Uncategorized | May 24, 2016
Genre Convention: Hector Mojena on Cuban Sci-Fi
Genre Convention is the Missouri Review’s new blog series exploring literary genres and subgenres, written by those who love or loathe them. Upcoming entries will include apocalyptic fictions, locked room mysteries, and gothic children’s stories.
“Hybrid Vigor”: Embracing the Fragmented Nation in Cuban Science Fiction
The first and last time I heard about my father’s family back in Cuba, I was seated at the dinner table with my parents and siblings, our mouths moved to unguarded speech by the copious amounts of alcohol being consumed. My father, in good spirits and seated at the end of the table, spoke late into the evening. Cradling a glass of wine, he spouted familiar stories about his father, his early married days with my mother, the time he visited Cuba and became so ill that he nearly shat himself on the plane ride back to the U.S. He rattled off his familiar greatest hits and then a never-before-heard deep cut, brief and revelatory: he revealed that he still had many relatives left in Cuba, many of whom were Afro-Cubans who had not made it over stateside with the other members of his family in the 60s. His words that night marked the first and only time that I would hear about this family unknown and inaccessible to me. There were no records or correspondences to examine, no stories to pick apart for their hidden meanings and disjunctures. On his side, I knew only a handful of his cousins, an aunt here, my abuela. The fact that a whole unknown clan existed on that not-so-distant island excited my curiosity about my lineage. That night forced me to negotiate the varying strands of what it means to be a Cuban-American without context, without a complete understanding of the various physical migrations and cultural intersections that produced me. For the first time, I understood the true nature of familial silences, of late-night revelations and whispered stories about primos and tíos that you weren’t supposed to talk about.
These silences are not rare in the households of many Cuban-American families throughout the country, or even just in my home of Miami-Dade County. Existing as a hyphenated Cuban often means tuning your ear to the quiet. My father’s story is not so different from the stories told and not told in other Cuban-American families, whose histories are often reduced to impossibly mono-cultural lineages. Family crests will speak of the great migrations from Europe to the island, but never of those many West African slaves, Chinese servants, and other transplanted peoples.
Ours is a story written time and again by Cuban-Americans in the curiously selective tales they tell about themselves, in the details conveyed as well as those left dangling. It is a story inscribed in the history of my family’s adopted home of the United States, where relations with Cuba were historically predicated on subordination to the homogenizing influences of empire: the protectorate scheme, the historical campaign of waiting until, as Louis A. Perez Jr. says in his essays on Cuban history, the island’s “ripe fruit…[leans] towards the North American Union.” In my home country the model minority Cuban–fully assimilated, politically conservative, light-skinned–emerges as a major aspirational figure, to the exclusion of mixed-race Cubans everywhere.
When these many cultural and familial silences are broken, the noise can be overwhelming. You can see it in Wifredo Lam’s Picasso-inspired depictions of Afro-Cuban hybridity, and in the writings of Cristina García, where familial silences are summarily broken and personal histories are recovered. In Cuban literature and art, there are as many celebrations of hybridity and difference as there are deafening consolidations of uniformity. Out of works like these emerge incisive studies of the fragments of identity and history we share, which are so often left without definite shape. And in these artists’ work, there appears the shape of a Cuban speculative tradition that speaks through the great silences of history.
When I entered Florida State University as a Master’s student in literature, I originally planned to focus on the great swaths of North American and European sci-fi that riveted me in my teens. I was fascinated by the social realist works of J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick, the epic military fiction of Robert Heinlein, and the newer crop of speculative fictionists like Tom McCarthy whose work skirted genre conventions. Not until the end of my first year did I even consider that I could study literature as a means of unpacking the disjunctures I observed in my family. When I heard my father’s words on that night four years ago, I slowly started to ask questions about relatives I had never met. I realized that in lieu of any solid knowledge about them, it made sense to delve into a literary tradition that could help me scrutinize their absence in my own life. In a roundabout way, I sought out Cuban science fiction because, like the works of those sci-fi writers I loved, I wondered if studying this genre could answer the fundamental questions I had about the split within myself.
I initially approached Cuban sci-fi by reading some of the first greats of the genre. Many early Cuban science fictionists like Agustín de Rojas and Ángel Arango wrote about the project of nation-building, often advancing parables of future worlds where people were bound by their duty to the collective and to the enterprise of national belonging. Though these writers developed their own essential interpretations of science fiction, it is truly after these initial waves that my interest really grew, with the works of writers like Yoss, Michel Encinosa Fú, and Daína Chaviano posing maps of Cuban history and identity that seemed to reflect the conflicted intersections I saw within myself. I truly became a fan of the genre through the work of Yoss, a writer whose singular status as the reigning master of Cuban cyber-punk bridged the gap between my favorites of the West and this body of literature that was previously unknown to me.
In Yoss’s recently released collection of short stories, A Planet for Rent, the author mirrors the contemporary political disenfranchisement and meager economic standing of Cuba in his futuristic rendering of an alien-conquered Earth. Made a “galactic protectorate” by invading extraterrestrials (there is mention of a brief war that, mostly due to human resistance, ended the lives of 80 million humans in a matter of hours), the Earth is re-developed into a major intergalactic tourist hub, a kind of living museum in which many-limbed Cetians and other alien creatures converge, take in the sights, and occasionally assume human surrogates called body spares. In “Social Worker,” the titular figure, a woman named Buca, agrees to be impregnated by an alien (a Grodo called Selshaliman whose “shiny, grayish chitin exoskeleton” gives him the appearance of a “[man] wearing medieval armor”) in exchange for a ticket out of Earth, with the mixed child she will bring to term becoming a larger symbol for the vast, hyper-real intersections of culture and biology representative of the new mestizo of Yoss’s stories. A Planet for Rent is filled with remembrances of an Earth that, as Buca notes, once contained “Greece and Rome and the Aztecs and the Incas and Genghis Khan and the Mongols and the pyramids and the Great Wall of China,” only to be replaced by the mono-cultural instruments of Earth’s subjugation: the “microworld of the astro-port” and its touristy artworks and attractions that reflect an Earth whose history has been summarily erased.
In the collection’s other stories, like the Grand Guignol theater of “Performing Death,” Yoss again speaks of a past filled with cultures and peoples long gone, this time in an artist’s performance piece that sees his body exactingly ripped apart by machines whose timed mechanisms strategically strip flesh from bone and cause geysers of blood to spray in artful streams. The subject of the performance, an Earthly artist named Moy, delivers a monologue about Earth’s erased history and its great contributions to literature and art, only to find a crowd indifferent to his message, but nevertheless entertained by the spectacle of flesh severed from bone and limbs exploded. By performance’s end, with his body fully destroyed, Moy is cloned back to life and finds that he must repeat his performance with far more violence and cruelty in order to pay off his enormous debts. His transmission of history is ultimately lost, and his performance only further realizes his inability to restore the historical erasures that haunt him.
In Moy and Buca, Yoss articulates characters whose voices can never fully speak the history they know to be true. They recognize the poly-cultural landscape of post-Contact life in the many migrations of alien species, and in the inter-breedings that produce their mestizo counterparts. The Earth, though, remains a uniform and “backwards” space to their alien conquerors, a dejected sphere where the hybridized intersections of culture and history that once occupied its lands are now forgotten fragments of history.
In the stories of Michel Encinosa Fú and Daína Chaviano, a similar strand of revisionist critique speaks through the silences of history and memory. In the former’s “Like the Roses Had to Die,” the heroine, a half-wolf/half-human freedom fighter, attempts to topple an oppressive dystopian regime, only to find herself betrayed by one of her hybrid brethren who is subsumed by the oppressively mono-cultural forces he was meant to fight. In their fight against a repressively uniform future, Encinosa Fú’s characters bring their marginality to the fore and fight through the silences that contain them to direct a larger criticism at a society unable to consolidate its difference.
Daína Chaviano’s “The Annunciation”–less hard sci-fi than a speculative reimagining of religious myth–similarly reinterprets the story of Christ’s incarnation as a rebuke of organized religion’s homogenizing silences. After telling the Virgin Mary of her ultimate purpose as the mother of humanity’s savior, the angel Gabriel laments, “It’s a shame that you and yours cannot understand us better…You haven’t understood the half of our moral teachings. Instead of applying them, you have converted them into religion.” That sly observation informs the novel differences Chaviano proposes in her retelling, as in the emphasis on Mary’s own sexual awakening in the ecstatic grace she experiences through the angel Gabriel, or in her articulation of the Virgin Mary as not merely an object of history who quietly and obediently accepts her fate.
Many of these works pose critiques of societies that seek to erase the essential differences that define us, bringing to the fore the various ethno-cultural intersections that constitute a nation. In reading these authors, I discovered the keys to breaking silences I had long known only unconsciously, and I realized that there was a heuristic developing that depended as much on my conceptions of nation as it did on my conception of self.
As my master’s thesis began to take shape, it became apparent that these stories were speaking truths I had long known but did not possess the words to speak. They elaborated on the constricting conceptions of self and nation that, for me, were simply waiting to be defined. Through these writers, the split in my consciousness had finally been given a name and a voice. I saw in these stories various confrontations with the uncontainable ruptures that inform our relationships with larger structures of identity and national belonging, whether in Chaviano’s revisionist critiques of religion, or in those directed at the repressive forces of imperialism found in Yoss’s and Encinosa Fú’s texts. My thesis became far more than a study of a literary sub-genre: it personally transformed me.
In the works I studied, I felt as if I had found some way to conquer the silences I had long known, and to work toward some inclusive, potential vision of culture that could take shape from outside the exclusive terms history dictated. For the first time, I could fully see the fundamental trap we Cubans fall into when we pose ourselves as a unified people who, ironically, share in everything but the markers of our own racial and cultural difference. I realized the trick of belonging to a culture that often seeks to repress its own divergent strands of being. For me, Cuban sci-fi provided a way to conquer the deafening consolidations of uniformity that distanced me from the larger truths I shared with other Cuban-Americans. Significantly, I felt that I had found a way to exist with context.
Hector Mojena is a writer and editor currently based in Miami, Florida. When not working or sleeping, Hector enjoys playing the drums and singing the praises of the Velvet Underground to anyone who will listen. He also occasionally writes fiction and short essays, with previous work appearing in zines like the South Florida-based Strangeways Magazine.
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