Guest Blog: Molly Rosenbaum on Capturing Cuba through Literature

In an interview with The Independent, popular, Cuban, mystery writer, Leonardo Padura discussed writing and Havana. He is quoted as saying, “As a Cuban writer, I have a certain responsibility because our reality is so specific and so hard for many people. I have a responsibility to reflect something of my world”.[1] The world he tries to capture, how he does so, and how it is received is exactly the world I hope to study—a Havana that is both real and imagined, a shared community and a truly personal place, and one that is dominated by relationships and identities created through literature.

Recent literary criticism has pointed out that fiction allows room for the reader to claim authorship over the text and to imagine and challenge their sense of self and their world. As Barthes writes of a “text of bliss”, “the text imposes a state of loss, the text discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles the reader’s historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language”.[2] I hope to create a study that takes theory from literary criticism and literary history and uses anthropological methods, such as observation, participant observation, formal, and informal interviews, to understand the way writers and readers interact with fiction, and to observe and experience the ways they create imagined relationships with each other, the literary characters, and the world of the text in general.

Thinking through theories of anthropology of literature and the imagination, Cuba immediately seemed like an ideal field site. Cuba is a literary hub for Latin American fiction, with organizations like Casa de Las Américas publishing literature regularly in their eponymous journal, as well as awarding a prestigious, annual literary prize to writers of the area. Cuba also has a rich literary history, from the literacy campaign after the revolution that led to a 99.8% literacy rate to traditions like los lectores, the women and men who read aloud to workers in tobacco factories. Today, due to the lack of publishing resources, literature is oftentimes still shared orally at informal meetings, tertulias or peñas, creating a really unique performative literary culture.

Cuba is also an interesting focus for studying identity, imagination and memory. Due to its location, it occupies a unique position between or within both the Caribbean and Latin America. It is also a nation-state with a large diasporic population, who has carried memories and Cuban traditions throughout the world, creating little Cubas in places like the US, especially Miami and New York, and Spain. It is a place that has changed politically so much over the last 150 years, but also a place that has stayed relatively the same physically in terms of infrastructure, especially in Havana, over the last 60 years. These different landscapes allow for multiple imagined versions of Cuba to exist and are oftentimes reflected in literature.

As I am try to contribute to the new, but growing, study of literature and literary culture in anthropology, I will focus specifically on the participants in the creation of fiction and poetry: authors, their characters and their audience. Before leaving for the field, I’ve been reading Cuban literature – authors such as José Lezama Lima, Alejo Carpentier, José Martí, Leonardo Padura, and Pedro Juan Gutiérrez – because it allows me to imagine more about the place to which I will soon be traveling: the sights, smells, the neighborhoods and people I will encounter. Once I arrive, I will see how my imagined Havana relates to the place I experience.

Molly Rosenbaum is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of St Andrews. Her areas of interest are Literary Anthropology, Anthropology of the Imagination, and Caribbean and Latin American Studies. She can be emailed at

Thanks so much to Molly for writing such an interesting Guest Blog for us here at SALSA – best of luck with the research & maybe another blog when you’re back from Cuba…

Photo credits & citations:

El Lector Postcard – no citation found

Ruins in Havana — © 2008-2011 OHWOW

La Moderna Poesia – no citation necessary

[1] Jakeman, Jane. “Leonardo Padura’s revolution in crime.” 7 February, 2015.

[2] Barthes, Roland. 1975 (1973). The Pleasure of the Text. trans. Richard Miller. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

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