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Cold Havana Ground

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A new mystery in hardcover from the godfather of Cuban Noir.

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Interview with Arnaldo Correa by Raul Deznermio

In the “Author’s Note” at the beginning of Cold Havana Ground, you write that you were given access to police files of a case that was “deeply tied to believers in three African-rooted religions practiced in Cuba.” How were you able to get access to these police files? How did you come to learn so much about the Afro-Cuban religions that are involved in the story of Cold Havana Ground?

Some years ago, the main Cuban television chain, in close cooperation with the police, started working on a weekly one-hour police serial, Día y Noche. I was one of the crime-fiction writers invited to help them create it. After a few meetings with police officers appointed as our advisors, I asked for real cases which could be used as basis for scripts. They gave me this case, among others.

I started my research at the Guanabacoa municipal museum which has excellent exhibits on all Afro-Cuban religions. One of the researchers hired by the museum to gather information related to this matter answered my questions. A week later, I took the first draft of the script to the expert. As he read it, he pointed out many details I had to correct. Suddenly, halfway through the script, he gave it back to me and, visibly scared, told me: “You’ll be killed for this! Abakuás will never allow you to say they’re thieves. Please, never tell anyone you have consulted me. Don’t even mention you were here at the museum.”

This was the beginning of my intrusion into this world. The more I learned, the more complex and difficult it became to get the script finally approved and made into a film. In the end, the museum expert was right: To sort out death threats I had received, the director of the film and I spent a whole Sunday afternoon in a meeting with the heads of the main Abakuá chapters explaining the script to them—”as a good-will gesture.” The meeting was presided over by the Colonel Chief of Guanabacoa police. The fact that I had used a real case as a basis for the script saved the situation.

What I had learned and went through convinced me that the real story was not about the police. For the next few years, I spent a lot of my spare time doing field research and studying everything I found on this matter. As I say in the author’s note, this increasingly became a search for some of the basic clues to the idiosyncrasies of the Cuban people, and in many ways a search for keys to understand myself.

Your first book published in English, Spy’s Fate, jumps back and forth between Cuba and the United States. Cold Havana Ground, on the other hand, never leaves Cuba. Was it easier, in terms of research, to write a book that is set in only one country?

The magic link between writer and readers is a frail thread made only of credibility. Once this thread is broken, the charm disappears, the spell is lost. This makes it very important for a writer to know very well what he writes about, if possible to the last detail. My main challenge in Spy’s Fate was the credibility of the characters and the story that takes place in the United States. In spite of my having attended an American university and worked in many places in the US, I tried to fact-check most of what I wrote in that novel. For instance, thanks to a very good friend, I was able to visit Burlington in Vermont, select the neighborhood and the house where the main character of the novel rented a room. I walked around the city as my character would, even went to the Social Security office where I found my work record while I was in the US more than forty years back. Also, I visited the US-Canada border where my detailed research brought me to the brink of being expelled from the United States.

To write my novel about the highly complex world of the African-rooted religions was far more troublesome, even though I didn’t leave Havana. The difficulty was to find out how different people who believe in these religions reason and react to everyday events. That information is not in any book, or the Internet, neither can it be picked up just visiting a place. I had to win the trust of many believers who shared with me their knowledge and their thoughts on matters often considered secret.

On a related note, Natalia Bolivar, an expert on Afro-Cuban religions, writes that you have “allowed the reader to see the heritage of . . . the Chinese who were hauled to Cuba to do forced labor during the nineteenth century.” This is a part of Cuban history that few people in the United States know about. Are there still many people of Chinese origin living in Cuba?

Immigrants of Chinese origin came to Cuba for more than a century and contributed in many ways to our heritage. In the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Chinese laborers were contracted to replace the African slaves, after the abolition of the slave trade. Since they were not property of the employers and could be easily substituted, they were forced to live and work under even worse conditions than the blacks. Very many of them joined the Cuban rebels in the three wars for independence against Spanish rule from 1868 to 1898. These wars all together lasted 15 years.

“There was never a Cuban Chinese deserter, There was never a Cuban Chinese traitor.” This Gonzalo de Quesad quote is on a monument erected as an homage to the Chinese contribution to our wars of independence. The monument is located at Calle L and Linea in the heart of modern Havana.

Chinese migration to Cuba practically stopped by middle of the 20th century. Because few Chinese women migrated, most Chinese men married Cuban women, and there are many of their descendents in Cuba. There are a few thousand Chinese immigrants still alive, generally old folks.

At one point in Cold Havana Ground, the Cuban police are not able to do thorough work because they are not very well-funded. I am thinking of the chapter “Close Encounter” in which the female police officer, Camila, discusses her attempts to catch some thieves. Was this purely your imagination, or have you heard stories about the Cuban police having trouble because the department doesn’t have enough resources at their disposal?

The years after the disappearance of the socialist bloc (1991), to which Cuba’s economy was tied up, were very difficult for everybody here, including the police. There was an acute shortage of everything. Most Cuban adults lost more than ten pounds due to the lack of substantial food. That is the time when the story takes place. Since I spent some time learning how police actually worked, I became acquainted with their shortcomings. In the last decade everything has improved, but the lack of resources is still a problem nowadays.

Havana comes across as a fascinating and enchanting city. Do you like living there or would you prefer to live somewhere else in Cuba? How has the city changed, if at all, over the past 10 years?

I was 17 when I first visited Havana to collect the equivalent of 50 dollars for my first short story published, and to get a passport to study in the US. It was the Havana of the fifties, the Paris of America, a city that never slept. It was love at first sight, and that has lasted until today. Since that first encounter, we have both changed a lot. I believe the most important event in the city in the last ten years has been the revival of Old Havana. It is now a live piece of Americas’ history, a treasure for all Cubans and visitors. Come see it!

Your bio says that you are one of the founders of the crime-fiction genre in Cuba. Can you talk about that?

While I was at the university, I published a few short stories in the leading Cuban magazines, Bohemia and Carteles. After I graduated as an engineer in 1957, I came back to search for oil near the Sierra Maestra where the rebel army was operating. Later, I worked in a ministry created to develop water conservation and irrigation. In my spare time I kept writing short stories as a hobby. In 1965, I collected some of the manuscripts, had them typed, and made ten photocopies. I sent one to my boss, Faustino Perez, one of the heroes of the Revolution who was heading the ministry where I was working. A few months later, I was astonished to see an add on television for the viewers to buy Asesinado por Anticipado, my first book of short stories.

In 1986, when the International Association of Crime Writers, AIEP, was founded in Havana, I was recognized as one of the two founders of the crime-fiction genre in Cuba for the short story book published in 1966. The other is Ignacio Cárdenas Acuña, who published the first crime-fiction novel five years later.

How many books have you had published in Cuba? Your bio says that your writing has been praised by Fidel Castro. Do you know how he came to read your work?

I have published five books of short stories and a novel in Cuba. My short stories have been published in many anthologies in Cuba and abroad. My first short story book was published in 1966, Asesinato por Anticipado, and it is an odd mixture of crime-fiction and science-fiction stories. About that time, Fidel Castro visited the Oriente province to review many water conservation and irrigation projects already being constructed, among many other things. Since I was in charge of that work in the province, I was asked to join the group which, for the next ten days, made many visits during the daytime, camping at any place on the countryside at night. I gave Fidel a copy of my book and he read one story each night. One science-fiction story impressed him very much and he read it aloud to the group at supper that night. Soon, the story was all over the media. As years passed, many of the young generation of science-fiction writers told me how important that story had been for them. In 1986, Asesinato por Anticipado was given an award as the most popular crime-fiction short story book that had been published up to that point.



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