On Exile and the Longing for Home: Cuban Writer Reinaldo Arenas

In 1983, I interviewed the exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas at Princeton. I remember that day well: a hint of woodsmoke in the air, pale autumn light on the bare trees as I walked across campus to the library to meet Arenas. A Comparative Literature major, I was writing my senior thesis on Arenas's work and translating some of his fiction; my translation of his novella La vieja Rosa was later published by Grove. In December 1990, Arenas -- dying of AIDS -- committed suicide; this year marks the 20th anniversary of the publication of his stunning memoir, Before Night Falls. The book was made into a movie of the same name, directed by Julian Schnabel and starring Javier Bardem.

Born in 1943 on a small farm in Cuba, Arenas came of age during the Revolution. He joined Castro's rebels as a teenager but grew disenchanted and then despairing. Persecuted by the regime for being homosexual and for publishing abroad, he was arrested numerous times and incarcerated for two years at the medieval El Morro prison. Released in 1976, he drifted, sometimes staying with friends, and wrote his novel Farewell to the Sea for the third time (the police had confiscated it the first two times). During this period, Venezuelan journalist Cristina Guzman tracked Arenas down in Old Havana; in an interview published in 1979 in the El Diario de Caracas newspaper, she wrote, "A whole afternoon of searching for him, until the entrance of an ancient hotel converted into a permanent residence for a few dozen Cubans, old green crockery lining the walls. There a girl asks, 'Reynaldo (sic) Arenas ... a guy who writes?"

Arenas's fortunes changed in 1980 when thousands of people stormed the Peruvian Embassy in Havana, seeking political asylum. Castro cracked down on the asylum-seekers but also took the opportunity to let "anti-social" elements -- criminals, the mentally ill, and homosexuals -- leave the country. Arenas went to his neighborhood police station and announced that he was gay; not realizing who he was, the police told him to go home and wait for the exit permit that would allow him to sail for Florida from the port of Mariel. One night about a week later, the permit arrived; with only half an hour to reach the departure point, Arenas ran for the bus, offering the driver a gold chain to hurry. Racing past all the stops, the driver got him there in time.

Through his long years of suffering in Cuba, Arenas had dreamed of escape, of leaving behind "that land of horrors" and at last living in freedom. But exile brought a different kind of imprisonment. In Before Night Falls, Arenas writes, "In exile one is nothing but a ghost ... I ceased to exist when I went into exile." The leftist intellectuals who'd celebrated him when he was in Cuba turned against him: "I now discovered a variety of creature unknown in Cuba: the Communist Deluxe. I remember that at a Harvard University banquet a German professor said to me: 'In a way I can understand that you may have suffered in Cuba, but I am a great admirer of Fidel Castro and I am very happy with what he has done in Cuba.'" Arenas's Mexican publisher told him he should not have left; his publisher in Uruguay also insisted that he should have stayed, that whatever problems he'd had in Cuba were "only bureaucratic." And Arenas found the Cuban exile community in Miami to be "the worst of Cuba: the eternal gossip, the chicanery, the envy." After a few months, he moved to New York; when I met him, he was living in a sixth-floor Hell's Kitchen walk-up with no telephone.

In his last interview, published in Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, Arenas told Columbia University Lecturer in Spanish Perla Rosencvaig, "Perhaps a future reader of mine will say: How these people suffered! What a world they had to live in! How sorry we feel for them!" Rereading Arenas's memoir this year, I felt this all over again. Friends sometimes told Arenas to forget about what had happened to him in Cuba but he would -- or could -- not. Perhaps, too, holding on to it gave him the sense of reality and identity that he sought but never found in the U.S.

In Before Night Falls, Arenas writes about his terrible suffering but he also describes moments of great happiness. He loved the sea and in his twenties became "an expert swimmer." He writes: "It was marvelous to dive in and behold the underwater world... The island platform surrounding Cuba is a world of rock and coral, white, golden, and unique. I would come up glistening, smooth, full of vitality, toward that dazzling sun..." And in spite of the loneliness and disappointment of exile, he experienced good days. "I had absolute freedom to do and write whatever I wanted, to disappear for a whole month without having to explain to anyone; to take a car and travel anywhere. One of my great adventures, shared with [my friends], was to drive all over the United States, where for the first time we were able to enjoy the sense of freedom and the thrill of adventure without feeling persecuted; in short, the pleasure of being alive." At the end of Before Night Falls, which he finished not long before he died, Arenas writes about dreaming that he was "in Cuba, flying over the palm trees; it was easy, you only had to believe you could do it. Soon I was flying over Fifth Avenue in Miramar, over the royal palms that line the street; the scenery was beautiful to behold while I, joyful and radiant, flew above it, over the crowns of the palm trees."

I like to think of Arenas swimming in the wide blue sea; driving any and everywhere in the vast open spaces of the U.S.; flying in ecstasy over the royal palms in Miramar, the long years of exile and alienation only a distant memory as he returns at last to his beloved Cuba.

See my interview with Arenas on newyorker.com.