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Alvarez Borland, Isabel, and Lynette M. F. Bosch, eds. Cuban-American Literature and Art: Negotiating Identities.

Alvarez Borland, Isabel, and Lynette M. F. Bosch, eds. Cuban-American Literature and Art: Negotiating Identities. New York: SUNY P, 2009. 234 pp. ISBN 978-0-7914-9373-1

This collection of essays on Cuban-American identity--which comes out of a National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on Cuban-American Philosophy, Art and Literature--initially surprises the reader for the quality and scholarly reputation of the critics who collaborate in the volume, all of them distinguished professors and of Cuban-American ancestry as well. The book explores--as it subtitle indicates--how Cuban American writers and artists (mostly painters) negotiate their hyphenated identity through their artistic production. After an introduction by the editors, the book is divided in two sections, "The Literature" (chapters 1-7) and "The Art" (chapters 8-12). Although the first section is longer, two of its chapters (Isabel Alvarez Borland's and William Luis's) study the relationship between the printed word and photography in different works, helping to ease the transition from the literature of the first part into the art of the second.

The book opens with a chapter by Gustavo Perez Firmat on the "spell of the hyphen," which reminds the reader of his book Life in the hyphen: The Cuban-American Way. In this chapter, Perez Firmat studies his own poetry alongside the production of other poets such as Orlando Gonzalez-Esteva, Nicolas Guillen, and Richard Blanco, to show how Spanish and English combine in Cuban American literature depicting nostalgia in a way different than that of other Latino literatures in the U.S., Isabel Alvarez Borland examines in the second chapter the connection between Ana Menendez's Loving Che (2003) and the late Guillermo Cabrera Infante's Vista del amanecer en el tropico (1974) regarding their use of photography in their texts. Despite the interest of the chapter, one must be careful because it compares a male Cuban (but not Cuban-American) writer living in England and publishing in Spanish in the 1970s, and a female Cuban-American writer publishing in English in the U.S. towards the end of the Special Period in the island; although they are both originally Cubans, their contexts differ enormously. Chapter three, by Adriana Mendez Rodenas, tackles the issue of the mother-daughter plot in Cuban-American fiction, answering the question about how has the nation "been imagined across the gender divide" (47). She analyzes in this chapter three novels: Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban (1992) and The Aguero Sisters (1997) and--again--Ana Menendez's Loving Che (2003).

Iraida H. Lopez also focuses on female narrative in chapter four, exploring this time the autobiographical work of Cuban American authors, in particular memoirs published in three collections: Bridges to Cuba/Puentes a Cuba (1995), ReMembering Cuba: Legacy of a Diaspora (2001), and By Heart/De memoria: Cuban Women's Journeys In and Out of Exile (2003). She frames them within the broader Cuban American autobiographical tradition, but fails to give proper reading to the few full-length books published by Cuban American women (although she mentions them). Part of the reason is her reading these texts as manifestos, following Sidoine Smith's definition of a manifesto (65). Chapter tive deals with a single author, Roberto G. Fernandez; Jorge Febles in this study focuses on Mirta Vergara, a recurrent character in some of Fernandez's works--La vida es un special (1981), La montana rusa (1985), Raining Backwards (1988), Holy Radishes! (1995) and En la Ocho y la Doce (2001)--and reads this character as the alterego or personal voice of the author (77), to exemplify in her portrayal the breakdown and shattering of the Cuban-American subject.

William Luis also studies a particular writer in the following chapter, this time Gustavo Perez Firmat, by reading his autobiographical memoir Next Year in Cuba (2000). This chapter could be read next to Iraida Lopez's, since they both deal with autobiography, or Alvarez Borland's, for the interest in literature and photography. Last, but not least, Eliana Rivero's chapter turns again to female Cuban-American writers, pondering--like Perez Firmat in the first chapter--on whether there exists a "Cuban singularity" when talking about Latino writing in the U.S. To find an answer, she looks at fictional characters in novels written by Cuban American female authors: Alisa Valdes Rodriguez, Ana Menendez (whose Loving Che thus becomes the most studied novel in this collection), Cristina Garcia, Margarita Engle, Andrea O'Reilly Herrera, Chantal Acevedo and others.

The second section, 5 chapters dedicated to the study of Cuban-American art (mostly painting), has a more organic organization than the first part: Instead of single authors or novels, here the emphasis is on groups or generations. The section opens with chapter 8, by Lynette Bosch, one of the editors, who offers the historical overview of Cuban art from the avant-garde in Cuba to the 1990s in Miami, paying special attention to the different "waves" of Cuban immigrants into the U.S., but emphasizing the Cuban avant-garde and its role both in pre-Castro Cuba as well as in present day Miami; introducing Cuban-American artists as the quintessential postmodernists because of their peculiarities.

This emphasis on postmodernism is taken by Mark Denaci in the next chapter, a study of how Cuban American artists relate to postmodernist criticism in the United States, and how it is hard to tell modernism and postmodernism apart in their work. Carol Damian explores in chapter 10 a theme, irony, and how 14 Cuban artists (the author seems to lose track, since she indicates at times 14 authors (166) and towards the end only 13 (172), but one can count and 14 is the right number) living in exile in the U.S. clearly reflect irony in their work. Jorge Garcia, in the most philosophical essay in the collection, studies the conflict between Cuban American identity and art, with emphasis on what it means to be Cuban-American (that goes beyond being born in Cuba and now living in the U.S.); he analyzes the art of 8 Cuban-American artists who try to escape the topics of lo cubano in their work to show that this can be achieved, thus making history and the set of experiences they endured as the marking point of their Cubanness, but not their work. Finally, the book doses with Andrea O'Reilly Herrera's essay on Cuban Art in the Diaspora, focusing on the itinerant exhibition titled Cafe: The Journeys of Cuban Artists cured by Leandro Soto. This is the only chapter, unlike what happens in the literature section, where a particular artist (Soto) is studied in more detail than the group. In her study of the Cafe, O'Reilly shows how identity is a compendium of the polyphonic aspects of Cuban culture, not a fixed concept.

This volume offers a multidisciplinary approach to the issue of identity in the Cuban-American Diaspora, and one can see ah interesting unbalance between the two sections that form the book, not only in terms of length--the literature section is larger in number of chapters and pages than the art one--but of approach as well: the second part emphasizes more groups and generations than the first, which pays more attention to individual writers and books, with some chapters focused on a singular author or piece. It is interesting to see how the second part also does a better job at blurring the distinction between Cuban and Cuban-American, whereas the literary part seems not to touch recent Cuban arrivals (or staying away from recent Spanish language texts, except in Perez Firmat's chapter), so Cuban authors living in the U.S. but publishing in Spanish (and in non-U.S, publishing houses) such as Daina Chaviano or Antonio Orlando Rodriguez, are absent. However, the book is very valuable in its study of diversity and identity, and its conclusion of Cuban-(American) identity as a process in constant change and redefinition, trying to adapt to the American Way as different cultures adapted in Cuba as an ajiaco or stew is a good a valid one, although a little vague or general. The book would be a good addition to any library or scholar interested in hybrid identity, bicultural issues, Cuban or Cuban American issues, exile literature and art, or diasporic studies.

Miguel Gonzalez-Abellas, Washburn University
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Author:Gonzalez-Abellas, Miguel
Article Type:Resena de libro
Date:May 1, 2010
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