A conversation with Marta Rojas, one of Cuba’s most important living writers

Study abroad students gather around Marta Rojas, one of Cuba's most famous living writers. Photo: Tracey Eaton

By Jared Olson | gargoyle@flagler.edu

Study abroad students gather around Marta Rojas, one of Cuba’s most famous living writers. Photo: Tracey Eaton

The old writer draws an aging, sepia-stained picture from a folder in the wooden cabinet and contemplates the image of herself, nearly sixty years ago now, sitting there next to Fidel Castro. We all draw closer to her, a gasp of astonishment slowly escaping us. We can see the resemblances in her face, her eyes. These two women–the one encapsulated in the photo and the one standing here before us–are the same person, iterations of the same body, separated only by half a century’s time. Together, they constitute one of Cuba’s most important writers, a witness to massive upheavals and an unmatched chronicler of history.

Marta Rojas, a Cuban journalist and Revolutionary heroine who exudes an inexplicable brightness of spirit, smiles youthfully as she flips through the pictures of her past life: here she is again with Castro, testifying at a table in the early months of the Revolution, her shapely, wine-dark face in the picture lowered down to speak into a microphone before her; here she is on that picture hung up on the wall, standing there in the black and white photo taken when she traveled as a correspondent to cover the Vietnam War.

And here is something really special, she says to us, drawing out a packet of inscrutable notes typed up on oil-stained papers: the notes she took as the first journalist to cover the 1953 Moncada Barracks uprising led by then-unknown lawyer Fidel Castro, as the first writer to note this corpulent Cuban before he became a 20th century Hannibal, the first writer to witness history in its conception. It was this set of notes, she relates to us, from which she drew to compose her first book, a novelistic rendition of the events of 1953 called “El Juicio del Moncada,” or “The Trial of Moncada,” the first movement of a decades-long literary career. It is also her favorite book, she concedes to us smilingly, as if she were sharing a secret: her original child, her baby.

Crowded in on the couches and stiff-backed wooden chairs of her narrow, grandmotherly smelling apartment, whose living room overlooks the checkerboard of pastel-colored rooftops of Vedado, a neighborhood of Havana, our study abroad group listens in fascination as Marta Rojas, one of post-Revolutionary Cuba’s most important scribes, tells us the story of her life. With our translator interrupting periodically to relay the messages, she told her story in an ebullient outpouring of words, as if she had entered a trance state, reliving the very moments she now recounted.

She is 89 years old, though her mannerisms easily cut a decade off her appearance. Laying her 64-year-old notes back on the table, she settles back into her plush chair, gesticulating fiercely with her wrinkling arms as she continues telling her story.

This moment is special for us. Over the course of our time in Cuba, we’d met myriad Cubans whose lives each reflect a distinct reaction to the current geopolitical situation in Cuba. But amongst all these–the artists and publishers and fashionistas–none have borne the magnitude of this frail woman around whom we’re now gathered.

Behind her life story lie the weight of history; indeed, her life and history are intimately intertwined.

She was there when Castro and his band of rebels stormed the barracks that summer evening in 1953; she was there in the hall as Castro laid himself bare before the prosecuting military, the guards lowering their arms and listening for hours in rapt astonishment as he spoke to them of Cuba’s suffering, feverishly exhorting them to revolt.

She was there when the barbudos floated atop clattering green tanks through the ocean of people pouring through Havana, the city wild with ecstasy in the wake of the rebel victory. She was there in the years following the Revolution when the island underwent a metamorphosis from a touristy casino colony, administered jointly by the Americans and the Mafia, into the Western Hemisphere’s first and only lasting redoubt of communism.

She was in Vietnam when the Viet Cong fought the Americans, when the Earth became consumed with napalm and fire and bullets.

She was in Cuba when the behemoth to the north victoriously pronounced that history had ended, because on far side of the Atlantic, the Slavic Bear–Cuba’s main life support through years of an isolating economic embargo–had finally keeled over and died. In that deep isolation of the 1990s, Cuba lapsed into an abyss of poverty whose pains almost harkened back to the nightmare of Batista, from which they had escaped hardly three decades before.

But Marta Rojas, like most all the Cuban’s I’ve met–on both sides of the Gulf Stream, on opposing camps of the ideological chasm that now torments the island–remained strong. Quintessentially Cuban, she’s a writer and woman who has endured.

And now she is here, as the Obama-era thaw in relations with the U.S. begins to freeze again under the Trump administration’s newfound belligerence, 89 years old telling a group of American students the story of her life in her stifling, hot apartment. If Cuban history as an abstraction could be boiled down into something tangible, something that speaks, I imagine it would have dark wrinkled skin, a mane of black hair, and would talk with fierce gesticulations from thin wrinkled arms. Cuban history would be an effigy very closely mirroring Marta Rojas.

“As a little girl,” she says, “I had always wanted to become a doctor. I would go to the library and pick out as many books as I could on the anatomy of the human body. And I would sit there, in my house, memorizing all the parts. I wanted to understand the mystery of the body. I wanted to uncover its secrets.

“I discovered as a student at the University [of Havana] that I had neither the natural penchant to complete nor any real desire to undergo all the science courses required for becoming a doctor. But I still loved writing. And books. And I wanted to be curious, to unravel stories and mysteries. So instead of a doctor, I became a journalist.”

On July 26, 1953, she was at a carnival with her friends in the town of Santiago when they heard the first echoing report of gunshots in the dim evening twilight.

“We looked at each other and asked ‘What the hell is going on?’ But we were budding journalists at the time. We were always on the lookout for stories. And so we began to run towards the gunfire.”

Several months later, she sat in the courtroom where Castro rose to deliver his “history will absolve me,” speech before an audience of guards hypnotized by his words. Upon concluding his oration, Castro returned to his prison cell and Rojas stowed away her papers, unsure of what would become of them.

Ten years later, the world would be turned upside down. The prisoners had become the leaders and the leaders had fled into exile. As the trial’s significance has been amplified by history’s ex-post facto power, Rojas, who had been making a quiet, parallel climb in the world of Cuban journalism that ran alongside her work as a revolutionary activist, dredged up her manuscript from her stack of aging notes.

All of it flooded back to her: the lofty hospital corridor in which Fidel gave his defense speech, the line of guardsmen swayed into inexplicable silence by the powerful elocutions of the future comandante. That scene, she now understood, would remain flaming with controversy for a very long time. And she would immortalize it in a book. She rushed into a flurry of work and quickly fashioned the pulsing, cinematic narrative that emerged out of her garbled notes, which had grown more clear after several years of distance. The result was a 360-page impression of the fate of a country and a continent in the balance. “El Juicio de Moncada” was rushed into print and became an instant bestseller.

Written in the form of a non-fiction novel, the book romanticizes the crucifixion of the Moncadistas so heavily that it might be deemed little more than propaganda were it not rooted in the backbone of Rojas’ firsthand experience of the event.

Rojas is biased towards Fidel, demonstrated by the way she speaks of him during that trial, and of his years she knew him rather intimately as the “Comandante en Jefe.” As if proud to have shared in the experience of the rebellion, she relates with a demure, humorous, downcast smile how Fidel–a man always anchored by a messianic self-confidence in his destiny–deftly turned what was supposed to be an uneventful judicial proceeding on its head, turning the prosecutors into the prosecuted and putting the Batista regime on trial. Instead of merely giving a speech proclaiming innocence to the attack, he delivered a searing oratorical expose of the crimes of dictatorship.

With every memory she relates to us, you can see the events flash in her eyes: the eyes which, despite the decaying wrinkle of the body they’re contained, refuse to lose that richness; the eyes that have seen so much.

After the Revolution, she partook in the hearings, supervised and highly publicized by the Castro government, which accounted for the crimes of the Batista regime through a long series of testimonials.

All of this–her favorability towards Castro, her comfortable rapport with the government–leads inevitably to an uncomfortable question. Is she a truly talented writer, conveying incommunicable truths through her pen? Or is she merely a skilled spinster of language, elevated to a pedestal because her books acted as propaganda for the regime?

Reckoning with the political biases inherent in an author is a task every responsible reader should undertake when reading their works. And the fact that the communist government, held in high regard by Rojas, has committed innumerable sins is clear.

One could draw comparisons between Rojas and Maxim Gorky, a Russian communist writer whose deft literary creations acted as a conveyor belt of apologetics for the genocidal institutions of Stalinism.

It should also be remembered that in her adoration of Castro, Rojas is little different from millions in and outside of Cuba. There are those who see the institutions created by Castro as bastions of social justice that counterweighted American Imperialism in the Western Hemisphere, created impeccable educational and healthcare systems in Cuba, and waged war against neo-colonialism and its insidious effects throughout the impoverished Third World.

I will thus leave it to the reader to discern the validity of Rojas’ writing.

In the years to come, Rojas would rise in the Cuban literary scene, slowly branching out from journalism into historical fiction. But her fictional efforts remained rooted in what I perceived to be the same ambition that marked her earlier reporting: to plumb the depths of the Cuban psyche and illuminate the soul of an island. With her pen, she sought to do for Cubans what Diego Rivera had done with his murals: animating the struggles of a nation that history had perpetually forgotten.

She tells us how she spent many years writing “Inglesa por un Año” or “Englishwoman for a Year,” a novel which regarded the brief period when the British occupied Havana in 1762, during the Seven Years’ War, through the eyes of a fictional society woman. An exemplary illustration of her later historical works, the book animates an unsung story in Cuban history that would, in any other case, be consigned to the dusty pages of an unread history textbook.

As if arriving at a mildly surprising thought, she rises mischievously from her chair and pads excitedly down the hallway, returning a few moments later with two copies of “The Trial of Moncada,” reprinted by the government in these newest additions to honor Fidel’s recent death at 90. For a friend and I, she scrawls on the inside front cover of each book a short note and the wild, nearly illegible arabesque of her signature.

She places one of the books in my hands, her two frail hands clasped over mine–fragile, wrinkly, parchment-skinned hands–her eyes locked firmly in a brief gaze with mine. A gift from her to me. A token connecting worlds.

Back in the spartan office where she has penned the majority of her works, she talks more about her life as a writer.

Lining the glassed-encased shelves of her polished wooden bookcase, which spans three sides of the room, lie copies of Neruda, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, Conrad, Hemingway. Like any good writer, she appears extremely well read. I ask her what her favorite book is.

“But of course,” she says, with the same enthusiasm that drove her to show us her writing cave, “that would be none other than ‘Don Quixote.’”

She opens a door in the bookcase and draws a worn copy of Cervantes’ novel, the pages folded in on many parts, protruding with sticky notes. “I try to reread it at least once every few years.”

“Don Quixote,” the story of a dilettante-turned-knight, recounts a tale of an idealistic man struggling against insurmountable odds – which lends us the definition of “Quixotic,” which means to live according to one’s ideals despite any hope of succeeding in the present moment– only to have the idealistic struggle of his life ultimately vindicated by time.

As she sees us off following a generous helping of plantains, I can’t help but think that Marta Rojas almost evokes a whiff of Quixotism. She’s a woman who, through a panoramic life and against the overwhelming drift of the male-dominated scene of Latin American literature, has articulated powerful counter narratives about the history of Cuba. Pugnacious, ebullient, she has refused to stop writing through her 89 years of life.

Before continuing on with our day, I take a last look at the apartment building where the old writer lives. I imagine she’s looking out over the pastel rooftops lining Havana, to the hard rising blue of the Gulf Stream in the distance. I imagine she’s returning to her room to resume work on her next book.

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