Margaret Atwood, On The Surface Of The Word

Margaret Atwood

Alas Tensas, Masiel Mateos, 6 May 2018 – Twenty-six years ago, when books cost barely two modest pesos in national currency, I acquired the book On the Surface, a novel by Margaret Atwood, then unknown in Cuba. The recommendation did not come from a bookseller, nor from a writer, much less a publisher or a promoter; but from a young doctor doing his residency in psychiatry: I was his patient because, in that year, after having attempted suicide, I had to under rigorous psychiatric treatment.

The young man, who would later emigrate after being persecuted because of the hatred against the religion to which he had converted, suggested the book not for literary reasons, but simply with these words: “Let yourself fall under the spell of the landscape, find calm in that forest.” continue reading

According to him he gave me a book of peace against my attempts to overdose, a forest against the noxiousness of the loudspeakers, he gave me nature so that my eyes read in the chapters the existence of the forest, the axes against the trunks making logs, the grass, the beauty of those trees as scarce as the whales, as the protagonist says.

So Margaret and I became the young woman who returned in search of her father, through the woods, towards a lake, seeking her roots, an origin that must persecute her until the alienation.

A spell brought my eyes to the page, and we had a confident conversation, so intimate that I could forgive myself. Perhaps inadvertently, reading the pain, the losses of others, I felt less loss, with fewer sores on my head.

While talking, she looked for her father, I lost mine, she and I walked among the trees breathing pure air, renouncing the barbiturates, the medication that was injected again and again into my thighs, she holding me after each electric shock, putting the maple leaves over the sores from the wires on my forehead. The two in crisis wanted to enter the lake like the fish; fearing what would appear in the abandoned cabin, fearing the urine after the electricity.

I never forgot the scene of the lake, of that fish throwing itself at her over and over, not Atwood’s; I enter the lake, wash my body, clear my head, fall in love with this woman and this landscape… She conquered me with her truth, of forgiving her and forgiving me, of forgiving us both in that surface filled with forests and planes, of plagues and rain, of storms and breezes.

That was 27 years ago. Now her poetry returns, her stories, her attractive eyes not looking her age, her infinite beauty in hands that refuse to use a PC as long as there are sheets of paper to rip up; the woman with the words hardened to such a degree that they say she writes like a man, as if to write like a woman were not enough to call herself a writer. Good God, like ‘La Tula’ [Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda] wrote as a man, like Allende, like all of us who today are here writing with an enormous vagina between our hands breaking the oldest rite of segregation, measuring ourselves at the height of a genital organ.

Many call Margaret the mother goddess of Canadian letters. I believe that like every goddess she is creative, she is great, she is the voice of otherness; not only of northern women, but of the African woman, the Latin woman; the conflicts of her work are common in our time. A young heiress of her father’s study of insects, she brings to her writing her inner naturalist, her rural and curious heritage.

Her polyphony reveals thousands of women to us; her irreverence makes us take her words to our strikes, subtle protests where rebellions are limited. Her voice is a piece of land, clock and calendar of a woman in metaphors.

“All those times I was bored out of my mind. Holding the log
while he sawed it,” says the poem “Bored.” He sawed the floor, but how many times do women saw the floor? How many times do we saw the staircase, the bridge, the fear of losing the desk, the office, the comfort of putting our feet up after dinner? No, it is only the husband; it is the director, the editor, the merchant who demands cleavage from the salesclerk; but like every one of the women in Margaret Atwood’s work, we are women who walk, climb, jump with her.

The writer defends her country, her nature; in her poetic cosmos is her mystery, air, water, forests. If the verse emits a complaint, in that complaint the woman squawks like a bird.

It is very painful that we took 26 years to rescue not only the literature of a country, but this woman who is able to join our common problems when she says: ” I wonder how many women denied themselves daughters, closed themselves in rooms, drew the curtains, so they could mainline words.” And, “A child is not a poem, a poem is not a child. there is no either/or. However.”

In this verse is my voice, or yours that you read there in apparent silence, but you think. And it is the voice of each one of we women who take up writing to exist. Because “behind the word is power” and that is the power we inherit today to ask that many things must and have to change in order to use the word equality.

We may not see these changes but we already wrote them without fear, against the patriarchy, the leadership, the societies and the time that trembles with them…

"We Have Committed the ’Sin’ of Showing That in Cuba There Are Also Women Who are Killed by Sexist Violence"

A cover from one of the issues of Alas Tensas

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 3 May 2018 — An editorial published this Wednesday in the independent magazine Alas Tensas denounces the sequence of attacks by State Security on members of its editorial team in recent months. Pressures that seek to make the “self-proclaimed feminist media disappear.”

We have been subjected to “systematic harassment and attacks over the last two months,” says the editorial, going on to quote a phrase from British feminist Mary Beard, “It’s not what you say that prompts [the abuse], it’s the fact you’re saying it.”

“We have experienced demonstrations of force from all sides. The most recent has been the prohibition on traveling outside the country,” the project’s creators tell us. “Not only is our freedom of movement violated, but also our right to self-realization.” continue reading

Ileana Álvarez, director of the publication was not allowed to travel to Panama in early April to attend a workshop organized by the Latin American Center for Journalism (CELAP).

Nor was she able to attend the last stage of a fellowship at the Simone de Beauvoir Leadership Institute, the Regional School of Feminist Training based in Mexico.

The designer Yaudel Estenoz was prevented from leaving the country when he tried to travel to Trinidad and Tobago to apply for a student visa for the United States

The writer and poet Francis Sánchez, had his laptop seized by the Customs General of the Republic last March, on his arrival at the airport in Santa Clara. He is also a journalist and appears on the list of “regulated” citizens not allowed to leave the country.

“Travel bans are just the tip of the iceberg,” says the editorial. During several interrogations by State Security they were also subject to “serious accusations and threats.”

In the context of this repression, the editorial notes that, “Within the concert of spontaneous, independent modes of expression – blogs, youtubers, the weekly packet, newspapers, producers of music, video and movies… – that have been emerging recently despite great obstacles, we are the only Cuban magazine that specifically defines itself as ‘feminist.’”

It goes on to say, “They tried to root out this ideology from Cuba for being ‘bourgeois,’ and labeled it as unnecessary in the first place, by a de facto decree that the Revolution abolished all discrimination.”

However, “beyond achievements such as the right to abortion, the law of motherhood, pay equity or access to study and work, serious problems remain in Cuba, which are not talked about and that get worse, while others continue to emerge.”

“In Cuba, statistics regarding femicide are not even collected. Nor is there a law against gender violence,” the editors of Alas Tensas denounced, adding, “We have committed the ‘sin’ of showing that in Cuba there are also women who are killed by sexist violence, at the hands of abusers, and for lack of preventive action.”

The editorial also warns of the lack of freedom of expression on the island. “They accuse us of being cyber-mercenaries. They violate our privacy. They seize our equipment. They block our pages. They bring legal charges against us. They threaten us. They involve our families.”

“We advocate for our legitimate right to express ourselves freely, to make journalism attached to the truth and to be a feminist medium, concludes the editorial, adding, “we thank the people of good will, from Cuba and the world, who join us in this demand.

Alas Tensas magazine was founded at the end of 2016 and, in addition to its website, it is distributed in PDF format within the Island. The publication offers a space “for the expression of women, to cover gender issues and the search for equity.”

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The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Why Do They Want to Cut Our Wings? / Alas Tensas

There is, in you, the fatigue of a wing often tensed. D. M Loynaz

Alas Tensas, Editorial, 2 May 2018 – Those of us publishing the feminist magazine Alas Tensas have been subject to systematic harassment and attacks over the last two months. No doubt they want or need our independent and self-proclaimed feminist media to disappear.

As the British feminist Mary Beard says in her essay The Public Voice of Woman: “It’s not what you say that prompts [the abuse], it’s the fact you’re saying it.” Beard reminds us that a favored refrain of the patriarchal discourse, and one that she herself has suffered, is “Shut up, you bitch,” when a woman dares to venture beyond the domestic space and take the floor in the agora. Thus, they tell you to get back to the kitchen or darn their socks. continue reading

We have experienced demonstrations of force from all sides. The most recent has been the prohibition on traveling outside the country. Not only is our freedom of movement violated, but also our right to self-realization: they have prevented us from participating in feminist training courses and journalism workshops with a gender focus.

Ileana Álvarez, director of the magazine Alas Tensas, was invited to a journalism workshop in Panama (April 6), and to a fellowship at the Simone de Beauvoir Institute, the Regional School of Feminist Education based in Mexico (April 22). She was not able to leave the country on either occasion because in the National Identification System (SUIN) managed by the Directorate of Identification, Immigration and Emigration (DIIE), she is listed as “regulated for the public interest.”

Nor was the designer Yaudel Estenoz able leave the country, when he tried to travel to Trinidad and Tobago on April 22, to apply for a student visa for a scholarship he earned to pursue a master’s degree in the United States.

Earlier, on March 24, a laptop was confiscated from the writer, visual poet and journalist Francis Sánchez, when he returned to the country through customs at the Santa Clara airport, after they reviewed his personal files and found a piece about elections and machismo in the history of Cuba. Sanchez learned that the same “regulation” weighed against him when he tried to extend his passport.

Travel bans are just the tip of the iceberg. First, we were interrogated – or summoned for “conversations,” as they call it – by State Security officers. In those meetings, serious accusations and threats were issued. In short, they are trimming our wings.

Within the concert of spontaneous, independent modes of expression – blogs, youtubers, the weekly packet, newspapers, producers of music, video and movies… – that have been emerging recently despite great obstacles, we are the only Cuban magazine that specifically defines itself as “feminist.”

They tried to root out this ideology from Cuba for being “bourgeois,” and labeled it as unnecessary in the first place, by a de facto decree that the Revolution abolished all discrimination.

However, as of October 2016, here we are. Our reality has been to show that, beyond achievements such as the right to abortion, the law of motherhood, pay equity or access to study and work, serious problems remain in Cuba, which are not talked about and that get worse, while others continue to emerge.

Meanwhile, state media, including some aimed at the female audience, are silent. To begin with, in Cuba, statistics regarding femicide are not even collected. Nor is there a law against gender violence.

This is not the first time they have tried to “deactivate” a project and a feminist magazine. Women communicators of the MAGÍN group, who tried to change the image of women in the media, were “deactivated” in 1996. They had begun working together only three years earlier and ultimately their magazine project never saw the light of day. They were not even able to enroll in the Association Registry. The story of this endeavor can be found in the testimonies we rescued in Alas Tensas, including: “Magín, simply” and “Magín: Never stop feeling like a star.” Obviously, what annoys them is to “wield the complaint,” as María Zambrano would say, that is, to speak out in the public sphere.

Returning to Mary Beard, we agree on the cause of patriarchal intolerance: “It’s not what you say… it’s the fact you’re saying it.” Now Alas Tensas is also trying to go beyond the scope of symbolic representations that concern the “wanting to say,” leaving behind the abstract thought and the closed and more comfortable framework of the academy, to speak out in the public sphere.

Despite publishing our magazine from a small city like Ciego de Avila in the interior of Cuba, our work appears to have acquired a social and international dimension that means they cannot tolerate us. The mentality of the controller – one might also say kidnapper – is to keep us isolated, confined to the geographic and mental space they have delineated for us, so that the truth, our truth, is never known and loses relevance.

From our first editorial: “Alas Tensas Born in Cuba …” we have not hesitated to call Cuban society “macho and patriarchal,” because it has been bearing the weight of this for centuries. Then, we committed the “sin” of showing that in Cuba there are also women who are killed by sexist violence, at the hands of abusers, and for lack of preventive action. We revealed this in the chilling story: “Femicide must be told: Misleydis, murdered despite repeated complaints.”

We question, in short, the patriarchal tradition, the structural and naturalized hypocrisy, as we did in the article “Is International Women’s Day a day to celebrate?”

What we publish, being digital, can be read anywhere. It allows us to get in touch with feminists around the world and to expand something called sorority: brotherhood among women with a gender conscience. Those who have created Alas Tensas – Ileana, Francis, Yaudel, plus some members of the Editorial Board – belong to LASA (Latin American Studies Association), and we have participated in their academic congresses in New York (2016) and Lima (2017), always in the thematic area of “Sexualities, genres and feminist studies.”

The results of our research and panels prepared for such conferences have been published in our pages, for example “The current Cuban poetry written by women: Rebellion through ethnos and sexual orientation,” and “La Avellaneda in Martí: From somber judgment to the testimony of light.”

Similarly, of course, we must participate in the 36th LASA International Congress planned in Barcelona from May 23 to 26, since we put together the panel “History, feminism and feminist representations in Cuba. The new stories.” But – and we send this alert to the academic community – we cannot attend if they do not lift the unjust travel ban.

We have been told that now is not the “historical moment” conducive to our work. Entire generations have been postponing their dreams, their creativity, and engaging in self-censorship for the sake of when that historical moment arrives. While… life goes by, and we are surprised to find ourselves tired and aging, with our children scattered around the world, while we live off their remittances.

In these sixty years, society has experienced a constant dejà vu, repeating the same mistakes. Most live in a climate of fear, they cross to the other sidewalk every time they see someone who has “fallen into disgrace” as, in “their moment,” were Dulce María Loynaz and Virgilio Piñera.

In Cuba, in these decades, we have always seen the demonization of civil initiative: that which has not been created by official mandate. Today it happens to us, to almost all journalists and independent media. They accuse us of being cyber-mercenaries. They violate our privacy. They seize our equipment. They block our pages. They bring legal charges against us. They threaten us. They involve our families.

Thus, the names of Alas Tensas are joined today to many others also threatened or restricted. The list of those currently unable to travel continues to grow.

Feminists who know that the gender category intersects with other factors such as race, sexuality, religion, economy, ideology… should understand that, in our case, the harassment we suffer from doing journalism can not be separated from the fact of living in Cuba, in a province in the interior, away from the capital, writing with a gender focus and proclaiming ourselves explicitly feminist. For these reasons, our vulnerability increases.

We must remember that the first documented example of a man silencing a woman appears at the beginning of Western culture, in the Odyssey, when Telemachus reproaches his mother, Penelope, for daring to express her desire to hear a happier song among the bards. Then, he asks her to sequester herself: “Go in and do your work,” he says, “Stick to the loom and the distaff. Tell your slaves to do their chores as well. It is for men to talk; especially me. I am the master.*”

Some people, because they supposedly love and care for us –as Telemachus does his mother – beg us to remain silent for our own good. In that quietly spoken request we sense the repeated cry “Shut up …” from the masculine power that comes from above.

We advocate for our legitimate right to express ourselves freely, to make journalism attached to the truth and to be a feminist medium. And we thank the people of good will, from Cuba and the world, who join us in this demand.

*Emily Wilson translation, © 2018 

Menstruation Without Resources / Irela Casanas

Photo: Mar Lazcano

Alas Tensas/Tremenda Nota, Irela Casañas, 2 April 2018 — Every month something happens that causes me anguish, stress, fear… when my body warns that something is coming, I start looking through all the cabinets and drawers.

I head out to the informal markets, I go see my friends, I ask my mother if she can help me. I don’t bother to look in the shops because it doesn’t work for me: what I need is very expensive and comes in very small packages. On those critical days a tiny little package like that wouldn’t be worth much. continue reading

In short, even though I’m in my thirties, every month when I menstruate I feel as disoriented as a young girl on her first time. Why? Because this year the pharmacies haven’t even sold pads – we Cuban women call them ‘intimates’ – also known as ‘Brazilians,’ or ‘absorbents.’

And why don’t they sell what we need in Cuban pesos? Because the factory broke, because there are no raw materials, because there was an eclipse… In any event, something that should be routine and solvable is an anguish for Cuban women.

When they see me at home cutting up old pillowcases, worn out sheets, holey T-shirts… it is not to improvise a rope to escape through the window… no! It is to make my own pads and to be able to get through my day, go to work, and do the housework, keep going with my bloated belly and a wad of old cloth between my legs. My God! I should take a bath, have I already stained my jeans?!

I know that my monthly problem is multiplied by millions. And I know that if someone added it all up it would be alarming to see how much my country’s economy loses because of menstruation without supplies. Because sometimes it can’t be solved with old rags, and also because sometimes there is no aspirin to ease the pain.

What is lost in the personal economy we already know, and we all know it too well. The question is, will it always be like this? Does a natural event in our bodies have to be like a hurricane, an earthquake, a blizzard? Oh my great-grandmothers, when you were young at the beginning of the last century you had no idea!

Well I would not have suspected it either, when, as a teenager in a boarding school I tried to salvage my privacy during my period and I encouraged myself by thinking, “When I am an adult and I am working this will not be a problem.”

Woman Watchmaker, Yes, Why Not / Ileana Álvarez

Maria del Carmen, a woman watchmaker. Photography by Yaudel Estenoz

Alas Tensas/Tremenda Notas, Ileana Alvarez, 6 April 2018 — Fixing something in Cuba is difficult. You know you can’t throw anything away because tomorrow you may need it. As the days pass you are filling your room or drawers with these castoffs. Until the moment comes when need impels you to try to fix what is broken, even if it takes you all day.

Libertad Street is one of the main roads in the city of Ciego de Ávila, and there is a sign: “Watchmaker,” with the word in the feminine form. Yes, relojera, ending in “A” not relojero ending in “O,” as the people you ask for directions will tell you. continue reading

Six women are waiting in line: most of the customers are women. Maria del Carmen, the owner of the watch repair business, is the one who fixes the watches, the eyeglasses, the shoes… and perhaps it is also that men don’t trust women very much when they perform trades traditionally seen as men’s.

Maria del Carmen has a deep voice and large hands. While she works classical music plays in the background. She is one of the more than 150,000 self-employed women in Cuba. According to the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), one out of three self-employed people in Cuba are women, although it is estimated, in the absence of official data, that few are the owners of the businesses they run.

Maria del Carmen, now past 50, has been a watchmaker for less than three years, since her cousin Idalia taught her the business. She entered this world with her cousin and liked it so much that she believes she has far exceeded her teacher: “My teacher was Idalia, and I already have more customers than she does.”

It is not common to be a female watchmaker. It is not a tradition. Many people here tell you that it is strange, that they always ask her when the watchmaker will arrive. María del Carmen loves her job: “I’m passionate.” She gets enough to survive day-to-day, not much, but enough for her daily needs.

The problem is the lack of certainty, the scarcity of the raw materials is a great hindrance. She has to look for the parts, find a supplier, someone who travels and brings back what she needs, because in Cuba there is often no place to buy these things. This is a major inconvenience and costs her a lot of time.

Although, given the quality of service she provides, it seems that, at least until now, there is no shortage of customers. She works until 1:00 in the afternoon and says, “Sometimes when it’s quitting time I have to tell those waiting to come back tomorrow because I have to close.”

She is not teaching any other women. So far there isn’t anyone. “My descendants were my niece, and she left the country, like so many others. I would love to teach other women.”

And the taxes? “I am in the simplified regime, that is, the one where you do not have to pay ten percent.” She does not pay social security because she also works with the State as a consultant to ANEC [National Association of Economists and Accountants of Cuba], where she has a salary and provides services in economic consulting. She has a degree in Accounting and Finance, and also one in Chemistry. She learned the watchmaking trade separately.

There is a cheerful atmosphere at the watchmakers. (Yaudel Estenoz)

She would like to see more women performing jobs dominated by men. “Of course! Why not! To defend our gender, they already criticize us so much, and so they see that we capable of doing anything.”

Supposedly there is no discrimination, but indeed there is, and what there is, “I have suffered first hand.” To think that a woman can’t be a good watchmaker is also discrimination, in fact a great discrimination, because there are good female watchmakers, including some who are better than many men.

Maria has been told that she is one of these. You can see how women practice this profession with great care. Women’s ability to do the work with great patience, and to put so much love into it, is a great help in performing as watchmakers.

“We pay attention to details. We think long term. Look at these two watches that are ready now, but this on here isn’t fixed, it got damp and the whole mechanism is rusted. In any event, we don’t throw it away. You know, we can’t throw anything away. Also, it is very beautiful and perhaps we can fix it with the workings of another watch that isn’t as beautiful.”