Ana Menendez’s new collection of short fiction, Adios, Happy Homeland, weaves together stories from diverse Cuban voices that all confront the history and lived reality of their conflicted homeland.
When a reader first opens Ana Menendez’s latest collection of short fiction, Adios, Happy Homeland, chances are that her expectations may be wildly and immediately overturned. Menendez lives in exile from her native Cuba, but her consciousness and memory seem wedded to her homeland—“happy” or otherwise. Therefore, it makes sense to expect at least a hint of magical realism in the writing, a whiff of the bitter scent of politics, and a few references to the fallen, exiled, and sometimes miraculously resurrected poets of Cuba—past, present, and even, as one might hope, still hanging onto the Cuban archipelago for dear life.
What the reader finds when opening Menendez’s book is even more complex than the anticipated immersion in Cuba’s literary life and history. Ana Menendez’s fiction—her stories, even when disguised as philosophy or poetry or journalism or tongue-in-cheek humor—are always more imaginative, vital, and puzzling than expected. In this collection, most puzzling of all is that each of the pieces appears to have been written by a different person, each of whom bears his/her own vision of the quality of life and of literature in this beautiful but sometimes demon-ridden nation. Each voice expresses a diversity of viewpoints concerning the geography, weather, socio-political development, and history of the “happy homeland” and enhances the presumption that each of the imagined “authors” is a lover of this controversial nation, its climate, topography, and culture. The work is presented in a variety of forms and voices; some of the stories seem to be memoirs, some social or political treatises, and some, excellent examples of contemporary short fiction at its finest. In one such fiction, a woman riding on a train through a nameless country is delayed by an unexpected suicide on the tracks, causing her to re-examine herself, her family loyalties, and her own mortality and values. In another, an elderly woman seems to be living her life backwards, passing through youth into childhood and eventually, into the inarticulate and helpless state of a newborn infant, as if death itself is another kind of beginning, even a rebirth.
Other pieces seem to be out-and-out autobiography or memoir; still others are “stories as poetry” of various kinds, whether or not translated into English or left in the original Spanish. One fiction is written as a kind of puzzle which allows the reader to participate in its creation and form. Others are clearly based on philosophical contemplation, especially a vibrant “story-as-essay” on the joys of flying, “In Defense of Flying.” In this piece, the writer draws on the work both of Epicurus and Schopenhauer, referencing the essence of the alleged author’s own vitality and strength. In particular, the narrator describes her experience and growth through becoming a pilot, despite the disapproval of her relatives and peers.
Quite a few of the pieces explore the nature and uses of Cuba’s volatile and penetrating winds and are filled with images of motion and vitality, employing kites, sails, balloons, and parachutes in a brilliant variety of fictional devices. In one of these, “The Parachute Maker,” the inhabitants of an isolated mountain village are talked into learning to sew parachutes by a greedy entrepreneur, with results both catastrophic and miraculous. In another, several young men attempt to escape from Cuba by hiding in the structures of commercial planes, usually with disastrous results, but sometimes with unexpected glory.
Many qualities set this collection apart from the ordinary. Not only does each of these pieces appear to have been written by a different author, even the names and identities of whom seem nationally and culturally diverse; the styles and foci of each narrative also differ widely. The prologue of the book is ostensibly written by an Irishman, who in the loneliness of his own childhood came upon a book about Cuba which filled him with a lifelong passion for the country. The next story, written by another “writer” in an entirely different voice, unfolds around the quandary of a terrified man in an ever-more crowded railroad station, who believes that he is being stalked by two strange men. This Kafka-esque nightmare, however, is followed by a series of ironic—often very funny—pieces which are apparently based on the predicament of Elian Gonzalez, the six-year-old boy who escaped Cuba on a raft with his mother and her lover, both of whom drowned. The string of stories concerning Elian’s ambivalent situation are ‘narrated’ by an exiled Cuban woman working in Miami for a group which is doing all it can to ‘rescue’ the boy from his own father—and of course, failing. (Actually, the Cuban government has just released an announcement of Elian’s 19th birthday, telling the world that he seems quite content although, as the U.S. news reported, “rather quiet.” )
Owing to the ostensible variety of authors in this collection, these stories are remarkably diverse, both in content and in point of view. Perhaps, too, some of Menendez’s own intentions are too complex to state directly; a reader might speculate that she is using images of wind and flight to indicate a sense of freedom—or of the longing for freedom—which might be haunting the Cuban people, although nothing of the kind is expressly stated. It is, however, with the help of the wind that a variety of the characters find the freedom they seek from their homeland. In one such story, the sight of a balloon floating overhead seems to release a persecuted man from his fears; in another, a youth makes his escape from Cuba and then from Miami with the use of a parachute, a surfboard, and a golden kite.
The most wonderful thing about this collection is that each story seems to tie directly into those which precede or follow. There is no intentional obfuscation or confusion; Menendez’s writing is crystal clear. She has both the courage and the vitality to evoke many diverse voices in such a convincing way. It’s a joy to read such uncluttered, unabashed, and vivid prose, and to penetrate more deeply into contemporary Cuba’s still unrevealed heart.
Read the Rumpus Interview with Ana Menendez