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A Chat with Miguel Barnet

Miguel Barnet, 69, is one of Cuba's most distinguished writers and poets as well as a member of the island's National Assembly. He is also the president of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC), an organization with more than 8,000 members. He is an outspoken intellectual, having studied first in the United States and later at the University of Havana. He is best known for his testimonial novel Biography of a Runaway Slave, Biografía de un Cimarrón in Spanish, but he has written dozens of other novels, poems and articles, including a number of stories for Cigar Aficionado. He's been called the Truman Capote of Cuba.

He is a personal friend and one of the most open-minded and brilliant men I have met on my travels to Cuba. He likes nothing better than smoking a good cigar with friends (his favorite smoke is the Trinidad Reyes) and discussing life in Cuba as well as abroad. Last year in Havana, we met at his house one afternoon shortly before two hurricanes that devastated the island, and the world-changing U.S. elections. Yet, his words remain thought- provoking and true. Below is part of the conversation.
James Suckling: What is your favorite work as a writer?
Miguel Barnet: Do you want to know the truth? My favorite thing in my life and the one people enjoy the most is my writing of poetry. I have 12 books of poetry. Poetry is the most passionate writing I do. It is very difficult. It is not so difficult to write novels. One thing is literature and another thing is poetry. Literature is a work of an artist and also the work of a technician and a historian. But poetry is the work of a witch. Poetry is fantasy.
Q: Is it like music, then?

A: It is like writing music. The only mystery in life, in my opinion, is your artistic creation. Religion is not a mystery. Once you talk to God or different gods, you can talk to them. That lacks mystery. It exists. But when you create poetry or music, you always feel a big surprise. You are always astonished. That doesn't happen in novels.
Q: Do you see yourself as a poet or writer?
A: I am the combination of the hawk and a turtle. The hawk looks at life from high and the turtle from the surface. I am a mixture. My extraordinary feeling I have is when you have created something new. And that is my greatest ambition. It is my goal. What I created when I wrote The Runaway Slave. It is a hybrid of history, anthropology and a novel. It is a testimonial novel.

Q: I have heard people say that you are the Truman Capote of Cuba, but you actually created that writing genre before Capote. Correct?
A: I began writing Cimarrón exactly the same time as Capote wrote In Cold Blood. He called his work an anti-novel. I didn't call mine that... I called it a documentary novel. Cimarrón was published in 1966. A few months after I finished writing Cimarrón, I started to translate In Cold Blood into Spanish.

Q: I forgot that you did that! Did you ever meet Truman Capote?
A: Yes. I met him in Venice once. I showed him the book in 1967 and I thought he would be happy to meet me and say, "How wonderful." But he was not even interested. I said, "This is the Cuban translation of your book." He didn't even say thanks. Anyway, I liked him very much as a writer. He was a great writer. Maybe he spent too much time going to parties and trying to impress people? But I remember in his memories that he said that he was at a party with Jackie Onassis and she said, "Truman, get up and tell us a story." And he answered that he was not a clown or an actor, but a writer. That I liked. But people know more about Truman Capote's life than his work. It was like that with Hemingway.

Q: It is fascinating that you are also a politician, a senator.
A: I am not a politician! I am a revolutionary. That is different.

Q: But what is interesting is that you are an author and poet and you are actively involved in the government. We don't have anything like that in America. Maybe we should?
A: I am sorry for you. I am really sorry for America. I would love to see someone like Quincy Jones or Gore Vidal to be part of the U.S. Senate. The Cuban parliament is very big and they try to put [in] outstanding people in art, in music, in poetry, in religion . . . people who are not Marxists but progressive people. I am not an orthodox Marxist or part of the Communist Party. I just try to be a progressive person, but I don't have to hide that I support the Cuban revolution. I am proud of that.

Q: The revolution is changing.
A: Thank God. We want changes to improve our system. And I am convinced that these changes will take place and they are important for our people. But I am more of an anthropologist and poet than a politician. We need some [changes] to be fast and some to be gradual. The most important is changing the way people think. We need to be more universal and cosmopolitan. It is a question of establishing a respectful and common dialogue with the world.

Q: You mean America?
A: Yes. I am talking about America. Not the rest of the world. It is very necessary. We have to establish a dialogue with America and it has to be very fair. It was like that under the Carter administration. If not, you are pushing Cuban revolutionaries to the extreme.

Q: There has been no dialogue with the Bush administration, but maybe that will change after the election?
A: I don't want to talk about the election, but I hope so. I am just hoping for changes. We Cubans love the American people. We study the literature, the poetry, movies . . . everything.

Q: Wouldn't the best thing the United States could do is to allow Americans to travel there?
A: That would only be the first step. The embargo, or as we call it, the blockade, has been terrible for the Cuban people and the Cuban economy. According to Cuban statistics, we have lost $9.9 billion as a result of the so-called embargo. But we are talking politics and I told you that I am not a politician. I am only a revolutionary.

Q: Do you think that the embargo has done anything to promote democracy in Cuba?
A: The only thing that it has provoked is anger and suffering because it is absurd. It is totally crazy that we have this wall, or whatever you want to call it, an ideological wall, between the United States and Cuba. It's stupid. We always had good American people living here. I was part of it. I went to an American school and in a way was part of the American colony because I was a soloist in the Anglo-American church choir. So I find it really stupid. The first step is to lift this ban of not letting Americans come to Cuba. The embargo is different. It can be softened gradually, but they are not going to change it overnight. That is impossible. It has to be step by step.

Source: Cigar Aficionado