here are three questions that I ask myself with regular frequency. Although for some people these questions may not make much sense, trying to find a convincing answer to each of them is one of the challenges that most obsesses me. And I tend to be rather obsessive.
The first question, and perhaps the one that provides the easiest and apparently obvious answer, is Why am I Cuban? The possible facility with which this question could be answered is that I am Cuban simply because I was born in Cuba and have lived all my life in Cuba, so—emotionally, culturally, and humanly—I have no other choice than to be Cuban. This lifelong identity can be further complicated by a certain feeling of cosmic predestination, fate, or geographic grace (the cursed circumstance of Virgil or the Pearl of the Antilles from the times of Spain), reasons completely beyond my control or ability to choose. But the answer might become even more complicated if we assume our belonging to surpass a legal definition; such a belonging would then fall in a territory where personal will does in fact have an influence. That said, if, as happens on many occasions, one places this simple question in a specific context by inserting an oft-used and very useful interjection, very common to the Cuban’s vocabulary, the question can lose all its apparent simplicity and become a philosophical and historical challenge. Is this not what happens when, instead of asking, “¿Por qué soy cubano?” (Why am I Cuban?), one asks, “¿Por qué coño soy cubano?” (Why in the fuck am I Cuban?).
Once asked and nuanced, the question’s relevance to my obsessions becomes more evident because without the question and its possible answers, which may be determined by immediate factors, it would be difficult to begin to ask myself the other two recurring and more complicated questions: Why am I a Cuban writer? And, above all, the question that imitates and at the same time amplifies and modifies with a subordinator the meaning of the previous questions: Why am I a Cuban writer who writes and lives in Cuba?
If I confess that I don’t have a convincing answer for the first of these last two questions—Why am I a Cuban writer?—you might not believe me. I don’t have an answer, especially because I and many others don’t usually believe in the cosmic predestination that I mentioned before. I should say that I was born and raised in a house where there were only nine books—eight volumes of Reader’s Digest and a Bible. I am the son of the most ordinary parents, a Masonic father and a very Cuban Catholic mother, and until 1980, the highest educational level attained by anyone in my family was the eighth grade. I was raised in a neighborhood called Mantilla, where they still say, “Go to La Habana” when someone moves to the city’s center. Only my mother and a paternal aunt reached this level, but with great difficulty. During the first eighteen years of my life, I dedicated the majority of my time to practicing, watching, or thinking about baseball. Considering this obsession, my family background, and my early love of math, there was no indication of a writing vocation for me at the age when the deepest vocations are often formed.
It was only later, in the philosophy department at the School of Arts and Letters at the University of Havana, that I stumbled upon the desire to be a writer. What is interesting is that I arrived at that place and that encounter by pure socialist coincidence, as my intention as a pre-university graduate was to study journalism, with the dream of becoming a sports columnist. But during that academic year, the journalism major wasn’t offered, nor was art history, which I later attempted to enroll in. In the face of so much reorganization—it was 1975, the cusp of the institutionalization of the country1—and by stumbling after my dream of becoming a baseball writer, I ended up studying Hispanic-American literature without ever imagining that those university “modernizations” would put me on the path of what has become my professional and romantic life. While pursuing Hispanic-American literature for the first time, I felt the possibility of dreaming, no longer about sports writing, but about the practice of literature, and I met the girl who has accompanied me in every act of my existence since then (even though I must admit that sometimes she does so reluctantly). Because of this, unlike other aspiring writers who began to find their footing on the island during those final years of the 1970s and became more visible in the following decade, when I began to feel the demands of literature, I didn’t have the slightest awareness of what universe I was hoping to enter and, in fact, was already entering.