‘One of the world’s most literary countries’: Why UK should emulate Cuba

By Tui Benjamin

Cultural hotspot Cuba is ‘one of the world’s most literary countries’ according to a Manchester academic who has interviewed over 100 Cuban writers and editors for a new book out this month.

The University of Manchester’s Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami has joined forces with Nottingham University’s Professor Antoni Kapacia to challenge the Western image of the Socialist nation.

Literary culture in Cuba: Revolution, nation-building and the book throws a literary spotlight on a state which according to the UN has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.

Arguing that Cubans enjoy one of the richest and most deeply embedded literary cultures in the world, Dr Kumaraswami said that literature and culture have been valued since the 1959 revolution and are deeply embedded into Cuban culture.

“In terms of its literary culture, Cuba is in another league from other developing world countries and is probably stronger than most of the developed world as well,” she said.

She added that ‘contrary to Western expectations’ Cuban literary culture is founded on a strong tradition of openness, unlike their more ‘guarded’ press.

“I think the Cuban model is something we should be emulating in the West: It makes us question the effectiveness of David Cameron’s Big Society and shows that culture can bring people together in times of economic hardship,” she said.

The book, published by Manchester University Press, includes interviews with international bestseller Leonado Padura Fuentes, and the prize-winning Pedro Juan Guitérrez, writers who see it as their revolutionary role to critique the authorities.

Dr Kumaraswami said that while required to negotiate ‘economic, political and social change’ including difficult relations with the US government, it is not inevitable that all Cuban literature is political.

“All Cuban writers are aware of the potential politics between their writing, especially when so much critical reception of Cuban literature outside the island is so clearly politicised and often very polarised politically,” she said.

“What is more interesting is that so many writers in Cuba are motivated by their social role and duty to the nation, although this is changing in the younger generations.”

She added that patterns of genre, such as the short story being a particularly widespread Cuban literary form, are often due to economic constraints on publishing which was funded by the state until 1989.

Cuba also hosts Havana’s International Book Fair, a cultural smorgasbord which takes place every year and features book vendors, poetry readings, art exhibitions, concerts and more and is attended by about five million people. 

Top four Cuban reads

Dr Parvathi Kumaraswami has picked out her top reads for those keen to experience a flavour of Cuban culture.

La canción del bongó by Nicolás Guillén.

“This poem was written long before the revolution but was resurrected after 1959 as an iconic revolutionary text. It reveals the essence of Cuba’s cultural heritage by highlighting the country’s Spanish and African fusion through use of language and rhythm.”

Havana Is a Really Big City: And Other Short Stories by Mirta Yañez.

“A wonderful writer who tells engaging stories about everyday life and writes with energy, warmth and an excellent sense of irony about the contradictions of life in Cuba.”


The Initials of the Earth: A Novel of the Cuban Revolution by Jesús Díaz.

“Diaz was a young writer in 1959 and this is considered to be one of his most complex works, narrating the turbulent 50s and 60s with a sense of the radical rupture that the Cuban revolution represented for many people.”


Biography of a Runaway Slave by Miguel Barnet.

“The result of Barnet transcribing the memories narrated to him by an 103-year-old runaway slave, this book is a skilful balance between social history and a novel. It gives a unique look into the largely hidden world of Cuban runaway slaves in the second half of the nineteenth century.”

Photo courtesy of ComicPie, with thanks.

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