Text & Photos: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Dragon/License Plate Photo: Brayan Collazo
I’m not a regular reader of fiction. I find real life far too interesting.
But it was my interest in real life—specifically, my own work interviewing Chinese Cubans in Havana that began in 2008—that led me to Daina Chaviano’s novel, The Island of Eternal Love, translated into English by Andrea G. Labinger and published by Penguin’s imprint, Riverhead Books, in 2008.
The novel isn’t specifically about Chinese Cubans. In fact, it’s about what Chaviano refers to as “the three origins…of the Cuban nation” (Spanish, African, and Chinese). But it may just be the first novel published in English that includes the Chinese Cuban community in Havana as one of its principal subjects.
Though the rest of the world is largely unaware of the fact, Chinese immigrants began arriving in Cuba’s capital and main port city by the thousands in the 1840s, lured by promises of work and financial stability, which were lacking at home. (Francisco’s maternal and paternal grandparents were among the Chinese immigrants). Today, there are more than 10,000 living descendants of these immigrants on the island, Jorge Chao, secretary of the Casino Chung Wah, a social club for Chinese Cubans in Havana’s Chinatown, told me when I interviewed him last May.
Chao talked about the hardships Chinese immigrants faced, and these are rendered accurately in Chaviano’s novel—the decision to change Chinese names to Spanish names to gain acceptability in Cuban society; the difficulty of integrating into a culture whose sounds, sights and tastes were frustratingly foreign; the social isolation young Chinese immigrants experienced in schools; and the self-imposed isolation the Chinese Cubans experienced when they clustered in cultural enclaves intended to foster mutual aid and maintain traditions.
For the reader unfamiliar with Cuban history and culture, these details are likely to come as interesting surprises. Chaviano peppers the novel with historically correct details that are also wonderfully evocative—the smell of steaming pork buns and fish soup, the symbolism of the Chinese lottery—still played in Cuba today–, and the inclusion of Cuban sayings that reveal how Chinese Cubans were both integrated into and isolated from the dominant culture.
Despite Chaviano’s firm grasp of Chinese Cuban history and culture, the novel can be difficult to follow. The author introduces more than two dozen characters, located in or evoking four countries and one continent (Spain, Cuba, China, the US, and Africa), all spanning several generations. Even the most interested reader may have a hard time keeping track, but for the reader lacking any point of reference about Cuban history, I wonder if the novel may feel more onerous to read than pleasurable.
There’s also the issue of the writing. The Island of Eternal Love is really about the main character, Cecilia, a Cuban American journalist living in Miami who is desperate to understand herself, her history, and the mystery of a ghost house that appears and disappears in various locations in south Florida. Cecilia becomes interested in new agey mysticism as a means of resolving these tensions, and the novel begins to feel weighted with clichés about crystals, auras, and women who see or intuit things about others that remain obscure to the person affected. The effort, it seems, is to evoke a sense of the mysterious that does—as any visitor to Cuba can attest– seem to shroud the island and Havana in particular. But the metaphor feels too obvious, too forced. Unfortunately, there are many instances of these all too obvious “as if by magic” narrative devices. Perhaps they read more convincingly in the original Spanish, but they often seem silly in the English translation.
Still, the book is a worthwhile read, especially for those with an interest in and basic knowledge of Cuba. It may be most appropriate for Cuban Americans, many of whom are likely to recognize the complexity of their own experiences and emotions in Cecilia’s character. For other readers, sticking around for the ending may be a challenge, but if you can forgive the occasionally affected language, The Island of Eternal Love is an engaging and worthwhile read, a fictional account that brings some fascinating and overlooked aspects of Cuban history to life.