to take their own life out of shame at
having been party to this miscreation that has governed for more than
half a century, and has done so by executing, jailing and assassinating
via its structures for repression and espionage.
Those who emigrate, those who remain inside the Island with their fears
(even if only one); those who at some time have needed to pretend so as
not to be reprimanded or punished; those who have lied, or are lying,
and who betray their real thoughts and opinions about the reality that
surrounds us — all are victims of the system.
I always reiterate that the only ambition I have had in life is to
understand people — to understand them even if I don’t share their
reasoning, but at least to know the cause, the feeling that they had at
the moment of committing an act, be it positive or negative. I don’t
always achieve this with human beings, but I do so with my characters.
They must be transparent to me at the moment that I tell their story,
understanding their actions, thinking and functioning.
I am a victim of my times, in the company of my characters, who reflect
this human suffering.
Luis Felipe: It appears that you inhabit a space between the pieces of
Carlos Montenegro and the lost souls of Reinaldo Arenas. The
protagonists of your novel and stories move between the perdition of the
night and the disillusionment of the days in Havana. Do you not fear
that you will ultimately tell of a Havana that has been told and told again?
Ángel: Montenegro’s version is my personal experience, and we already
know that reality surpasses us — it being so rich in hues, in multiple,
inexhaustible tones that guarantee the health of that approach in the
city and to the city. There is always a trace that hasn’t been covered,
a new way of telling the same story, of sharing imperishable themes. Not
even the same photo taken repeatedly in rapid succession can capture the
same subject because its colors change constantly.
Yes, I fear repeating those paradigms of Cuban literature, but I do not
believe that it can seem an imitation of those great and special
writers, because there are many ways of seeing, ways of telling this
Havana, this Cuba, at times so beloved, or so hated.
Border Patrol Prison Unit, Jaimanitas, Havana.
Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison
* A reference to the novel, “Three Trapped Tigers,” by Cuban writer
Guillermo Cabrera Infante.
** Santiesteban is quoting Cuban writer Amir Valle, who made this
statement during an interview with the journal, IberoAmericana,
published in 2014. The original Spanish phrase, “Los escritores nos
alimentamos de la carroña humana,” is used in the title of the article.
Source: Ángel Santiesteban: “I am a social reflection of my times” /
Luis Felipe Rojas | Translating Cuba –