Reinaldo Arenas Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Reinaldo Arenas (ah-RAY-nahs) was one of the most talented Cuban writers of his generation, the first generation educated totally within the revolution of 1959. He was turned into a pariah by Castroist homophobia and became one of the most outspoken critics of the revolution after he escaped Cuba during the Mariel boatlift in 1980. He killed himself in 1990 after suffering from acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) for years.

Arenas grew up in an impoverished rural environment in eastern Cuba. As a teenager, he joined the revolution and subsequently received a scholarship to study accounting in Havana, but he soon abandoned this career for his literary ambitions. He worked in the National Library (in the Cuban Book Institute) and became an editor of the important literary magazine La Gaceta de Cuba. Arenas was removed from this job in the early 1970’s during the crackdown on Cuban intelligentsia (the “black decade”), was imprisoned for “social deviancy,” and spent time in a “rehabilitation” camp for gay people. After being released in 1976, he lived as an “unperson” in unspeakably inhumane conditions.

In 1963, Arenas won a contest in children’s literature; later, his novels Singing from the Well and Hallucinations and his short-story collection Con los ojos cerrados received first-mention awards in annual competitions in 1965, 1966, and 1968, respectively. However, only Singing from the Well was published in Cuba, after some delay, in 1967. The publication of Hallucinations in Cuba was banned because of some homoerotic scenes in the style of José Lezama Lima and because some parodic criticism of the Cuban revolution in the novel was quite obvious. The manuscripts of this novel and of the short stories had to be smuggled out; the French translation of Hallucinations, in 1968, and the Mexican edition, in 1969, gave the...

(The entire section is 787 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Reinaldo Arenas overcame a poor rural upbringing to become a renowned novelist and short-story writer. He belongs to a generation of young writers who received literary training in official programs to promote literacy among the Cuban poor. Such training, however, also involved heavy indoctrination by political organizations that promoted only revolutionary readings. Although his career depended upon his incorporation into such political agenda, Arenas refused to take an ideological stand. His decision caused him prosecution by legal authorities, imprisonment, and exile.

A superb storyteller, Arenas, in his first novel, Singing from the Well, presents young peasant characters who find themselves in an existentialist quest. Surrounded by a bleak rural environment, these protagonists fight the absolute poverty that keeps them from achieving their dreams. They also must confront their homosexual feelings, which force them to become outcasts. Although the subject of homosexuality is not an essential theme of the novel—the subject is merely hinted—Arenas’ novel received a cold reception from Cuban critics.

Hallucinations brought Arenas’ first confrontations with revolutionary critics and political authorities. Dissatisfied with the Castro regime, Arenas in the novel equates the Cuban Revolution to the oppressive forces of the Spanish Inquisition by drawing parallels between the persecutory practices of the two...

(The entire section is 419 words.)


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Reinaldo Arenas was born on July 16, 1943, in Holguín, Oriente, Cuba. He was born into a rural setting, and his family suffered extreme poverty. According to his autobiography and interviews, his childhood was one of hunger and neglect. While a youth in rural Cuba under the harsh dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, Arenas was marginally involved in the building insurrection that would eventually topple the oppressive regime in 1959. Several years after the Cuban Revolution, he moved to Havana (1961). He studied at the Universidad de Havana but did not graduate. Arenas also worked for a while in the José Martí National Library (1964).

In 1967, at the age of twenty-four, Arenas published his first novel, Singing from the Well. This work somewhat mirrored his childhood, presenting a young protagonist who suffers poverty—both physical and mental. It features a boy who must use independent thought to survive an oppressive reality. Arenas’s literary works are not exemplary of the realism that the revolutionary authorities wanted to see published. His open advancement of independent thinking, coupled with his open homosexuality, soon led to his works being labeled antirevolutionary; they were then censored and banned in Cuba.

Nonetheless, Arenas secretly smuggled his writings out of Cuba. His works were published in Europe and the United States, where they received critical acclaim but led to further reprisals from the Cuban...

(The entire section is 440 words.)