The celebrated U.S. poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) once said that for her there was no better voyage to a distant land than a book. Thanks to the Havana 2017 International Book Fair, readers in Cuba are beginning to sail across literary waters to another isle, Ireland.
Especially interesting is that this Book Fair does not simply feature the launching of new books, but rather has as one its central characteristics a dialogue between authors and readers. The 26th edition could be no different.
Thus a broad delegation of Irish authors traveled to Cuba for the occasion to participate in some book presentations and panels on literature from the country, which boasts four Nobel Prize for Literature winners: W. B. Yeats (1923); George Bernard Shaw (1925); Samuel Beckett (1969), and Seamus Heaney (1995).
On hand in the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists' Villena Hall, to discuss Irish literature and their own work, were important contemporary authors like Joseph O'Connor and Colm Toibin; along with Michael McCughan, who has among his books an anthology-biography of Argentine Rodolfo Walsh; the young Lisa McInerney, who explained that working class issues are fundamental to her work; and historian Dermot Keogh.
All reiterated their pride in their country's literary heritage, which include an author like James Joyce, recalling that they were censured for 40 years, a time when Irish writers were not published, particularly onerous in a nation of readers who cherish their own authors.
After the panel discussion, GI discussed some key points with O'Connor (author of Star of the Sea, recently published by Arte y Literatura in Spanish, as El crimen del Estrella del Mar), and Colm Toibin, well known here for the film version of his novel Brooklyn.
We asked O'Connor about the Cuban edition of his novel.
"It is called Star of the Sea and was published here by Arte y Literatura. It is a historical novel, set in the 19th century, when a large number of Irish were forced to emigrate because of famine, perhaps more than a million. It was the greatest catastrophe in Irish history. I wrote the book 10 years ago, and it was a great success. Now, as part of our presence at the Fair, our dear President Michael Higgins, a marvelous man, very close to literature and art, suggested that an Irish novel be published in Cuba, and my novel was chosen. It is an honor for me, the first published here in 50 years; the last one was Ulysses by James Joyce. Star in the Sea has been published in 45 countries."
Did Cuba arrive late?
Yes, but it is a special pleasure that the book be published here, because I believe that many Irish, regardless of political opinions, feel great affection, an affinity, respect for Cuba. We are also a small island, with a history of revolutions and political upheaval, and for many years under the shadow of a more powerful neighbor. It is marvelous to be part of this exchange, at this very interesting time for Cuba. Its good to be a small part of the solidarity, the friendship.
Is Star of the Sea a characteristic historical thriller?
No, more than that. It addresses other contemporary issues, but let me tell you, a writer has the responsibility to accurately present the setting of the story, to make the characters credible. One of the rules of the game, when writing fiction, is making people believe that the people and situations are real.
In another corner of the UNEAC gardens, poet, journalist, and writer Colm Toibin, author of The Master, a fictional biography of Henry James and the novel Brooklyn, kindly responded to a few questions:
Not all writers are pleased with the film adaptations of their novels. What about you?
No, I appreciate the fidelity with which they treated Brooklyn (which received three Oscar nominations, for best picture, best actress, Saoirse Ronan, and best adapted screenplay). They found the emotional center of the story.
How would you summarize the issues in your novel?
Exile, identity, family. It is the story of a young Irish immigrant to the United States in the 50s. Brooklyn is only the place where she arrives, the young Irish women is clearly the protagonist.
Hours later, at the San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress, Irish President Michael D. Higgins, on an official visit to the country, presented El crimen del Estrella del Mar, a novel, he said, that breaks the silence on a tragic event, too traumatic to remember: the famine that devastated Ireland in the 19th century.
Amidst dialogues, panel discussions, and book launches, reinitiated was the literary voyage shared by Cuba and Ireland, two distant islands with multiple similarities.
Emily Dickinson was right, a good book can take you to faraway lands.