Academic journal article MELUS

The Traumas of Unbelonging: Reinaldo Arenas's Recuperations of Cuba

Academic journal article MELUS

The Traumas of Unbelonging: Reinaldo Arenas's Recuperations of Cuba

Article excerpt

Comparatists have recognized in recent decades a shift away from exclusively national literatures and notions of place-bound culture. Increasingly we are dealing with what Bruce Robbins calls "different modalities of situatedness-in-displacement" (250) as globalization, migration, and forced exile have separated people from places and made conceptions of ethnicity less static and more mobile, fluid, and hybrid as they are subject to a greater variety of cultural influences. (1) However, these conditions also raise the question of the relationship between culture and self, and feeling bound to a place remains an imperative for some, particularly if the separation from homeland is traumatic. While situations of displacement often foster survival through cultural adaptability, in the context of traumatic exile a lost home can remain not only psychically embedded as a place of origin and identity but also of an anguished dissolution of self. The case of contemporary Cuba and in particular the work of exiled Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) is exemplary, specifically in how the traumas of revolution, oppression, and dislocation produce a fragmented, isolated, and dissociated identity and an aesthetic sensibility compelled to both critique and reconnect to homeland.

Arenas's estrangements from authorities and other Cubans both before and after he flees Cuba fuel his imagination, provoking recreations of Cuba through which he can revisit in some way his losses and hopes for his country and himself. His own displacement also mirrors other Cubans' fragmented political, cultural, and psychological life. Writing most of his work in exile in the US, (2) he chronicles his own persecution for being homosexual and uncompromisingly observes how in Cuban society a powerful, masculinized cultural order attempts to suppress other influences, more specifically, the nexus of art, gender, and sexuality that he associates with the feminine. Like many trauma writers, Arenas adopts a testimonial approach to bear witness for a suppressed past (Vickroy 5). His writing carries the imprint of overwhelming, psychologically disruptive events, and he attempts to reshape cultural memory of these events in his focus on artists' authenticity and survival, and in imaginatively revisiting emotionally over-determined contexts symptomatic of traumas. Art provides mediated structures by which he withstands attempts to obliterate his person and his work. This study will establish the traumatic contexts of Arenas's life and then will analyze how his imagination and art, especially through the lenses of gender and sexuality, become the means to express and, to some extent, overcome trauma.

Trauma narratives, I contend, are personalized responses to this century's emerging awareness of the catastrophic effects of wars, poverty, colonization, and oppression on the individual psyche. They are often concerned with human-made traumatic situations and are implicit critiques of the ways social, economic, and political structures can create and perpetuate trauma (Vickroy 4). They highlight postcolonial concerns with rearticulating the lives and voices of marginal people, and reveal trauma as an indicator of social injustice or oppression, as the ultimate cost of destructive sociocultural institutions (Vickroy x). Many of these narratives have characteristics of testimonio or testimonial narrative that seeks to create a feeling of lived experience and expresses a "problematic collective social situation" through a representative individual (Beverley 94-95). Testifying to the past has been an urgent task for many fiction writers in recent decades as they attempt to preserve personal and collective memories from assimilation, repression, or misrepresentations (Vickroy 1).

Arenas exemplifies this approach in his recounting of the effects of Castro's regime, describing aspects of Cuban culture lying outside of official versions, and revealing the follies of Cuban life and history as he sees them. …

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