The world is an uncertain place for teenagers, at the best of times. But for a 13-year-old girl living in a rundown neighbourhood just outside Havana, Cuba, in the end days of the dictator Batista’s regime, it takes on a level of claustrophobic anxiety.
Adela – named after the beloved grandmother whom she never met – is far from certain about herself, for a start. She believes she is unattractive physically, with eyes that are not really green but muddy, and hair not blonde or black, but “in-between.” It’s fair to say that her life itself, at this point, is “in-between.” She is unremarkable, unnoticed and almost friendless, and her relationships with family members are burdensome and unsatisfying. She does not expect much out of life. “There wasn’t much point in dreaming,” because one just has to get on with life.
It becomes clear that this situation is not through any fault of her own, but because everyone else around her is too preoccupied with their own problems. Neighbours, relatives, people passing through – all are nervous, mistrustful and jumpy. They know their lives should be “normal,” but are not. This is a poor community, to start with, so lives are stretched, at the best of times. And, with Batista hanging on to power (he of the “shining canine smile” – a nice turn of phrase) and Fidel’s rebels still some distance away, but present…these are not the best of times.
“All I knew,” says Adela, “was that Fidel was the rebel in Oriente who shot people and Batista was the president in Havana who tortured them.”
So, Adela is an observer in the narrative, while all around her are making things happen in uncomfortable and unexpected ways. Her family provides much of the drama. Her father has a passionate hatred of Americans and a weakness for prostitutes. Her mother makes the best of things. She tells Adela’s ever-truculent young brother: “I’m just trying to understand…You have to try. It doesn’t work if you don’t try.” Adela’s Abuelo (grandfather), who sits on the couch watching TV most of the time, still misses his beautiful wife. There is also Tío Rodrigo, a policeman whose life is one of fear, and inflicting fear.
Beyond the stifling atmosphere of the family home, there are eccentric neighbours making lemonade; the mobsters and Americans living by the poolside at the Hotel Nacional; and young men, coming and going in mysterious ways. There is an empty house where the lights suddenly go on, in the middle of the night, with an abandoned, broken refrigerator in the yard. And there is real violence – a suffocating drama that is drawing closer and that Adela hears about, and eventually witnesses for herself. Increasingly, the violence comes sharply into focus. Again, Adela hardly understands what is happening. But like her mother, she tries.
I was really pleased to meet the author of this book recently at an event organized by a Jamaican publisher, Blue Banyan Books, highlighting Caribbean young adult literature. She has a big smile and a mischievous look in her eye. She was chatting with Kevin Jared Hosein, author of The Beast of Kukuyo, published by Blue Banyan’s Blouse and Skirt Books. I will get to reviewing Mr Hosein’s book soon.
What a delight the author’s reading was! She picked one of the more humorous passages: a classroom scene at Adela’s Catholic school, with references to Cuban hero José Martí – his oversized moustache, and the fact that he was left-handed. Jamaican audiences like to be entertained during literary readings, so there were some chuckles. Adela’s wry comments – and an energetic dialogue – enliven the narrative. Arguments (such as that between the father who just wants to survive, and the mother who wants to really live); moments of quiet conversation; desperate words, when time is running out and moving fast; and the kind of miscommunications that so often happen when the speakers are under stress. The dialogue invigorates.
And the white roses? The title of the book refers to a short poem by José Martí, Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca (I Grow a White Rose), in which the flower is a symbol of forgiveness and love. As you probably know, this man with the gaunt features, burning eyes (and yes, a flourishing moustache) in photographs, was a poet, journalist, patriot, a lover of freedom of justice, and a fighter for Cuba’s independence from Spain. He died on the battlefield in 1895 at the age of 42, a few years before that goal was reached.
This is a remarkable first novel from a young writer we all need to watch. The author dedicates the book to her mother, and her own Cuban grandmother, whom she barely knew.
José Martí himself said:
Day and night I always dream with open eyes.
This novel ends with a dream, vivid and full of people who disappear, leaving Adela alone, with a white rose. On awakening, she promises to cultivate it.
After all, none of us is perfect. So we might as well give white roses to everyone. Let’s try.
Viviana Prado-Nuñez is the winner of the 2017 Burt Award for Caribbean Young Adult Literature for The Art of White Roses, published by Papillote Press. She was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico and lives in the United States, where she is currently an undergraduate student at Columbia University, New York. Her first play, And the Trees Fall Down (a Hurricane Maria story) recently received a workshop production with the 2018 Furnace Festival at The Center at West Park. She is a 2019 National Young Playwright in Residence with the Echo Theater Company. Read much more on her website here.
I reviewed another young adults book published by Papillote Press, Home Home by Lisa Allen-Agostini, earlier this year on this blog. Do take a read!