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Comparative Literature Studies 40.2 (2003) 127-141

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Translational Backformations:
Authenticity and Language In Cuban American Literature

Lori Ween

The creation of Cuba as a national image within literature of the United States is a contested, emotionally charged issue for the Cuban-American community. Because of the nation-building power inherent in works of literature, reviewers, critics, and readers pay close attention to how images of communities circulate, and especially to those communities with identities that are tendentious or fragile. Cuban-American literary creation and its tie to a national identification is a source of tension among the various groups wishing to claim ownership both of the island and of its various manifestations within the United States. Within her novel, Dreaming in Cuban (1992), Cristina García examines the struggles inherent in a search for Cuban identity and memory through the character of Pilar, who muses, "every day Cuba fades a little more inside me. And there's only my imagination where our history should be." 1 Authors like García, who writes her novels in English as she translates Cuban-American culture for an audience primarily unaware of the intricacies of Cuban history, deal with issues such as the impossible contradictions inherent in the desire to return to a singular and unchanging place of origin, the invention of an acceptable community story that reflects the multiplicity of political and social Cuban stances, and the tension that surfaces between a search for an authentic image and the inevitable forces of creativity and change within any successful translation. Any idea of originary culture and real Cuban (or Cuban-American) identity is especially complicated by the physical and psychological distance between Cuba and the United States, and by the difficulty in achieving a dialogue between the two nations.

Dreaming in Cuban tells the story of the Del Pinos, a family divided by Cuban politics and exile and brought back together by the strong bonds of family history and destiny. Lourdes Del Pino leaves Cuba for the United [End Page 127] States, enjoying wholeheartedly the wonders of American consumerism and rejecting the passionate Cuban pride of her mother, Celia. Lourdes' daughter, Pilar, is drawn back to her grandmother, both in her dreams and in an actual visit to Cuba, and she rediscovers Cuban identity by embracing her grandmother's familial stories. García's next novel, The Agüero Sisters (1997), involves us in the story of two sisters, Reina and Constancia Agüero, and their search for the true story of the twisted love, passion, and violence of their parents. Reina and Constancia represent two drastically different attitudes towards Cuban identity: Reina, who remains in Cuba, devotes herself to la revolución as a feisty, tough electrician, while Constancia moves to Miami and sells nostalgia to Cuban refugees in the form of her Cuerpo de Cuba beauty products.

This article analyzes not the novels themselves, but various critical reactions to them. These critical reactions, I will show, depend on a view of the texts as "translational backformations," by which I refer to the situation that occurs when a text is translated "back" into the originary language of the culture about which it has been written. Even though many Cuban-American novels are written in English, critics often present the works as a translation in the original since they assume that the events presented have already been coded in Spanish and recoded into English. However, rather than an uncovering (or discovering) the original meaning of the words and images, the translation "back" into Spanish adds yet another layer of recoding and recreating to the text.

There exists a certain ambivalence within the Cuban-American community that complicates the designation of a cultural role model or creator: the particular status of Cuban Americans as refugees sets them apart from many other ethnic groups and incites a protective stance towards images of Cuba and possibilities of reconciliation. As Cuban Americans begin to write in English and to assimilate into American culture, there is apprehension that this U.S.-based cultural production will close off the possibility...


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