Unmasking Lesbian Cuba: Exiled Cuban Novelist Zoe Valdes Talks about Dear First Love, Her Tough Novel of Passionate Women in Castro's Cuba. (Books)

Article excerpt

"To identify as gay or lesbian in Cuba," according to Zoe Valdes, a Cuban novelist and poet who now lives in exile, "is to declare political dissidence. It is equivalent to publishing a manifesto against the government." Though she's heterosexual, Valdes is just the woman to take that challenge. "My brother is gay, my sister's a lesbian, and me, I love the whole world," she says. Gustavo, her brother, translates from Spanish as Valdes takes a sip from her frappuccino on one of New York City's hottest summer afternoons.

She flashes Gustavo a smile, looking at him affectionately with her deep-green eyes as she feeds him her next line. It's an inside joke between them, and they laugh with the intimacy of kinship and the relief of distance from the subject at hand. Gustavo is at the tail end of a giggle when he translates what she said: "In Cuba the gathering of more than three people is considered a conspiracy. But the gathering of three or four gays and lesbians is considered an American invasion."

There is no American invasion in Valdes's astonishing new novel, Dear First Love (translated from the Spanish by Andrew Hurley, HarperCollins, $23.95)--her third to be published in English. But based on this joke, it comes awfully close by Castro's standards, with two lesbians as the main characters. But Valdes will not let anything compromise her writing. At one point Valdes came this close to being punished for signing a book contract with a French publisher without the permission of the government--one of the "crimes" that landed gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas in jail. "When I lived in Cuba," she tells me, "I didn't even know he'd been in jail. That's how restrictive they were with information."

Keeping Valdes under wraps would not only deprive readers, but it would do a tremendous disservice to Cuban culture. For reading Valdes's fiction is like feeling the pulse of Cuba: We encounter a Havana throbbing with creative, erotic, emotional, and intellectual energy, forces that intensify in the face of adversity. This is the Havana of her memory, the city of her birth in 1959--the same year Castro came to power. It's the city that at once inspired and impeded her writing career while she was living there. It is the city she left behind eight years ago when she went to live in Paris, where she is now finally free to explore the many idiosyncrasies of Cuban life in print. …