Waking in Havana: A Memoir of Aids and Healing in Cuba
by Elena Schwolsky
She Writes Press

"As I looked around the circle, I couldn’t help wondering which of my Cuban friends I might never see again."

In 1972 and filled with youthful enthusiasm, Schwolsky leaves her son in a rural hippie commune with her ex-husband. She ventures to Cuba to join the youthful, idealistic Cuban revolutionaries. She joins a "heady and often confusing mix" of the fifth Venceremos Brigade, which "threw people together from the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, La Raza Unida, Students for a Democratic Society" as well as a multitude of members from other socially conscious organizations. This initial visit to Cuba sparks a lifelong interest and passion for Cuba's rich, diverse culture. Shortly after Schwolsky loses her husband, Clarence, to AIDS in 1991, the island nation, although off-limits to U.S. citizens, offers her healing and personal rebirth. In 1996, Schwolsky finds herself in the ever-important role of educator and, more importantly, friend to Cuba's stigmatized and sequestered AIDS patients. This poignant, relevant, and emotional memoir reminds readers that viruses and epidemics—unlike people, societies, and drastic medical and political policies—do not discriminate. Nor do those suffering from them warrant exclusion from family, community, and existence.

Via vivid description, readers progress through Havana's crowded streets where drivers and cyclists speed on aging bicycles and aging cars. They will encounter market places where acquiring even lightbulbs becomes a Herculean task as well as sanatoriums that began as prison-like dormitories but were transformed by residents into loving, supportive, self-expressive communities. Inventar is a word that conveys the "acceptance of limitations, determination to keep going, and a seemingly endless ability to come up with creative solutions." This term becomes a mantra for readers and a means of existence for not only Cubans facing the 1996 economic crisis but also those living with AIDS in Cuba's once-mandatory sanatoriums as restrictions loosen and allow them to work and live on their own. Against the backdrop of both internal and U.S. political distrust, this book shows the resilience of the Cuban people and that "Life—busy, complicated, vibrant, noisy life—did go on."

Deep portrayals of enigmatic, diplomatic AIDS patients testify to the power of collaboration as the author's intriguing prose depicts working with patients to create useful, dialogue-opening platforms and workshops. These benefitted and informed not only Cuban society but also the world about a virus that was as confusing and bewildering as the U.S.-imposed restrictions regarding the shipment and distribution of life-saving AIDS medicines in Cuba. Patients like Hermes, "who had managed to avoid living in the sanatorium," become inspirational symbols of resistance and independence, especially as readers follow Hermes' struggle not only against AIDS but also against socio-political, debilitating policies that tear apart family ties in a spiteful manner. The essence of others, like the Kafka-reading friki Tanya, gay Alejandro, and anti-war Vietnam veteran Clarence, is harnessed and placed as the center of the most powerful weapon with which one can arm themselves: education.

The most powerful testimony to the transformative potential of submitting one's self to the opportunities that a new country and new culture might offer reveals itself in the book's epilogue, which occurs in December 2016. Forty-four years after first visiting Cuba, the author once again finds herself in Havana, among the "same 1940s and 50s cars" and "the same revolutionary billboards, but also a few new hotels and shopping malls." At this point in the book, similarly to how the messages regarding AIDS had slowly progressed into socially acceptable and needed conversations, so had Cuba. The inhabitants feared the Trump Administration's potential reversal of the Obama Administration's policies, which loosened restrictions and strengthened US-Cuba relations. Despite the fear, however, Cuban resilience prevailed, and the celebration lies in the fact that readers learn of the survival of so many of those whom the author encountered years before.

With its exploration of the multiple facets of loss, grief, coping, and recovery, along with its personal and intimate commentary regarding patient rights, this book becomes an essential read for anyone coping to understand disease, disease stigmas, and the socio-political repercussions for not only patients but also their families, friends, and healthcare advocates. Those readers and scholars who specifically focus on narrative medicine will appreciate this book for its clinical, yet personal, insights that illuminate the intimate conversations of survivors. Also, those interested in the politics of the region will likely value the historical reflection about relations between the U.S. and Cuba and the advocacy that education is key to global understanding.

A 2020 Eric Hoffer Book Award Grand Prize Short List winner

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