by Prof. Francisco Soto (City University of New York)
from The Gay & Lesbian Literary Heritage, ed. Claude J. Summers (New York: Henry Holt, 1995), which is the best references work on GLBT Literature. CAPITALIZED NAMES refer to related articles in the book.
Born on July 16, 1943, in the rural poverty of the Cuban countryside, Arenas's childhood can only be described as wretched and harsh. One of his first memories was of eating dirt because of a scarcity of food. As an idealistic teenager, he joined the revolutionary forces of Fidel Castro and fought against the dictatorial government of Fulgencio Batista. Two years after the triumph of the Revolution, he moved to Havana where his literary career officially began. In 1967, at the age of twenty-two, he published his first novel, Celestino antes del alba (Singing from the Well), the story of a child, persecuted by his family as well as by the impoverished conditions of his rural existence, who must rely on his imagination to survive. Shortly after its publication in a limited print run of 2,000 copies, Arenas's novel, a free-flowing narrative that undermines the realistic mode of writing, fell out of favor with the revolutionary cultural policymakers who demanded a literature that clearly contributed to a revolutionary consciousness.
In the mid-1960s, when the Castro regime openly persecuted homosexuals, Arenas turned away from the Revolution. His dissatisfaction with the government deepened when his writings - transgressive, unconventional, and supportive of the individual's right to self-expression - were declared "antirevolutionary" and censored. Soon afterward, Arenas was no longer permitted to publish on the island. Defiant, he secretly sent his manuscripts abroad, where they were immediately published, an act that infuriated the regime, which on various occasions confiscated and destroyed his work and ultimately branded him a nonperson in Cuba. While his novels were being read and praised in Europe and Latin America for their intelligence and wit, Arenas was reduced to living a somewhat picaresque life in Havana, moving constantly and working at odd jobs simply to survive. Finally in 1980, as a result of a bureaucratic blunder, he managed to escape from the island through the Mariel exodus.
After his arrival in the United States, Arenas settled in New York City. Having been censored in Cuba for so long, the author, as if intoxicated with his newly found freedom, began to write prodigiously: novels, short stories, poetry, dramatic pieces, essays, newspaper articles. For him, writing was both a liberating act of self-expression and an act of fury in which he challenged, undermined, and subverted all types of ideological dogmatism, all forms of absolute "truths."
On December 7, 1990, suffering from AlDS and too sick to continue writing, Arenas committed suicide. In a moving farewell letter sent to the Miami Spanish newspaper Diario las Americas, the writer made it quite clear that his decision to take his life should not be interpreted or construed as defeat. "My message is not a message of failure," he declared, " but rather one of struggle and hope. Cuba will be free, I already am." These final words reveal the self-determination and indomitable spirit of this gifted writer and political activist.
Like many Latin American writers who find it impossible to separate their literary careers from the sociopolitical realities of their countries, Arenas was an outspoken critic of Fidel Castro's regime. But Arenas's criticism of the Cuban Revolution was much more than an attack on communism; it was an angry cry against a system under which he, like many others, had been persecuted for being homosexual.
Although there are implicit and explicit homosexual characters, episodes, and scenes in practically every text that Arenas wrote, it is in Otra vez el mar (Farewell to the Sea, 1982), Arturo, la estrella mas brillante ("The Brightest Star," 1984), Viaje a La Habana (Trip to Havana, 1990), El color del Yerano (The Color of Summer, 1991), and Antes que anochezca (Before Night Falls, 1992), the author's autobiography, where the reader finds the greatest explicitness in the depiction of gay characters and homosexual desire. Arenas's representation of homosexuality cannot be considered "positive" in the way that much of contemporary Anglo-American gay literature strives to celebrate homosexual identity and represent ideal gay relationships based on mutual respect and equality. Nonetheless, if one carefully examines Arenas's entire oeuvre, one finds an argumentative center that persistently resurfaces, supporting the rights of all individuals, regardless of their sexual orientation.
"The Brightest Star," a fictitious account of one man's experience in the notorious forced labor camps in which homosexuals were interned in the mid 1960s, is of particular interest. The story is a moving defense of the individual's right to dream, to rise above the oppression that threatens his or her experience. As a study of oppression, "The Brightest Star" is a companion piece to Arenas's earlier La Vieja Rosa (1980), with which it has been published in translation as Old Rosa: A Novel in Two Stories. Like his work generally, these two stories defend the individual's imaginative capabilities and right to self-expression in a world beset by ignorance, intolerance, and persecution.
The last text Arenas wrote before his death was Antes que anochezca (Before Night Falls), his autobiography. Central to this memoir is the sexual and political repression the author had to endure in Cuba. Far from being a traditional autobiography, Antes que anochezca utilizes a combination of historical facts and delirious and exaggerated fiction. Curiously, this mixing of fact and fiction in no way diminishes the strength of the testimony. Arenas does not limit himself to simply declaring his homosexuality, but rather graphically presents his sexual escapades, going beyond what many readers would consider "good taste." Arenas was quite aware of the hypocrisy and homophobia of his Hispanic audience, but rather than making concessions, allowing himself to be closeted by bigotry disguised as "good taste," he expressed his experiences honestly, to the point of possibly alienating certain readers. In 1992 in his review of the autobiography, Mario Vargas Llosa observed: "This is one of the most moving testimonies that has ever been written in our language about oppression and rebellion, but few will dare to acknowledge this fact since the book, although one reads it with an uncontrollable appetite, has the perverse power of leaving its readers uncomfortable" (my translation).
"Autoepitafio" ("Self-Epitaph"), one of the writer's last poems, splendidly captures Arenas's spirit of irreverence, pathos, and irony. The poetic voice, speaking in the third person, recounts the poet's instructions of what to do with his body after death: "He arranged for his ashes to be scattered into the sea / where they would flow forever. / Not having given up his habit of dreaming, / he awaits a young man to dive into his waters" (Voluntad de vivir manifestan-dose, my translation).
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