Many writers grow close to a subject after years of research, poring over documents and papers, parsing works line by line. Jorge Olivares felt tied to the subject of his latest book, the Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, before the project even began.
Olivares, the Allen Family Professor of Latin American Literature at Colby, has devoted much of his life’s work to studying Arenas, whose success was squelched as punishment for political dissidence and being openly gay in Castro’s Cuba. A refugee in the United States, Arenas committed suicide in 1990. The title of Olivares’s new book, Becoming Reinaldo Arenas, refers to the way Arenas grew into literary fame, but it is also a nod to the significant parallels in Olivares’s and Arenas’s lives.
Like Arenas, Olivares was a child in Cuba, though the Olivares family lived in an educated, upper-middle-class world in Oriente province (his father was a mechanical engineer educated in the United States), while Arenas’s childhood was marked by poverty. Like Arenas, Olivares fled Cuba (Arenas by himself as a 37-year-old man, Olivares at 12 with his family), and both were made to feel unwelcome in the United States. “Back then,” said Olivares, of the era before multiculturalism in Miami, “we were treated like shit.”
The list of commonalities goes on.
Both gay men lost their fathers early in life. Olivares’s father died in 1960 when Jorge was 10, two years before his mother packed up the family to move to the United States. Arenas lost his father when he was abandoned as a child, and the psychological repercussions of that betrayal flood his work and are essential to understanding his oeuvre.
These correspondences ally the two men, who knew each other. “We didn’t become close friends, but we were in some contact,” Olivares said.
Early in his book Olivares explores a connection Arenas felt for a forebear writer of several generations earlier, Fray Servando. Arenas wrote of Servando, “You and I are the same person.” And when he inscribed a book to Olivares, Arenas wrote, “[You know] how to dig deep into the twists and turns of my hallucinatory world, which is ours.”
Olivares can pinpoint the moment his exploration of that world began, more than 30 years ago. He was reading Arenas’s memoirs and came across a passage in which Arenas describes his only interaction with his father, at a riverbank when he was 5 years old. “His mother starts throwing rocks at his father, who gives him two pesos and walks away. That moment crystallizes a profound feeling of loss—not just for his father, but for his fatherland.” By the time Arenas was writing his memoirs, he had left his beloved but troubled Cuba. “I realized that passage touched me in ways no other text has,” Olivares said. “I could see my own search for my father and my fatherland, padre and patria.”
Olivares’s book recounts Arenas’s lifelong struggle and examines his novels, a mixture of biography and analysis.
In his suicide note, Arenas blamed Castro: “There is only one person I hold accountable: Fidel Castro. The sufferings of exile, the pain of being banished from my country, the loneliness, and the diseases contracted in exile would probably never have happened if I had been able to enjoy freedom in my country.”
To illustrate the depths of misery faced by gay men under Castro’s regime, Olivares writes that in the mid-1960s Castro established work camps for nonconformists. “Work will make you men,” said signs posted in the camps, eerily reminiscent of the signs on the entry gates to Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps—“Work will make you free.”
When he inscribed a book to Olivares, Arenas wrote, “[You know] how to dig deep into the twists and turns of my hallucinatory world, which is ours.”
Olivares quotes literary critic Gerald Martin, who wrote, “Had he been born outside of Cuba, Arenas would probably have become one of the most successful Latin American exponents of the Magical Realist mode.” In other words, Arenas would have been in the ranks of Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, and others.
Olivares was among a handful of scholars to whom Arenas sent copies of his last manuscripts. Two months later Olivares was sitting in his faculty office in Miller Library at Colby when a colleague handed him a clipping from the New York Times—Arenas’s obituary.
But Arenas’s death was not the end of his literary career. In 1993 his photo appeared on the cover of the New York Times Book Review: “When I saw that, I started laughing,” Olivares said. “He hated the New York Times; he thought it was too much to the left.” Since then, Arenas has been embraced by The Advocate magazine and others, and his autobiography has shown up on lists of the 100 best gay books.
“He became a superstar,” said Olivares. His book will help sustain Arenas’s literary reputation, ensuring that the works and life of the man and writer who provided such inspiration will be recognized long after his death.