Zoé Valdés, a Pen Like a Whip / Iván García

On one of those nights in Havana, when the sky is clear with a handful of stars as a witness, someone told me that the Castro brothers feel a particular hatred for three Cubans. The list, what a coincidence, three writers: Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Reinaldo Arenas and Zoé Valdés.

The resentment was so great, this person told me, that they even performed curses, with the bones of the dead and elephant tusks brought from African soil. I don’t think that’s true. But I have to admit that this woman from Havana, born with the Revolution on May 2, 1959, is feared by more than the Castros.

Zoé Valdés uses her pen like a whip. She usually fires high caliber bullets. Between prose and poetry, this woman with 22 published books and a collection of prizes in her Parisian bag, writes for the Spanish and European media. She has a personal blog and whoever wants to read or hear it will hear how she sees Cuba and the world, without any rose-colored glasses.

Her brain is directly connected to her tongue: critical, controversial and bold. At times vitriolic, most of the time gently. With a recurring dream: to walk with her daughter along Havana’s Malecon and through Old Havana’s cobblestone streets.

Valdés’s grudge is exactly that: Fidel Castro has usurped her Havana. And the sensitive and altruistic novelist will never forgive him. When the dark years have become a part of our past, perhaps Zoe will devote herself to writing children’s books. From her house in Paris, she has given us an interview.

La Nada Cotidiana (1995) (The Daily Nothing) has become one of the most read of your novels by Cubans on the island. Do you expect that El Todo Cotidiano (The Daily Everything), your latest novel, will be also?

“Although El Todo Cotidiano is not a continuation of La Nada Cotidiana, we can talk about it as Part Two, because the people, for the most part, are the same; We also find characters there who represent other exiles. I hope that many people in Cuba will read this novel, because my natural reader, despite the censorship and the ban on my books in Cuba, is the Cuban reader.

“This is a more thoughtful novel, choral, Pantagruelian, Gargantuan, where there is a great deal of humor but also the Cuban drama from both sides, without morals or moralizing, which is always expected — coming from both sides — of a Cuban novelist. My writing is absolutely subversive and amoral, where desire is the direct resource and freedom, in all its enormity, is the environment in which the characters are moved.

Was it the success of La Nada Cotidiana that led you to continue the saga?

“No, it wasn’t the success of La Nada Cotidiana that drove me to take up writing the novel El Todo Cotidiano. It was the character of Ida, who is the mother of Yocandra, in La Nada Cotidiana. This has partly to do with it being partially autobiographical, because the character has become a literary institution: when I could get my mother out of Cuba, after a great and traumatic effort caused by the Castro dictatorship, I lived with her for two years in Paris. She loved everything about this city, and lived as if she had forgotten the long years during which she had resisted and sacrificed under the Castro regime. She only remembered her life from before 1959, and was enormously appreciative of how she was living. But my mother was very sick, and she only enjoyed two years of freedom.

“As she was dying, she told me I should write this story, of those two years. It all started with her but at one point I needed Yocandra, that it, I used the daughter to better observe the grand the great transformation of a lady — her mother — who had to go into exile, fight the world, and who dares, and so then I had to resuscitate her (Yocandra), and the rest. I started writing and came to the point where it was telling me this was El Todo Cotidiano, that I was telling the daily lives of those Cubans in Paris, mixed with other exiles, from other places that had little to do with the island. And it was all very dramatic and also humorous, because they had already changed, they saw life differently, they were involved, including emotionally, with other realities, but the one thing that didn’t change was the island. So it was born, and in this way the cycle closes.”

On the island, there are those who see you as a feminine version of Guillermo Cabrera Infante, wielding the machete of slaughter against the Castros.

“Guillermo Cabrera Infante is one of my literary fathers, I think the most important. He was a friend, and still is, because through Miriam Gómez, his widow, we have continued codes of understanding, of love, of respect. She is a great friend, she has fought for his work, and she is a great Cuban, universal. My work is inspired in part by Guillermo, that is, in his Havana, but I tell my story, and also I constantly learn from François Rabelais. I deeply love Manuel Mujica Láinez, Lydia Cabrera. They are also literary parents, Then I have literary examples, which can even be my own age, or just a few years older. That’s the case with Reinaldo Arenas, who is two generations — if we count five years — ahead of mine.

“But Guillermo is the author I admire, and the friend, also very loved; for me it is a great honor to be compared with him. I think that we both assume the social and political commitment of the writer, but in reality, between us, we spoke little about it, we only discussed (he most of all) that marvelous Cuba that he lived, and literature and film. In France it is natural for writers to be politically involved with their opinions, even if they don’t belong to any party. This is something I essentially learned in France, where I knew what it meant to live in freedom. Something that for Cubans is extremely difficult.

“I also want to say something about being the machete — as you have called it — anti-Castro, it turns out it is not easy, no special resources are given, in fact it closes many doors, even today, when people want to believe, or see Cuba as a social example. I don’t see myself like that, as a machete, I only respond when someone asks me about politics. I am usually a calm person, but yes, I say what I think, and as I defend human rights for the world, I defend them for my country,  as I cannot defend them in the land where I was born. And I did it long before, from my world, that of literature and cinema, within Cuban in the 1980s and up to the mid 1990s.”

How do you see the situation in Cuba right now? What about the Cubans, including opponents, independent journalists and bloggers?

“I’m a hopeful pessimist in relation to Cuba, at the moment. Because I think that only with the passing of both brothers, number 1 and number 2, and the chaos that will remain, can we resolve the Cuban situation. I never expected anything of Raul Castro, because I know well how communist, totalitarian, countries work. And I will continue expecting nothing.

“But I think he has in his hands the possibilities of parting ways with his brother and delivering the country to the Cuban-Americans who have studied and lived under capitalism, and who have made fortunes, with which they could settle on the island, and in the end they are Cubans; and not, on the other hand, giving it over to the Chinese, the Russians, just for two examples.

“The exile of the political prisoners, and the continuing imprisonment of Biscet and others who have refused to accept exile, speaks to the real intentions of Raul Castro, who is fundamentally following the same hard line. You can’t expect anything else from a person who executed innocents from the first day of the Revolution or the Castro Revolt. The abnormal is how the world had already become accustomed to seeing the normal succession of the Castro-Communist-Dynasty, period. I just hope to see how things go, it can’t get any worse, and then the changes that will be caused by the laws of nature. We know they are preparing their children for the Castro legacy, but I’m not so sure people will put up with it.

“As for the opponents, the independent journalists and bloggers, I think they are all necessary, with their different points of view. Personally, however, I dismiss those who want to keep sucking, now “rebelliously,” at the tit of the Castro regime. I deeply regret that being anti-Castro has become a way of living. That said, I recognize those who have made our country great in recent times: the majority are black, loudly calling for freedom and democracy, without the Castros, and every day they are persecuted, beaten, tortured, imprisoned and murdered as was the case with Orlando Zapata Tamayo.”

Most Cuban exiles tend to keep alive the hope of returning to their homeland before they die. Is this one of your wishes?

“I would like to return, of course, but not to destroyed country. I have my tomb in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, together with my mother. For my eternal rest, I like this place. With the summer sun, and covered in snow in the winter. I am fascinated by snow. I travel a lot, I have other commitments with other people I also love and respect deeply. Thanks to my author’s royalties I am able to help in some places, as in the case of Haiti and Pakistan, I have been able to build shelters and schools for teenagers leaving prostitution. I speak very little of this, because I want to offer support in silence, and when I can, and now make some kind of public fanfare of this. I love Cuba deeply, it is my country, and I will return without any doubt. At the moment, for now, I only aspire to continue writing, to learn from other places, and to further integrate myself into this country that gave me the possibility of being truly free.

Finally, I wonder what is daily life like for Zoé Valdés and her family in the City of Light.

“I work night and day, I have never stopped working on a thousand things at once: my books, films, the production of the films of Ricardo Vega, my husband, and mine, and also the art gallery. I get up and then turn to my notebooks and the computer, later I work on other issues that have nothing to do with my books, I return to writing and I read very late into the night. Ricardo also has his work and our daughter is at school.

“I love Paris, it is a city that each day brings something new, culturally and from all points of view. I could not live in the future without this city. Although I said the same about Havana. What happens is that Havana lives inside me, inside my dreams, and my nightmares. You will notice when you read El Todo Cotidiano, and I think you will really enjoy it.”

Iván García

October 6, 2010