When I moved to Cuba I decided that in the five months I was there I had to read at least one full-length novel by a Cuban writer in Spanish before I left. Easy enough, right? Well, it turns out I’m a picky reader and it took me almost four months to find the perfect book, which satisfied my criterea: historical, interesting, fun and original. Evocación, the autobiography of the Cuban revolutionary Aleida March, was the lucky winner.
I know what you’re thinking already: a novel about a Cuban revolutionary is not very original at all. However, this one is different because the author is in fact Che Guevara’s wife. Throughout the book Aleida recounts her life at Che’s side and unlike most writers who portray him as an icon, her account is brutally honest and she never appears to hide anything from the reader.
The Cuban Revolution through her eyes doesn’t seem as grim and daunting as most other historical accounts of it. For her, a girl falling quickly in love with a handsome, intelligent revolutionary, the world is an exciting place and the Revolution seems like a fairy-tale. She claims, whether truthfully or not, that she wasn’t always interested in the man who was the face of the movement and it was his softer side that pulled her in. The way she tells it she didn’t fall in love with a fighter, but with a poet and a dreamer: an image of Che Guevara we’re not all that accustomed to.
Studying a master’s degree in English Literature means it’s safe to say that I’m not short of reading material; however, one book in particular, Andrea Levy’s 2010 neo-slave narrative The Long Song, struck a chord long after I’d turned the last page.
The novel is set before and during the abolition of slavery on a sugarcane plantation in nineteenth-century Jamaica. It is in the style of a memoir written by Miss July, an elderly Jamaican woman who was once a slave on the Amity plantation. July insists that her book will portray the harsh realities of slavery under British colonial rule in Jamaica, and will not be like all other books she has read which are ‘full of the twaddle of some white lady’s mind,’ much to the dismay of her publisher son Thomas.
The novel manages to cover a vast array of significant issues within its 400 pages, such as British colonialism, the physical and emotional abuse of slaves and the ensuing slave uprisings in the 1830s, and the struggles of being an immigrant in Jamaica. The story details how July’s mother Kitty was raped by the plantation overseer and the infant July was then taken away by the plantation’s mistress, Caroline Mortimer, to become a ‘house slave’ named Marguerite. Caroline’s sheer ignorance to the realities of slavery comes to a head during the official abolition of slavery on 31st July 1838 when, at midnight, July asks whether she may leave. Caroline is bewildered and incredulously asks “but you would not leave me, would you, Marguerite?” What follows is a symbolic funeral and burial for enslavement, where a coffin marked ‘Slavery’ is lowered into the ground. However, the abolition of slavery was not so simple for The Long Song’s characters, as they are left with little freedom despite legally being slaves no longer.