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Waking in Havana
By Ann Hirschman (reviewer)
Waking in Havana: A Memoir of AIDS and Healing in Cuba
by Elena Schwolsky
(She Writes Press, 2019)
"In 1972 I left my 2 year old son with his father at a rural hippie commune north of San Francisco and traveled to Cuba to wield a machete in solidarity with the young Cuban revolution"
This opens the story of the life and times of Elena Schwolsky but this book is more than a memoir of one amazing woman. It is a history of the people and places she experiences from 1972 to 2019. Elena takes us through these years with the courage of her unsparing observations of the times, of the people she meets and of the country she comes to love, and of herself. I came to love and respect her through these pages in ways that I had not imagined—and I have known this lady for decades. It is also a history of AIDS.
The author writes of her life and the people with whom she has shared it with honesty and transparency. This is not the exposure of people and places that shocks and disturbs—it is a nuanced and loving reportage that allows the reader to understand the complicated decisions made by individuals and a country that she clearly loves.
In 1988 Elena's partner, Clarence Fitch, was diagnosed with AIDS. They had been together for years and now would be married. Their wedding was the most multicultural event I have ever experienced. There were people from all walks of life, all areas of the world, all races and creeds and orientations and it was a day of joy. Joy of shared love and of children and of friends and of activism. Joy despite the specter of AIDS.
Elena had become a nurse and chose to work in a pediatric AIDS clinic. She writes: "Clarence had been forced onto the frontlines of this epidemic and I wanted to be there too." This was a terrible time in the AIDS crisis. There was great stigma around people who were HIV positive. Even children with HIV were vilified—remember the story of Ryan White. Treatment was in its infancy and we had few of the drugs that now keep people with HIV alive and healthy. Here in the US cases were multiplying and world-wide they were exploding. The situation in Cuba was very different and very controversial.
There are accounts in the book of a second, still illegal, trip to Cuba where Elena has to confront the Cuban policy of placing AIDS patients in sanitoriums. "I would visit the AIDS sanitorium, I decided. I would talk to people living with HIV/AIDS and hear their stories. I'd talk to nurses and doctors. I remembered Cuba as a place filled with warmth and compassion. I would keep an open mind." Later there are accounts of her finally legal time in Cuba doing the fieldwork for her MPH and living with people I came to love as Elena paints them with her words.
We are insiders at the conferences where Elena shares her love and expertise with international workers in the war against AIDS. We are there when she meets veterans of the Cuban army who served in Angola and compares their experiences with those of Clarence and other US veterans of the war in Vietnam. We are there when she organizes with others to create the AIDS quilt in Cuba (a place where there was "no word for quilt"). We get to know the people with whom she lives and loves. It is easy to see why she is "recognized as the madrina (godmother) of Proyecto Memorias, the Cuban AIDS Quilt Project."
This is a book about Cuba. A country admired by myself and many US activists of my generation. A complicated country deeply affected by the US government embargos and attempts at regime change by any means. It is also a book about AIDS. But more than both of these it is a book about people. Elena herself is a quiet heroine who would never use that word about herself. The people she loves so much are the cast of characters in the amazing times about which she reports. And it is a book about family—family by blood and family by choice and the family that is all of us.
The most important part of a review is the part where the reviewer rates the book. This is a great read. Elena is a wonderful writer and her prose is both elegant and easy. I gobbled it up the first time I read it—cover to cover in one night. Then I got to read it again to be able to review it here. I feel so honored that I was asked to do this that I am almost guilty for enjoying it so much. It is illustrated with pictures of the places and people we get to meet.
Buy and read this book you will thank me. More to the point we will all thank Elena.
Annie Hirschman marched with the very first members of VVAW in 1967.
She is also an original Street Medic and is on the board of VVAW.