That’s the normal, almost inevitable question. I usually say something like, “It’s about an American photographer in Cuba in 1959 who finds out that the father of her child is not only still alive, he’s one of the leaders of Castro’s rebel army.”
Occasionally someone wants to know, Why are you writing about that? Why Cuba?
My interest goes back for decades, it’s been with me for so long I’m not even sure when it started. It might have been a couple of lively Cubans I met when I was in the Peace Corps in the late sixties. Later I read Ernesto Cardenal’s En Cuba . My Spanish was good by then, but it was an adventure all the same. Cardenal is a poet and priest from Nicaragua, and his portrait of the country was both realistic and mystical. In those days, the pure fact that Castro was paying attention to Cuba’s poor still seemed a miracle, at a time when most of Latin America was ruled by wealthy and despotic leaders.
At the same time, as I read more about Castro I could see how in love he was with his own legend. I read about Moncada, about his imprisonment, about his proselytizing and fund-raising trips to the U.S. But leave all that aside, I suggest. To see the definitive Castro, go to the core, to the act that needs no embellishment, his invasion of Cuba.
In December of 1956, in the small Mexican port of Tuxpán, 82 men boarded a cabin cruiser, the Granma, a boat that I originally read was 39 feet long. That couldn’t be right, I thought—and later I read that it was 80 feet long, or 58 feet long. Its length, in fact, is 68 feet. I’ve paced it off myself in Havana, where the Granma sits on chocks behind glass panels near the Museum of the Revolution. It’s a squat solid boat made to sleep twelve, and onto it Fidel loaded 82 men, all their guns, ammunition, food and water, plus dozens of jerry cans full of diesel fuel, because the boat’s tanks weren’t large enough to get them across the Caribbean. Once on board, the men were packed so close that few of them could lie down, and most slept sitting up.
The Granma never reached Cuba’s south shore, but rode up on a sandbar a mile from the beach. Fidel unloaded his heavier armament—bazookas and machine guns—into a dinghy, which promptly sank. The men, some holding on to their their rifles, waded chest-deep through a mangrove swamp toward the shore. It wasn’t a landing, Che said later, it was a shipwreck.
Everyone on the boat made it to solid ground, but three days later they were ambushed in a canefield by Batista’s army. Most of them were killed, a few surrendered and were executed, and only fifteen escaped into the Sierra. Fidel likes to say it was twelve—which has a ring to it, like the number of disciples—but by most accounts, fifteen. Among the survivors were Fidel, Raúl, Che and Camilo Cienfuegos. Only two years later their movement had grown so strong that they brought down Batista and his army of thirty thousand.
That original invasion, and the ultimate success of the Revolution, seems to me the most romantic story of our hemisphere—romantic, as my dictionary puts it, in the sense of “the mysterious appeal of something adventurous, heroic, or strangely beautiful.” Once I read about it, there was no going back. My book, which had begun as a love affair between a woman somewhat like my mother and a Puerto Rican, or possibly a Cuban immigrant to the U.S., now took a flip and landed in Havana.