Reviews

Review: Goodbye, My Havana, Anna Veltfort – A Saga of Memories, Idealism, and Undying Love

Written by Lingxiao "Linda" Gao. Anna Veltfort's book, Goodbye, My Havana: The Lift of a Gringa in Revolutionary Cuba, is both extremely detailed and expressive. Through its use of primary sources, it works both as a piece history writing and history-making.

“Can we still be revolutionaries?”

“Yes … They can’t take that apart from us.”

Anna Veltfort – or Connie – was a sixteen-year-old teenager when her stepfather Ted, a committed American communist and a zealous admirer of the Cuban revolution, brought her entire family to Cuba in 1962. This was the second time living in a foreign country for Veltfort. Ten years earlier, Connie’s mother Lenore had carried her to leave their home country of Germany, ruined by the cruelty of war, and entered the US to seek a new life. A German American ‘gringa’, Veltfort became an outsider in Cuba who struggled to adapt to a new language, a new culture, and a new way of life. Meanwhile, she started to explore her sexual orientation, a newfound attraction to women, which violated the norm dictated by the revolutionary government. Forty years later, Veltfort transcribed her experience in Cuba into Goodbye, My Havana, a 240-page autobiographical memoir in the format of a graphic novel. This graphic memoir revolves around Veltfort’s daily life, mental growths, experiences of love, and youthful explorations of life and one’s inner self. The book sheds light on crucial historical events, such as the state oppression of the LGBTQ+ community and cultural purges, whose impact also permeated Connie’s everyday life. An autobiographical microhistory, Goodbye, My Havana tells a story of disillusionment, salutes the power of arts, and reveals the significance of memories.

Goodbye, My Havana serves as a microhistory that explores post-revolutionary Cuba through an individual’s lens. Connie’s personal life interacted and intersected with broader historical movements, suggesting a theme of national disillusionment that manifested at an individual level. Connie’s perspective, seeing through the national rhetoric of utopias, reveals a dystopian reality of wealth disparity and social injustice. Connie first discovered the brutal reality for poor Cubans when she visited the home of Maritza, her first girlfriend. The poverty and hardship of Maritza’s family starkly contrasted with the privileged life that Connie’s family enjoyed; they received special rations, access to luxurious hotels and clubs, from which the Cubans were strictly excluded. The social life at the paradise-like seaside Sierra Maestra hotel is reminiscent of the impactful opening scene of Mikhail Kalatozov’s 1964 film I Am Cuba; the western tourists enjoyed a splendid, luxurious life that aesthetically clashed with the poverty endured by the Cubans. Coincidentally enough, Connie was invited to play a rich, pre-revolutionary western tourist during the filming of I Am Cuba. It turned out that these westerners at the beach, were “revolutionary tourists” who replaced the pre-revolutionary vacationers with a different name; the social gap remained intact, a gap that the revolution long ago claimed to heal.

Connie’s exploration of adolescence and sexual orientation coincided with the state’s homophobic suppression, creating a disillusionment that contested the revolutionary promises of freedom and human dignity. Beginning with the Great Purges of 1965, counterrevolutionaries and homosexuals were put on public trial and humiliation. The press constantly spouted homophobic sentiments that demeaned the LGBTQ+ community – or simply any group divergent from the “heroic guerrillero” aesthetic – as “the scum of society”. These “perverts and deviants”, including Connie’s college friend Gustavo Ventoso, were put into Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP), agricultural labour camps where they were forcibly ‘re-educated’. Alongside the portrayal of the UMAP appeared the triumphant news of the Tricontinental Conference of African, Asian, and Latin American Peoples, which was an assembly of nations that focused on anti-colonial and anti-imperial questions. The news portrayed Cuba as the helm of the world’s anti-colonial movement and draws a larger-than-life façade of Fidel Castro as the heroic leader. This juxtaposition creates a bitter irony, an almost surrealist disillusionment. A few pages later, Connie and her girlfriend Martugenia were attacked on the street and accused of homosexuality by their attackers. They went through a humiliating public trial and became pariahs at the university. The state’s cultural purges ultimately forced Connie to leave Cuba and be separated from her lover. This tragic farce of homophobia satirically contrasted Ernesto Che Guevara’s famous statement in his speech “Socialism and Man in Cuba” (a speech that is also cited by Veltfort’s book): “the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love”.

Veltfort’s microhistory pays generous attention to the vibrant cultures and arts she enjoyed with friends, which functioned as retreats from and weapons against the disillusioned, suffocating reality. The book gives a holistic tour of popular films and music during that period that enriched the lives of the youths: from the Beatles to Bob Dylan, from Battleship Potemkin (1925), Modern Times (1936), Ivan the Terrible (1944) to M.A.S.H. (1970). Veltfort recounts with great passion Allen Ginsberg’s visit to Cuba and the 1967 art exhibition Salón de Mayo, which signified ephemeral moments of freedom and openness. Then came Cuba’s denouncement of Pablo Neruda, the suppression of the 1961 film P.M. (for “no heroic milicianos in their uniforms defending the fatherland”), and the arrest of the Cuban poet Heberto Juan Padilla. Among the nightmarish turmoil, nevertheless, there was a touching moment when a Mongolian student, under the risk of being reported, asked Connie the lyrics of “San Francisco” and “Yellow Submarine”. This transient interlude, only occupying a single page, demonstrates the spirit of freedom inherent in music and arts, with which Veltfort piously identified. Cultures and arts became powerful channels for young people to express themselves and keep their hearts alive.

Goodbye, My Havana inherits this expressive and life-affirming power of art. Unlike memoirs imbued with solemnity and black-and-white, Veltfort’s delicate drawings, brilliantly coloured and layered with details, present an immersive panorama of the post-revolutionary Havana that is vivid and alive. Veltfort deploys the expressionistic capacity of colours. For example, scenes where Connie’s family were desperately stuck at Mexico for five months before entering Cuba are permeated with gloomy blue; scenes where Connie and Martugenia were beaten on the street and interrogated by the police are overwhelmed by bright red, which expresses emergency, fear, as well as unspoken anger.

Besides the extraordinary artistic quality, Veltfort’s work exemplifies historical accuracy by weaving various primary sources into the narrative. Veltfort incorporates into her drawing’s copies of newspaper headlines, posters, magazine covers, photos, and other real-life materials, including a real Court Summon that has her real name, Anna Veltfort, on it. These inserted sources remind the reader of a larger, real historical process in which every individual’s life is embedded. In the acknowledgements, Veltfort elaborates on other sources she relied on: photos of the city obtained from Cuban friends as background references, Marta Eugenia Rodríguez’ (Martugenia) detailed diary, official reports, and Martugenia correcting and confirming anecdotes recounted by Veltfort – a rigorous process of history-writing.

Veltfort has been keeping an internet archival collection since 2007, titled “Cuba: Connie’s Archive”, where she stores documents, newspapers, music, poetry, literature, graphic arts, proclamations, and other traces of the era, ephemeral of her Cuban life. While the storyteller is transformed into a historian, her narration also has a twofold nature: it is both a work of history and a primary source, like a piece of oral history recording. The Wikipedia entry on “ideological diversions” cites Connie’s archival collection and her story as testimony: “as the personal case of Anna Veltfort, an art history student at University of Havana bears witness to it.” Moreover, Connie’s story is cited as a trust-worthy primary source in the scholarly work, Visions of Power in Cuba, which gives credit to her archive by citing the “personal collection of Anna Cornelia Veltfort”. Connie’s legend fully reveals the charming power of historiography: a witness and participant from her time becomes a historian in her effort to tell an authentic story. By contributing individual memories to collective knowledge, Veltfort actively shapes the process of history-writing.

 Veltfort’s story reveals the cruelties of the past without reducing it to a monolithic judgement. The spirited youths, lively music, colourful puppet shows, and witted tricks all testify to the richness, optimism, and vitality of their lives even in the face of the starkest disillusionment. By recording even the most seemingly irrelevant details such as making a Christmas tree out of condoms that shocked the whole school, Veltfort stubbornly refuses absorption into a singular narrative of victimhood that denies the warmth and joy of the past. Just like what she says in the epilogue:

“My love for Cuba, for my friends there, and for the aching beauty of Havana, never wavered, despite the decay and disillusionment of the ensuing years.”

A totalitarian regime might become powerful in many senses, yet it is powerless to destroy ideals rooted in hearts or to stop the inextinguishable pursuits of happiness. In this sense, Goodbye, My Havana no longer operates as a simple historical account of a specific time and space, but a literary artwork as it is that serves as a testimony to our universal humanity. Anna Veltfort, the bard-like narrator of this revolutionary saga, shows how the power of friendship, creativity, and humour is more long-lasting than violence and fear.

The book’s documentary detailedness and expressive quality demonstrate the importance of storytelling: actions of actively creating narrations against oblivion. On Veltfort’s internet archive, she tells us the purpose of her work: “It has been my purpose to portray, from my perspective and personal experience … a reality erased and forgotten for many.” The goal is to keep the memories alive, for securing our memories is the strongest weapon against a regime – who uses oblivion and ignorance as a machine to rule – and to protect our own humanity. The hope, as opposed to disillusionment that shivers throughout, lies in the conviction that memories and narratives have an ever-lasting value. Goodbye, My Havana is ultimately an individual’s fight against disillusionment and oblivion, a saga that salutes the ultimate beauty of memories, freedom, and love.

Written by Lingxiao “Linda” Gao

Anna Veltfort’s Goodbye, My Havana: The Life and Times of a Gringa in Revolutionary Cuba was published with Redwood Press in 2019.

Bibliography

Deutschmann, David. Che Guevara Reader: Writings on Politics & Revolution. Lancing: Ocean Press, 2003.

Guerra, Lilian. Visions of Power in Cuba: Revolution, Redemption, and Resistance, 1959-1971. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Kalatozov, Mikhail. I Am Cuba. 1964.

N.A. “Ideological diversions.” Wikipedia. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ideological_diversionism.

Veltfort, Anna. Goodbye, My Havana: The Life and Times of a Gringa in Revolutionary Cuba. Palo Alto: Redwood Press, 2019.

Veltfort, Anna. Cuba: el archivo de Connie. www.annaillustration.com/archivodeconnie.

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