Reading Cuba – A 10-book introduction to Cuban Literature
Often celebrated for its music and dance, Cuba’s literature can be forgotten, but it has made major contributions to world literature. We’re giving you 10 reasons to get reading now!
Ever since a feeling of Cubania (being Cuban) began to arise in the 18th and 19th centuries, its native peoples have put pen to paper and expressed themselves as Cuban writers. Cuba’s favourite patriot, José Martí, was himself a voracious writer and an advocate for reading, he famously said:
“Being educated is the only way to be free.”
With high levels of literacy and a constant stream of book, poetry and spoken word festivals, literature is highly valued on the island. Cuba’s best known literary festival is the “Festival del Libro” which takes place in Havana every February and attracts writers from all over Latin America and the Caribbean. Sadly, Cuban literature isn’t very well-known in the anglophone world, something which we hope to change.
10 Cuban books to get you started
Starting from the 1800s, we’ve put together a far from definitive list of some of Cuba’s greatest writers and books.
Cecilia Valdés (Or La Loma del Ángel) by Cirilo Villaverde, 1839
A giant of the Cuban literary canon, “Cecilia Valdés” tells the story of a young mulata (woman of mixed heritage) living in Havana and getting caught up with a young white man from high society. The gripping and opera-like story is a window into the complex social relations of early 19th century Cuba and a great way of getting into the atmosphere of Old Havana. The “Loma del Ángel” is still alive and kicking today and as you walk up it you can just imagine the beautiful Cecilia sat behind the tall barred windows of of one of the old town’s typical colonial houses.
You can buy “Cecilia Valdés” in English here.
Sab by Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda, 1841
Not only was “Sab” written by a woman, it also formed part of Cuba’s 19th century anti-slavery movement. As women weren’t allowed to be published, wealthy society lady Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda paid for the publication of her own books and came to enjoy lasting national acclaim. Sab is the name of the novel’s main character, an enslaved man who falls in love with his master’s daughter. An epic story of love and slavery, Sab’s engaging narrative is also an illuminating insight into life on a plantation during one of the most formative centuries in Cuban history.
You can buy “Sab” in English here.
Simple Verses by José Martí, 1891
If you haven’t heard of José Martí before you visit Cuba, you certainly will have by the time you leave. He is one of the most celebrated figures in Cuban Literature, History and independence. Your first encounter with José will be the José Martí airport and from then on you will see his bust or quotes of his works at regular intervals. The last collection he worked on before dying, “Simple Verses” is, as you would expect, a collection of simple poems, some of which were adapted to form the lyrics of iconic Cuban folk song “Guantanamera”. Whether you’re a fan of poetry of not, Martí is essential reading for anyone with an interest in Cuba and Cubania (all things Cuban). Alternatively, check out a selection of his essays, memoirs and letters here.
You can buy a bilingual version of “Simple Verses” here.
Absolute Solitude: Selected Poems by Dulce Maria Loynaz, 2016
In this English language anthology of Dulce Maria Loynaz you can find more than a few reasons to fall in love with the poetry of one of Cuba’s most celebrated female writers. Writing during the first half of the twentieth century, Loynaz’s poetry is painfully sensual and full of longing. If you’re keen to dive into a pool of sumptuous language, then Dulce’s your woman. She was forgotten for many years, but won the Spanish Cervantes prize – the most prestigious literary prize in the Spanish language – at the age of 90.
“For you the infinite
Or nothing; the immortal
Or this mute sadness
You won’t understand…”
You can buy “Absolute Solitude” here.
Music in Cuba by Alejo Carpentier, 1946
Though Alejo Carpentier is celebrated within Cuba and internationally for his novels such as “The Lost Steps”, he was also a life-long music critic. “Music in Cuba” is an in-depth examination of the history of Cuban music and therefore a must-read for anyone interested in the island’s musical tradition. The literary flare of Alejo Carpentier matched with the unique history of Cuban music make for a perfect pairing. The English edition also includes editing, translation and an introduction by Professor Timothy Brennan, helping to contextualise the:
“The best and most extensive study of Cuban musical history.”
You can buy “Music in Cuba” here.
Paradiso by José Lezama Lima, 1966
Considered Lezama Lima‘s masterpiece and often referred to as one of the greatest Cuban novels, “Paradiso” is a piece of baroque auto-fiction. The novel’s narrator, José Cemí, closely follows the author’s own development as a young poet in Havana. Spanning pre and post-revolutionary Cuba, Cemí’s journey as a young gay man is at once both local and universal. Hugely influential in Cuba, José Lezama Lima is celebrated as a significant literary figure across Latin America.
You can buy “Paradiso” in English here.
Three Trapped Tigers, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, 1967
Set in the cabaret scene of pre-revolutionary Cuba, Cabrera Infante‘s great masterpiece has been called a “sexier, funnier” version of Joyce’s Ulysses. The title comes from the Spanish tongue-twister “tres tristes tigres” (three sad tigers) and is a fitting precursor to the linguistic playfulness that abounds within. Offering an atmospheric tour of one of the most iconic époques in 20th century Cuba, Three Trapped Tigers is the perfect escape into pure Cuban bliss. Less playful but also very much worth the read is Cabrera Infante’s A View of Dawn from the Tropics: an anti-love letter to the author’s home island.
You can buy “Three Trapped Tigers” in English here.
Havana Red by Leonardo Padura, 1997
Probably the most celebrated Cuban novelist writing today, Padura‘s work in essential reading for anyone interested in contemporary Cuban literature. Third in his detective series following the investigations of Lieutenant Mario Conde, “Havana Red” kicks of with the discovery of a dead transvestite in a Havana park. The reader is then mercilessly plunged into the criminal underbelly of Cuba’s capital – we defy you to put it down!
You can buy “Havana Red” in English here.
Dirty Havana Trilogy, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez, 2002
Banned in Cuba, few Cubans living in their native country have read this audacious portrait of life during Cuba’s special period. “Dirty Havana Trilogy” is an unrelentingly savage account of the narrator’s struggle to survive during the darkest chapter in Cuba’s modern history. From eating human livers to copulating on the Malecon, Gutiérrez isn’t shy of lauding Havana’s dirty side. At once both laugh-out-loud funny and vomit-inducingly graphic, Gutiérrez’s often unbelievable account of 1990s Havana is an essential read for anyone who wants to get their head around modern Cuban society.
You can buy “Dirty Havana Trilogy” here.
Everyone Leaves by Wendy Guerra, 2006
A work of auto-fiction, “Everyone Leaves” is based on Wendy Guerra‘s childhood and young adulthood in 1970s-1990’s Cuba. Guerra’s narrator, Nieves, tells of her traumatic childhood being separated from her loving mother and raised by an abusive alcoholic, all to the backdrop of the political turmoil that surrounded her formative years. Everyone Leaves encapsulates the tragic truth of growing up in a developing country where everyone around you is desperate to emigrate and search for a better life. Guerra’s simple yet lyrical narration quickly sucks you in to her challenging world.
You can buy “Everyone Leaves” in English here.
A quick guide to cuban literature
So there you have it, a list of 10 books to pique your curiosity and get you excited about the rich offerings of Cuban literature. Whether you’re planning a trip to Cuba, reminiscing about a past one, or simply interested in the country’s culture, reading is a great way to immerse yourself in all things Cuban.