hen we first had the idea of putting together a selection of new writing from Cuba, it was January 2017, and US/Cuba relations had finally begun to thaw after so many years of hostile estrangement. Just a couple years before, diplomatic relations between the two countries had been restored for the first time since 1961, allowing trade and tourism to open up. Our then-new office manager, Elizabeth Sutton, started work at the New England Review the day after she returned from her trip to Cuba that January. She was excited about what she saw there and wanted more—and not just of the Caribbean sunshine. At the time we were working on a section of writing from South Africa, and she wondered, might we consider doing a special section on Cuba?
A new administration had just taken office, however, so things soon changed with Cuba once again. Restrictions were gradually put back in place, barring cruise ships and “people to people educational travel,” increasing sanctions, and making it nearly impossible for Cubans in the US to send money to relatives at home. And then finally, on January 11, 2021—less than a week after the insurrection attempt on the US government by its own citizens and just nine days before the next administration took office—the US put Cuba back on its list of “state sponsors of terrorism.”
This bare minimum description of the erratic Cuba/US relationship leaves out nearly everything. Even a trip like Elizabeth’s, where she witnessed street life in vibrant old Havana, roadside billboards promoting Cuba’s leadership, the famous old cars, and a glimpse of a Santería shrine, only begins to get at the truth of the matter. What is it really like, who are the people who work and live and love there? That’s where this feature comes in, as it’s where the kind of writing we put together in NER always comes in. It wasn’t written in direct response to this or that trade policy, there’s no diplomatic lesson to be learned, and it doesn’t attempt to represent a whole population. Instead it comes from the center of the writer’s experience, and speaks for nobody but the author (with a little help from the translator), radiating its own truth out from there.
We’d been making inquiries and keeping the idea of a Cuba feature simmering throughout the last four years, but it didn’t really get going until 2019, when we received a submission of poems by translator Katerina Gonzalez Seligmann. Since the Cuba project was on hold for the time being, I asked if we could have these poems for a regular NER issue instead. She said yes, but she also thought that if she could put the word out, we’d be able to get a good selection together within a month or two. So we opened up the submissions again and this time the work came flooding in: poems, novel excerpts, science fiction, memoir—an astonishing array of translations. Finally we had more than enough. Soon after narrowing down the list, I conferred with Katerina again and realized that not only was she knowledgeable and connected in ways I never could be, but she was ready and willing to help. It wasn’t long until I came to rely on her for context, opinions, and encouragement. You’ll find some of her own thinking about the works assembled here in her introductory note, which opens the section that she was so crucial in bringing together.
This feature of new writing from Cuba has been a long time coming, and more thanks are due to writers and travelers Alden Jones and Tim Weed, who were there at the beginning. The result is a raucous assembly of eleven writers (and their translators), bringing their unforgettable voices “From Granma to Boston and Havana and Back.” Erotic, melancholy, abstract, surreal, these works contain, to steal a phrase from Adrienne Rich, “the heartbeat, memories, images of strangers.”
These Cuban selections appear right in the middle of an equally bright array of writing from all over the US, from the opening page to the close. What you’ll find here is not the news of governments and ministries, of travel restrictions and tariffs, but it’s the kind of news we need.
In other news, as announced online earlier this year, Jennifer Chang begins her work as poetry editor just as this issue heads to the printer. Rick Barot will edit one more issue, to be published in June 2021. Since he began as poetry editor in September 2014, he has brought nearly three hundred new poets to NER. Jennifer will continue this work while also bringing her own vision to the job. With her deep love for poets and poetry, and her passion for the community that NER has created over the years, Jennifer will bring both continuity and change to our poetry section. We are so pleased to welcome her to our editorial team! We’ll have more on both Rick and Jennifer in the days (and issues) to come.
On a final note, readers may have noticed that this issue looks a little different from the previous. We came to this redesign with two main goals: for the look of the magazine to better reflect the content itself, that is, fresher and more contemporary, leaving more room for the artwork itself. Second, we wanted to make the interior of the journal a little easier on the eyes, and the shortened line and slightly roomier typeface allow a little more light onto the pages. The old design was beautiful and legible enough to serve us well, with occasional updates, since the mid-1990s, but our hope is that the new design will make a familiar space new again, like rearranging the furniture in a room. Thanks to Paul Dahm, Carey Bass, and Chad Conant in Middlebury’s design department for listening to our ideas and bringing designs to match, and to Barbara Bourgoyne for its first implementation here. The website’s updates will soon follow.