Havana in Literature

A Student Study Tour

by | Dec 27, 2000

While most Harvard students are bracing themselves for more Boston frosts this January intercession, 15 students and three faculty members will have found themselves in much warmer climes, exploring Havana by foot; on a break of sorts, but one involving large amounts of energy, application and initiative. As part of the first DRCLAS-sponsored “Havana in Literature” course Luisa Campuzano,a professor at the University of Havana, and the Cuban poet Reina Marí­a Rodrí­guez offered to guide them through the past two centuries of poetry and narrative as these intertwine with Havana’s streets and historical events. Such a course would not be complete without the walking tours led by Campuzano, an enthusiastic expert on Havana’s urban landscape; or an invitation to Reina Marí­a’s rooftop in Old Havana, where young writers and poets gather in the evenings to read their work.

The Cuba Study Tour is hosted by Casa de las Américas, Cuba’s principal cultural institution founded by Haydee Santamarí­a in 1959 and ever since then – albeit with varying degrees of international support – a beacon for literature, art and culture throughout Latin America. The tour was planned to coincide with this year’s Casa de las Américas awards for Latin American literature, which have been in place since Casa’s inception and for which writers and critics from around the continent congregate annually; this year’s jury alone includes Luisa Valenzuela (Argentina), Ana Lydia Vega (Puerto Rico) and Raphael Confiant (Martinique).

The idea for a “winter institute” was conceived of by Doris Sommer, a professor in Harvard’s Department of Romance Languages and Literatures, together with Luisa Campuzano and Jorge Fornet, of Casa de las Américas, during a DRCLAS-sponsored conference on US-Cuban cultural relations held in Havana in January 1999 with the support of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Sommer was keen then that the deepening relations between Harvard and Cuba should involve undergraduates and be an intellectual exchange rather than a one-sided learning process. With this in mind, the study tour program included open lectures by Doris Sommer and two other Romance Languages faculty members, Brad Epps and José Antonio Mazzotti; on “rhetorics of particularism”, Cuba and Catalonia, and postcolonial theory and colonial studies in Latin America, respectively. The diffusion in Cuba of recent research from the United States has been restricted by many factors, material as much as political, and this tour aimed to take a small step towards rectifying this.

The study tour comes at an interesting moment in broader US-Cuban cultural relations: the US Treasury Department has recently created an “institutional license” which facilitates educational travel to Cuba for affiliates of US universities, to which Cuban cultural institutions have responded by hosting increasing numbers of international conferences and workshops – a way of stimulating contact with the outside, as well as their financial revenues. The last two weeks in January will have seen Havana replete with foreign visitors in town for several cultural events besides the Casa prizes. For example, this year is the first for the US-Cuban Writers Workshop organized by the Cuban writers’ union and the New York-based Writers of the Americas to bring together fifty writers from both countries.

Thirteen undergraduates and two students from Harvard Law School were selected for the DRCLAS study tour, each proficient in Spanish and with a strong interest in contemporary Cuba. They are from different backgrounds and were motivated to visit Cuba for many academic and personal reasons. Annie Lord, a junior in History and Literature of Latin America, wanted to see her mother’s birthplace for the first time, and make her own judgments. She says, “Living in Miami, I was literally smothered in messages from, opinions about, and representations of Cuba. My mother’s homeland was practically in my backyard, and yet I had no personal experiences of my own at the source. It is an incredibly frustrating experience being a Cuban-American, having almost no opportunities to visit the island. I am very fortunate to be part of this tour.”

Wells Wulsin ’01 sees the tour as a broadening of horizons from his concentration in Physics and Philosophy, and an interesting sequel to his experience as a “Let’s Go” researcher in Nicaragua last summer. He comments, “Cuba has an exciting, vibrant culture, but it remains shrouded in mystery to Americans like me who wouldn’t normally be able to visit. I am interested in learning about how Castro’s revolution and the U.S. trade embargo have affected everyday people’s lives, so when I heard about the opportunity to travel and study in Cuba, I couldn’t pass it up.” The students paid their own tuition and travel expenses, with administrative expenses covered by the MacArthur Foundation grant awarded to DRCLAS for educational exchange with Cuba. For each student this was a welcome and timely opportunity to learn alongside Cubans at an important moment in their history and that of the Cuban Revolution; it is an experience which the students anticipated with excitement, although not without some apprehension. Just how many and varied the experiences to come out of this first DRCLAS study tour to Cuba remains to be seen; watch for a report in the Updates section next edition of this Newsletter!

Winter 2000

 

Esther Whitfield, a graduate student in Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard, is coordinating the Havana in Literature Cuba Study Tour. She spent a semester in Santiago de Cuba as an undergraduate in 1992 and has returned to Cuba several times since. She is writing her dissertation on language and economics in contemporary Cuban narrative published in Cuba, Spain and the United States.

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