Cuban digital books: a battle against tradition

The lack of a technological infrastructure and the analogical prejudices seem to be the causes for the little development of the e-book on the island.

Cuban journalist and narrator Rafael Grillo defines himself as “a self-employed worker of the digital world.”


In 2001 he founded the Isliada literary project fundamentally because “Cuban literature was being left out of international publishing, which was not the appropriate diffusion by the new digital means of their authors and their books.”


A simple example so you have an idea: if in Cuba the publishing houses produce books almost exclusively for the local market, just for our bookstores, how is the universal reader going to be able to directly read what the Cubans write? How can at this stage someone believe that today it is sufficient to have a review or a critical commentary or the isolated short story or poem published by our cultural magazines, which by the way are very good on paper but rather bad in their digital version?


However, according to Enrique Pérez Díaz, advisor to the president of the Cuban Book Institute (ICL), ever since in 2012 the digital project was initiated in some of that institution’s publishing houses “a more stable and consolidated production has already been achieved in labels like Nuevo Milenio, Arte y Literatura or Gente Nueva and a catalogue in that format has been stabilising based on its traditional editorial collections.”


Another marketing mode, he adds, aside from the online means, has been that in the international fairs compilation discs with a selection of texts are being offered and among them there are books on sports, cooking, detective novels, history, children’s books or discs dedicated to certain authors like Leonardo Padura or Daniel Chavarría.


But the truth of the matter is that little is said on the island about that type of support and it is not frequent to find readers of Cuban digital books perhaps because, as Pérez Díaz affirms, many in the country don’t have access to purchase a PC, tablets, readers or cell phones with possibilities of loading e-books.


He however admits that one of the reasons that prevents a greater production of digital books in Cuba “could be the lack of tradition in the work with these supports since at times the tradition of the printed weighs too much on the new and the publishing houses must assume this as an alternative production.”


Rafael Grillo is more caustic in his answers. “If the Cuban publishing houses were to attach to this the importance it requires, if they worked that line with effort and if they would have developed a wide-ranging catalogue and distributed correctly they wouldn’t always be inviting me to speak everywhere: on television, radio, panels, in meetings with U.S. publishers at the Fair, what do you make of that?”


In addition to Isliada there is another independent project in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba, Claustrofobias. It was founded by writer and cultural promoter YunierRiquenes.


It was precisely in the recently concluded Havana International Book Fair where Claustrofobias announced the production of a multimedia with 200 titles that will soon start doing the rounds of the country’s schools.


The José MartíNational Library of Cuba also has a valuable digital collection which emerged in 2000 and which aims to bring together the written work of Cuban authors between the 18th and 19th centuries.


I agree with Rafael Grillo in affirming it is no secret that in everything that’s digital, not just books, Cuba has been backward with respect to other parts of the world. Not everywhere, there are always places that are worse off.


But in terms of books, according to the founder of Isliada, there are not just the economic difficulties, the lack of devices and software for the digital books but there is also a lack of literacy among the population regarding this subject which is as or more urgent and necessary than learning to read, write and knowing the history of Cuba.


One would have to add to this certain resistance by the institutions responsible for promoting reading and publishing books to accept the existence (or coexistence) with the digital book, according to Grillo totally absurd “because as I never tire saying everywhere today all the books are digital, because that’s how they are born.”


Meanwhile, Enrique Pérez Díaz opines that in a country blockaded in so many sectors, at times even by the very inertia produced by having assumed for so long the reality of that very blockade that makes production, marketing and making visible printed books so costly, more than an alternative, the development of the digital book can represent an excellent means to communicate not just literary but even educational, academic contents.


There’s still a long road ahead, Pérez Díaz concludes, but the fact that we are at least aware of what we are missing can spur us to outline more ambitious goals for the future, determined to not take a step backward in this still long and fascinating road. (2017)

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