Friday, May 19, 2017

Discovering Cuba

Cuba may be a faraway Caribbean island but TUTU DUTTA-YEAN discovers that there is a connection between that island and Malaysia

Vintage cars on the Malecón; in the background is Havana harbour

WHEN I FIRST HEARD that we were going to be posted to Cuba, it occurred to me, “Surely there is nothing to connect Malaysia to this faraway Caribbean island ...” But I found out that the hypothesis of ‘six degrees of separation’ applies to countries as well as people. The first connection, we were informed at a diplomatic dinner party, is that one of the best-known Spanish songs among Malaysians originated in Cuba: ‘Guantanamera’ (‘Lady from Guantanamo’). Significantly, the lyrics to the song is based on a poem by José Martí, the Cuban poet and national hero who fought against the Spanish for the country’s independence.

A peacock struts its stuff in the inner courtyard of the Havana City Museum, located at the Plaza de Armas. The statue in the background is that of Christopher Columbus, who is credited with discovering Cuba

Even more surprising came the revelation that many Cubans of the older generation have heard of Malaysia, thanks to a book called Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia. Not surprisingly, the mention of this book produced enthusiastic nods from the Cubans and mystified expressions from the Malaysians ... could it be about a tiger from Sandakan?

After a bit of Internet research, I discovered that Sandokan was written by an Italian writer named Emilio Salgari in the late 19th century. The book was translated into Spanish as Sandokan, La Tigre de la Malesia and is about the adventures of a heroic pirate chief called Sandokan! The book was a childhood favourite of Cuban revolutionary, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (who was actually born in Argentina) and became popular in Cuba as well. Apparently Guevara suffered from asthma as a child and was quite the bookworm! Never having read it, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of Sandokan with regard to Malaysia but it seems that Salgari was well informed about the East as he committed ritual suicide in the manner of the Japanese ... but I digress.

The Cieba tree and El Templete, located at the Plaza de Armas, commemorate the founding of Havana in 1519

Cuba was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492. However, the Conquistador of Cuba was Diego Velazquez de Cuellar, who founded the first Spanish settlement at Baracoa, a town close to Havana, in 1511. Havana itself was founded by Panfilo de Narvaes in 1519; the original name of the city being San Cristobal de le Habana. On every anniversary of the city, followers of the Santaria faith light candles around an ancient Cieba tree, planted beside a monument called El Templete, at the stroke of midnight.

Due to its strategic location, protected harbour and the fact that the island is close to the Gulf Stream, Havana Bay became the meeting point for Spanish galleons crossing the Atlantic. Merchant ships carrying riches from the New World would assemble at Havana harbour, before making the journey to Spain. Havana became the principal port of Spain’s New World colonies and a royal decree in 1634 gave Havana the title Key to the New World! But the city’s wealth attracted the attention of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’- English, French and Dutch sea marauders attacked the city in the 16th century.

El Morro Castle, as seen from across the Malecón sea wall. El Morro is the oldest colonial fortress in the Americas

This led to massive fortifications to protect the harbour and the city. As the only entrance to the harbour is through a narrow inlet from Havana Bay, two fortresses were erected in the 16th century to protect the entrance—El Morro Castle guards the western flank while La Punta Castle guarded the eastern flank. A long chain stretching across the inlet, from one castle to the other, was raised at sunset every day to prevent pirate ships from entering the harbour after dark and lowered at sunrise the next day!

A third fortress, La Real Fuerza Castle, located at the historic Plaza de Armas, guarded the city. La Real Fuerza Castle used to be the Spanish Governor-General’s Residence but is now the Maritime Museum.

A fourth fortress, the San Carlos de la Cabana, was constructed in the 18th century. This massive fortress, the largest in the Americas, was constructed not to keep out mere pirates but the British Navy itself. Cuba fell to the British in 1762; eleven months later, Britain returned Cuba to Spain in exchange for Florida. British occupation is definitely the third connection we have with Cuba!

The massive ramparts of San Carlos de la Cabana

Upon regaining Cuba, the construction of La Cabana was initiated to make sure Havana never fell into enemy hands again. Despite its enormous cost, the fortress never engaged in any major battle. San Carlos de la Cabana is now a museum and a popular destination for tourists.

Havana’s strategic location also made it part of a dark chapter in the history of the New World—the transatlantic slave trade. It was the British who introduced slave labour to Cuba in 1762. In less than a year, the British transformed the island’s economy and society by opening trade with its American colonies and introducing slave labour. Thousands of slaves from West Africa were transported to the island to work in the sugar plantations. Havana became an important part of the Slave Route—ships carrying slaves from West Africa would stop at the harbour for supplies. Some would be sold in Havana itself.

The pai fang at Calle Dragones marks the entrance to Barrio Chino

Most of the slaves were from the Yoruba nation and brought their cultural practices with them, which combined with Catholicism, eventually evolved into Santaria. African heritage is pervasive throughout the Caribbean and it is believed that up to 50 per cent of Cubans are followers of this faith.

When slavery was abolished in 1886, the role of the African slaves was taken over by the Chinese coolies. The upheavals in the Middle Kingdom towards the end of the Qing Dynasty forced many Chinese to look for a better way of life overseas—they were looking for ‘tai ping’ but ended up almost enslaved with very harsh living and working conditions. These indentured labourers were mainly Cantonese speaking and the first shipment of 209 coolies arrived in 1847. Most of the coolies were put to work in sugarcane plantations; however, in Havana itself they were forced to work in the construction of the railways, together with Irish and Mexican workers. Conditions were so harsh that it was estimated that each kilometre of railway line came at a toll of 16 lives! Although the consequences were dire for some, by the dawn of the 20th century, Havana had the oldest and largest Barrio Chino (Chinatown) in the Americas with 60,000 inhabitants. (I definitely see a fourth connection here!)

Woman in traditional dress walking across the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis

Eventually, most of the Chinese became integrated into the fabric of the country and many fought in the war of independence from Spain. A few even achieved prominence—among them, the late Wilfredo Lam who is counted among the foremost of Cuban painters. However, many Chinese Cubans left the country for the United States during the revolution of 1959. At present, the Chinese Community Centre is located at the former Casino Chung Wah at Calle Amistad, Centro Habana. A member of the clan association said that the number of Chinese (of pure Chinese descent) still living in Havana now totalled only 200. However, there are over 150,000 Chino-Cubanos of mixed heritage living in Cuba today.

Entrance to the restaurants row in Barrio Chino

In an exception to the rule, the Chinese restaurants in the Barrio Chino are allowed to operate as private enterprises; however, visitors tend to comment that the food offered in these restaurants is Cuban and not Chinese! However, intrepid Malaysians living here have managed to find one restaurant in Barrio Chino offering real Chinese food—Tien Tan. There is also an excellent Chinese restaurant in Marina Hemingway, a few miles outside the city. (Chinese food is the fifth connection we have with Cuba.)

Facade of the Ambos Mundos Hotel

The most famous writer associated with Cuba is Ernest Hemingway. He lived in Havana for the last 22 years of his life and wrote the Nobel Prize-winning The Old Man and the Sea here. This novel is based on the lives of the fishermen he observed in Cojimar, a fishing village a few miles north of Havana. Hemingway actually lived in the Ambos Mundos Hotel in Old Havana for seven years (1932-1939). The famous Room 511 in the hotel, which appeared rather small and spartan to me, has been converted to a museum and preserved for posterity. After his marriage to Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway moved to a farmhouse called La Vigia, located in a village a few miles outside of Havana. The farmhouse is now the Museo Hemingway. This is the sixth connection as I read The Old Man and the Sea as a teen!

TUTU DUTTA-YEAN was born in India but grew up in Malaysia. She has travelled and lived in Japan and France as a student and later in Singapore, Nigeria and New York as the wife of a diplomat. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Environmental Science from Universiti Putra Malaysia and a Master’s degree from Universiti Malaya before embarking on a career in public relations. Her lifelong interest in culture, folklore and children’s literature inspired her to research, write and illustrate her first book, Timeless Tales of Malaysia. She is the author of Eight Fortunes of the Qilin and Eight Jewels of the Phoenix, and the co-author of Twelve Treasures of the East, a retelling of legends and folk tales from Asia. She currently lives in Havana, Cuba, with her husband and daughter.

Reproduced from the October-December 2010 issue of Quill magazine

Monday, May 01, 2017

May 2017 Highlights

NOVELS
1. Love Me Not (Michael Joseph, 2017) / M.J. Arlidge
2. The Night Visitor (Quercus, 2017) / Lucy Atkins
3. Behind the Moon (City Lights Publishers, 2017) / Madison Smartt Bell
4. The 7th Function of Language (trans. from the French by Sam Taylor) (Harvill Secker, 2017) / Laurent Binet
5. Some Rise by Sin (Henry Holt, 2017) / Philip Caputo
6. New Boy (Hogarth, 2017) / Tracy Chevalier
7. Miss Burma (Grove Press, 2017) / Charmaine Craig
8. The Fortunes (Sceptre, 2017) / Peter Ho Davies
9. The Other Hoffmann Sister (Little, Brown, 2017) / Ben Fergusson
10. There Your Heart Lies (Pantheon, 2017) / Mary Gordon

11. The Early Birds (Quercus, 2017) / Laurie Graham
12. Isadora (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017) / Amelia Gray
13. Not a Sound (Park Row Books, 2017) / Heather Gudenkauf
14. Gravel Heart (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017) / Abdulrazak Gurnah
15. Into the Water (Doubleday/Riverhead Books, 2017) / Paula Hawkins
16. The Children of Jocasta (Mantle, 2017) / Natalie Haynes
17. Frost at Midnight (Bantam Press, 2017) / James Henry
18. The Parable of the Blind (trans. from the German by Christopher Middleton) (Verba Mundi Books, 2017 / Gert Hofmann
19. Need You Dead (Macmillan, 2017) / Peter James
20. When I Hit You: Or, a Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife (Atlantic Books, 2017) Meena Kandasamy

21. A Good Country (Bloomsbury USA, 2017) / Laleh Khadivi
22. The Baker’s Secret (William Morrow, 2017) / Stephen P. Kiernan
23. The Nothing (Faber & Faber, 2017) / Hanif Kureishi
24. Rich People Problems (Doubleday, 2017) / Kevin Kwan
25. Broken River (Graywolf Press, 2017) / J. Robert Lennon
26. Before We Sleep (Bloomsbury USA, 2017) / Jeffrey Lent
27. Black Moses (trans. from the French by Helen Stevenson) (The New Press, 2017) / Alain Mabanckou
28. All the Beloved Ghosts (Penguin Canada, 2017) / Alison MacLeod
29. The Wild Air (Hodder & Stoughton, 2017) / Rebecca Mascull
30. ’Round Midnight (Touchstone, 2017) / Laura McBride

31. Inheritance from Mother (trans. from the Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter) (Other Press, 2017) / Minae Mizumura
32. The Gallows Pole (Bluemoose, 2017) / Benjamin Myers
33. The Ice (4th Estate, 2017) / Laline Paull
34. Music of the Ghosts (Simon & Schuster, 2017) / Vaddey Ratner
35. No One Can Pronounce My Name (Picador USA, 2017) / Rakesh Satyal
36. The Awkward Age (Chatto & Windus/Riverhead, 2017) / Francesca Segal
37. Evensong (W.W. Norton, 2017) / Kate Southwood
38. Saints for All Occasions (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017) / J. Courtney Sullivan
39. Mother Land (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) / Paul Theroux
40. House of Names (Viking/Scribner, 2017) / Colm Tóibín

41. Flights (trans. from the Polish by Jennifer Croft) (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017) / Olga Tokarczuk
42. A Talent for Murder (Simon & Schuster UK, 2017) / Andrew Wilson

FIRST NOVELS
1. Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) / Hala Alyan
2. How to Be Human (Metropolitan Books, 2017) / Paula Cocozza
3. Playing Possum (Aaaargh! Press, 2017) / Kevin Davey
4. Strange Heart Beating (Granta Books, 2017) / Eli Goldstone
5. A Small Revolution (Little A, 2017) / Jimin Han
6. Peculiar Ground (4th Estate, 2017) / Lucy Hughes-Hallett
7. Standard Deviation  (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017) / Katherine Heiny
8. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine (HarperCollins/Viking, 2017) / Gail Honeyman
9. The End We Start From (Picador, 2017) / Megan Hunter
10. All That’s Left to Tell (Picador, 2017) / Daniel Lowe

11. Ginny Moon (Park Row Books, 2017) / Benjamin Ludwig
12. You Don’t Know Me (Michael Joseph, 2017) / Imran Mahmood
13. The Dead House (Brandon Books/O’Brien Press, 2017) / Billy O’Callaghan
14. See What I Have Done (Tinder Press, 2017) / Sarah Schmidt
15. Mr. Rochester (Grand Central Publishing, 2017) / Sarah Shoemaker
16. Mothers and Other Strangers (Prospect Park Books, 2017) / Gina Sorell
17. State of Emergency (Epigram Books, 2017) / Jeremy Tiang
18. The Color of Our Sky (William Morrow, 2017) / Amita Trasi
19. Spoils (Jonathan Cape, 2017) / Brian Van Reet
20. Chemistry (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017) / Weike Wang

STORIES
1. The Dinner Party (Little, Brown, 2017) / Joshua Ferris
2. Bad Dreams and Other Stories (Harper, 2017) / Tessa Hadley
3. Peculiar Ground (Fourth Estate, 2017) / Lucy Hughes-Hallett
4. Fen (Graywolf Press, 2017) / Daisy Johnson
5. Jane Austen: The Secret Radical (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017) / Helena Kelly
6. We Could’ve Been Happy Here (MG Press, 2017) / Keith Lesmeister
7. All the Beloved Ghosts (Bloomsbury USA, 2016) / Alison MacLeod
8. Men Without Women (trans. from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel & Ted Goossen) (Alfred A. Knopf/Harvill Secker, 2017) / Haruki Murakami
9. Trajectory (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017) / Richard Russo
10. Tender (Small Beer Press, 2017) / Sofia Samatar

POETRY
1. Fast (Ecco, 2017) / Jorie Graham
2. Injury Time (Picador, 2017) / Clive James
3. Said Not Said (Graywolf Press, 2017) / Fred Marchant
4. On Balance (Carcanet Press, 2017) / Sinéad Morrissey
5. Silage (Indigo Dreams, 2017) / Bethany W. Pope
6. Will You Walk a Little Faster? (Bloodaxe Books, 2017) / Penelope Shuttle

NONFICTION
1. Wrestling with His Angel: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 1849-1856 (Simon & Schuster, 2017) / Sidney Blumenthal
2. Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2017) / David S. Brown
3. I Must Belong Somewhere (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2017) / Jonathan Dean
4. Ernest Hemingway: A Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017) / Mary V. Dearborn
5. Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017) / Claire Dederer
6. Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay Z (Library of America, 2017) / Jonathan Lethem & Kevin Dettmar (eds.)
7. Do I Make Myself Clear?: Why Writing Well Matters (Little, Brown, 2017) / Harold Evans
8. Between Them: Remembering My Parents (Ecco/Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017) / Richard Ford
9. The Inky Digit of Defiance: Tony Harrison: Selected Prose 1966-2016 (Faber & Faber, 2017) / Tony Harrison
10. The Catholics: The Church and Its People in Britain and Ireland, from the Reformation to the Present Day (Chatto & Windus, 2017) / Roy Hattersley

11. Sallies, Romps, Portraits, and Send-Offs: Selected Prose, 2000-2016 (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2017) / August Kleinzahler
12. One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter: Essays (Picador, 2017) / Scaachi Koul
13. Turning: A Swimming Memoir (Virago, 2017) / Jessica J. Lee
14. Passchendaele: A New History (Viking, 2017) / Nick Lloyd
15. Priestdaddy: A Memoir (Riverhead Books/Allen Lane, 2017) / Patricia Lockwood
16. The Retreat of Western Liberalism (Little, Brown, 2017) / Edward Luce
17. The History of the Future (Coffee House Press, 2017) / Edward McPherson
18. October: The Story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, 2017) / China Míeville
19. Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: The Boom in British Thrillers from Casino Royale to The Eagle Has Landed (HarperCollins, 2017) / Mike Ripley
20. Goethe: Life as a Work of Art (trans. from the Russian by David Dollenmayer) (Liveright, 2017) / Rüdiger Safranski

21. The New Book of Snobs: A Definitive Guide to Modern Snobbery (Constable, 2017) / D.J. Taylor
22. Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation (Harper Perennial, 2017) / Michael Chabon & Ayelet Waldman (eds.)
23. Six Tudor Queens: Anne Boleyn: A King’s Ransom (Headline Review, 2017) / Alison Weir
24. The Boy Behind the Curtain: Notes from an Australian Life (Picador, 2017) / Tim Winton