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Reinaldo Arenas: 1943-1990: Cuban Writer

Escaped Poverty Through Stories

Reinaldo Arenas was born in rural Cuba on July 16, 1943. Abandoned by his father, Arenas was raised by his mother on her parents' farm. At the time Cuba was ruled by the dictator Fulgencio Batista and Arenas recalled to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "The situation under Batista in the countryside was terrible." Poverty was ever-present and hunger a constant companion.

At a Glance . . .

Born on July 16, 1943, in the Oriente province of Cuba; died on December 7, 1990, in New York, NY; son of Oneida Fuentes. Education: La Pantoja, Cuba, studied agricultural accounting, 1959; University of Havana, Cuba, studied economic planning, 1966-68; attended Columbia University, 1980s.

Career: Accountant, early 1960s; National Library of Cuba, assistant, 1963-68; writer, 1967-90; Cuban Book Institute, editor, 1967-68; La Gaceta de Cuba, journalist and editor, 1968-74; International University of Florida, visiting professor of Cuban literature, 1981; Center for Inter-American Relations, visiting prof, 1982; Cornell University, visiting prof, 1985; guest lecturer at Princeton University, Georgetown University, Washington University of St. Louis, University of Stockholm, Sweden, University of Kansas, University of Miami, and University of Puerto Rico.

Awards: First place for best novel, Singing From the Well, Cuban Writers Union, 1965; Prix Medici for best foreign novel, Singing From the Well, France, 1969; Best Foreign Novel, Hallucinations, Le Monde, France, 1969; Cintas Foundation, fellow, 1980; Guggenheim Foundation, fellow, 1982; Wilson Center Foundation, fellow, 1987; The New York Time's top ten books of the year, Before Night Falls, 1993.

Arenas often ate dirt just to have something in his stomach. His only solace was nature. "I think the splendor of my childhood was unique because it was absolute poverty but also absolute freedom; out in the open, surrounded by trees, animals …," he wrote in Before Night Falls. It was there that he began his literary career, composing songs and stories to keep himself company. "I would perform them in those lonely fields as if they were theater pieces," he wrote.

By the time Arenas reached his teens, his family had sold their farm and moved to the dreary town of Holguín. About this time Arenas took a job at a guava paste factory, working 12 hour shifts for one peso a day. The work was mind-numbingly boring and Arenas began channeling that boredom into stories he churned out on a small typewriter. Eventually the boredom of Holguín, as well as the continued hardships under Batista, convinced the 14 year-old Arenas to join Fidel Castro's rebel forces. However, his youth—and more importantly his lack of a rifle—kept him from fighting. Nevertheless, when Castro took control of the island in 1959 Arenas was swept up in the revolutionary fervor. "I believed, or wanted to believe, that the Revolution was something noble and beautiful," he wrote. However, he soon began to notice that the new government was wrought with hypocrisy. It would not be long before he would come to believe that he had helped overthrow one dictator only to replace him with another.

Arenas received a scholarship to study agricultural accounting and was assigned to work on a government chicken farm after graduation. It was a tedious job and Arenas leapt at the chance to move to Havana when he was offered a scholarship to study economic planning at the University of Havana in 1961. Not long after arriving in Havana Arenas began to immerse himself in the then-thriving gay subculture of the city. He had realized he was homosexual when he was still a child, but during his years in school he hid his feelings because of the persecution that gays were subjected to by the government. Many were fired from their jobs, kicked out of school, or sent to concentration camps to be rehabilitated. One of Arenas's earliest boyfriends was taken to such a camp. "I never saw him again, nor have I heard of him since my exile," he wrote in Before Night Falls.

In Havana Arenas entered a storytelling contest sponsored by the National Library and won. However, the judges were less interested in his storytelling ability than in the story he had told. Rather than read a well-known tale, he had written his own. The library directors, impressed with his literary skill, immediately offered Arenas a job at the library. "My transfer there was decisive for my literary education. My job consisted in looking for the books people requested, but there was always time to read," he wrote in Before Night Falls. There was also time to write, and his first book, Singing from the Well, was written in the library. The story of a mentally-impaired child growing up in rural Cuba won an award from the Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC) in 1965 and became the only one of Arenas's books to be published in Cuba. According to an article in the Village Voice Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes called the book, "One of the most beautiful novels ever written about childhood, adolescence, and life in Cuba." Arenas's next book was Hallucinations: Being an Account of the Life and Adventures of Friar Servando Teresa de Meir. It was a fantastical rewriting of the autobiography of a revolutionary Mexican friar who defied the Spanish conquest of his country and was mercilessly persecuted for it. It was also an almost eerie foreshadowing of the fate that was to befall Arenas.

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Brief BiographiesBiographies: (Hugo) Alvar (Henrik) Aalto (1898–1976) Biography to Miguel Angel Asturias (1899–1974) BiographyReinaldo Arenas: 1943-1990: Cuban Writer Biography - Escaped Poverty Through Stories, Imprisoned For His Books, Wrote Furiously In Freedom