IN EARLY NOVEMBER 2009, I visited a creative writing school in Havana. This state-subsidized institution is the only one of its kind in the country; it puts out an impressive monthly magazine of criticism and new writing and is equipped with computers and an Internet connection (rarer things than one supposes in embargo-crippled and materially deprived Cuba). Like most countries that experienced a socialist revolution, the idea of literature still has an old-fashioned prestige and even some mass appeal in Cuba. There are few bookshops, and print runs of literary fiction are small, usually not more than 2,000 copies. But book fairs draw tens of thousands of buyers and browsers. Like many revolutionaries, Che Guevara, the national hero of Cuba, wrote short stories and poems. Writers in Cuba today still form a cultural elite of sorts, allowed to travel abroad and to receive foreign exchange.
In that austere building, reminiscent of a small town Indian school, the students represented all of the country’s provinces. Among its oddly mixed intimations of deprivation and privilege, I found myself wondering if there is such a thing as a national literature any more, something autonomous and utterly distinctive, and with a sufficiently large local audience?
Cuba is one of the most isolated and singular countries in the world; in the absence of commercial publishing houses, most writers there are patronised by the state. And yet the question still seems worth asking, if not about the West, then about many non-Western countries where the idea of literature is still relatively new and evolving.