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How a Cuban Writer Defied Censors and Became a Latin American Literature Icon

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This essay was written in support of the documentary "Letters to Eloisa," a "VOCES" film about José Lezama Lima.

José Lezama Lima and his multiple roles as an acclaimed poet, literary theorist, novelist, and magazine editor had a significant impact on shaping Cuban literature as we know it today. With his work, which has reached audiences globally, Lezama sought to evoke aesthetic possibilities rather than offer realistic interpretations of the world. He has been compared to James Joyce and considered one of the great neo-Baroque writers of Cuban literature, along with Alejo Carpentier and Severo Sarduy.

He is known for the great influence of his 1966 homoerotic novel “Paradiso” (Paradise), which led the Cuban revolutionary state to censor Lezama as part of a national policy of policing artistic and intellectual expression considered detrimental to the revolutionary state. This policy began during the 1960s but was most forceful from 1971 until 1976, the year Lezama died. As the novel gained international recognition and circulation, at home, he became increasingly marginalized.

José Lezama Lima grew lonely as the Cuban government silenced him after the release of his novel "Paradiso." | Clip from "Letters to Eloisa"
Cuba Censors José Lezama Lima

I first learned about Lezamawhen I was in college, from the film “Fresa y Chocolate” (Strawberry and Chocolate). After Lezama was marginalized for decades, this film reclaims the author as an essential cultural reference that an iconoclastic gay artist introduces to the macho revolutionary and intellectually-curious protagonist who befriends him.

Prior to becoming censored, though, Lezama’s influence carried weight because of who he had already become by the time the revolutionary state was consolidated in Cuba after the 1959 overthrow of dictator Fulgencio Batista. From 1937-1943, Lezama edited or co-edited three literary magazines and established a coterie of poets, painters and critics. These magazines and the community they gave rise to would culminate in Revista Orígenes (Origins magazine), an art and literature magazine he co-edited with José Rodríguez Feo, the Ivy League-educated literary critic and translator who bankrolled the project between 1944-1956. The editors also established a small publishing venture that produced 23 books of Cuban literature and criticism under the name Editorial Orígenes. By publishing Cuban writers in magazine and book form, they helped launch many writing careers. This feat alone was significant in a context in which capital-backed publishing enterprises were rare, making it challenging for Cuban writers to set up professionally as writers.

Lezama’s work as curator and theorist of art’s ability to supersede reality and Rodríguez Feo’s labor as translator and recruiter of up-and-coming U.S.-based writers together shaped the influence of Orígenes. In a Latin American context, in which literature produced in Europe and the U.S. was more popular and influential than literature produced at home, Orígenes managed to bring contemporary writers from Cuba and other parts of Latin America together with cutting-edge writers abroad. Heavy investments in publishing infrastructure by the imperial economies of countries like Spain, France, England, and the U.S. provided a strong foundation for the development of literary traditions and routes of circulation that overwhelmed under-funded Latin American and Caribbean literary markets. This material context made it common to undervalue local literatures over those produced abroad. Projects like Revista Orígenes strategically intervened in this conundrum: they made foreign writers available to local readers alongside local writers and those from neighboring countries, increasing the cultural capital of homegrown literature in the process.

10. Mariano-Rodriguez01.jpg
José Lezama Lima (seated fourth from left, smoking a cigar) among Cuban Intellectuals, circa 1966. | Courtesy of Casa Museo Jose Lezama Lima in Havana, Cuba.

This editorial strategy brought to life the idea Lezama introduced in 1936 as “undertow” (resaca) aesthetics, or a receptivity to foreign influence with a readiness to transform those influences into something new. In this sense, Lezama approximated T.S. Eliot’s conception of originality as an intervention in tradition. However, by virtue of the colonial history shaping the context in which Lezama proposed this aesthetic, it resonates more strongly with other theories of literature from Latin America and the Caribbean, and especially Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 “Cannibalist manifesto” and Martinican theorist Suzanne Césaire’s 1942 call for Martinican literature to “cannibalize” European literature. The “undertow” editorial work of Orígenes combined with (expensive) high production value that included covers adorned with prints by leading artists resulted in the magazine itself as a work of art.

Because Lezama suffered such repression, it has been rare until recently to see critiques of Lezama’s racial politics, including his repeated attempts to minoritize and distance Black popular culture in his work as a writer and editor. In a recent article by Cuban writer and critic Odette Casamayor, she draws attention to Lezama’s self-imposed distance from the Black and working-class cultural milieu in which he lived. Lezama asserted his wish to reclaim Cuban aesthetics from Afro-centric trends in “Coloquio con Juan Ramón Jimenez,” precisely the same essay in which he advocates for “undertow” aesthetics. As an editor, he published some Black authors and artists, but their presence was a minority in the context of a country that included majorities of African and European descent. Lezama made exceptional room for Black artists whose work he approved of, such as his collaborator Gastón Baquero, the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire who had one poem published in Orígenes, and the Cuban painter whose images sometimes graced the covers of the magazine, Wifredo Lam. Precisely because he was such an influential figure, this side of Lezama, who was more receptive to foreign culture than to Black popular culture, also deserves more attention.

Lezama’s influence remains extensive despite repression, even among those who critique him. Like other writers who are also magazine editors, he also mentored writers of at least two generations, including Lorenzo García Vega and Reinaldo Arenas. García Vega may be less well-known than Arenas, but he continues to be, along with Lezama Lima, a highly influential writer for Cuban literature, and he was the youngest writer of the group associated with Origenes. He once told me that one of the main gifts Lezama gave him was telling him what books to read. His first assigned texts were by the Peruvian poet César Vallejo and Uruguayan-born French poet, Comte de Lautréamont. Arenas would go on to become one of the most internationally celebrated Cuban writers, known for his explicitly gay writing as well as his confessions of imprisonment on charges of homosexuality. He also documented his mentorship by Lezama in “Before Night Falls.” After Lezama’s death, his work became popular among later generations of Cuban writers who would continue to build on his legacy. Without Lezama, Cuban literature would not exist as it does today.

For further reading:

Casamayor, Odette. “Lezama, lso negros y el autorretrato de la Cuba ‘letrada.’ Unos apuntes.” (June 7, 2021).

Cruz Malavé, Arnaldo. “El primitive implorante: El ‘sistema poético del mundo’ de José Lezama Lima.” Rodopi, 1994.

Heller, Ben. “Landscape, Femininity, and Caribbean Discourse,” “MLN vol. 111, no. 2” (1996), pp. 391-416.

Lezama Lima, José. “Selections.” Edited and translated by Erneston Livon-Grossman. University of California Press, 2005.

Robyn, Ingrid. “Márgenes del reverso: José Lezama Lima en la encrucijada vanguardista.” Almenara, 2020.

Rodríguez Matos, Jaime. “Writing of the Formless: José Lezama Lima and the End of Time.” Fordham, 2017.

Salgado, César. “From Modernism to Neobaroque: Joyce and Lezama Lima.” Bucknell U. Press, 2001.

Salgado, César A. and Juan Pablo Lupi eds. “La futuridad del naufragio: Orígenes, estelas y derivas.” Almenara, 2019.

Seligmann, Katerina Gonzalez. “Writing the Caribbean in Magazine Time.” Rutgers University Press, 2021.

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