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Reviewed by:
  • Afro-Cuban Tales
  • Gloria J. Morrissey
Afro-Cuban Tales. By Lydia Cabrera. Trans. Alberto Hernández-Chiroldes and Lauren Yoder. Intro. to the English edition by Isabel Castellanos; intro. to the Spanish edition by Fernando Ortiz. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. Pp. vii + 169.)

Lydia Cabrera's Afro-Cuban Tales, finally published in English, provides a connection to the cultural presence of displaced Africans in Cuba. Originally published in Spanish in 1940, the collection finds its voice in English through this translation by Alberto Hernández-Chiroldes and Lauren Yoder. This collection represents the literary offspring of the ethnographer and the culture, and it exemplifies the potential value of the sympathetic commitment of the individual to the material collected. Cabrera collected these tales under the guidance of her brother-in-law and recognized scholar, Fernando Ortiz, but anecdotal evidence suggests that Cabrera had a gift for eliciting tales, fables, and histories from her informants that surpassed her brother-in-law's efforts in the field.

In his introduction to the Spanish edition of the tales, which has been translated for this English edition, Ortiz refers to a variety of factors. He connects the tales to Yoruba roots while acknowledging the influence of white culture (p. xvi). Further, he addresses the vexed issue of transmission, noting that the informant was likely to have received these stories "from her ancestors in a mixed Afro-Spanish language," which then had to be translated by Cabrera "into a more intelligible form of Spanish" (p. xv). Documentation suggests that Cabrera had a special affinity for her informants, which permitted an honest transcription of the tales. At the same time, Ortiz suggests that the process of transmission precludes an untainted connection to the mother continent. These considerations reflect the problems that attend the transmission [End Page 239] of cultural tales over time and space. Certainly the evidence suggests that Cabrera received these tales in a particular period and circumstance, so the tales do not duplicate stories from the homeland but reveal meaningful referents in the new country. Ortiz asserts, "This collection of stories opens a new chapter in Cuban folk literature" (p. xv).

In her introduction to the English edition, Isabel Castellanos offers another perspective on Cabrera's tales. She remarks on Cabrera's privileged background as an upper-class white woman with the means to study in France. Nonetheless, Cabrera's curiosity led her to explore the nuanced background of her native Cuba and to openly engage with individuals outside her color and class. With Ortiz's guidance, that curiosity drove her to collect this assortment of tales. Castellanos states that the tales are not always simply collected but often are Cabrera's inventions, deeply informed by Afro-Cuban antecedents (p. x). In short, Castellanos argues that Cabrera is faithful to the worldview of her informants, but she "juggles" the details.

Such arguments torture the work itself and bring its authenticity into question. The gaps among the informant's discourse, the ethnographer's notes, the transcription into French and Spanish, and the possible literary intrusions by Cabrera—all these considerations reflect the possibilities of historic and cultural schism. Nonetheless, in the absence of any other evidence and based on biographical evidence, Cabrera's tales can be said to be a scholarly and coherent effort to honestly record Afro-Cuban folklore and preserve a fluid history of displaced Africans in Cuba.

The translation of the tales is lively and informative. The translation itself reflects a highly oral antecedent, which resists rewriting on the part of Cabrera. Even though this edition is a translation from the Spanish, the style, sparseness, and oral narrative mode collapse the distance from Spanish to English and, more importantly, reflect the ethnographer's attention to accuracy and detail. In fact, even in translation, Cabrera's tales reflect the ethnographer's specificity in lieu of the writer's invention.

Cabrera's work is a contribution to the larger field of Afro-Caribbean literature and folklore. The tales are particularly luminescent when considered against the darkness of national Cuban isolation and the absence of Cuban literature and culture in the postcolonial period. However fixed in time, Cabrera's stories reflect a...


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