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About the Author
Dale Knickerbocker is Distinguished Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures at East Carolina University. He is the author of Juan José Millás: The Obsessive-Compulsive Aesthetic .
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Daína Chaviano's Science-Fiction Oeuvre
Fables of an Extraterrestrial Grandmother
JUAN CARLOS TOLEDANO REDONDO
"On the 3rd of March of 1999 I discovered that Gabriel, after announcing to Mary that she was the chosen one, made love with her and left her pregnant with a baby that she would call Jesus, and who would become, in Gabriel's words, 'great because his blood will contain the spirit of the gods.'" This is the way Daina Chaviano recounts the ancient gospel narrative in her short story "La anunciacion" (The annunciation), published in 1983 in the collection Amoroso planeta (Loving planet). This is Chaviano's only science-fiction (sf) story translated into English, and one of the most widely read and studied, together with the collection Los mundos que amo (The worlds I love; 1980) and her only sf novel, Fábulas de una abuela extraterrestre (Fables of an extraterrestrial grandmother; 1988, henceforth Fables). Yolanda Molina-Gavilan identifies in "The Annunciation" a "recurrent characteristic of Spanish [sf] literary production" that distorts religious stories and reorganizes them in a way that makes the modern reader question their veracity and recategorizes them as new historical myths.
The use of fantasy and sf to question certain general established prejudices, with special focus on Cuba's cultural prejudices, is also a recurrent characteristic in Chaviano's stories. To achieve this, she creates plots and characters that move away from what is called "hard sf." In fact, she is considered, together with Chely Lima and Alberto Serret, the frontrunner of the Cuban new wave of the 1980s, a wave that did not appear without controversy on the island. A few authors and critics called this style in Cuba "ciencia ficcion rosada" (pink science fiction), diminishing it by equating it to a "feminized" version of a putative "pure sf." However, Chaviano has achieved great prestige in Cuba and overseas with her work. I argue in this essay that it is precisely for that reason — the use of a style that broke with the tenets of both hard and social-realist sf — that her work was so well received in Cuba and abroad in the 1980s and 1990s. Her work is distinctive because most of it reflects a consistent view or concept of the universe, or cosmovision, with recurrent leitmotifs. I am aware of the difficulty of proving such a premise, but I intend to show that by looking at the time and place in which Chaviano's work is published, and the literary context of sf/f production in Cuba, it is possible to connect her style to her success.
Daina Chaviano was born in Havana in 1957, four years before Fidel Castro announced that the Cuban revolution was a socialist one. Therefore, she grew up in a society marked by the utopian project of creating what came to be known as "el hombre nuevo," the new man — which, needless to say, also meant a new woman. This "new man" represented a sort of dedicated superman who was always fighting, working, writing, and thinking in the name of socialist principles. Unavoidably, a new kind of human required a new kind of cultural production, one aligned with the tenets of the new socialist man. Consequently, a kind of novel also appeared that was called "new" (the so-called novel of the revolution);6 however, this novel did not really change the principles of the bourgeois novel. It was still a literary artifact written in prose that narrated the story of one or several people who try to resolve a given conflict. The aesthetic changes introduced in Cuba were neither radical nor permanent enough to accept today that a truly new novel was even created.
It was not until 1971, with the proclamation of socialist realism as the main cultural pattern during the First National Conference on Education and Culture, that the new revolutionary principles were debated and imported from the Soviet Union. In 1971, Chaviano was already a teenager, so we can infer that her future craft would be affected by the decisions made by the cultural authorities in that year. Perhaps the most relevant consequence of the new literary norms was the suspension of publication of local sf on the island until 1978 and the substitution of that local production by translated texts from the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc. It was Chaviano who in 1988 published a seminal study of sf in Cuba from the 1960s to the 1980s, which showed that while there were only twelve sf books published between 1964 and 1977 — most of them in the 1960s, and none between 1971 and 1977 — from 1978 to 1988 the number increased to forty-one titles published. The most poignant revelation of her study is the terrible consequences that the interaction between authoritarian power and cultural production had on the island, bringing the local production of sf/f to a sudden halt after the 1971 conference.
Consequently, by the time Chaviano started writing, her local sf/f influences were related to the Communist sphere, published in Cuba by Soviet-run publishers. She also had access to the very few English-language sf authors allowed in Cuba, such as Ray Bradbury, Frederic Pohl, and C. M. Kornbluth, as well as fantasy writers like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien (she wrote the prologue to the 1985 Cuban edition of The Hobbit). In addition, Chaviano studied English philology, which gave her direct access to Saxon and Celtic legends, mythology, and the Western classics, from Shakespeare to Cervantes, and from Alejo Carpentier to Anais Nin. Although it is difficult to assess the work of any writer based on their influences, writers are readers first, and their exposure to a cultural context gives us clues about their work. In the case of Chaviano, it is clear how fantasy, mythology, and culture from different ancient traditions inspired some of her work, such as the short stories "Niobe" (which adapts Niobe's classical story to an intergalactic encounter) and "Getsemani" (Gethsemane, as in the biblical garden), both in Loving Planet; and Fables (where the Arthurian wizard Merlin is one of the main characters). However relevant these influences may be, it is not my intention to assert direct links between authors, traditions, and stories to justify Chaviano's work, but rather to offer an overview of her context as a reader. Among those readings is also the Cuban sf production, particularly works produced in Havana. Most Cuban authors knew each other, read each other's writing, and even published and worked together to have their literary niche be recognized.
In addition, they all had read the local authors of the 1960s who constituted a sort of Cuban "founding fathers of the genre" group: Miguel Collazo (El libro fantástico de Oaj [The fantastic book of Oaj; 1966] and El viaje [The journey; 1968]); Oscar Hurtado (La ciudad muerta de Korad [The dead city of Korad; 1965] and Los papeles de Valencia el Mudo [The papers of Valencia the Mute; posthumous and edited by Chaviano in 1982]); and Angel Arango (A dónde van los cefalomos? [Where do the cephalhomes go?; 1964]; The Black Planet [El planeta negro; 1966]; Robotomaquia [Robotomachy; 1967]). Although only Arango published actively throughout the 1980s and 1990s, it was Hurtado who really defined Chaviano's path into sf. In a 2013 interview, Chaviano called Hurtado "vital for the development of the genre in Cuba" due to his writings about UFOs and alternative science and his contribution to marginal genres by editing his own collections or by creating the detective and sf/f collection Dragón (Dragon). Through his work, explains Chaviano, "Hurtado fostered a curious mind and a desire to break away from the scientific orthodoxy imposed by dialectical materialism. He taught us how to challenge the official order established within a closed science that excluded certain ideas. And those are some of the parameters that stimulate and push any science fiction author."
Unfortunately, Hurtado died in 1977, and so his legacy was intense but brief. This intensity planted the seed of a renewed taste for sf/f in Cuba, and by the end of the 1970s another generation, not much older than Chaviano's, was equally active. This group was formed by an eclectic collective of authors and editors, including Nestor V. Roman, Gerardo Chavez Espinola, Ileana Vicente, Alejandro Madruga, and Bruno Henriquez, as well as an active fandom. Henriquez in particular became a key figure when in 1978 he was recognized with a consolation award (mención in Spanish) for the nationally prestigious David Award for his collection Aventura en el laboratorio (Adventure in the laboratory). An impossible-to-prove story (an sf local legend?) claims that Henriquez's collection was "not allowed" to win the David for reasons of genre — sf was not considered good enough for a first prize, so it was given a special mention. The controversy that such a decision produced became a catalyst for the creation of an exclusive David contest for sf in 1979, whose first prize was awarded to Chaviano's collection The Worlds I Love, initiating her early publishing career.
The general David Award for young, unpublished writers was presented by the official Hermanos Saiz Association and was rather prestigious in Cuba before 1979. The specific David for sf followed the same pattern as the general award: official public recognition, as well as publication and distribution in print of the first-prize winner. Over the years, though, these publications became infrequent due to economic reasons. Even so, for a young writer of a traditionally marginal genre like sf, the David was an incredible opportunity to start a literary career on solid ground. The Worlds I Love was so well received that it soon was adapted to radio and television scripts, and even a photo-romance in 1982. Chaviano became a popular figure hosting radio and television programs related to sf/f. She soon published the novel, as well as a collection of short stories, Loving Planet; one of novellas, Historias de hadas para adultos (Fairy tales for adults; 1986); and one of mini-stories, El abrevadero de los dinosaurios (The dinosaurs' watering hole; 1990). She also won the Premio Nacional de Literatura Infantil y Juvenil La Edad de Oro (National Prize for Children's and Young Adults' Literature "The Golden Age") in 1989 with Un país de dragones (A country of dragons), a collection that was first published in Caracas in 1994.13 Her only sf novel, Fables, was published in 1988 in Cuba.
Chaviano's work was created during a time in which sf regained strength in Cuba and created the right atmosphere for some of the best known Cuban sf writers. Among the David awardees of the 1980s are authors such as the late Agustin de Rojas and Jose Miguel Sanchez (known today as Yoss). Chaviano and Yoss are perhaps the most influential names in two clear tendencies: Yoss was influenced by cyberpunk during the Cuban Special Period of the 1990s, and Chaviano by the British and American New Waves. Chaviano wrote surrounded by a group of authors who understood the generic limits of sf in a more flexible way: Gina Picart, Antonio Orlando Rodrigez, and the tandem team of Chely Lima and Alberto Serret, among a few others. This group of authors worked together, sometimes published together, and was responsible for Nova, the first, albeit short-lived, magazine dedicated to sf/f in Cuba. Their goal was also to distance themselves from certain sf production that was considered poorly written propaganda. The new style had been publicly defended by Chaviano even before she left Cuba.
That a young Cuban writer would follow this option in the 1980s should not surprise anyone, since Chaviano's new-wave style is not unusual within sf written in Spanish. Opening the boundaries between sf and fantasy and mixing them with mainstream topics and styles are techniques also present in other famous women writers who should not be confined to a single generic label, such as the Argentines Angelica Gorodischer and Silvina Ocampo, or the Spaniard Elia Barcelo — who, also identified as an sf writer, confessed in an interview that "of the 20 novels that I have published so far, only three are sf, but I love the genre." We could also include other authors in this list, heavyweights like Jorge Luis Borges and Bioy Casares, who wrote many stories that are recognized as sf, whose ideas transgress generic limits, and whose writings offer good examples of a style that is well represented in Hispanic works throughout the twentieth century. Chaviano's generic (dis)continuity is thus not only part of a larger trend in Spanish sf/f production throughout the twentieth century but also one of the reasons for her success as a genre writer.
In addition, Chaviano's production of sf happened in the 1980s, a decade of relative prosperity in Cuba, which was economically supported by the USSR, and of a relative consolidation of sf. Besides the David Award, other venues supported the genre in different ways, such as the annual sf contest of the magazine Juventud rebelde (Rebel youth), the space that the journal Unión (Union) dedicated to sf on several occasions, the publishing work of small presses like Dragón (Dragon) and Gente Nueva (New people), and occasionally even the powerhouse Letras cubanas (Cuban letters). By the end of the decade, sf/f was more visible and respected in Cuba — mostly in Havana, but also in Santa Clara and Santiago. While the literary authorities allowed the existence of workshops dedicated to sf, like the Oscar Hurtado, created and directed by Chaviano, or the Julio Verne, authors and fandom put their efforts into small conferences. The first one took place in the eastern city of Guantanamo in 1989 and was followed by others in Havana in the 1990s that achieved international status, after Chaviano had moved to Miami. The production of sf/f in the 1980s left a very positive legacy in Cuba.
The Special Period would be instrumental in the changes that occurred during the 1990s. Perhaps the most dramatic factor of change was the emigration of many authors, among them Chaviano. When she left, she was not able to take with her all of her writings. After she finally established her home in Miami, she released her only book of poems, Confesiones eróticas y otros hechizos (Erotic confessions and other spells), in 1994. When Chaviano started to publish narrative again, her novels were more mainstream, with topics focused on contemporary Cuba and written in a more realistic style, although not without some dose of fantasy. This new stage in her career began with El hombre, la hembra y el hambre (Man, woman, and hunger; 1998), a novel that was awarded first prize in the Azorin contest in Alicante, Spain, in 1998.
Despite this award, which brought Chaviano international recognition in mainstream letters for her novel and set the stage for her La Habana oculta (The occult side of Havana) saga, which also included Casa de juegos (Playhouse; 1999), Gata encerrada (Caged cat; 2001), and La isla de los amores infinitos (The island of infinite loves; 2006), we cannot forget that Chaviano was already internationally recognized before she left the island, thanks to her sf/f production. Not only was her work followed in Cuba, but outside of the island as well. Her first international recognition was the Anna Seghers Award, given for Fables by the Academy of Arts in Berlin in 1990, the same year she left Cuba. The same novel gained her the Premio Goliardos Internacional (International Goliardos Prize) for fantasy in Mexico in 2003. Her reputation as a genre writer opened the door for her work to appear in groundbreaking publications in English, such as the collection Cosmos Latinos in 2003, Latin American Science Fiction Writers: An A-to-Z Guide in 2004, and in an academic monograph and a doctoral thesis in the United States in 2002 by Yolanda Molina-Gavilan and Juan C. Toledano Redondo, respectively. Even before that, the Colombian writer and critic Antonio Mora Velez had written a seminal article about Fables in 1989 that remains one of the best essays on Chaviano. However, Chaviano herself asked Mora Velez not to publish it due to the political implications that his analyses and conclusions could have for her; Mora Velez waited to publish the article until 1997. Finally, Chaviano was the first sf/f writer in Spanish to be Guest of Honor at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts at their twenty-fifth conference in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2004 — a conference of the most important association of academic studies of sf/f in the United States, the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lingua Cosmica"
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Table of Contents
Introduction Dale Knickerbocker vii
Daína Chaviano's Science-Fiction Oeuvre: Fables of an Extraterrestrial Grandmother Juan Carlos Toledano Redondo 1
Jacek Dukaj's Science Fiction as Philosophy Pawel Frelik 22
Jean-Claude Dunyach, Poet of the Flesh Natacha Vas-Deyres 39
Andreas Eschbach's Futures and Germany's Past Vibeke Rützou Petersen 52
Angélica Gorodischer: Only a Storyteller Yolanda Molina-Gavilán 73
Sakyo Komatsu's Planetary Imagination: Reading Virus and the Day of Resurrection Tatsumi Takayuki 95
Liu Cixin's Three-Body Trilogy: Between the Sublime Cosmos and the Micro Era Mingwei Song 107
Laurent McAllister: Rhizomatic Space and the Posthuman Amy J. Ransom 129
Olatunde Osunsanmi and Living the Transatlantic Apocalypse: The Fourth Kind Alexis Brooks de Vita 151
Johanna Sinisalo and the New Weird: Genres and Myths Hanna-Riikka Roine Hanna Samola 183
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: The Science-Fictionality of Russian Culture Yvonne Howell 201