Oct. 24, 2016Vol. 47, Issue 2

Tiny-but-Mighty Cubanabooks Strives to Make Cuban Women Authors Household Names

Professor's 'mission in life' is to introduce Cuba’s women writers to the world

Sarah E. Cooper often tranlates some of the Spanish books into English herself. 

CSU, Chico Spanish Professor Sara E. Cooper’s “mission in life” is to introduce Cuba’s women writers to the world.

Now that her tiny publisher, Cubanabooks, recently collected five awards at a major international book competition—its first-ever literary prizes—Cooper is edging closer to her goal.

“I want to build bridges so strong that nobody is ignorant about Cuba and that make Cuban women authors household names,” said Cooper, a professor of Spanish and multicultural and gender studies at CSU, Chico. “There are so many excellent Cuban women writers who have not been published outside of Cuba. They deserve to be read at very, very broad levels.”

The recognition at the International Latino Book Awards (ILBA), a major literary competition in the US that features Latino books, was a milestone for Cubanabooks, a nonprofit Cooper started in 2010 that still runs on a shoestring.

The ILBA features Latino books, and this year the US-based literary competition called upon 200 judges to evaluate a crush of entries written in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Finalists in the event, held in September, came from 18 countries, including the US.

The niche publisher won two first place awards in the ILBA competition, for Best Fiction Book Translation—Spanish to English, and for Best Poetry Book—Bilingual. Cubanabooks also placed second in two categories and received one honorable mention.

“Winning these awards,” Cooper said, “made me feel humble, proud, and grateful.”

After the win, Cubanabooks’ California-based distributor immediately ordered more paperbacks, Cooper said, while in Cuba, the nation’s “most important cultural institution—Casa de las Américas,” gave an acknowledgement.

Cubanabooks shines a light on Cuban authors by translating their already-published books from Spanish into English, making the writers’ works accessible to a wider audience in the US. Cooper does some of the translations.

So far, Cubanabooks has published eight titles, with five more in the pipeline and plans to add the press’s first science fiction book—a ghost story-fantasy mashup.

Cooper said she and her team of volunteers and student interns celebrated their ILBA success with a pizza party at her Chico home, where they stickered the covers of the winning Cubanabooks paperbacks with ILBA medallions reading, “Award Winning Author.”

The current fervor for such material is far from the attitude Cooper encountered while in graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1990s.

“We barely even touched on Cuba at all,” she said. “Back in those days—and, to a great extent, still today—Cuban literature was a victim of the intellectual embargo that went along with the economic embargo.”

Through her wide range of reading, Cooper eventually found Cuban women’s literature and became intrigued. “There is an undeniable strength, a fascinating vitality, and an estimable level of culture and intellectualism in much of the writing being done by women on the island,” Cooper told OnCuba magazine last year.

Cooper’s journey to publishing started soon after she had a chance meeting in 1998 with Mirta Yáñez, a celebrated feminist Cuban author, during the writer’s stop in San Francisco during a speaking tour. The two struck up a professional partnership, with Cooper translating some of Yáñez’s stories into English, with plans to have them published in the US for use in college classrooms.

That effort didn’t go as planned.

Each publisher Cooper approached turned her down, saying there wasn’t sufficient interest in that literature niche or expressing concern about the legal and financial implications stemming from the United States’ long embargo against importing Cuban goods.

So Cooper and Yáñez elected to shake up the status quo and create their own press dedicated to publishing first-class literature in Spanish and English by Cuban women writers.

That would bring Cuban authors to a bigger audience in the US, Cooper reckoned, while giving her and other university professors a steady pipeline of Cuban literature to incorporate into their lessons.

While Yáñez took a seat on the editorial board, Cooper became the nonprofit literary press’s main funder during its early years. Now, Cubanabooks is supported by book sales, donations, fundraising activities, and limited revenue from the Amazon Kindle Unlimited electronic book subscription service. It is also looking for grants.

Revenue from books sales remains modest, but the press is meeting its mission to get Cuban books into US hands and increasing exposure for writers.

To that end, Cubanabooks often brings its authors to the University to speak. One of its award-winning writers, Uva de Aragón, will come to Chico State in March to talk about her prizewinning historical fiction novel, The Memory of Silence (Memoria del silencio).

Those speaking opportunities, along with having the Cuban writers’ books included in her class curriculum, benefit Chico State students immensely, Cooper said.

Not only are students “getting exposed to actual Cuban literature from Cuba, which is still a fairly rare occurrence,” she said, “as relations are opening between the US and Cuba, this puts our students in the vanguard of those who are prepared to move forward in a professional world that could include (formal) ties with Cuba.”

Interest in Cuba and its culture is growing in the US, following President Barack Obama’s recent historic efforts to normalize diplomatic relations between the two nations. In March, Obama became the first sitting US president to visit Cuba in 88 years.

Cooper has also made many research trips to Cuba over the years to meet with authors. In March, she led 18 people from Chico State on an eight-day educational tour to Cuba.

“I would love, over the next 10 years, for Cubanabooks to grow and, at the same time, for US-Cuban political and economic relations to completely normalize to a point that Cuban women can be mainstreamed,” Cooper said.

Then, she added, “we wouldn’t need to have a press that was taking care of making sure that Cuban women are heard.”

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Cubanabooks’ awards from the 2016 International Latino Book Awards include:

Best Fiction Book Translation—Spanish to English:
1st Place: An Address in Havana (Domicilio habanero) by María Elena Llana and translated by Barbara Riess
2nd Place: The Bleeding Wound (Sangra por la herida) by Mirta Yáñez and translated by Sara E. Cooper

Best Poetry Book—Bilingual:
1st Place: Always Rebellious (Cimarroneando) by Georgina Herrera and translated by Juanamaria Cordones-Cook

Honorable Mention: Homing Instincts (Querencias) by Nancy Morejón and translated by Pamela Carmell

Best Novel—Historical Fiction—Bilingual or Spanish:
2nd Place: The Memory of Silence (Memoria del silencio) by Uva de Aragón and translated by Jeffrey C. Barnett, Cubanabooks

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