Margarita Mateo Palmer: A National Prize for a transgressor

The Cuban doctor, essayist and novelist is one of the most integral intellectuals of today’s Cuban literature.

El ministro cubano de Cultura, Abel Prieto, entrega el Premio Nacional de Literatura a la profesora y crítica literaria, Margarita Mateo.

Foto: Tomada de Cubaliteraria

Doctor Margarita Mateo Palmer received the 2016 National Prize for Literature while she was trying to clean a stain on the floor of her terrace. On other occasions she had been nominated but the news, she says, caught her by surprise. Her first reaction was, she confesses, “to laugh from joy and a feeling of great gratitude” to all those who have contributed to the development of her work.


Interviewer Carlos León described her in La Gaceta de Cuba as a transgressor. And it is true, Maggie – as her friends call her – has been from a “bad girl” to a composer of songs and, above all, someone capable of teaching and writing based on absolutely unorthodox positions, breaking barriers between genres and giving her students the tools to think on their own.


With which of the many Maggiesthat you are do feel the most comfortable?


“One doesn’t usually make those distinctions,” she answers, “and all of a sudden I have to review a trajectory where everything has been deeply imbricated. I would say that my work as a professor has been at the centre of everything I have done. My dedication to being a university professor for more than 40 years has been an arduous intellectual exercise that has been nurtured from the dialogue with the students and all the effort involved in preparing the courses.”


However, she affirms that it is her work as an essayist where she has had a more sustained trajectory and it was from the genre that she started seriously making incursions into writing.


“In fact, one of my essay books, Ella escribíapostcrítica, brought me closer to what would later be the activity with which I feel most comfortable: fiction.”


It would be necessary to point out that Dr. Mateo Palmer made in this book an interesting fusion between reflexive prose and the autobiographical, giving rise to a surprising book because of its originality in the 1990s, which is the time when the National Prize also started being dedicated to studying the production of the then called “very new,” very young people who were taking their first steps in narrative.


She happily affirms that she likes young people: “their spontaneity, the impetus and the passion with which they get involved in the projects they believe in, their transgressing tendency, their rebelliousness, and the new and unbiased vision that usually accompanies them, their need to dream.”


I would add that all these characteristics are also found in Maggie. She, moreover, loves her mother tongue, enjoys its sounds, its cadences, its expressive possibilities and that such intense dialogue with the word which writing implies gives her great pleasure.


It’s not by chance that she has devoted a great deal of her studies to figures like Carpentier, “one of the Cuban writers with which I feel most identified,” she says. But also Lezama (“reading him was for me a liberating experience from the point of view of creation”) and others which she incorporates to her study programmes, without rigidly following the methodological requisites that are imposed on her, like SeveroSarduy, VirgilioPiñera, DulceMaríaLoynaz, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Rául Hernández Novás and, of course, José Martí, “one of my fondest writers.”


Right now Mateo Palmer has a project in the making which she considers of great reach, related “to the many diaries I wrote during my adolescence and which are testimony to a special and very intense period.”


Perhaps she is referring to her experiences when she formed part of a youth club called Quinta y B, which flourished in El Vedado, a barrio in which she has always lived, and which was a sort of young people’s gang, not of juvenile delinquents, which was characterised by its members’ daring in high risk activities and for their love of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.


“It is a project I am carrying out slowly since from the emotional point of view there are times when recovering that past from the 1960s becomes very strong for me. I’m waiting for the moment to start seeing with greater clarity the shape it will take. Now it’s only a wish, a rather vague intention.”


The 2016 National Prize for Literature is of the opinion that there are many valuable works written at present by Cuban authors of different generations “although at times they do not attain the visibility they would require to achieve a greater recognition by the possible readers.”


“I believe,” she insists, “that despite all the efforts made for the promotion of Cuban literature (contests, prizes, creation grants, publications, publicity activities….) there hasn’t been a really efficient strategy to make known the most valuable of current production.”


“On many occasions, works that have achieved a high demand from the public and that have been rapidly sold out in the bookstores are not republished; this implies that, far from growing, their possible impact weakens because they become unreachable texts for the readers.”


Neither is our interviewee satisfied with “the scarce presence of a guiding criticism, capable of assessing the literary production in its immediacy” which is why she describes the panorama as “a bit sombre.”


She says there are not very many spaces in the press dedicated to current Cuban literature. “I myself, who moves in the literary world, feel that it is difficult to be abreast of the most valuable being written.”


One of the features she most values about what is currently being written in Cuba is its diversity. “There are many creators,” she affirms, “with very different poetry who are carrying out a valuable work.”


Among the books Margarita Mateo has written she chooses three: Delbardoquetecanta, the first she wrote and has great affective value for her; in addition Ellaescribíapostcríticabecause it brought her closer to fiction, and Desde los blancosmanicomios.


This last one she describes as “a novel that not only means for me the total immersion in the novel but also that spiritually it was a very liberating exercise.”


Maggie Mateo, the transgressor, is also a feminist. This is demonstrated by those musical compositions that she interpreted with her guitar when she was very young and her attitude toward life.


Her prize was received with a rejoicing in a not very frequent unanimity. It could be because she is an example of authenticity and wisdom. Someone who, with or without a Prize is one of those indispensable beings for Cuban letters. We all expect much more from her and, I am sure, she will continue handing it over to us. (2017)

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