Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 3, 1997

Cuban Scholar is
One For the Books

Leslie Rice
News and Information

One wonders if the term "Renaissance man" was created for Miguel Barnet.

One of Cuba's leading poets and novelists, Barnet also is an anthropologist who lived in Cuba's mountains collecting stories from escaped living slaves. He is a polymath of Cuban history, folklore, art and music. One of those rare types who has a tendency to attract around him Cuba's leading artists and innovative scholars, Barnet introduces these great minds to each other and is responsible for several important collaborative works.

For the past two months, Barnet has also affected the intellectual lives of dozens of Hopkins students. For four weeks, he led an intense seminar for graduate students as a visiting scholar in the Department of Hispanic and Italian Studies associates' program. During the January intersession, he co-directed the study of 15 Hopkins undergraduates visiting Havana. In these few months, he has exposed Hopkins students to a different style of scholarly work: a lively mix of poetry, folklore, history, anthropology, ethnography and fiction. And he has offered students a glimpse of the artistic and intellectual scene of a country closed off to most Americans.

Barnet's time here has also had an impact on the life of the man who suggested he come to Hopkins in the first place.

"Before I met Miguel Barnet and went on this trip [to Havana], it had been 36 years since I had been in Cuba, where I am from," says Eduardo Gonzalez, a professor in Hispanic and Italian Studies and director of the Latin American Studies Program. "It was very emotional to see some of these places I used to know so well and to see for myself how things have changed. Since that first trip, I have already been back to Cuba. Through Miguel, I have met people who I now consider good friends."

During their trip to Havana, Hopkins students studied at the Fernando Ortiz Foundation affiliated with the History Department of the University of Havana. Using as a guide the text El Acoso (The Manhunt) by Cuba's leading novelist Alejo Carpentier, six Cuban professors led seminars on Cuban architecture, poetry and history.

When they weren't in class or on field trips, the students had free rein to absorb Havana's city life.

"It was really interesting to be able to walk over to the University of Havana and get involved in all the discussions and debates going on," says sophomore Pablo Herrera. "They'd be taking place right in the street, and the university students would pull us right into them. We'd somehow get into political discussions where, for example, a group of students would claim they lived in a democracy because they have elections. We'd point out that since only one political party could run, it was not a real democracy, which would create much outcry and discussion, and it would just go on and on. Havana is a very interesting, exciting and sometimes disturbing place--full of contradictions."

For Herrera, who grew up in Guatemala, the trip was also a wonderful opportunity to meet and work with one of Latin America's most well-known authors--Barnet himself.

Barnet's novel, Biografia de un cimarron (Biography of a Runaway Slave), is widely recognized as the earliest and most significant example of testimony literature, a genre of writing which, in Barnet's case, combines firsthand ethnographic interviewing with novelistic narration. He worked with Carpentier to establish the Cuban Book Institute and with poet Nicolas Guillen to create the Cuban Writers and Artists Union. Besides his work as a poet, novelist and screenwriter, Barnet is famous for his work with Fernando Ortiz in the study of the cultures and religions of Black-African Cubans.

For the graduate students here at Hopkins, Barnet has breathed new life into the literature and poetry they have studied.

"He has a wonderful teaching style, probably because he brings with him such a vast knowledge of so many areas," says Kathy Dwyer Navajas, a fourth-year Hispanic and Italian Studies graduate student. "It's delightful because throughout his class, he'll tell personal anecdotes and insights about the writers and poets we're studying--he knows so many of them. Certainly each of these works can stand very well on their own, but by hearing stories about these writers at a birthday party or a wedding or a discussion group, it makes the classroom come alive."

Barnet said he often finds it frustrating how most Americans are unaware of the rich literary and art scene that, he says, thrives in his admittedly complex Cuba.

"Cuba has a legacy of its own poetry that goes back 90 years," he says. "There are poets of every style: romantic, realistic, colloquial ... I find that the undergraduates here in America have little sense of the art, the architecture, the music that is very much a part of Cuba. They have no idea, for example, of all the temples and churches that are thriving in Havana. Regrettably, I think, most Americans only know the Cuba as told by the Cubans of Miami who left in 1959."

Miguel Barnet leaves Hopkins for Cuba this week, and he intends to continue the relationship he enjoys with the department, and the friendships he has made with its faculty and students.

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