14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Camagüey, 17 February 2018 — When the list of Cuban writers excluded from the National Literature Prize is drawn up, Rafael Almanza Alonso will have to be placed at the top. An intellectual too Catholic in his ethics, very avant-garde in his work and excessively civic in his social activity to be promoted by cultural institutions.
In his house on Rosario street in the city of Camagüey, Almanza has woven his own cosmogony of gatherings, discussions and writing, sometimes signed under the pseudonym of Ráfaga. He has ranged from a poet to researcher of the work of José Martí, narrator, literary and art critic, opera librettist, cultural animator, curator, independent journalist, editor, videographer and teacher of writers, artists and reporters.
With no official prizes to his name, last week Almanza was awarded the Gastón Baquero National Prize for Independent Literature, which encourages “literary independence,” as explained by the organizers of the award: the La Rosa Blanca Institute, the Club of Independent Writers of Cuba and the Puente a la Vista project.
However, with a mischievous smile, the author confesses that he was not even aware that the prize existed before receiving it. “I accepted it because I have a lot of confidence in the friends who recommended me and because they told me that the prize is justified by my work and attitude towards life.”
About to turn 61, the Camagüeyano is still a child. Everything he does or says has the trace of a childish prank. “I like that it has been based on attitude, but if it includes the work, even better, because most of what I have written remains unpublished or has been published in the United States in practically symbolic editions that few have been able to read.”
He is referring to the Ediciones Homagno project, organized by friends and writers who collaborate in the nonprofit publication of their volumes and those of other authors.
The son of a baker and a primary teacher, the first things he read, starting at six, were in the pages of La Edad de Oro (The Golden Age), a children’s magazine founded by José Martí. When he was nine he was already convinced that he would be a writer. He saw Martí himself as a model to remain “attentive to the problems of the country.”
He explains, “Practically since I was a child I believed that a writer must have a civic attitude, I am not a politician and I do not think I have the qualities to be one. Had I had them, perhaps right now I would be imprisoned or dead.”
But Almanza does not confuse his lack of political ambition with indifference. “My function is to try to make good literature with enormous challenges and at the same time keep my dignity.” The mere fact of handling words and ideas, of being better informed than most people, establishes an intellectual challenge that must be obeyed.
He believes that most of the great Cuban writers have maintained a civic stance, including Gastón Baquero himself. “In my opinion he was the representative of the generation of the group [that founded Orígenes [magazine] with the higher purpose of communicating, to the people, their ideas of what the nation should be and their ideas about the ideological world of their time.”
The poet does not beat around the bush: “In a country like this where we live in total moral passivity, writers have a role to play: People like Ángel Santiesteban and Rafael Alcides have shown that it is possible to fulfill that duty, even at an enormous price, and also to remain in Cuba, instead of leaving to look for a future that may be better, but that distances us from our civic duties.”
In response to the classic question of how this prize encourages him in his work, he bluntly replies: “I will not stop writing with a prize or without a prize, but when a group of free Cubans recognizes me, that is a huge encouragement. I have chosen to be absolutely marginal, to be a stranger, but marginality does not have to be perpetual.”
With the permanent hint of a smile drawn on his face, Rafael Almanza looks like a playful elf. His house, which suffers being in the vicinity of a bustling bakery, exhibits a dilapidated 30-foot-wide facade with a wide door and plaster at the point of total collapse in several places.
Many young people with literary pretensions come to show the teacher their achievements. However, his contemporaries do not visit him. “They have a terrible fear, although in reality I have to admit that it is not convenient for them to come here,” he says, and then he proudly points out his private heraldry, formed by a series of shields that young artists have given him. He has them hanging from the eaves of the inner courtyard. He looks at them with love and proclaims: “There is my protection.”
Almanza does not like to talk about what remains for him to do, but rather what he has already done. He has now finished the multimedia version of his poetry book HymNos, which was originally published in a 536-page copy in 2014 by Ediciones Homagno.
The colossal work was close to having a more wide-reaching publisher but, according to its author, “the organizers of the International Book Fair in Miami last year did not like it, it must have been because there are hymns to the glory of God and because they did not know that there were also things that were not exactly divine.”
As he is already on the threshold of old age, some might confuse Almanza with an old fuddy-duddy, but he sees himself as “a 21st century boy” who is happy to use the tools of modernity.
The nine gigabytes consumed by the multimedia version of HymNos includes two documentaries, seven sound recordings, more than one hundred photos and 14 videos. The missing step is the financing to copy the work and distribute it. “Everything fits on three DVDs. You might think that the DVD is outdated, but that will be in New York, not in Cuba.”
For those who doubt that Almanza is still alive and kicking after so much official snubbing, the writer doesn’t mince words: “It’s as if I had creativity Viagra. I am reviewing an article for that excellent magazine called Indolence in Cuba that should appear under the title of Mulata Metaphysics or Viagra on the Ration Book.“
Since humor reigns in the magazine, Almanza suggests that every Cuban man over 60 should be allocated at least two viagra pills a month on the ration book. “In what I have managed to achieve, I feel satisfied with my life, being a writer and teacher. This is how I most enjoy using my energy, writing, being useful and looking for problems.”
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.