The problem of independence was not the change in form, but the change in spirit.
—José Martí, “Our America”
In late October 2015 I visited Cuba for the first time, and, through the kindness of my Small Axe colleague Vanessa Pérez-Rosario, I had the good fortune to pay a visit to Casa de las Américas, and to meet with its president, the poet, essayist, and critic Roberto Fernández Retamar. For someone like me, born where and when I was (in Jamaica, in 1958, on the ambiguous eve of political independence), and thus with my generational hopes for Caribbean cultural-political transformation, Casa de las Américas is a transcendent institution. It belongs to an almost metaphysical order; it seems less a concrete, material form with all its attendant administrative routines and bureaucratic conflicts than the expression of an idea, a spirit (in the sense, perhaps, suggested by José Martí's contrast in the epigraph).1 In my admittedly anglophone imagination, shaped no doubt by a very partial vision of the Cuban Revolution, Casa de las Américas embodies not so much an astonishing calendar of events and range of publications (remarkable as these are in themselves) as a proposition, an invitation, an intention, a challenge, a demand. And to my mind, this dimension—its spirit of provocation—is above all exemplified in the person of Fernández Retamar, whose name (and some of whose translated poems and essays, too) had circulated in knowing literary quarters in late 1970s Jamaica. And so, as you can imagine, the opportunity to sit down with him in his office at the magnificent building occupied by Casa de las Américas, with its iconic map of the Americas raised like a sentinel above its main entrance, was one I looked forward to with motivated anticipation.
As is well known, Casa de las Américas was founded in 1959 by the newly established revolutionary government almost as soon as it came to power. Its founding president was the legendary revolutionary Haydée Santamaría, who headed the organization until her lamented suicide in 1980.2 Fernández Retamar became its president in 1986, though he had been editor of its house journal, Casa de las Américas, since the mid-1960s. Now in his eighties, he sat before me in his comfortable chair, with his familiar cap and his goatee, and I had the impression of a man who has moved closely among the political actors of the revolution (his relation to Che Guevara is often spoken of) and who has had to ask himself, in hard contingent circumstances (as revolutionary circumstances commonly are), what the relation should be between the poet and the politician. He and I spoke for nearly an hour, covering a number of topics. We talked, for example, about his old friends, the poet Kamau Brathwaite and the novelist George Lamming, both of whom he remembered fondly. We talked too about a possible collaboration between the Small Axe Project and Casa de las Américas, a way perhaps of stimulating and sheltering a new kind of critical regional and diasporic dialogue. And toward the end of our informal conversation, as I could see his energies flagging a bit, I asked him the question I had wanted all along to ask him, a question about how he thought about “the times we have to live in,” as he'd called them in an interview a decade and a half before.3 I'd been struck by that way of putting it, that way of seemingly settling the matter of the duties entailed by the temporality of experience, of evoking an attunement to the contingent challenges that necessarily grow out of finding oneself where one finds oneself, in another place than one had found oneself before, with new constraints as well as new possibilities. It was his way of marking the present (post–Cold War) political-economic conjuncture and the way it shaped the realities of the contemporary predicament of the Cuban Revolution. There seemed to me something quite remarkable about the voice disclosed in this interview. For in it you could discern a refined and cosmopolitan erudition alongside a reserved and amiable stoicism. You could discern too, I was surprised to find, a moving appreciation of Miguel de Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life that had helped him, I wanted to imagine, to think about the tragic choices that revolutionaries are sometimes faced with, Fidel Castro no less than Toussaint Louverture.4 But there was also in his voice then, recurrently and reiteratively, insistently, an undiminished revolutionary refusal to trade in his commitments to social justice for the fashionable blandishments of postmodern neoliberalism. It wasn't zeal, I thought; not simply ideology, either. It was something more akin to the persistence of an instinct. Fernández Retamar remained at heart a self-proclaimed “romantic socialist,” less in the name of the early Karl Marx, as one might have expected, than in the name of George Bernard Shaw.5 In the face of the crushing, encircling forces of imperial capital over which he has little or no control, what matters to Fernández Retamar is, as he put it, to share the destiny of his people, to defend their sovereign right of self-determination, and to hope that the revolution can survive the current impasse with dignity. Indeed, it was with this spirit of hope that the interview had ended, his confidence in the inexhaustibility of what Raymond Williams (another romantic socialist with an affinity for the tragic) called the “resources of hope.”6
In any case, all this is what I'd been thinking about as I spoke with Fernández Retamar that day. And so I asked him, “As you look around you at the changes taking place in Cuba, and in the wider region and the world, what are your thoughts about the prospects for the Caribbean?” The old man looked at me ruefully for a long reflective moment, as if searching for an apt formulation to render his thoughts precisely. And then he simply said, “The Caribbean is preparing the future.” Nothing more … Alas, it was the end of the conversation. I didn't have time to press him, to ask him what he meant. It was a poet's gift. And so I was left to walk away with this tantalizingly ambiguous suggestion, to receive it in the spirit of generosity in which it had been given, and to make of it what I could.
“The Caribbean is preparing the future.” Not a future, notably; the future. Fernández Retamar's, I take it, is not a parochial gesture stemming from a narrow conception of the Caribbean in the world; rather, it is a poetic gesture in the direction of a kind of universality—the universality, I believe, embodied in the project, in the dream, of Casa de las Américas. But what is the generative ethos of this dream of universality, I wonder? For Fernández Retamar, of course, it is an ethos that owes its inspiration and its idiom to the vision of José Martí (it is perhaps no exaggeration to say that Fernández Retamar is almost never not invoking the name of Martí, his constant companion, and not merely as an external matter of intellectual agreement, but more deeply, internally, as the identification of a kindred spirit). As readers of this late-nineteenth-century Cuban patriot will remember, the generative ethos of his famous essay “Our America” is that of a creole universality, born of the anticolonial history of the Americas and distinctly at odds with the inherited universality of the hegemonic European Enlightenment. Europe's Enlightenment universality embodied the violent conquest of the Americas, and its subordination to the rapacious logic of colonial desire. It embodied the cultural conceit of a civilizational hierarchy, imagined as an order of singularity, in which the futures of the Americas could only be conceived as a mimicry of Europe's pasts. This Martí rejected. For him the new universality represented by the very youthfulness and irrepressible diversity of the Americas, and its emerging republics, was a universality that, by definition, was open, plural, multilingual, translated—a universality to be invented. It was a universality that sought to honor difference, not repress it, that sought to embrace the generative multiplicity of the historical traditions that constitute the Americas, continental and insular. Martí's point, of course, was not to sequester the Americas from Europe's influence, or to replace one form of prejudice with another, but simply to assert (as my epigraph suggests) the virtue of its independence of spirit and of its creative autonomy. “Our own Greece,” Martí wrote, “is preferable to the Greece that is not ours; we need it more… . Let the world be grafted onto our republics, but we must be the trunk.”7 I believe this to be the ethos of universality to which Fernández Retamar (who himself has invoked this passage) and Casa de las Américas are committed.8 And it is an ethos of universality from which, with humility, we in the Small Axe Project have much to learn.
With this issue of Small Axe, we embark on yet another initiative, namely, to integrate the hispanophone Caribbean into our wider intellectual and aesthetic preoccupations. It is belated, I acknowledge, but not too late, I trust. Putting one foot in front of the other, as we've learned to do over the years, we are finding our way in our effort to rethink the regional and diasporic Caribbean in more complex and more creative ways. To raise the question, as we do in this issue, of hispanophone Caribbean studies, is to do just that—raise the question (not presume to answer it), in order to listen to the debate in and about the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. We are keen to see what might be opened up in the conversation as well as what might not. This initiative comes at a time of other developments that are underway in the work we do: the launch of two new platforms—sx visualities (smallaxe.net/sxvisualities), devoted to the exploration of Caribbean visual practice; and sx archipelagos (smallaxe.net/sxarchipelagos), devoted to the exploration of the implications of the digital humanities for Caribbean studies. They are part of the ongoing labor that is the Small Axe Project. Perhaps, with luck, and with conscientiousness, these developments will enlarge our opportunities and our motivations for thinking again about the universalities through which our Caribbean—and, indeed, our Americas—can prepare our futures in the present.
—Havana, Kingston, New York
José Martí, “Our America,” in Selected Writings, trans. Esther Allen (New York: Penguin, 2002), 292; “Nuestra América” was originally published in Revista Illustrada de Nueva York, 1 January 1891.
For a personal account, see Margaret Randall, Haydée Santamaría, Cuban Revolutionary: She Led by Transgression (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).
See Goffredo Diana, John Beverely, and Roberto Fernández Retamar, “These Are the Times We Have to Live In: An Interview with Roberto Fernández Retamar,” Critical Inquiry 21, no. 2 (1995): 412.
See ibid., 431–32. See also Roberto Fernández Retamar, “More than a Bird's Eye View of My Labor,” World Literature Today 76, nos. 3–4 (2002): 6. In each case, Fernández Retamar is referring specifically to Miguel de Unamuno, The Tragic Sense of Life, trans. Anthony Kerrigan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972).
Diana, Beverely, and Fernández Retamar, “These Are the Times,” 421; Fernández Retamar, “More than a Bird's Eye View,” 6.
Diana, Beverely, and Fernández Retamar, “These Are the Times,” 433. Fernández Retamar is referencing Raymond Williams, The Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism (London: Verso, 1989). Elsewhere in the interview (416, 417), Fernández Retamar invokes Williams's idea of a plurality of “socialisms” from the essay “Towards Many Socialisms” (295–313) in that volume.
Martí, “Our America,” 291.
See Diana, Beverely, and Fernández Retamar, “These Are the Times,” 424.