Emily A. MaguireRacial Experiments in Cuban Literature and Ethnography. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011. ix + 237 pp. (Cloth US$74.95)

In: New West Indian Guide / Nieuwe West-Indische Gids
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  • 1 Museu Nacional, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro Rio de Janeiro RJ 20940–040, Brazil

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The title of this book captures the intended axis through which its analysis is doubly centered. Both ethnography, as genre and practice, and literature, as trope and style, traverse the early texts of modern Cuban authors close to the so-called “afronegrismo” movement, or specialists in “Afro-Cuban Studies.” Moving between published books and essays produced between the 1920s and 1940s by Fernando Ortiz, Lydia Cabrera, Nicolás Guillén, Alejo Carpentier, and Zora Neale Hurston, Emily Maguire focuses on four possible comparative approaches to the way nation, race, gender, folklore, and art transited as themes in the production of knowledge about Cuba and Afro-Cubans.

Perhaps the most creative part of the book, Chapter 1, “Locating Afro-Cuban Religion: Fernando Ortiz and Lydia Cabrera,” is an invitation to rethink frequent differences between these two dissimilar authors, underlining not what they “discovered,” “revealed,” or “canceled,” but how and through which narrative devices their texts were built. The identification of “time” and “place” as tropes through which “cultural” difference and social and racial distance could be treated offers interesting insights for a literary criticism of a knowledge based on science and imagination. Instead of looking for the “real” subject and events—or, put another way, the unrepresentativeness of these texts (by revealing, for example, the “truth” of experiences they aimed to depict)—Maguire shows their “fabric” and, through it, the way some themes and concerns were textually and politically addressed. That Ortiz and Cabrera were different authors and that their literary and scientific skills were diverse we know. What seems a fertile and not redundant exercise, however, is to explore convergences and divergences in their textual production. When it provides a creative reading of well-known texts by Cabrera and Ortiz, the book fulfills its aims. However, every time Maguire tries to find other “contextual” or historical explanations outside the texts, her argument loses strength.

Chapter 2, “Beyond Bongos in Montmartre: Lydia Cabrera and Alejo Carpentier Imagine Blackness,” offers an interesting counterpoint between them and avant-garde French artists seduced by diverse modalities of “primitivism.” A 1929 article by Carpentier in the emblematic journal Documents (published in Paris between 1929 and 1931, in which musicians, artists, philosophers, and writers experienced their own first contact with surrealism through creative manipulations of the “real”) is the point of departure for Maguire’s argument about the role of “music” in producing a “primitive Other.” Afro-Cuban sounds and rhythms were an important subject of interest in other authors’ works. Music worked as a mode of expression, by involving harmony and composition of diverse melodies and, metaphorically, as a model of composition. As Stephan Palmié (1998) has shown, the same “property” seems to have affected the treatment of “food” in the writings of Fernando Ortiz. But for Carpentier and Cabrera, influenced by the surrealist experimentation with jazz and “primitive music,” as well as for other contributors to Documents, Afro-Cuban sounds were not just evidence of the rich local folklore. They expressed a way of being, acting, and conceiving the world. The comprehension of these modes of expression and existence, therefore, called for a new methodology.

As a sort of scientific method and style of producing knowledge about “primitives,” ethnography was “consumed” by Cuban authors such as Cabrera and Carpentier. Maguire has argued that “as white Cubans representing blackness for both Cuban and European audiences, both Cabrera and Carpentier drew on ethnographic material in their textual construction of blackness, as ethnographic research was to some extent a basis for their knowledge of Afro-Cuban culture” (p. 68). As this statement suggests, the “representation of blackness” was the main issue at stake and, secondarily, ethnography was used as a tool to understand and depict unknown ontologies.

Although Maguire includes biographical and historical information about the authors in order to reveal their adhesion to European esthetic movements, and to show how “race” and “primitivism” were differently combined in their writings, the answers do not seem to come from the texts. “Primitivism” and “racialism” cohabited these writings and their meanings overlap. As Maguire points out, “the understanding of Afro-Cuban practices that they gained through personal fieldwork experiences is given new meaning and significance through the ways in which each writer interpolates these actual encounters with black Cubans to represent and re-create blackness in their texts” (p. 68). In contrast to both Ortiz and his interests in positivist science and collection of “evidence” and to Nicolás Guillén, who looked for a “poetic” of these expressions, both Cabrera and Carpentier made use of ethnography not as a practice but as an icon of a certain kind of surrealist encounter with the “primitive.”

The relations that these authors entertained with their “informants” cannot be found in the text, nor were they timeless. All the concepts the authors and their interlocutors manipulated in their dialogues were created in specific situations and employed for distinct purposes, and they varied through time. A terminology associated with race or nation had diverse and even opposite meanings at different moments. In some situations, their translation was even impossible. By the constant reference to “blackness” as a concept used unambiguously, Maguire loses the chance to explore and problematize the richness of the actual expressions and concepts used by the subjects themselves. Unfortunately, she also fails to make use of specialists’ commentary on the meanings of “race” and “nation” in the work of Cabrera, Ortiz, Guillén, Carpentier, and Hurston. But this weakness does not compromise her nuanced discussion of the tense relations between literature and ethnographic knowledge from a literary perspective.


Palmié, Stephan, 1998. Fernando Ortiz and the Cooking of History. Ibero-Amerikanisches Archiv 24:353–374.

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