Interview with writer Angel Santiesteban
Jorge Ángel Pérez
Jorge Ángel Pérez, HAVANA, Cuba, 23 November 2015 – Angel Santiesteban has authored one of the most outstanding works of our literature. For that, he has received numerous awards in Cuba and abroad. As a young man he won the UNEAC Prize with the book “Dream of a Summer Night,” and then the Alejo Carpentier prize with “The Children Nobody Wanted.” This title also served as the name for his blog, with which he has been expressing himself in recent years. “Blessed Are Those Who Mourn” was also prizewinner with the “Casa de las Americas award.”
After this brief recount, anyone unfamiliar with his work would say he is a “lucky one” but the truth is that he always gets what is most important: the laurel of his readers. Life in prison is one of his recurring themes. Whoever starts reading his texts will discover it from the first line in many of his narrative pieces. It turns out that he was already in jail twice, and in a bunch of police stations. About prison and his work we talk for a long time, in my house, a few days ago. And now, while I transcribe our conversation, I learned that he was nominated by Reporters Without Borders to receive the Citizen Reporter award which was just awarded to a group of Ethiopian bloggers.
Jorge Ángel Pérez: Angel, not many Cuban writers have lived through the hell of prison for two terms. Were they useful for the writer those two stays?
Angel Santiesteban: Prison has been a rare source of “food”, describing the events I experienced, what I witnessed, turns out to be my armor. Thanks to writing I did not lose my head. I think living intensely those instants gave my writing great spontaneity. A writer of great imagination can write a great book without the need to be locked up, but we cannot deny that anyone who was there will tell it more openly …
Jorge Ángel Pérez: This is proved by your books and “Men Without Women”, by Montenegro
Angel Santiesteban: I think so. Being in prison helped me have the spontaneity and sincerity required in literature. That openness will always remain. That is why as I walked those two times to that hell, I thought of the stories I could find, how would they serve my work. To think that I was in search of material to write saved me, it made less harsh those stay.
Jorge Ángel Pérez: Finding those stories …
Angel Santiesteban: I found them there and they were the ones that saved me. Going to jail is like going to war. The prisoner and the soldier have much in common. The two are away from home. The two are withdrawn. Both have sexual desires they cannot fulfill. The two are under military control and that can be abusive and impose itself, often in a humiliating manner. Every day you are in danger of losing your life; in prison by the hands of a criminal and in war the enemy can kill you.
Jorge Ángel Pérez: While there you found stories that would serve you later, but the truth is you did not go voluntarily to rummage in jail and in prisoners’ behavior.
Angel Santiesteban: I went because I was led, bound. The last time I went to jail because I believed, and still believe, I could do something for my country to be better, to make it democratic. Fidel once said that a better world was possible, and I went to seek a better world, to look for that better Cuba. That cost me jail. Because I wanted to get that world I began in my house, in this country that I love. My literary teachers had told me that the important thing was to write, it was my work I should look after, the first thing was to write, and publish, get readers. Write, write and write. Many friends, and those teachers, they thought a writer does not have to do anything else.
Jorge Ángel Pérez: And don’t you think so?
Angel Santiesteban: No, I don’t think so. That’s a lie, although I believed it for many years. For a long time I devoted myself only to writing. I put together my work, I published books and keep quiet …because of fear.
Jorge Ángel Pérez: And where did you leave that fear?
Angel Santiesteban: It is still with me. It never left, but I learned to accommodate it. It never forsakes me the fear of going to jail. There you can die in an instant, and that’s terrible. Fear comes when I think that I can not be with my children and with my family at the moment they need me the most. Imagining that moment impress me a lot. It scares me to think of the possibility of they getting sick and can not help them. My daughter did not attend college when I was arrested the last time and that made me feel responsible.
Jorge Ángel Pérez: And who was responsible?
Angel Santiesteban: Viewed in a simply way it should be me, but the real blame lies with those who arrested me. It was the unjust detention what distressed me. It was the possibility that her father went to jail again that made her sad, because of that she decided not to go to the classroom, because of that she missed the class, because of that she will have to justify her absence.
I imagine how many times she thought she would have to go back to visit the prison to accompany her father in his confinement. Who are the real culprits for her distress? Is it me? It makes me very happy she studies. I want her to graduate, and nourish her desire to study, but a young student will not feel very comfortable in a classroom knowing her father is imprisoned unjustly.
It was also distressing when I saw them coming to the prison. Seeing seventeen or eighteen kids visiting an inmate is not comforting. My first confinement had to do with my accompanying my family to the shore line when they wanted to leave the country for good. I ended up in prison, but I had no children. The last time they were grown already and they studied.
Their father was arrested for going around seeking democracy. And they knew what that could cost me.
Jorge Ángel Pérez: What is democracy for you?
Angel Santiesteban: Speaking my mind out loud and that nobody bothers me. Saying what I want and that everyone understands that this right exists and it pertain to all of us, that everyone understands that there are different ideas the ones professed by our rulers. Is it so difficult to understand that? I think it’s good to talk, and that the differences you have with those in power do not take you to jail. That’s democracy for me.
Jorge Ángel Pérez: And are you willing to talk to get this democracy?
Angel Santiesteban: Of course, that what this is all about. I can talk to a Communist if he is able to listen to me respectfully, if he allows me to act according to my principles. I have that right, although they take it from me I know I have it. I can also talk with a liberal. I can converse with those in power and those who oppose to them even though we don’t agree on everything. I wouldn’t talk to those fomenting terrorism. In that table I want to defend my right to express myself. If I have a political activity now is because I intend to find that democracy where everyone can live in, even with their differences. I would love it if in the future someone talks about me, that if I am just mentioned in one line , that’s what they say about me.
Jorge Ángel Pérez: And about your writing?
Angel Santiesteban: I prefer it is talk before the effort I put into getting the dialogue, about my dreams of democracy, it must say that I faced those who would not let me express myself. That I want, and it must be said very briefly in just one line.
Jorge Ángel Pérez: Just recently you were arrested in a police station. Why?
Angel Santiesteban: All I can say will be a speculation, everything would be an assumption. I don’t have the truth. I think it was something more than a threat, they intended to revoke my probation, which would take me back to jail.
Jorge Ángel Pérez: Why do you think that?
Angel Santiesteban: I was told there was a complaint from my ex-wife, the mother of my son. They showed it to me and I recognized her signature, but she told our son she had not accused me. They could forge her signature to intimidate me. I haven’t seen her in a long time, so there was not such a threat, but then (freelance journalist) Maria Matienzo went to the police station inquiring about me, and she was told I was imprisoned for armed robbery, however (Antonio) Rodiles was told the same thing they said to me; that I broke into the home of the mother of my child.
They never agreed among themselves to give the reasons for the arrest. I believe, and this remains an assumption, that it all had to do with a text I wrote the day before being arrested denouncing the imprisonment of Lamberto Hernandez Planas, where I commented on his hunger strike, the risks for his health, and I also demanded his immediate release.
Everything has to do with my political activities, my opposition. I did not threaten anyone and much less committed an armed robbery.
Jorge Ángel Pérez: What happened afterward?
Angel Santiesteban: Afterwards my son tells me that his mother had not accused me, certainly the ones who had arrested me knew, they stopped showing the alleged accusation of my ex. The next day I was taken to the provincial court. When we arrived, the police officers accompanying me wanted to know in which room the trial would be held and someone said to take me to an office. There the president of the court was waiting for me and told me that my freedom had been revoked. There was a brief silence and then she continued. She said that despite the revocation order she would set me free, and suggested that I behave, that I should behave.
Jorge Ángel Pérez: And do you think you could go to prison again?
Angel Santiesteban: Maybe, but I hope the excuse to be less dubious that the one that took me to jail last time. If they were less awkward they should send me, if there was a next time, on a fellowship in Paris or Berlin. Never to jail. That’s the worst thing you can do with a writer. Can you imagine what you could write there?
Jorge Ángel Pérez: I do not want to imagine it, it frightens me.
Angel Santiesteban: A writer will write everything he sees, everything will serve him. A criminal will hear the stories of others and perhaps they will serve him for the next wrongdoing, but a writer will analyze every detail, every gesture, every story, and then he will not be able to resist, he will write, and people will read it, people will find out what happens there.
Being in prison is like walking through the bowels of the country. Imagine that reader when reading those rotten descriptions. Everything I saw nourish that desire to write, to publish in my blog, to write stories, to do what I think is best for my country. There I wrote a lot. I wrote stories, from that stay in jail came out a novel. From the stories they told me during those hours I spent at the police station could emerge many narrative pieces. And there’s also my blog. From there I will continue telling, without stopping, without them get me to stop.
Published in Cubanet
Translated by: Rafael