Ben Brooks

Ben Brooks

Ben Brooks

Ben Brooks is the author of the essay “Bully at the Pulpit: One American's Cultural Exchange with Cuba." Primarily a writer of fiction, he has published work in Sewanee Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, Epoch, Denver Quarterly, Chicago Review, Mississippi Review, Notre Dame Review, The Florida Review, Other Voices, Crab Orchard Review, Story Quarterly, Confrontation, and Writers' Forum. His stories have won an O. Henry Prize and a Nelson Algren Award, and he has been awarded grants by the state arts councils of both Massachusetts and Arizona, by the Ingram Merrill Foundation, and other cultural organizations. His novel The Icebox was published in 1987. Currently he is writer-in-residence at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches in the BFA and MFA programs.

Superstition Review: Before writing “Bully at the Pulpit: One American's Cultural Exchange with Cuba,” explain how much research you had to do on the history of Cuba, their government and their relationships with other countries.

Ben Brooks: The actual research I did for the essay was minimal—not because I'm lazy, but because my intent in writing the piece was to record my personal impressions of the week I spent in a country that had been off-limits to most Americans for some fifty years, rather than to write an essay that would be heavy on facts and figures and dates. For me, as a writer primarily of fiction, narrative is the mode that I turn to instinctively, and it seemed like narrative was the appropriate mode for this piece, even though it would be non-fiction. I had wanted to go to Cuba in the past, just to visit and to see something of the country and the culture, and I had known plenty of other people who had wanted to go, but the US government has forbidden travel to Cuba by American citizens for decades, with certain very specific exceptions. So because Cuba was largely unknown to most American travelers, I felt that a personal account of what a visit was like would be of more interest than a document that sought to make rhetorical points with the use of hard facts. I have written other types of non-fiction essays in the past, and for some of them I have done a considerable amount of research, but in this case I was primarily focused on what transpired during my time there, and what it felt like to be there.

I will say that I did know a certain amount about modern Cuban history, and the Cuban revolution, from reading I'd done long before my trip, and that I knew about the longstanding American economic boycott of Cuba, and had read articles about the effects of this boycott on the Cuban economy and also on the lives of ordinary Cuban citizens. But all of this was information I had accumulated over time, and not reading done specifically for the trip. Along with fiction, which is what I read mostly, I've also always read about certain other subjects of interest to me, politics and international relations being two of those interests.

Finally, the trip itself provided me with a lot of the context for the history of Cuba, and also for its relations with the United States. One of the most interesting things I did during that week was visit the Museo de la Revolucion (Museum of the Revolution) in Havana, where there is a large gallery devoted solely to the relationship between Cuba and the United States, with an emphasis on America's support of the dictator who was overthrown by the revolution, Fulgencio Batista, and the repeated attempts of the United States government since 1959 to undermine or sabotage the revolutionary Cuban government.

SR: Explain why you wanted to study Cuban Culture and how you decided to take action and go to the isolated country.

BB: The trip came about serendipitously, at least for me. My wife is a painter, and she had submitted work to an art exhibition being organized by the Puffin Foundation, an American non-profit organization that has a progressive slant in its philanthropic and cultural work. The foundation was interested in fostering people-to-people exchanges between American citizens and Cuban citizens, and also interested in issues regarding degradation of the environment. The exhibition they put together was entitled “Toxic Landscapes/Paisajes Toxicos,” and its subject was art related to the landscape, both damaged and pristine, and specifically art that addressed issues of urban environmental racism, environmental justice, and environmental activism. The show was to include works by American artists and Cuban artists.

The opening of the exhibition was in Havana in June, 2002 (the show subsequently traveled to a couple of venues in the United States). Nancy had a piece in the show, and along with all the other participating American artists, she was invited to the opening. The artists were told they could stay in Cuba for up to a week. The Puffin Foundation was organizing opportunities to meet Cuban artists at receptions and at galleries and at their studios during that week, and there would be time for plain old sightseeing as well. So of course, when Nancy had the opportunity to go to Cuba for a week, I wanted to go as well.

SR: Describe the process you had to undertake to be allowed in Cuba as an American writer.

BB: Sanctioned cultural exchanges have been one of the ways that Americans can visit Cuba legally, and the Puffin Foundation had gotten an official okay from the State Department to sponsor the week's events for participating artists. The American government's approval included permission for the artists to travel there for the week. Spouses and partners were pointedly not covered by this permission, as they would have been considered tourists, but as a writer I was able to obtain journalist credentials to cover the event. (Journalists are another category of visitors who can sometimes travel to Cuba legally, though it's still necessary to get the American government's permission to get a visa.) I'm not really a journalist, but I sent my documentation to the Puffin Foundation anyway, and when Nancy's visa arrived, mine did as well. Maybe someone at the Foundation had a friend at the State Department. There was one husband-wife tandem at the opening who both had work in the show, but otherwise I was the only spouse who was able to go. But everything was perfectly legal. I had the right papers. And when I came back I did write about it—the essay “Bully at the Pulpit,” which was published in Fourth Genre.

Interestingly, and surprisingly to me, even though everything was legal for every one of the Americans who made the trip, our passports were not stamped by Cuban officials when we arrived at the airport. Instead, they stamped separate slips of paper, which they then tucked inside the passports, with a recommendation that we remove these slips before we landed back in the United States. The Cubans did not want their visitors to find themselves in trouble when they returned home, which could easily happen if someone showed up in America with a Cuban stamp in a passport. At the very least, such a traveler would likely be subjected to a rigorous interrogation.

SR: In “Bully at the Pulpit: One American's Cultural Exchange with Cuba,” you speak about art and your artist friend. Discuss how art expresses the hardships and daily life in Cuba.

BB: I was quite amazed at how many practicing artists there are in Cuba, and how varied the art that's being done there is. Printmaking, in particular, was widespread, but just in this one show there were prints, paintings, sculptures, installations, videos, and conceptual pieces. There is a rich tradition of art in Cuba, with roots in both European art, through the country's Spanish heritage, and African art, through its African heritage.

The subject matter that we saw during our week was as varied as the media in which it was expressed. We saw work not only about the environment in the “Toxic Landscapes” show, but also work with the same sorts of personal and intimate subjects you might expect to see in an American gallery or museum, as well as work dealing with everyday life, surreal pieces, abstract work, work that was most concerned with formal qualities, landscapes and still-lifes—pretty much everything, in fact. In some of the art, contemporary Cuban social conditions were depicted, and not always favorably. There didn't seem to be any particular taboos, though I don't recall seeing anything that expressed explicitly anti-government views. But we did see plenty of art that reflected the economic poverty of the island, and some that reflected elements of life in Cuba that were not depicted in a positive light.

One of the biggest issues for a number of the artists we met was simply the ability to afford materials. We went to the home of one artist, whom we had met at a printmaking studio, so we could see his paintings. Though he was over thirty years old, he lived with his parents in a two-bedroom apartment in what had formerly been a grand building, though the building had clearly seen better days. This artist painted on large canvases in the apartment's hallway, which was far from an ideal studio situation. He told us he received a stipend from the government of five dollars a month, which didn't stretch very far when it came to buying art materials, even in an economy in which many things were provided to citizens at no cost, and in which prices for most goods that were for sale were very low. Needing to save money for art materials was why he was still living with his parents. Sometimes, he said, he would rent out his bedroom to tourists and go stay somewhere else for a couple of nights—Cuba is a popular tourist destination for Europeans, particularly from Germany, Great Britain, and Spain. The extra money that renting his room brought in helped. This was apparently a fairly common black market activity, and one the government didn't really crack down on.

SR: At one point in your work, you discuss how one museum in particular had bullet holes in the walls from an assassination attempt in 1957. Considering the history of Cuba and all the political unrest and isolation issues declared by America, explain if you ever felt nervous or scared before and during your trip.

BB: This was the Museum of the Revolution. It had formerly been the Presidential Palace, and Batista—the dictator overthrown by the revolution—had lived there and escaped an attempt on his life by fleeing up the stairs. Castro wouldn't live in the Presidential Palace after the revolution—it was too much a symbol of the oligarchy and corruption. Instead, he said the building should be used by the Cuban people. He thought it would make a fine museum, and he was right. When the palace was converted into a museum, they left the bullet holes from the assassination attempt in the walls as a particularly dramatic and pertinent exhibit. The holes have labels just like all the other exhibits.

And no, I never felt scared in Cuba. Statistically, I'm sure Havana is safer than many American cities (and I've never felt particularly scared walking around American cities), and with its strong police presence, I never felt personal safety was a risk in Havana.

I did feel nervous about money though. Our government makes it illegal to use an American credit card or debit card in Cuba even if your visit is approved, so as an American you have to bring enough cash to last for the whole time you're in the country. We paid for our plane tickets and hotel beforehand by sending a check to the Puffin Foundation—they made the airline arrangements and pre-paid everyone's hotel rooms. But cash or traveler's checks were necessary for food and for anything else we might want or need, and I'm not a big fan of walking around anywhere with big wads of cash stuffed in my pockets.

I was working at the time at the Museum of Science in Boston, and the museum had sponsored a trip to Cuba the previous year through its educational travel program (that trip was also granted a license as a cultural exchange), so I talked to the person who headed the museum's travel program before I left. He warned me that nobody in Cuba would accept traveler's checks, and that we should definitely bring cold cash. He said that when he had gone with the museum's group, he had brought all his money in ten and twenty dollar bills, because prices for everything are so low, and he didn't want to be flashing around hundred dollar bills to pay for a three dollar meal. He stuffed all his money inside his socks and walked around that way wherever he went. He recommended I do the same. Nancy and I took his advice and did bring our money in cash, in tens and twenties, though we didn't carry it around in our socks. What made me nervous is that there is no American embassy in Cuba to help you out if you lose your money, or if it gets stolen, and we had no idea what we would do if such an event occurred. But nothing like that did happen, and in the end everyone we met there was incredibly friendly, so I'm sure we would have been fine. People seemed to harbor no resentment toward ordinary Americans, even if they might toward our government. And we met a number of people who had no issues with the American government either, whose aspiration was to get off the island and come to the United States and become American citizens.

SR: Bully at the Pulpit allows American readers to get a better understanding of life and culture in forbidden Cuba. Discuss how you decided to organize all the information you collected for your work.

BB: I made notes every evening during the trip on what we had done and what we had seen and where we had eaten that day, and on whom we had spoken with, and on what topics. The notes weren't extensive—in fact, they were pretty sketchy—but they were enough to keep everything fresh. Then on our return to the States, I wrote a draft of a piece about the trip, using these notes, that was kind of a travelogue: a recounting of each day, in the order that things happened. The essay I wanted was fermenting in my mind while I was writing this. I realized that what had really caught my imagination was that I had seen the country not only as an outsider, but as an outsider from an “enemy” country (though the two countries have not actually been at war, at least not for a hundred years). My country refused to recognize the country I had gone to, and my country had done its best to cripple that country economically with the boycott, and here I was, a tourist, taking in the sights and discovering an extraordinarily interesting culture and some very friendly people.

The term bully pulpit, of course, was coined by Theodore Roosevelt; and Roosevelt is also closely associated with the Spanish-American War, which was fought in Cuba back in the 1890s. While I was working on my essay I couldn't help but picture myself wandering around Havana as somehow being a descendant of that earlier, self-described American bully, and the essay I was writing would be my pulpit. It's a bit of a stretch, but it did seem to work as a title for the piece.

SR: Discuss if you think you will write about other countries in the future?

BB: Well, I love to travel, I love to go to new places, I love to see the world and meet new people and get a first-hand sense of other cultures and traditions. Money and time, of course, are the two big obstacles to traveling, particularly money. It can be a pretty expensive proposition, even when you stay in cheap places and cut a few corners.

When I do travel to new places, I often write about them, though frequently the writing shows up in my fiction and not in an essay. I did write a kind of combined travel essay/personal essay about a trip to Mexico a couple of years ago, and Gourmet Magazine bought the piece, but they went out of business before they got around to publishing it. Or maybe they went out of business so they wouldn't have to publish it.

SR: It was hard to read that the people who were skilled and educated in difficult careers, like medicine or engineering, could make a better life off of being a taxi driver or bellboy. Discuss why there is a better chance at life working in fields that Americans would consider subordinate careers.

BB: It's basically because most people in Cuba seem to be paid a salary by the government, no matter what sort of job they have, and that salary is very low. Very, very, very low by American standards—like five dollars a month. That was a common figure we heard. This is how communism works there. And it's a poor country overall. But there is a distinct second economy, a parallel economy, which involves tourists. Taxi drivers and waiters and bellboys and others who serve tourists get tips, just as they do here, and a single tip for a single meal or cab ride can often amount to more than an entire month's salary for someone else.

It was interesting to me that everybody we met, except at official government institutions like museum ticket counters, preferred to be paid in dollars to Cuban pesos, even though there is such a severe restriction on American dollars entering Cuba. That includes banks, who are very happy to take American dollars in exchange for pesos. We hardly exchanged any, though, during the week we were there, since restaurants, cab drivers, stores, and the artists from whom we bought prints, all preferred to be paid in US dollars. In most of the stores and restaurants, at least the ones that cater to foreigners, prices are even listed in US dollars.

SR: You are a frequent contributor to Alaska Quarterly Review, and a teacher at Emerson College. Discuss how you make time to publish your other works, like your novel The Icebox.

BB: First and foremost, I'm a writer, and specifically a writer of fiction. It's not always easy, but I always do make time for writing. Every writer has his or her own particular work habits, and I'm an early-morning writer. Also, I like to work in large blocs of time, not just for an hour or two. With my teaching schedule, other than the actual class meeting times and a few departmental meetings, I can do my work for school when it suits me, which means that I can set aside most mornings to do my own writing. I've been a lousy sleeper most of my adult life, and mainly that manifests itself in my waking up super-early every day, no matter when I go to sleep. So a lot of days I'm working by, say, 5:00 AM (sometimes even earlier), and I can get in five hours of work, with a break to eat something after a couple of those hours, by 10:00 AM.

Also, I always have multiple projects going, so I almost never get stuck. If things aren't flowing on one project, I work on another. I have a stack of folders on my desk that is a couple of feet high at this point, and they are all drafts of stories that I intend to finish someday. If I'm not feeling particularly inspired to work on something new on a given morning, I will find my latest draft of a story that I'm thinking about and work on that. This is how most of my stories, in fact, get finished. I'll write the first draft in a pretty concentrated way, in a few sessions, but once it's done I'll put it aside for a while and then revise it when I feel the urge to work on it. Then I'll put it aside again. I'll do that a few times, and at some point I'll do a revision of a story and realize that I'm not changing anything, and at that point I'll know that, for better or worse, the story is done.