Cuban feminist author Aida Bahr will be reading from her collection of prize-winning short stories, Ophelias/Ofelias , to Bay Area audiences at two special events.
Bahr and her translator, Dick Cluster, will host readings and discussions in Berkeley and San Francisco May 18-19.
Noted lesbian Cuban author Achy Obejas, who is in residence at Mills College, will join Bahr at one of the events.
Bahr is special guest of Sara Cooper, Ph.D., publisher of Cubanabooks Press, which publishes Bahr’s translated and bilingual books in the United States. Cubanabooks is an independent publishing house focused on bringing expertly translated Cuban women’s literature to English and Spanish audiences in the U.S.
Bahr, who Cooper said doesn’t identify her sexual orientation, was born in 1958 in Cuba. She is the author of several novels and books of short stories; screenplays for films and TV; and two books of literary criticism, according to her biography. Her works have been translated into English and Russian and her stories have appeared in anthologies around the world.
Ophelias/Ofelias, is a collection of eight stories about women pushed to the edge of insanity and the moments they break and cross over. The stories don’t take place in the more familiar world of Havana, but are set in Holguin, where Bahr was born and raised, and Santiago de Cuba, where she currently resides.
“It is the most hard-hitting book of short stories that I’ve had the pleasure to publish,” said Cooper, 50, who is also a professor of Spanish and multicultural and gender studies in the Department of International Languages, Literature and Culture at California State University, Chico.
“She deals with so many different sorts of violence that are being experienced by women and even being perpetrated by women,” said Cooper. “She breaks into taboos that I think are really important to have out in the open in Cuba.”
Cooper doesn’t see Cuba being much different from the U.S. Both countries still grapple with violence against women.
“Aida Bahr just exposes all that kind of life experience in a way that is shocking and thought provoking and so suspenseful that you just can’t put down the stories,” she said.
Bahr was unable to comment by press time.
Seeing Cuba through literature
Literature is one way to build a bridge between Cuban and U.S. feminists and lesbians who Cooper believes currently have a mythology about each other that needs to be demystified. In her view, women from both nations could learn a lot from each other.
“I would love for feminists and lesbians in the United States to be further inspired to travel to Cuba,” said Cooper, who is excited about the possibilities brought about by President Barack Obama’s initial steps at the end of 2014 to lift the half-century old sanctions on the Caribbean island nation.
Cooper, a lesbian, has studied Cuba, particularly LGBT Cuba, for nearly 20 years. She was inspired to explore lesbians in Cuban culture after seeing Sonja de Vries’ documentary Gay Cuba. At the time a graduate student studying Latin American literature, she was intrigued by how the island nation’s feminist and LGBT movements developed differently due to being cut off from the U.S. and much of the world for decades.
“It became clear that gender roles, sexual orientation, and gender perception had developed quite differently and are treated quite differently in comparison to other Latin American countries,” said Cooper.
In the early 1990s, LGBT Latin American literature was suffocated by the machismo Latin culture and literature that reflected that culture. There was “very, very little by lesbians [and] a little bit by gay men.”
Somehow, insulated in their own world, Cuban women and LGBTs developed their own voices.
“Cuban women were having a much greater voice in society [and] in general as sexual beings,” said Cooper.
Furthermore, gays and lesbians experienced “much less discrimination and [were in] less danger of being beat up, killed, jailed, especially starting in the 1980s, in comparison to other Latin American countries,” she continued.
However, like in the U.S., discrimination and poverty remained a reality in spite of active LGBT community centers and support high in Cuba’s government with Mariela Castro, a member of parliament. She’s also President Raul Castro’s daughter and former President Fidel Castro’s niece and is the executive director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education in Havana.
The Inter-American Commission Human Rights noted in its annual report released May 7 that Cuba still has a long way to go to achieve basic human rights goals. The report cited a variety of violations of human rights and noted discrimination and violence against LGBT individuals.
On May 8, Mariela Castro symbolically married 20 LGBT couples during a blessing ceremony called “Celebration of Love” as part of the eight annual March Against Homophobia and Transphobia.
Cooper liked the strength of the women she met and read their works.
“I like outspokenness among women and I like women who feel empowered about their own sexuality,” Cooper said.
That openness led her to exploring Cuban women’s literature and eventually publishing translated works by feminist and lesbian authors she’s found during her seven trips to Cuba.
Currently, there are 10 authors on Cubanabooks’ roster. In February, Cooper launched the release of five new books at Feria Internacional del Libro en La Habana, Cuba’s international book fair.
For more information, visit www.csuchico.edu/cubanabooks.
Bahr’s readings will be hosted Monday, May 18 at 7 p.m. by Moe’s Books, 2476 Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley and Tuesday, May 19 at 6:30 p.m. by Modern Times Bookstore, 2919 24th Street, San Francisco. Both events are open to the public.
For the original report go towww.ebar.com/news/article.php?sec=news&article=70589