This is the third post in our forum on Megan’s new book. We are delighted to welcome Dunja Fehimovic, a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge working on the relationship of film to national identity in Cuba in the 21st century. Dunja is author of a number of investigations of those themes in Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies and Bulletin of Latin American Research, as well as forthcoming in Cuban Cinema Inside Out and The Routledge Companion to World Cinema.
When From Cuba with Love arrived in the post, my first thought was, ‘What a beautiful book.’ It was the kind of book that drew me in – the kind of book, in fact, that might catch the eye of anyone browsing the shelves of their local bookshop. Its cover illustration reminded me of the endlessly-proliferating coffee table books about Cuba, including one I myself own about pre-Revolutionary Cuban advertising and design. It appealed to the vague, pervasive nostalgia for the ‘good old days’, roughly associated with the 1930-50s, that seems to be doing the rounds of late – all cupcakes, vintage posters, Cath Kidston and red lipstick.
But like the señorita in the picture, whose skirt is slashed to show a titillating amount of thigh, this had added appeal. The added sex appeal of Cuba, that is. As reactions to my topic of study have confirmed over time, Cuba is a sexy subject. Sex in Cuba is a very sexy subject. Daigle’s book, then, immediately evokes all of the stereotypical, exotic or erotic associations that we reveal or conceal through our reactions to Cuba as a place and subject of study. From its front cover onwards, it triggered uncomfortable reflections on my own contradictory, complex fascination with the country – a fascination that evolved, tellingly, from a love of salsa music and dancing through to a touristic experience during my undergraduate years and to the present day, as I move towards the completion of my thesis on contemporary Cuban cinema and national identity. In her introduction, Daigle warns that this is not a comfort text. True enough.
When I started reading From Cuba with Love, I got in touch with Megan to say that I had a feeling that this was going to be one of those books I wish I had written. And at certain points, I felt as though I had. The atmosphere and situations she so eloquently describes, particularly in the introduction and conclusion, were all too familiar to me as someone who has also spent time doing research in Cuba. I, too, lived near the Callejón de Hamel, and spent many afternoons pushing through the crowds, fascinated and frustrated in almost equal measure. As the rumba music picks up, Megan tells us, ‘the divide between dancers and onlookers blurs’. Crucially, though, the divide between foreigners and Cubans never does. I’ve never been sure how much of this is caused by my own self-consciousness, and how much is ‘objectively’ evident in the behaviour of people around me. Most likely it’s another case of the chicken and the egg, a self-perpetuating cycle of self-alienation and othering from both sides.