Diary of a recent writing program in Cuba (with photos)
January 23, 2023 § Leave a comment
For the second annual Havana residency of the Newport MFA in Creative Writing I had the distinct pleasure of working with my friend and distinguished fellow novelist Danielle Trussoni, author of Angelology, The Puzzle Master (forthcoming from Random House), and numerous other books, and the horror-lit columnist for the The New York Times.
In addition to being a writing program this trip was also a cultural trip to Cuba, full of the kind of rich, special visits and encounters that are possible to arrange with the help of an amazing Havana ground crew, which in this instance was headed up by a talented young Cuban guide and fixer, Miguel Espinosa.
I thought it might be nice for those who participated (and really anyone else out there who is considering a non-touristy trip to Cuba) to have a day by day summary of events. ¡Buen provecho!
Flights arrive. Meet at our main casa in Habana Vieja for orientation & intros, Group dinner at one of Havana’s many delicious and atmospheric paladares (private restaurants). It begins!
We explore Habana Vieja via bici-taxi, which is a fun way to see regular Cuban neighborhoods sort of incognito, or at least without standing out the way a large group of walking tourists would. We visit a neighborhood “agro” produce market, a shop selling items used in Afro-Cuban religious worship (70% of Cubans are practitioners), and stop to talk about the system of “libros de abastecimiento,” the subsidized food-rationing program that’s been in place since the just after the triumph of the Revolution in the early sixties.
After this, a visit to the Cuban collection at the Museo de Bellas Artes with my old friend Ortelio, a distinguished art historian who heads up the museum’s education department. Spectacular!
A relatively light lunch at Cinco Esquinas, a pleasant streetside café near the museum, followed by our first writing workshop up on the lovely shaded terrace of our casa. For non-writing participants, a visit to the home/studio of Mabel Poblet, a stunningly talented installation artist whose work is already gracing public spaces and distinguished collections around the world.
Later we meet up on the terrace of our main casa for cocktails and an illustrated lecture on Cuban history, followed by dinner up on the terrace of Ivan Chef Justo, one of Havana’s finest paladares. I feel like the trip has gotten off to a good start!
Morning workshop for the writers and a trip to the Colón Necropolis for everyone else: Havana’s haunting “city of the dead” whose little avenues are lined with exquisite tombs and statuary in Carrara marble, much of it cracked and in decay from years of exposure to the sun and the island’s Caribbean-maritime climate.
Group lunch at Fusterlandia, where the entire neighborhood has been made into a whimsical ceramic work of the imagination by internationally famous artist Miguel Fuster. The lunch is damn good too; today we had “guajo” (wahoo), caught the day before just off the north coast by the artist’s son, Alex.
Afterwards we head back into Habana Vieja for a specially organized visit to a rehearsal at the Lizt Alfonso school of dance. It’s hard to express how incredible it is to visit such accomplished young artists in their own working space. Witnessing the accomplishment and joy that is the result of so much applied hard practice as well as talent is a deeply inspiring thing—perhaps especially for those of us who aspire to creative accomplishments of our own.
We finish the day up at La Cabaña fortress for pizza, seven-year-old rum, and a faculty reading. We stick around for the famous Cañonazo ceremony, commemorating the nightly cannon shot that used to signal the closing of the gates and the pulling of a boom chain across the harbor, back in the days when Havana was a walled city besieged by English pirates.
This morning we visit the house of Adrián, a Babalawo, or high priest, of the Afro-Cuban religion commonly known as santería. Adrián gives us a clear and fascinating insider’s look at the religion, which is based on Yoruba deities or orishas associated with aspects of the human character and various natural elements. Santería is a nature-based and highly inclusive spiritual practice; as it was strictly forbidden for long periods of Cuban history it became syncretized to Catholicism, widely practiced in secret at the household level. The Afro-Cuban religions are far too complex to give their full due here, but again, as they’re practiced at home by around 70% of the population, they’re absolutely central to understanding the island’s life and culture.
After this we attend another inspiring rehearsal/performance, this one from a dynamic flamenco/Afro-Cuban fusion company known as Habana Compás. Soaringly beautiful and impossible to describe, and like the dance school yesterday, deeply inspiring. We leave with a feeling of energy and durable joy.
A great traditional Cuban lunch at Doña Eutimia, one of Havana’s oldest and finest paladares. Then the writers meet on the terrace for another workshop while the cultural group heads to Vedado for a fun and informative Art Deco Tour organized by our amazing Havana ground team.
Back up on the terrace Danielle gives a fascinating craft talk on novel openings, followed by an illustrated lecture by yours truly on Hemingway in Cuba. The group then splits up for independent dinners.
One jolly crew heads out to one of my all-time favorite Havana watering holes, the eccentric and extremely atmospheric Café Sia Kara. The incredible house jazz trio has the night off, so we settle for a pair of excellent vocalists accompanied by a pianist performing their original and dynamic array of Cuban standards, along with a bit of Edith Piaf. Super fun!
This morning we visit Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s estate a twenty minute drive from Havana that was his principal residence for more than two decades.
It’s even more magical than usual today in that we’ve received permission to conduct an on-site book discussion of The Old Man & the Sea, which turns out to be a pleasant and lively conversation incorporating not just the writers but the entire group. If you haven’t re-read this novella recently, I highly recommend it. It’s a towering work of literature certainly, but also just a highly enjoyable read page to page and an incredibly life-affirming one too in these days of global environmental crisis. Read it again and I think you’ll see what I mean. Especially if you’re planning a trip to Cuba!
We stop by La Terraza de Cojímar, the real-life setting for the book, which is unchanged from the 1950s when Hemingway was a regular here and truly stands as one of the great physical landmarks of world literature.
After a deliciously authentic Cuban country lunch at the paladar El Ajiaco, we load up for the two and a half hour journey south and east to Playa Larga, the small fishing village at the north end of the Bay of Pigs that is to be our home for the next three days. Upon arrival, we move into our beachside casas and celebrate our arrival with a delicious fresh seafood dinner on the porch overlooking the bay. Paradise found!
First thing this morning part of the group goes on a bird walk in the eastern section of the Cienega de Zapata National Park accompanied by my good friend, local biologist and park ranger Kiko.
There are a lot of great birds out here! But look at this morning’s most notable sighting, a tocorrorro, or Cuban trogon. Nice one, am I right?
We head over to a place called Caleta Buena for lunch and snorkeling. Danielle leads us in a generative writing exercise and we relax and enjoy one of the most beautiful spots on this part of the coast. The color of this water on this part of the coast always astounds me, though it makes sense given the character of the greater ecosystem. More on this tomorrow.
Back at our lovely casas on the beach I give a craft talk on sympathetic characters, then it’s cocktails and relaxing independent dinners. The pace of life is nice and slow here on the island’s Caribbean coast. Playa Larga is a beautiful spot, a good place to reflect, meditate, write, and/or simply enjoy life moment-by-moment.
Today we travel deep into Cienaga de Zapata National Park with our knowledgeable friend Kiko. This is a beautiful national park and an important one, encompassing the largest protected mangrove area in the entire Caribbean basin. Mangroves are essential to tropical ecosystems—they act as a filtration system, creating the crystalline-azure waters we’ve been enjoying these last few days, and are also an essential nursery for the small fish, crustaceans, and other life that form the base of the food chain in this stunningly rich ecosystem.
Our first stop is a place called las Salinas de Brito, one of this hemisphere’s best spots for observing migratory and endemic avian life. I know that not everyone is a birder so I will resist the temptation to put ALL my bird pics here, though here are several.
I could go on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say that even the non-birders were impressed, and dare I say even awed, by all the beautiful creatures we saw and how many of them there were populating this landscape (more than 40 species in the end, over two days).
From las Salinas we embarked on an adventure deeper into the Caribbean wilderness by poleboat.
Our destination is the remote wilderness island known as Cayo Venado. Traversing the small cayo on foot we have a chance to observe at close quarters two endemic Cuban species in the wild, a reptile, the Cuban iguana, and a mammal, the Cuban jutía.
The crossing by poleboat was also amazing: it’s a unique and striking landscape, a vast stretch of clear shallow water peppered with little islands that is, to me, like nowhere else in the world.
Lunch at Paladar Don Alexis! Alexis is an old friend, an amazing cook and host, and a blazing supernova of good energy. Needless to say, on a trip where we’ve enjoyed a ridiculous number of delicious group meals, this is one of the best: crab, snapper, lobster, as fresh as it gets and cooked to perfection by Alexis himself on his wood-fired grill.
Another great craft talk by Danielle on the life and habits of a novelist, followed by cocktails and a wonderful reading by our writers, followed by a final buffet out on the porch overlooking the beach. Tomorrow, it’s back to Havana for one more day before we scatter with the wind.
A generative writing workshop starts off the morning. It’s very fun to see writers at work on the beach, and I look forward to hearing the amazing words that everyone will share with us later in the day back in Havana.
For now, though, we head up to Palpite and the amazing Korimakao community arts project, where a group of resident artists conduct a year-round training program for talented at-risk youth from across the island, many from the poorer eastern provinces of Guantánamo, Granma, etc. They have studios in music, dance, theater, and visual arts, and what they do with it is very cool.
Every year, from scratch, they compose and create a theatrical/musical/dance “spectacle” that they bring to the poorer communities around the Peninsula de Zapata and beyond. It’s really an amazing project; we got to visit both the music and dance studios to witness the early stages of elements of the spectacle coming together. It’s impossible to capture how inspiring this is, from both a creative and a cultural standpoint. I love this place; the mission, the reality, the brightly blazing inspiration emanating from the young artists in residence.
From here, we walk up the block to a highly secret undisclosed location, where we had the life-altering treat of multiple close encounters with the smallest bird in the world, the bee hummingbird. Lots of other species as well. I would tell you more, but I’d have to kill you.
From there it’s back to Havana for an afternoon of final explorations and a bit of strategic shopping (rum and cigars mostly, but also some antique art-deco jewelry, a new suitcase, and a few other incredible finds). And then our final night out, which included a raucous convoy in bright red (and one pink) old “yank tank” convertibles from the forties and fifties, followed by a life-changing private concert in the art studio of a distinguished artist with a jazz trio featuring one of Cuba’s most famous jazz musicians (whose name must remain unsaid for reasons I won’t go into here).
This was followed by a spirited and somewhat decadent last supper at San Cristóbal, one of the city’s greatest paladares. Barack and Michelle dined here on their trip, and I once shared a side room with Sigourney Weaver, not to name-drop. And we had more fun!
Suffice to say it was of the best nights ever with a group in Havana. And that’s saying quite a lot.
We scatter with the wind, fortified with inspiration and joyful memories of adventure, companionship, inspiration, and a trip well spent.
If you’re interested in participating in a future version of this program, or if you’re interested in exploring other similar opportunities for creative and/or custom-arranged independent travel in Cuba, send me a message.