Cuba Kilobytes of Discord
Sampsonia Way, the web magazine, is intended to provide the same shelter for writers and writing as Sampsonia Way, the street lined with writer residences. Each defends free speech by protecting the people who actually do the writing and speaking. The homes provide shelter for writers; the magazine provides shelter for their work.
| CA D E L O | PA RD O | W IL E Y | CA STE L L A N O S MO YA MAR | 10 SÁ N CH E Z S A M P S O N I A WAY CUBA : Kilobytes of Discord Kilobytes of Discord In Cuba, blogger Yoani Sánchez’s protests result in a new kind of revolution By Silvia Duarte Translated by Alicia Sewald 2 SAMPSONIA WAY YOANI SANCHEZ Yoani Sánchez is known for her blog Generación Y (Generation Y), which documents the experiences and frustrations of Cuba’s younger generation. Her blog brought her international attention and prestigious awards—as well as backlash from the Cuban government. On her blog, she denounces the government’s actions, including surveillance, threats, and even an alleged kidnapping. In 2009, she requested interviews from the two people who have the most influence on Cuba’s future. Her interview with President Barack Obama appeared in November, 2009. Raúl Castro declined to answer her questions. Yoani Sánchez’s story could begin with her first post on April 9, 2007 about how the baseball playoffs serve to distract the population from political protest—the post that began her notorious fight for democracy. Or it could begin with her interview with the head of the most powerful country in the world. Instead, it starts with a kidnapping. On November 6, 2009, Sánchez was walking down Los Presidentes Avenue to cover a civil protest against violence along with two other bloggers: Claudia Cadelo and Orlando Luis Pardo. Pardo’s girlfriend was along as well. Cadelo later posted on her blog that they felt nervous but knew they “wouldn’t be alone.” Pardo tried to ease the tension by joking about a man masturbating on Zapata Street in front of a group of people waiting for a bus. Sánchez joined in laughter with the others. Photo (above): Grafitisvirtuales MARCH 2010 3 They were all laughing when an elegant Geely (a Chinese-made car), pulled over and parked. Three men stepped out. The bloggers immediately knew what was going to happen next. “Looks like we are going to travel with comfort,” Sánchez said sarcastically. As if he had heard her, one of the men walked directly towards her. When Pardo pointed his cell phone at him, another man yelled, “Don’t you film us!” Cadelo managed to fire off an S.O.S via Twitter from her phone before two policemen who had arrived at the scene forced her in their car along with Pardo’s girlfriend. They were freed a couple of blocks away. Meanwhile, the man grabbed Sánchez’s wrist, ordering her into the car. “Show me your identification,” she demanded. “Where is the warrant?” “I told you to get in the car, damn it,” he shouted. Terrified, Sánchez screamed that a kidnapping was in progress. Dozens of people on the street heard her, yet no one intervened, despite the fact that the man taking her was not in uniform. The other man cautioned the crowd not to get involved, adding that the bloggers were “counter-revolutionaries.” As Sánchez refused to get in the car, the man talked to his boss on the phone, asking what to do now that the bloggers are resisting. The answer from the man on the phone was clear when Sánchez’s captor hit her, then jerked her up, raising her skirt. He tried to force her into the car, grabbing at whatever he could hold on to, even her bare legs. Sánchez continued to scream. She held on to the car door handle while the man smacked her knuckles. Then she did the only thing she could think of: She stole a paper from the man’s pants pocket and put it in her mouth. Somehow they managed to force her into the car. Pardo was already inside, immobilized with his head on the floor of the vehicle. The Geely started moving. Sánchez clenched her mouth closed as one of the three men pressed his knee to her chest. From the front passenger’s seat, he kept beating her so she would let go of the paper. The only consolation were the choked half-words of Pardo in the back seat telling her he was still alive. “This is the end for you, Yoani. This is the end of your clown tricks,” said the man holding Pardo down. With all of her 103 pounds in pain, her face red, and her legs up in the air, Sánchez raised her arm and grabbed the man’s testicles. As she tightened her grip, the man pressed harder at her chest. She thought he was going to choke her to death. 4 SAMPSONIA WAY “Kill me already,” she gasped. “Let her breathe,” said another of her captors. Twenty minutes later, the car stopped and the man in the back seat pushed them both out like they were two bags of garbage. “What happened to you?” asked a woman on the street when she saw the two trembling figures. “A kidnapping,” Sánchez said. Sánchez hugged Pardo and cried, thinking of her adolescent son, Teo. She later posted, “How am I going to look at him in the eye and tell him that his mother was publicly kidnapped just because she has a blog and writes her opinion in kilobytes?” Even though Sánchez, Pardo, and Cadelo blame Raúl Castro’s government for what happened to them, they have no way to prove it. The doctors at the public clinic who examined Sánchez after the attack reported that there were no signs of bruises and witnesses refused to corroborate any of the complaints filed. The Cuban press accused the three of “self-kidnapping.” The government wouldn’t answer calls or e-mails from the international press. All of the details of the alleged kidnapping that appear in this article were taken from the blogs of Sánchez, Pardo, and Cadelo. Nevertheless, Human Rights Watch confirms the deteriorated state of human rights on the island, where the government consistently makes arbitrary arrests, rigs judiciary proceedings, and allows prisoners to languish in prison on charges of “dangerousness.” Sánchez wrote on her blog that her attack was the result of “the mad anger of one who knows that his days are numbered.” From the blog to the world Sánchez, 34, is a leader of Cuba’s new cyber-movement. She describes herself as being part of a generation that is marked by illegal emigration and frustration. Her blog’s name comes from the fact that her generation is also marked by a popularity of names starting with the letter Y, just like hers. She is married to Reynaldo Escobar, a writer who resigned from government journalism in the 1980s. When she returned to Havana from Switzerland after studying linguistics and literature to care for her ill parents, she saw the need for alternative sources of journalism and started to blog. For a government accustomed to the nation’s press being their mouthpiece, this blog is a contradiction, a slap in the face. So much so that it is prohibited in Cuba. If you want to read the blog on the island, you have to do so in clandestine and expensive ways. MARCH 2010 5 6 SAMPSONIA WAY In another time, the government could have solved this problem easily: with no readers there is no dissemination and without dissemination, the “counter-revolutionary” message is worthless. But censorship does not work as well when it comes to the Internet. Just a little push and information goes around the world. And this is exactly what happened with Generación Y, published for the first time in 2007. Sánchez’s friends around the world linked to her blog from their own websites. Some international newspapers linked to her blog as well and thousands of people saw Cuba in a new light. In 2008, the blog won the Ortega y Gasset, an award given by the Spanish newspaper El País. Raúl Castro’s government did not acknowledge the importance of this award and the office of Migration denied Sánchez permission to travel to the ceremony. In October of 2009, when she was awarded the Columbia University’s Maria Moore Cabot Prize, the Cuban government again denied her exit permit and she was unable to attend the ceremony. In 2008, Time magazine classified Sánchez as one of the 100 most influential people on the planet, and added her to their best 25 blogs of 2009. She won the highest award for a Weblog on Best of Blogs (BOBs), sponsored by Deutsche Welle International. Foreign Policy magazine selected her as one of the 10 most influential intellectuals of the Spanish-speaking world for 2009. Contra-Castro discourse has traditionally been dense, long, and abstract. Generación Y, on the other hand, deals with the daily realities of living Cuba and emphasizes personal experience. Sánchez doesn’t like being branded a “Cyber-dissident” and insists that she doesn’t have a political affiliation. Sánchez’s sees her blog as a reflection of the everyday life of Cuban people, lived against a backdrop of a brutal, intolerant, and repressive regime. But, despite Sánchez’s emphasis on daily life, her blog and others like it are a key part of social protest. In February 2009, Sánchez and other bloggers made such a racket about the incarceration of rock singer Gorki Luis Aguila, known for his lyrics of protest, that he was released. A new revolution In her interview with the President Obama, she discussed the limitations on Internet access in Cuba and asked him if the American government would be willing to do anything about it. In addition, Obama assured her that the U.S. government has no intention of military action against Cuba, contradicting the Cuban government campaign of distrust against “The Empire.” MARCH 2010 7 Sánchez and her husband believe that the only way to change the Cuban government is through citizen activism. They refuse to let up on their efforts, even in the presence of what they call political persecution. According to the blogs of her friends, Sánchez later recognized one of her captors in a photograph. Although the details remain unclear, they claim Escobar challenged him to a verbal duel at the street corner where the kidnapping occurred, but the government planned some kind of festival for the same place and time. When they arrived, they encountered a crowd marching and chanting “This is Fidel’s street.” The crowd then assaulted Escobar. Police arrested some of the people taping the incident and confiscated their cameras. “This was the response to a request for dialogue: Physical violence, screaming, and hate rallies,” declared Sánchez. Critics claim Sánchez is an invention of Grupo Prisa, owners of the newspaper El País or that she is financed by Cuban dissidents and politicians in Washington, D.C. Some even accuse her of being an agent of Raúl Castro. She laughs at this. Nonetheless, the fact that Sánchez cannot see her own blog, making her a “blind blogger,” is no laughing matter to her. Posting her commentaries is an ordeal. She must send them to friends and collaborators abroad so they can post them through a German portal called Desde Cuba (From Cuba), where her blog can be found along with six others. She has been denied exit from the country, accused of being a traitor, and put under surveillance. However, she remains determined to make the blog world bigger. She travels around the country conducting workshops on blogging and has created an online platform called Voces Cubanas (Cuban Voices) that helps Cubans start their own blogs. The site hosts some 25 blogs currently. In the meantime, Generación Y continues to grow. It has been translated into 16 languages by a team of volunteer translators and in September 2009, it received 14 million hits. International criticism of the Cuban government continues to grow as well, not only because of Sánchez. During the last two weeks of November 2009, press around the world published the Human Rights Watch report and ran stories on the lack of basic staples for everyday living and the population’s collective discontent. A day after President Obama’s interview appeared on Sánchez’s blog, the Cuban president ordered three days of intense military exercises to guard against U.S. invasion. 8 SAMPSONIA WAY Something is happening on the island. Sánchez’s blog is like a tectonic fault rupturing under the establishment. Maybe Sánchez is not to far from the truth when she says that the days of the Cuban government “are numbered.” Maybe then, or even sooner, she will be able to respond to calls from Sampsonia Way. (Most of this article was gleaned from her and her collogues’ blogs.) Among other things, she could tell us about what her son Teo thinks about her fight, how she finances her blog — and what was written on the paper that she took from her kidnapper and put in her mouth. LEA ESTE ARTÍCULO EN ESPAÑOL. (LINK TO SPANISH VERSION) Something is happening on the island. Sánchez’s blog is like a tectonic fault rupturing under the establishment. Maybe Sánchez is not to far from the truth when she says that the days of the Cuban government “are numbered.” MARCH 2010 9 CUBAN BLOGGERS Blogging Under Fear—The Risks of Virtual Protests By Silvia Duarte, Translated by Alicia Sewald YOANI SÁNCHEZ Photo: Orlando Luis Pardo 10 SAMPSONIA WAY Like those who have placed their hopes for a democratic future in boats, Cuban bloggers place their hope in missives sent into cyberspace not knowing if they will reach their intended target. In this country of 11.5 million, the independent blogosphere remains very small because of obstacles to Internet access and fear of repression and reprisal. According to a recent report of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) there are 300 blogs on Cuba; 200 of which are operated by journalists who work for the government; of the remaining 100, only 25 are journalistic in nature and are regularly updated. Acquiring a computer in Cuba is not an easy task. People who own computers can be divided into three groups: those who work for the government; those who manage to buy them in government stores at prices far out of reach for most Cubans; and those who obtain them illegally. The final group uses their computers in hiding and in fear that the police will search their homes and confiscate their machines. However obtaining a computer outfitted for Internet access doesn’t guarantee you can surf the web. On paper, the government approved a law allowing free use of the Internet, but in practice, bloggers claim, getting on-line is expensive and near impossible. In an email interview, blogger Orlando Luis Pardo wrote that access to the Internet is the privilege of those who have Peso Convertibles, money created exclusively for tourists. One hour on the Internet in a hotel or cybercafé costs the equivVIEW PARDO’S BLOG HERE. alent of one-week’s salary. According to the CPJ report, Cubans need a password issued by the government Internet provider to have private access to the web. Like many things in Cuba, you can find these passwords on the black market, but their cost is equal to two week’s salary. MARCH 2010 11 If everything is so expensive, how the bloggers afford their endeavors? Most of them don’t have unlimited access, so they read their posting over the phone to friends overseas who post on their behalf. Others are less candid about their methods because they finance their blogs by working illegally as tourist guides or Spanish teachers, among other things. Pardo explains that even though there are Internet connections in hotels or government offices, they are very slow and the public computers are not trustworthy. “The government steals your passwords and can monitor all your email,” he said. He added that downloading large documents is almost impossible and seeing a video or listening to audio on-line is like glimpsing utopia. CLAUDIA CADELO (left) ORLANDO LUIS PARDO (right) The government claims that 12.5 percent of the population has access to the Internet, but bloggers assert the number is inflated because it is includes government administrative networks. Raúl Castro blames Cuba’s limited Internet access on restrictions established by the United States. However in his interview with the blogger Yoani Sánchez, President Obama said: “We have opened telecommunications in order for the people of Cuba to expand their view of the world around them.” He added that this work is still in process and requires the Cuban government to seriously commit to moving toward democracy and proving their respect of human rights. 12 SAMPSONIA WAY Photos: Orlando Luis Pardo Battle against the international block Most of the independent bloggers identified by the CPJ are in their 20s and 30s. They are journalists, students, professors, lawyers, artists, photographers, or musicians. Their blogs are dedicated to the critical examination of everyday issues concerning Cuban life: lack of food, healthcare, education, housing, and Internet access. In his interview with Sánchez, President Obama praised the courage of the Cuban bloggers. He acknowledged the restrictions on Internet use in Cuba and the fact that bloggers work under the fear of reprisals. Though the Cuban government’s limits on the Internet are not as severe as they are in China, they are nonetheless quite repressive. Reprisals to bloggers range from verbal threats to beatings and imprisonment. “This is like hell,” said Pardo, “but the blogger’s spirit overcomes all difficulties with enthusiasm, as long as they can make their blogs visible each and every day.” These authors do everything they can to disseminate their texts. They allow websites around the world to publish their comments, send e-mail chain messages, and exchange information through Bluetooth, a wireless protocol that connects devices such as mobile phones, laptops, and digital cameras. The blogger’s spirit that Pardo talks about is evident in “virtual protests” when the bloggers all together criticize a specific government action or raise awareness about a particular issue. Yet Pardo recognizes that their efforts cannot go far if the people who speak up remain so few in number. What’s most important, he said, is that the number of blogs increases. In order to encourage blogging, Sánchez created the Cuban Bloggers Academy and launched a contest in 2009 called Una Isla Virtual (One Virtual Island) to motivate people to continue to develop their websites, as well as start new ones. A jury awards prizes in a variety of categories and readers can also vote for their favorite blog via online ballots. Claudia Cadelo’s Octavo Cerco (Eighth Circle) was chosen out of 187 nominations for the Best Blog prize. Cadelo wrote on her website that the story of her winning is one she will tell her grandchildren in a distant future. And in that story, she will also tell how she helped her friend Pablo Pacheco, a journalist who was sentenced 20 years in prison in 2003. MARCH 2010 13 Pacheco calls Cadelo from prison and reads her his commentaries to be transcribed and posted on a blog called Tras las Rejas (Behind Bars). In providing technical assistance and acting in extreme solidarity, others bloggers often cooperate to make their blogosphere bigger. HEAR PACHECO SPEAKING FROM PRISON. In the context of Cuban journalism, these blogs are innovative in many ways: They allow for immediate news to be disseminated to the rest of the world, provide space for diverse ideologies and opinions, and are an alternative to the official government press. Above all they are an attempt to open democratic avenues. All of this has generated a new sense of yo (I) in a country were the discourse always has been marked by the use of the plural nosotros (we). The bloggers speak in the first person and purposefully exclude “we comrades,” a phrase which has been a pillar of the Castro regime, said Ernesto Hernández Busto, editor of the blog Penúltimos Días (Second to Last Days) in a phone interview from his home in Spain. Alternative editorials In making space for this individualism—in political viewpoints, for personal catharsis, or as an artistic outlet—the world of blogging has come a long way. Pardo recently used his blog to circumvent censorship and publish his literary work. He is the author of four books that have been published in Cuba. His work was never banned until 2008, when his novel Boring Home was denied print by Letras Cubanas Publishing House. “It was not because of the content of the book, but because the comments I have written on my blog,” clarified the author. He decided to publish Boring Home in his blog in DESCARGUE BORING HOME EN ESPAÑOL. (DOWNLOAD SPANISH February 2009. VERSION) Pardo and his friends were also blocked from participating in the government-sponsored Cuban International Book Fair. He said, “I encountered the constant opinions of the whole Cuban literary field, although nobody dared to write their opinions anywhere. Bloggers were waiting anxiously to see what was to come after a book was published outside of the Cuban International Book Fair. I dealt with phone and e-mail threats and constant attack from certain Cuban journalists.” When Pardo and his friends gathered outside of the Book Fair, they “were surrounded by men with walkie-talkies and ‘civilian’ experts in martial arts ready for action at any given moment. It 14 SAMPSONIA WAY “I believe that soon censorship will be an obscene and vintage concept of 20th-century Cuba, not one for the 21st century. As authors, we have the ethical responsibility to be the protagonists of this process.” ORLANDO LUIS PARDO was like a show. I also got thousands of complaints and a few good criticisms from some renowned literary critics.” Pardo’s pioneering actions are proof that, thanks to the Internet and the blogs, authors are no longer tied to the approval of their texts by the Committee of Reading or to the budgetary limitations of a publishing institution provided they can access the web. “I believe,” Pardo said, “that soon censorship will be an obscene and vintage concept of 20th-century Cuba, not one for the 21st century. As authors, we have the ethical responsibility to be the protagonists of this process.” That process is far from over. In 2003 several writers including Pacheco, tried to challenge the government in ways similar to what the bloggers are doing today. They sent their articles to overseas blogs by phone or fax. In what is now known as the Black Spring, 75 of these journalists were imprisoned, 20 still remain behind bars. Orlando finds many differences between the two movements, however it remains to be seen if another such crackdown will occur or if the bloggers really do have the power to challenge government censorship. LEA ESTE ARTÍCULO EN ESPAÑOL. (LINK TO SPANISH VERSION) MARCH 2010 15 DIS ARM ING THE EX OTIC Richard Wiley makes a home for exiled writers in Las Vegas By Desiree Cooper 16 SAMPSONIA WAY W hen Richard Wiley was in his 20s, he left his home in Tacoma, Washington to join the Peace Corps. “I didn’t want to get drafted to serve in Vietnam,” said Wiley. “When the Peace Corps asked me whether I wanted to go to Korea, Samoa, or Chile, I told them, ‘Whichever one starts first.’” Wiley’s experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Korea transformed his understanding of the “otherness” of Asian culture and inspired him to write books that would challenge his readers to take on the perspectives of people who—at first glance—seem completely foreign. He’s the author of six books— his first novel Soldiers in Hiding received a Pen/Faulkner Award in 1987. “My job as a writer is to disarm the exotic,” said Wiley, whose novels are rarely set in the United States. “Cultures are only exotic from the outside looking in. I try to get readers to see them from the inside.” He not only forges cultural understanding in his art, but also with his life’s work. A professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), he helped establish the first American City of Asylum for exiled writers in 2001. The UNLV program hosts writers for up to two years while providing a $40,000 yearly stipend, housing, and health insurance. This enables the writers to create free from political repression. Following the residency, the program will also help the writers secure an academic appointment at a leading college or university. Writers from Sierra Leon, Iran, China, and other countries have participated in the program. “No one is ever obligated to read a book,” said Wiley. “But they are obligated to let other people write them.” Home is another country By his own description, Wiley was a “dunderhead” when he arrived in Korea as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1967. “I was 21 or 22, just out of the University of Puget Sound,” he said. “It was then that I discovered something obvious: Language dictates reality.” He was amazed at what a different person he became as he was immersed in Korean culture. “What we value as frank or honest, Koreans see as presumptuous or bloated,” he said. “When you speak Korean you have to learn to circumnavigate the word ‘I’.” Photo: Richard Wiley Archives MARCH 2010 17 Wiley ended up spending two years in Korea and another five in Japan. “I started reading translations of Japanese writers,” he said. “They invested me with the stark, minimalist aesthetic of the country. They were concerned with beauty and the idea that less is more. I couldn’t get enough of it.” Wiley returned to the United States and earned his M.F.A. from the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. “My wife is from the Philippines and had never been to the United States,” said Wiley. “It was a shock for her, but coming back was a culture shock for me, too. I felt like a foreigner again.” The couple eventually moved to Tacoma where they started raising their two boys. Wiley worked with the Tacoma public schools, which had a sisterschool relationship in Lagos, Nigeria. It wasn’t long before Wiley moved the family to Nigeria, and then to Kenya, where he was the executive director of the Association of International Schools of Africa. “My interest was not in traveling, but in immersing myself in other cultures,” said Wiley. “I wanted to actually live in different places and get to know the moods and currents of the people.” Taking a gamble on asylum Wiley joined the creative writing faculty at UNLV in 1986. It was there that he met Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka. In 1994, Soyinka helped found the Paris-based International Parliament of Writers (IPW) along with Salman Rushdie, Jacques Derrida, and Václav Havel, among others. IPW was established in response to the assassinations of several Algerian writers and had created a network in cities mostly in Europe to provide a safe haven for writers in danger and exile. Soyinka himself had experienced political repression and exile. As a playwright, poet and author, he had issued a written appeal for a cease-fire during the Nigerian civil war. The government accused him of conspiring with Biafran rebels and imprisoned him from 1967 to 1969. He left the country in voluntary exile in 1970. He won the Nobel Prize in 1986. Soyinka told Wiley about his hope for an American city of asylum at dinner one night. “We laughed at the notion that Las Vegas could be the first,” said Wiley. “It was so counterintuitive.” But suddenly, all of Wiley’s experiences as a writer who had lived abroad coalesced into a concrete purpose: to help writers in exile. He approached one 18 SAMPSONIA WAY of his former classmates from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Glenn Schaeffer. Schaeffer had become the president of Mandalay Resort Group, owners of such luxury resorts as Circus Circus, Excalibur, Luxor, Mandalay Bay, and Monte Carlo. “In every city, there’s an angel,” said Wiley. “Glenn was ours.” With $20,000 from Mandalay Resort Group and another $5,000 from Schaeffer, Las Vegas hosted its first writer in exile in 2000—Syl CheneyCoker, a poet from Sierra Leone. Thus began Cities of Asylum in the United States. Since then similar programs have been founded in Ithaca, New York; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Santa Fe, New Mexico. The IPW disbanded, but left in its place the International Cities of Refuge Network and the Cities of Refuge North America. Both organizations continue to maintain an international asylum network for writers. “One writer at a time” Perhaps reflecting the profound influence Korean language had on Wiley as a young man, the member of the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame is selfdeprecating when it comes to his role in establishing the program and it affect on the world. “We bring in one writer at a time and it seems a small enough thing to do,” he said, avoiding the first person. “The point is to give a repressed writer space and time; it’s up to them how to use it. They should have the freedom to succeed or fail, just like the rest of us.” HEAR RICHARD WILEY SPEAK ON WRITERS IN ASYLUM. Wiley is the author of six books—his first novel Soldiers in Hiding received a Pen/Faulkner Award in 1987. MARCH 2010 19 No Place Like Home By Desiree Cooper 20 SAMPSONIA WAY For most high school students, taking a literature class is hardly a life-changing event. Not so for Italo Vasquez-Velasquez. Born in El Salvador, he attended a private high school in the mid-1980s. His teacher assigned books like Nausea by French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, which portrayed a fictional historian’s increasing anguish as he questions the world around him. “I was 16 or 17 and it made me feel powerful,” says Vasquez-Velasquez, now in his 40s. “I thought about how cool it is to be able to speak your mind. If he could do it, I could, too.” His admiration for the books he read was reinforced by his father, who revered the El Salvadoran writers who risked their lives to challenge the status quo—writers like the poet and anti-government journalist Italo López Vallecillos, for whom Vasquez-Velasquez was named. His reading continued after he graduated with contemporary writers like the novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya—a writer whose work his father Photo of Horacio Castellanos Moya: Renee Rosensteel MARCH 2010 21 introduced him too. Castellanos Moya’s 1997 El Asco (Revulsion) criticized the country’s ruling class. The book was both scathing and popular, making him the target of anonymous death threats. Considered El Salvador’s foremost novelist, Castellanos Moya has lived in voluntary exile for more than a decade. As Vasquez-Velasquez attended college, he continued to read widely, both the literature of his homeland and of other countries. They sparked his imagination and his political awareness. He became increasingly outspoken, participating in protests against social injustice. “Eventually, I had to leave El Salvador,” he said. “I felt like the society was too narrow and conservative. I didn’t fit.” Tension between countrymen Now an American citizen, Vasquez-Velasquez has lived in New York for 15 years where he works as photo stylist and producer. “At first, I did what everyone does when they arrive in the United States,” he said. “I waited tables and worked in coffee shops while I took classes. Eventually, I realized I didn’t have the passion to be a photographer—I’m more comfortable behind the scenes. I started my own business as a producer.” In August of 2008, Michael Turek asked Vasquez-Velasquez to help on a photo shoot in Pittsburgh. Turek had an assignment to take pictures of row houses redeveloped by City of Asylum/Pittsburgh (COA/P) for writers living in exile. COA/P partners with local artists or allows the writers living the houses to make the buildings visual striking examples of artistic expression. The most recent house is called “House Permutation.” It features a sculpture by Thaddeus Mosley on the outside and a door etched with the words of Nobel Laureate Wole READ SAMPSONIA WAY’S ARTICLE ON THADDEUS MOSLEY. Soyinka. When they arrived, COA/P founder and director, Henry Reese, asked Italo where he was from. “When he said he was from El Salvador, I said, ‘The writer who lives in this house is from El Salvador,’” said Reese. When he found out the writer inside was Horacio Castellanos Moya, Vasquez-Velasquez was elated. “I wanted to see what he was doing after leaving El Salvador. He is a great writer; I have always wanted to meet him,” Vasquez-Velasquez said. Turek and Vasquez-Velasquez asked if they could take pictures of Castellanos Moya in the house. As a producer, one of Vasquez-Velasquez’s jobs 22 SAMPSONIA WAY is to help his clients relax before a photo shoot. He noticed that Castellanos Moya was a bit reticent, even shy. But he had no idea what was going through the famous author’s mind. “I thought that Italo was a spy!” said Castellanos Moya, laughing. “I was not prepared to see another El Salvadoran. If I lived in New York or Los Angeles, I wouldn’t be surprised. But in Pittsburgh, that’s not common. I had to wonder why this guy wanted to know so much about me.” It didn’t help that Vasquez-Valesquez encouraged Castellanos Moya to show the photography team around his home. “In El Salvador, before there is an attack, they send someone to explore the site and prepare,” said the author. The main character in his acclaimed 2007 novel, Senselessness, displays a similar uneasiness. The book is a powerful, witty commentary on the government genocide of indigenous people in Central America. The freedom to write Vasquez-Velasquez tried to help the exiled writer loosen up. But it was not his amiable demeanor that eventually disarmed Castellanos Moya—it was his name. “Italo is very uncommon; I don’t remember ever meeting another El Salvadoran with that name,” said Castellanos Moya. “The only other one that I knew was a famous poet. That’s what came to my mind. That was an important factor to relax me.” In Castellanos Moya’s attic writing nook, Vasquez-Velasquez was struck by how the cozy room was flooded with light. “It made me think that Castellanos Moya couldn’t be doing this if he was back in EL Salvador,” he said. “He wouldn’t have this special place to write or the freedom to do it.” Later, Vasquez-Velasquez called his father and told him that he had met the great novelist. “My father thought that by me meeting Horacio, he had met him, too!” said Vasquez-Velasquez. The experience made him reflect upon how he had been profoundly influenced by literature as a young man. “For people in other countries who are intimidated and can’t say what’s on their minds, it’s important to support voices like Horacio’s,” he said. “People must hear and follow those voices. That way you can change lives, countries, and destinies. Thank God they exist.” MARCH 2010 23 The Writer Who Makes Snakes Dance: AN INTERVIEW WITH HORACIO CASTELLANOS MOYA By Desiree Cooper Horacio Castellanos Moya can be described as mischievous, witty, impatient, and brilliant. But it’s the omnipresence of violence that characterizes his fiction. In an essay for Sampsonia Way, “Notes on the Culture of Violence and Fiction in Latin America” he wrote about the challenges of writing about Latin America. In the wake of pervasive drugrelated violence, including kidnappings and decapitations, the horrors of real life trump the imagination, he argued. “A novel that in a European country could be regarded as cruel and dark, in Mexico, Colombia, or El Salvador would seem to be light compared with what we read every day in the newspaper or what we learn in the streets,” he wrote. In the fall of 2009, Castellanos Moya received a fellowship from the Japan Foundation to travel to Japan and study the works of Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe and his contemporary Kobo Abe. Both writers explore life on the fringe and violence in modern society. “I want to study how they deal with violence and healing,” said Castellanos Moya. 24 SAMPSONIA WAY While Castellanos Moya was in Japan, Dance with Snakes (Biblioasis) made its English-language debut in a translation by Lee Paula Springer. The book is “a macabre and violent farce,” according to the publisher, about an unemployed sociologist who assumes the identity of a homeless man living in an old, yellow Chevrolet. The car is also home to four poisonous snakes. Together they wreak carnage on the city of San Salvador. Castellanos Moya wrote Dance with Snakes while living in exile in Mexico City. It was first published in El Salvador in 1996. Before leaving for Japan, he paused to talk to Sampsonia Way about what it is like to be a writer in exile. Since the success of Senselessness (New Directions, 2008), more Americans are now reading your work. How does it feel to have a growing American audience? When I wrote Dance with Snakes, I wasn’t thinking about today’s audience—or any audience. I just wrote it and put it in a drawer. People don’t understand the affect of growing up in El Salvador, where writers were killed and bookstores were bombed. When I first saw a bookstore in Mexico, I said, “Wow.” What have been the lingering effects of that oppression upon your work? You have to understand what it’s like to grow up in an oppressive society. In El Salvador, to be a writer was to be a Communist. Writing wasn’t worth it if your goal was to be read. You wrote for yourself. I wrote all of my books except one in Mexico where I was free. But I still had the idea that literature had to be subversive. Not just subversive in a political sense, but in the sense that you don’t agree with the values of the society. That idea doesn’t go away just because you suddenly live in a free society. How have you changed as a writer since writing Dance with Snakes many years ago? It had been years since I’d wrote Dance with Snakes, but all of the phrases were still in my head. The book was so deep in my memory. Perhaps I am the same writer I was a decade ago. How do you see your work evolving now that it has been translated into French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Hebrew, Serbian, and English? I wrote Dance with Snakes without thinking about where I wanted it to go. Publishing was out of reach for me—there was no book market in El Salvador. Now, I do think about whether others will eventually read what I write. I know that one day I will face people who have read my work. The big paradox is that having a readership can be a burden. Sometimes I discover myself thinking, “People will love this.” But the moment I start thinking about what the reader will think, I stop writing. I have continued to write to fulfill my own needs. If my writing changes, it’s because I have changed, not because my audience has changed. READ AN EXCERPT FROM DANCE WITH SNAKES. HEAR CASTELLANOS MOYA SPEAK ON THE LATIN AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. READ AN EXCERPT FROM THE SHE-DEVIL IN THE MIRROR. HEAR CASTELLANOS MOYA SPEAK ON WRITING FEMALE CHARACTERS. MARCH 2010 25