What would be your answer if a visitor who comes from a faraway country asks you something about your street? Not about your country or your life, but about your street…that place so familiar that you barely notice it, or so fond that it already forms part of yourself, or so hostile that you would like to flee, escape as far away as possible from it….
Just a few days ago I got hold of two “rare” books published in Bulgaria – yes, Bulgaria, that sister country from where jars of preserves and solidarity technicians came ready to give a boost to our socialist development -, whose genesis is precisely an invitation to tell stories about a street; the street where you live or where you were raised, the one you consider yours because it is linked to your memories and very personal experiences that, as you read, no one can deny your belonging.
That was the origin of My Street. Cuban Stories (2010) and Behind Doors (2012), two titles published in Bulgarian, English and Spanish by the Bulgarian Janet 45 Print & Publishing House that has included in its catalogue some of the most published Cuban writers in and outside the island: Virgilio Piñera, Reynaldo Arenas, Zoé Valdés, Wendy Guerra, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez and Leonardo Padura.
However, the books I am referring to are not signed by any of these or other known authors. They are two compilations of short stories written by Cubans with scarce or no previous relation with literature, ready to tell their daily experiences, a mixture of dreams come true or to come true, in that urban microworld where their anonymous existences takes place.
Actually, the genesis of everything dates back several years and had its origin in a much less ambitious project called “My street,” which ended going beyond the borders of the south-eastern European country. As Bulgarian journalist Diana Ivanova, editor of both books, recalls, everything began in 2005 when the inhabitants of the capital, Sophia, were living an acute crisis with the collection of garbage. Things got to such a point that, despite the protests over the bad smell and filth, the scarce possibility the affected citizens had to exercise some influence became evident.
It was then that Ivanova and other social activists took the initiative of involving young Bulgarians in the solution of the problem and as a first step decided to invite the people to reflect on their closest environment, in this case the streets where they lived. The idea led its promoters to organise workshops in different cities and towns of Bulgaria to collect the graphic and written testimony about personal experiences in each one of them.
In this way they were able to compile more than 150 stories and a great deal of photos taken by the participants in a voluntary manner. To show all that material to the public at large, Bulgarian designer Raycho Stanev was in charge of the creation of a webpage (www.my-street.org), and a travelling exhibit was organised. Finally they attracted the attention of the media and achieved that Janet 45 Print & Publishing House bring out a book with a selection of the most important stories and photos.
Encouraged by the results obtained in Bulgaria and driven by the “curiosity of seeing the sense of each world in particular and asking about it,” journalist Ivanova and Iranian photographer Babak Salari travelled to Cuba where they repeated the experience, in which Cuban Ulises Quintana de Armas joined.
According to its promoters, for the majority of the participants in this project the invitation to look at “their” street from an unusual perspective was the first drive to gain awareness about their possibility of participating in certain actions related to their environment, beyond the limits imposed from outside: “If we can understand how we can influence the streets where we live and how the streets influence us, we can then perhaps start seeing in a different way our place in the broad space of the collective and social constructions,” Ivanova points out.
At the same time, the work on the island represented an enriching experience for the promoters of the project, as Ivanova wrote in her prologue to the edition of My Street. Cuban Stories: “What the Cuban streets also gave me was the sensation that each condition, independently of the void or joy, could be intensely lively. The intensity of feeling is a way of declaring that you exist and in this there was something new for me that until then I had not discovered in the Bulgarian stories….”
Based on the results and the interest of this first book they began working on a second group of stories compiled this time also by the Cubans Alexis Álvarez, Anisley Miraz, Oscar Yoendris Hernández and Idalmis Esther Valiente. That’s how Behind Doors was born, published in 2012 by Janet 45 Print & Publishing House and which, following the experience of the first title, not only included stories from Havana, but from other cities like Holguín, Trinidad, Camagüey and Santiago de Cuba.
It is a shame that both books have had such a limited diffusion on the island, since despite the fact that the stories don’t always achieve the same interest, they are all based on the Cubans’ image of themselves and contribute a revealing testimony about the way their lives take place. And only that virtue would be worth describing as attractive to read.
On the other hand, even when many of its authors do not assume consciously a critical point of view on reality, the facts and feelings these simple stories express are distant to a great extent from the official discourse to give a much less pleasing and triumphalist vision. At times they even reveal a nostalgia for a past and nonconformity with the present that in many cases presupposes a great dose of frustration, despair and of inability to struggle to improve the future.
If we only limit ourselves to looking at the defiant security with which Cubans move in the street, laugh and talk standing on corners, or simply sitting down on a doorjamb without the least aspiration of seeing life go by, it seems they are the absolute owners of that small fragment of the city, of the barrio, or even of their lives. But as is usually the case, aspirations are misleading. At times it’s only a question of an illusion of dominion or of belonging that not always corresponds to the reality of the facts. What’s curious is that the short testimonies comprising those books not only reveal that apparent contradiction, but rather they speak much more about ourselves than those streets that at times we think are ours. Perhaps when someone approaches you and asks you about your street you are able to discover that a street can be much more than a street. (2014)
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