- Racial Experiments in Cuban Literature and Ethnography by Emily A. Maguire,
This book is an insightful analysis of the interrelationship in Cuba between literature and ethnography in the construction of a discourse on nation. Emily Maguire bases her study on the claim by Cuban literary critic Gilberto González y Contrera, in his 1936 article “La poesía negra” (“Black Poetry”), that “Black Poetry” in Cuba during the ’20s and ’30s, seen at the time as a literary fad, was a cultural production with profound implications. In this article, the Cuban critic asserts that “Black Poetry” in Cuba was not folklore, but a representation of Cuba’s present, and of “the roots of popular life.” Therefore, he claimed, “Black Poetry” writers were “artist-ethnographers” because their production was informed by interdisciplinary studies and new experimentations on ethnography. Following González y Contreras’s observations, and remembering that Cuba became an independent nation only in 1902, Maguire analyzes how writers in Cuba “forged a unique space in which to imagine the nation precisely through diverse creative experiments from both ethnographic and literary discourses” (4).
The author explores how literary texts (mostly poetry) and research on Afro-Cuba published since the early decades of the twentieth century sought to create a particular image of Cuba as a nation. Maguire challenges Doris Summer’s notion that “narrative form becomes a textual stage on which national tensions are played out or resolve through romance” (5), and suggests that in the case of Cuba, narratives are not the only form by which writers enact an image of nationhood. Each chapter explores different ways in which other kinds of writings, as ethnography and poetry, present an idea of nation “that takes into account the paradoxical exigencies of the Cuban situation” (6). Taking into account the notion that afrocubanismo is an expression of nationhood, Maguire proposes that Afro-Cuban studies and literature harnessed and, at the same time, neutralized cultural blackness for the purpose of identifying Cuba as a modern nation.
Central to each chapter is Lydia Cabrera’s work of fiction (short stories) and her ethnographic research on Afro-Cuban religions, which the author compares to the work of other Cuban writers. The author explains that she chose Cabrera’s texts as interlocutors for this study because her texts are a discursive experimentation to construct race in Cuba, and because by contrasting Cabrera’s texts with the production of other Cuban writers, the author hopes to show that the dialogue on race in republican Cuba is a dynamic and contradictory discourse, never a static or a unified discourse on race and nation. Furthermore, Cabrera’s work, especially her Cuentos negros de Cuba, was a momentous production in Cuban literary history, and her ethnographic research was foundational for other writers in pre- and in post-revolutionary Cuba. Since Lydia Cabrera was born in Cuba in 1900, and she died in 1991, in exile, the span of her life extends through most of Cuba’s history in the twentieth century, and her publications are a central part of the conversation on race and nation since the early years of the republic until the end of the century in Cuba. [End Page 195]
The author’s exploration of the notion of poet-ethnographers—the interrelationship between literature and ethnography in Cuba—begins by contrasting Fernando Ortiz’s writings with Lydia Cabrera’s Cuentos negros de Cuba (1936). This chapter, “Locating Afro-Cuban Religion: Fernando Ortiz and Lydia Cabrera,” analyzes paradoxes and differences in their writings, and introduces a certain anxiety pertaining to gender in the discourse on race and gender. The second chapter, “Beyond Bongos in Montmartre: Lydia Cabrera and Alejo Carpentier Imagine Blackness,” compares Lydia Cabrera’s Cuentos negros de Cuba and Carpentier’s novels Écue Yamba-Ó and El reino de este mundo. In these two first chapters, the author proposes that while Ortiz, Cabrera, and Carpentier create a place for Blackness in the discourse on nation, they also affirm social difference and articulate a certain anxiety about the relationship between Blackness and nation.