Episode 9: Reinaldo Arenas

Nation of Writers
Nation of Writers
Episode 9: Reinaldo Arenas

This podcast is presented in conjunction with our new virtual exhibit, American Voices, which you can explore at NationOfWriters.org.

In this episode, we’ll discuss the life and work of Cuban-born writer Reinaldo Arenas with our guests Ann Tashi Slater and Peter Johnson. Arenas was born in the Cuban countryside where he spent a lot of time in nature fostering his creativity and imagination. He originally sympathized with Fidel Castro’s revolution, but quickly became disillusioned when he gained power. Due to his open homosexuality and anti-Castro themes in his writing, Arenas was persecuted and spent many years in some of the worst prisons in Cuba. He became an exile, a ghost, as he says. Arenas escaped to the United States during the Mariel boatlift of 1980, eventually settling in New York City. Sadly, he became a victim of the AIDS epidemic, contracting the disease and ultimately ending his life after finishing his memoir Before Night Falls. Remarkably, this entire time, Arenas never stopped writing.

We’ve rounded up some additional resources for you to further explore Arenas’s writing. Explore the Reinaldo Arenas Papers, one of the most consulted Latin American manuscripts at Princeton University. Then, head over to the Library of Congress to listen to Arenas read his own work aloud!

Now, a little bit about our guests. Today we’re joined by writer Ann Tashi Slater and archivist Peter Johnson.

Ann Tashi Slater’s work has been published by The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Catapult, Guernica, Tin House, Granta, and many others. Her work appears in American Dragons, an Asian American anthology published by HarperCollins; she is a contributing editor at Tricycle magazine. Her translation of “La vieja Rosa” by Reinaldo Arenas was published by Grove Press in Old Rosa: A Novel in Two Stories. Manuscripts she collected in Cuba are housed in the “Ann Tashi Slater Collection of Cuban Writings” at the Princeton University Library. She speaks and teaches in the US, Asia, and Europe, at the Asia Society, The Rubin Museum of Art, Princeton, Columbia, Oxford, and The American University of Paris. A longtime resident of Tokyo, she teaches literature at Japan Women’s University. She recently finished a memoir about reconnecting with her Tibetan roots. 

A Latin Americanist by training, Peter Johnson’s interests include freedom of expression and censorship, civil society under democratic and authoritarian regimes, and the role of intellectuals in public life. He has conducted field research and written on these topics, especially focused on Cuba, Brazil, Peru, Chile and Argentina. At Princeton University he was responsible for identifying and negotiating the acquisition of extensive primary source documentation from various 20th century writers including Reinaldo Arenas, as well as amassing vast collections of ephemera from civic associations, revolutionary groups, and political entities.

Ann and Peter are interviewed by Nate King, Content and Communications Coordinator for the American Writers Museum.

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