Borrowed time: women Cuban science fiction writers
-- preface to an anthology by Raúl Aguiar
Translated by Daniel W. Koon
The history of science fiction written by Cuban women began in 1979 with the publication of Daína Chaviano’s book “Los mundos que amo” [The worlds I love], which proceeded to win the very first David Prize (a literary prize for unpublished writers) awarded in science fiction. With this collection of stories, Chaviano brought a new vision to the genre, with a perspective that is both more intimate and closer to mythology; a language of high poetic flight; and the clear influence of J. R. R. Tolkien, Ray Bradbury and the writers of the Latin American ‘boom’. And this new approach was so different that many (myself included, I must admit) dismissively labeled it as ciencia ficción rosada [rosy science fiction], to distinguish it from the traditional metallic science fiction that had been the standard among male writers, a style in which themes centered more on technology and scientific speculation and whose style was often influenced by the Soviet writers of socialist realism. Likewise, Chely Lima developed stories, written with Alberto Serret and published in 1983 in the book “Espacio abierto” [Open space], in which one notices a care and a maturity of language very close to that of realist literature, but with a minimal dose of the requisite otherness to place it within the genre, albeit close to the edge.
The rest of that generation’s women storytellers pop up only occasionally, with no more than a few stories apiece in assorted anthologies or periodicals. This is the case with Ileana Vicente, another cofounder of the Oscar Hurtado workshop; Olga Fernández, a journalist better known for her children’s tales and historical investigations; and Ileana Hernández, about whom it is hard to even locate biographical data.
An interesting case is Maria Felicia Vera, a member of the Jules Verne workshop in Playa, who shared the 1988 David Prize with Yoss for her book “El mago del futuro” [The magician from the future], a work that defies labels, being closer to poetic surrealism than to scientific fantasy, a book that serves to demonstrate the extent to which the critics, the juries and the publishers of the time had blurred the definition of the genre.
1990 was the last time the David was awarded in science fiction, and the prize was awarded to Gina Picart Baluja for her book “La poza del ángel” [The angel’s puddle] That same year the aftershocks from the fall of the Socialist bloc were felt in our country, including a large publishing crisis that prevented the publication of her book as stipulated by the contest rules. The book saw the light of day only four years later, in the Pinos Nuevos [New Pines] collection. An interesting book of precise and occasionally poetic language, it offers us eight stories that take place in distinct historical ages, flirting with the topics of science fiction, supernatural powers and parapsychology.
With the departure from Cuba of the only three women to have published books in the field in the 1980s -- Daína Chaviano, Chely Lima and Maria Felicia Vera -- the lone remaining female standard bearer for Cuban science fiction throughout the 1990s was Gina Picart.
But in the years following 2000, a new wave of Cuban science fiction writers has emerged. Some of them have achieved recognition through the Internet, thanks to the Argentine e-zine, Axxón. This is true for Nora Calas, who has lived in Chile since the 1990s. It is also the case for one of the most important female voices in the field today: Anabel Enríquez Piñeiro. A founder of the “Espiral” group of the fantasy genre, her quarto of stories “Nada que declarer” [Nothing to declare] obtained both the Calendario Prize of SF in 2005 and the magazine Juventud Técnica’s [Technical Youth] first science fiction prize that same year. A little later she won the Che Guevara Memorial scholarship from the AHS for her essay “Mujeres y Literatura Fantástica: los caminos de(l) género” [Women and Fantasy Literature: the paths of gender and genre]. The interesting thing about Anabel Enriquez’ work is that the writer is not afraid to apply scientific speculation or technology in developing her stories. Of course, that is not the principal focus for her, but merely a means to explore social and familial themes, as in her tale “Nada que declarer”, in which she describes a family of space “stowaways” in a somber future that closely resembles an anti-utopian or a cyberpunk style. Or her magnificent short story “Deuda temporal” [Borrowed Time] – from which the title of this anthology is taken – in which we find the classic theme of Einstein’s twin paradox, now seen through a woman’s eyes, in the relation between a daughter and her astronaut mother, as we watch as time, and their lives, spin out of joint before our eyes.
Haydeé Sardiñas and Evelin Pérez are writers that generally spend their time in other genres, such as realism or children’s literature, in which they have won prizes and had their books published, but they also produce an occasional science fiction story or two, and their stories are rather close to the cyberpunk stream, above all of the life-sciences-heavy, “biopunk” variety.
Viana Barceló does not write science fiction. Still, her story “Efecto Mariposa” [The Butterfly effect], with its distant resemblance to chaos theory and its interesting fractal structure, is a good example of how realist narrative can sometimes intersect with corresponding themes from within the field.
Yadira Álvarez and Elaine Vilar, on the other hand, are totally different: they certainly consider themselves full-time writers of fantasy and science fiction. They are currently members of the Espacio abierto literary workshop, specializing in the fantasy genre. Although very much new arrivals as writers, both have sprung from the ranks of national fandom. They will probably publish their first books soon, because their stories, very thematically varied, have a wonderful quality and are quite interesting, above all in their treatment of characters, especially the females, who are almost always the protagonists.
As for a summary, we could establish certain characteristics that, during the history of the genre on the island, have defined the Cuban science fiction written by women and have differentiated it from the work of their male colleagues: formally, a greater care for language, a stylistic freedom that ventures into the poetic, and great precision in describing characters and their environment. Greater depth in the psychology of the characters, above all that of the women and the children. The speculative, scientific or technological aspect of the plot is less important than conflicts and relationships within societies, families and couples.
As for the intergenerational differences between Cuban female sf writers, we can establish three distinctive stages.
These have been, in a somewhat superficial, drive-by fashion, some of the characteristics that we have observed in the work of female Cuban science fiction writers. It is very probable that in future works on this topic, deeper and more revelatory studies will be performed. For our part all that remains is to offer the Cuban public this anthology which, as its very title indicates, represents a deuda temporal or borrowed time, a temporal debt that we have owed now for about twenty years to this group of story-tellers that have dared to test their mettle in a realm very much considered, for quite a long time, exclusively male territory.
- A first stage, corresponding to the 1980s, in which we can detect influences that were lightly impacted by socialist realism in their plots, above all those of space exploration and alien contact. Utopian vision and exaltation of positive ideals like love or human solidarity. Appearance for the first time in Cuban fantasy of elements of heroic fantasy, development of the themes of paleocontact and recontextualization of myths and creation stories.
A second stage, corresponding to the 1990s, with feminine narrative production focused on a single writer, at least in Cuba. This writer, Gina Picart, preferred to use historic or mythic elements in developing her stories, fully disinterested in the technological gadgets of traditional SF. A science fiction of the past, rather than of the future. Unlike the writers of the prior generation, she is not afraid to pick masculine protagonists for some of her stories, and she succeeds in making these characters believable rather than mere stereotypes. Her work is also characterized by a more sober tone in the treatment of emotions and human conflicts.
A third stage, from 2000 to the present. The preoccupation in using poetic elements within the discourse diminishes. Greater interest in a fluid language, in the function of the plot, that thus speeds up its pace. Dystopian vision of the future. Use of environments closer to the cyberpunk esthetic and gadgets appropriate to this style, not as the focus of the tale, but rather as a necessary but minor resource for developing the more central human conflicts. The protagonist’s character carries the principal action of the tale. Negative feelings of intolerance, lack of solidarity, cynicism, appropriate to a dehumanized world, appear. Pessimism.
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