Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Pride Month Profiles: "[Y]ou have to believe the reader is eternal. If a work of yours that people are reading now endures, it will be read in a hundred years or—optimistically—a thousand. You have to think that way because otherwise you don’t write or you only end up writing newspaper articles."

Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990)
Novelist, poet, playwright
Recipient, The Prix Medici for Best Foreign Novel Published in France, 1969

Born poor in Cuba, Reinaldo Arenas died poor in New York City 47 years later. His life seemed a roller coaster of brief spells of happiness and achievement, always followed by another descent into fresh new hell.

He joined Castro’s revolutionaries as a teenager; showing promise as a writer, Arenas won a research post at the Jose Marti National Library from 1963 to 1968. HIs first novel won critical praise in 1965 but ended up published in only one, bowdlerized edition. Its French translation won an award in 1969, but by then Arenas was falling into disfavor with the government, with which he had become increasingly disenchanted. None of his later works was published in Cuba.

Arenas worked as a journalist and editor from 1968 to 1974. In 1970 he was sentenced to time in an agricultural labor camp; in 1974, a seriously peeved Castro regime convicted him of “ideological deviation” and publishing abroad without permission. He was sent to prison. After an escape attempt, Arenas was sent to Cuba’s worst prison, tossed in among murderers and rapists, and given extended periods of solitary confinement in a cell three feet high.

To obtain release, Arenas dutifully renounced his works. He escaped Cuba in the 1980 Mariel boatlift but found little welcome in Miami. Leftists chided him for his critiques of the regime; the prevailing, right-wing, exile community scorned him for being gay.

He made his way to New York, where he scraped to live until he found a publisher. After 1985 his fortunes began to turn; in 1987 he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS and churned out work while his health permitted him to write. When he committed suicide in December 1990, he had finished an autobiography, published to critical and commercial acclaim as Before The Night Falls, and had five novels under contract. His memoir was made into a harrowing film, starring Javier Bardem,  in 2001.

“The exile,” he wrote, “is a person who, having lost a loved one, keeps searching for the face he loves in every new face and, forever, deceiving himself, thinks he has found it.”

Related site:

Ann Tashi Slater, “Fata Morgana: Reinaldo Arenas, writers in exile, and a visit to the Havana of 1987,” The Paris Review, March 4, 2014

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