blog | werkgroep caraïbische letteren

Ana Menéndez

door Michiel van Kempen

[Inleidend woord bij de Tweede Cola Debrotlezing door Ana Menéndez, georganiseerd door de Werkgroep Caraïbische Letteren in de Openbare Bibliotheek Amsterdam, woensdag 6 april 2011]

Good evening ladies and gentlemen,

On behalf of the Werkgroep Caraïbische Letteren I welcome you all for this second Cola Debrot-lecture, and a special word of welcome for tonight’s guest speaker, Mss Ana Menéndez.

The Werkgroep Caraïbische Letteren organizes two series of lectures: one in Leiden of a more scientific character, called after Surinamese first historian: the Rudolf van Lier-lectures; and a series of literary lectures here in Amsterdam, called after the great Antillean (or should I say Curaçaoean or Bonairean?) writer Cola Debrot.

As many of you probably will remember, the first Cola Debrot-lecture was given by Derek Walcott, Nobel Prize winner from Saint Lucia, almost 80 years old, one of the great poets of our times and – I was about to say: at the end of his literary career. But no, since he lectured here in Amsterdam he was awarded the TS Eliott Prize, the most important British award for poetry, for his book White Egrets. (I am not suggesting there is any relation between his Amsterdam lecture and Walcott winning this prize.)

Today we warmly welcome somebody of perhaps two generations younger, a woman, an award-winning writer, not from Saint Lucia but with Caribbean roots, Cuban-American Ana Menéndez. I hesitate to say “Caribbean roots”, since you might say that Miami – where Ana Menéndez stays – is a living part of the Caribbean. I remember quite some years ago being adressed by a Miami bus driver in Spanish, my hair was still black in those days. In Ana Menéndez first book, the collection of short stories In Cuba I was a German Shepherd, published ten years ago in 2001, she comes up with vivid images of life among Caribbean migrants in Florida’s capital. The title story reminds of the famous novel Dubbelspel Double-play by Frank Martinus Arion, the most important living writer from Curaçao. Ana Menéndez describes four men playing domino, being watched by passers-by, four men showing in their sometimes aggressive, sometimes heart-braking conversations their fragile position in some space in-between two worlds. The story got Menéndez the Pushcart Prize, an award by the Pushcart Magazine honouring the best “poetry, short fiction, essays or literary whatnot” published in the small presses over the previous year. Among the founding editors of the Pushcart Magazine were Anaïs Nin, Ishmael Reed, Joyce Carol Oates and Ralph Ellison. The New York Times named In Cuba I was a German Shepherd a Notable Book of the Year. And there she was: one of the most gifted Caribbean-American writers of the youngest generation.

Two years later Ana Menéndez published her first novel, Loving Che, unravelling again the pain of exile in an intelligently constructed and moving story of home-seeking. It tells about a young woman haunted by the many questions why her Cuban mother sent her away to live with her grandfather. And then – of course – there is Ernesto Che Guevara. The cover of the book says ‘National bestseller’ and having read the many, many enthusiastic reviews, I do not suppose this is one of the publisher’s well-known selling-tricks. This is the sort of book withholding you from going asleep: you have to read it until the last page.

In 2008 Ana Menéndez moved from Miami to Cairo in Egypt. There she held fine lectures on the future of narrative in the age of internet – a text you can read on our blogspot Caraíbisch Uitzicht.

Earlier Mss Menéndez lived in Istanbul, the great city on the banks of the Bosphorus, offering part of the setting of her latest novel, The Last War, published two years ago. The book focuses on a theme of all times but more than ever of current interest: how do we cope with our personal “small” sorrows in a “big” world full of distress, war and terrorism? One of the peculiarities of this book is the introduction of a number of Turkish lines, without translation – not a really common phenomenon in American fiction.

This brings us to Ana Menéndez lecture of tonight. As a little girl, she herself spoke Spanish only, until she went to kindergarten. Her books make clear that a bilingual youth doesn’t prevent somebody from mastering two languages up to the highest level. Ana Menéndez knows all about it and is going to tell us more. After her lecture she is pleased to take questions from the audience. Mss Menéndez: the floor is yours.

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