Photo by Adam Jones, adamjones.freeservers.com, via Wikimedia Commons
In June of 2010, almost 3,000 miles from Cuba, Dr. Sara E. Cooper decided to establish a literary press that would specialize in translating Cuban women's books. Female writers began to earn a place in the country's literary history after the Cuban Revolution in the mid-20th century: The establishment of compulsory education—as well as the establishment of the Federation of Cuban Women in 1960—led to higher literacy rates and an increased role of women in society. (Because of government mandates, the country has a reputation for being progressive on women's issues.) Over time, these factors led to women addressing issues of sexuality and the traditional gender roles, which led to female authors figuring prominently in the vibrant literary scenes of Havana and Cuba.
Because of longstanding politics, however, this hasn't quite translated to Cuban artists and writers having careers in the United States—which is where Cooper's nonprofit publishing project, Cubanabooks, comes in. Cooper, a professor of Spanish and multicultural and gender studies at Chico State University in California, says she started the press because, as a professor, "it's a bear to try to get contemporary Cuban literature, especially by women."
What professors usually have to do when trying to teach a Cuban book is photocopy pages for their students, which puts them in nebulous legal space in terms of copyright and author compensation. Cuban literature has been taught in the US, but because of the trade embargo against Cuba, teachers couldn't order the books for their campus bookstores, so the authors weren't getting compensated when their work was studied. While many authors (or authors' estates) generate significant incomes from steady royalties when schools buy a new round of books every year, Cuban authors couldn't be ordered in bulk. One of Cubanabooks' more prominent authors, and one of the rare ones to have been allowed into the United States to read her work and participate in discussions, is Georgina Herrera, who has worked in radio and written short stories, novels, and plays that mostly emphasize female and Afro-Cuban perspectives. Through translator, writer, and Cuba expert Julie Schwietert Collazo, Herrera told me that Cubanabooks is "a miraculous door of love that opens up to readers. It's a whole other language."
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Cooper first began trying to get Cuban women translated and published in the United States in a more traditional way, by pitching the idea to publishers. According to Cooper, Akashic Press, Arte Público Press, and even PMLA, the Publication of Modern Language Arts, (all fairly academic presses dedicated to international literature) turned her down. They were concerned either that the work wasn't right for their particular Cuban list, or that they didn't have a Cuban list in the first place and didn't think their existing Latin American audience would be interested. In most cases, it boiled down to the publishers' worry that they couldn't sell enough copies to make the project financially viable. Another feminist publisher was extremely interested in Cooper's mission in general, and in Mirta Yáñez's work in particular, but asked for a novel rather than the book of short stories that Cooper pitched—a common request, as novels sell better than short story collections. However, they rejected Yáñez's novel because the narrator was male. One of the Big Five publishers—Cooper declined to say which—also turned down Yáñez's book, deeming it too smart and complex for an American audience."And then," Cooper says, "there were the ideological problems."
According to Cooper, many first wave immigrants from Cuba consider themselves exiles and align with the American conservative right. "For the most part, that first wave of immigration was very highly educated, professional, driven, and with resources," she says. "Many of them had been traveling to the United States for years, had bank accounts here, were educated here, and were able to slip into professional positions really very easily in many cases. They were the upper classes that had been raised to believe in their power and their place in a hierarchy, so we have very successful Cuban politicians here in the United States, professors at universities, business owners, etc., and they maintain excellent communications in media to put forth their perspective." This led, Cooper elaborates, to Cuban literature—from Cuba, not by Cuban-Americans—rarely being taught in universities in the US. The theoretically perfect audience for such literature was alienating itself from anything written on the island, unless it was subversive or dissident work.
Cooper had been translating Yáñez since 1997, though, and she believed in her mission: helping disseminate work by Cuban women and raising awareness of their stories. Without many good translations of Cuban works—and without Cuban books available to the US public—Cooper set out to create them, as she is a translator herself, and decided to open her own press. "I was incredibly naïve and I had no idea what I was getting myself into," she says. She took on extra courses during teaching breaks in order to finance printing costs.Payment to authors was very hard from the beginning, especially as in 2010, when the press was founded, Raúl Castro had yet to take over from Fidel, and Cuba was still under US economic and political embargo; even now, the borders are opening up slowly to trade and tourism with the US. Getting authors across that narrow pond and having their visas approved was another hurdle, and Cooper had to pay for the authors' travel, if they were ever able to come to the US. Another difficulty lay in US citizens traveling to Cuba to conduct business with the Cubanabooks authors. Cooper communicated with authors via email, but it was impossible to ship things to Cuba from the United States. So for the official stuff, Cooper used a network of friends and acquaintances who traveled to Cuba and made themselves available to take care packages, messages, contracts, author copies, and cash. These publisher–mules were legal, as the materials they transferred were going directly to the authors as a cultural exchange, in American dollars, and not to the Cuban government.
For so many years the United States has been the forbidden place.
Many of the authors that Cubanabooks works with are successful in Cuba in terms of having been published numerous times, and have often even been translated abroad. Cooper points out, though, that Cubans and North Americans share the cultural assumption that in order to be truly successful, you have to be successful in the United States. "Especially," Cooper explains, "because for so many years the United States has been the forbidden place. This is where they couldn't get in, and that's despite being only 90 miles from the shores of Florida." Mirta Yáñez told me that she "had the privilege of having had an excellent translation" and that making her work more known in the US, quite apart from "market interests or other limitations that affect traditional publishers," has had a significant impact on her. She stressed that she's particularly grateful for Cubanabooks' editing and publishing "Cuban writers who live IN Cuba."
Yáñez subtly echoes Cooper's worry about the need for "real" Cuban voices to be heard, as Cooper wrote on Cubanabooks' blog. Cooper has seen Cubans involved in literature and theater trying to make their work more palatable to tourists and foreigners. Additionally, Cooper said has seen Cuban writers who are writing specifically to be picked up by foreign publishers—North American especially—and thus, she feels, not expressing a "real" Cuban experience, but rather one that plays into stereotypes. (Meanwhile, however, Cooper primarily publishes established Cuban writers, as they are the ones that will garner most interest in the US at the moment.)
It's given me the opportunity to be read in places outside Cuba.
Like many small presses, Cubanabooks pays both its authors and translators an advance, which is $300. While this may be a paltry sum to the translators if they live in the US, and although the Cuba's dual-currency system is complicated, it's fair to say $300 in Cuba goes a lot further than $300 in the US. Once the books earn out the advance, the author and translator each get ten percent royalties on all further book sales. As for Cooper herself, the coming year will ideally see her contributing only 50 percent of the press's funds, as opposed to the last five years, during which she's been the main investor in the press. As the fund advisor of a nonprofit, she isn't allowed to earn a penny from the press—she can't even be compensated for her own travel. Her other staff can theoretically—should it turn a profit—earn a salary.
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For many of the authors, though, the payoff is still significant. Aida Bahr, another of Cubanabooks' writers, wrote that although she already had some foreign editions on the market, "Cubanabooks is more accessible to people who live outside of Cuba, especially those who live in Europe, those who aren't Spanish-speaking, and those who live in Canada."I've received feedback from very diverse readers, and this has given me deep satisfaction," Bahr contined. Zurelys López Amaya sees the press's ideological standpoint as well. "Cubanabooks is a humanitarian project that seeks a global reach, one without censorship or obstacles. It's a project with a noble spirit, one that seeks to support the work of Cuban female writers, among them some who aren't really well-known yet. For me, it's had a social and cultural impact, one that unites all Cuban women writers. It's given me the opportunity to be read in places outside Cuba. I can say that I believe in this project with total confidence. I believe in Sara Cooper."