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Telex from Cuba: A Novel

A book by Rachel Kushner

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They Way They Were: Cuba in Transition

  • Jan 1, 2009
  • by
My trip to Cuba this past spring was an illuminating and educational experience as well as an eye-opener to the social and political systems of this Caribbean country. There is so much negative attitude about Cuba in the media that to see the country up front and personal is an entirely different experience than listening to all the one-dimensional hype. Reading Telex from Cuba, by first-time author Rachel Kushner was another piece of the puzzle that integrates the power, corruption and romanticism, the love/hate relationship of a country of which Americans are both fascinated and repelled. Kushner's mother grew up in Cuba as the child of the American Fruit Company employee, one of the many American-owned entities that were prolific in the country from the 1930s through the 50s. It is this time period of the 50s when Bautista was overthrown and Fidel Castro came into power that the author explores.

K.C. Stites and Everly Lederer are children of executives with the American Fruit
Company and this is their coming-of-age story. K.C. was born and raised in Oriente Province, Cuba and with the exception of occasional trips to the States, this is home for him. Everly's family is from Tennessee and her father's employment in Cuba is seen by her social climbing mother as a stepping stone to acquiring wealth. The Americans have their own township, their own country club, and way of living. They have a mecca onto themselves, privileged and white, and segregated from most of the Cuban population. They have black and brown servants, clothes shopping forays, and vacations in Miami and New York during Christmas. Cubans are not allowed in their clubs and there is a disdain for the Cubans and their culture.

The sugar cane field workers are imported from Jamaica and Haiti and are forced to work in near slavery conditions in the tropical heat. They are paid at the end of the sugar cane season, in debt to the general store and field managers, no different from the share cropping system seen in the U.S. in the 20th century. The caste and class system is blatant and direct, with wealthy white Cubans in alignment with Bautista who live well while their poorer black countrymen live in squalor. For the most part, this class of Cubans do not want their children to date Americans while the Americans do not want their children intermingling with Cubans-- but it happens anyway, and not only the children. The province is a replica of Peyton Place with undercover affairs and alcoholism.

Winds of change are in the air. There is talk of a new leadership. Corruption, dirty deals, and air raids, become a part of everyday life in 1958 into 1959. The Americans refuse to take heed, refusing to leave their idyllic island where they are big fish in a small pond. It all comes to a head when Fidel Castro takes leadership and horrific reality can no longer be denied.

I found the story more enriching and compelling when told through the eyes of K.C. and Everly, told over a period of six or seven years from 1952 through 1959, as they age from ten and eleven years through their teens. Readers see how the children of these arrogant Americans straddle the invisible lines of color and class as they embrace the language and culture. Less compelling were some of the contrived scenes with a character called Rachel K. who was a prostitute/spy and others of that ilk who were working for and against the government. All in all, this National Book Award nominee is a worthwhile read and a contribution to the dialogue on Cuban culture and policy.

Dera R. Williams
APOOO BookClub

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More Telex from Cuba: A Novel reviews
review by . September 12, 2008
Cuba as a place frozen in time:    Cuba in the 1950s before the revolution a sepia-tinted postcard of a place so pristine that it never could have existed.    Cuba today a black and white ruin so ancient that it never could have existed.    But Cuba, as a place frozen in time, holds such a place in our memories that if it never could have existed, we would have to invent it.    I've never been closer to Cuba than Sarasota, …
review by . February 04, 2009
Kushner writes of America's glory days in pre-revolutionary Cuba, from 1952 until 1958, when dreams of continued affluence dissolve in the face of the Castro's populist rebellion. Two children describe the luxurious conditions of their childhood: KC Stites, whose father heads the United Fruit Company, an enormous sugar cane enterprise of 300,000 acres and the wealthy enclave of Oriente Province; Everly Lederer's family cannot claim such rich benefits, but still, her father, who works in management …
review by . January 14, 2009
Kushner is a writer with great talent. She recreates the Cuba of the 1950's in a way that seems real and immediate. The reader can learn a good deal about the history of Cuba in an entertaining and enjoyable way through this novel. The narrative creates a tension which lures the reader to the next page, even though there are few sympathetic characters herein. The author's moralizing tone is the only negative feature of this otherwise laudable novel.    Most of the adults are …
review by . January 02, 2009
Telex from Cuba is an ambitious novel. Its problem is a near terminal case of P.O.V. - itis. The story covers a few years prior to the January 1959 entrance of the barbudos into Havana, told from the point of view of two American ex-patriot children, and it's near impossible to distinguish one child from the other; a romantic French ex-pat who is a gun-runner, revolutionary theoretician, and rake; and an omniscient narrator. Except for the Frenchman, the narrators melt together, and it takes paragraphs …
review by . December 16, 2008
In an impressive first novel, Rachel Kushner writes about the lives of American families in Cuba before Castro, and the events leading up to the revolution. There are American families, like the Stites and the Lederers, making their fortunes in Cuba, and putting on the perfect facades despite their problems. There are the Allens, wanted fugitives in America, for whom Cuba is the last resort. Then there are characters like Rachel K., a cabaret dancer who helps out the rebels and facilitates political …
review by . August 27, 2008
Covering the years around the revolution in Cuba filtered mostly through the eyes of children, Telex from Cuba tells the story of the American community living in Cuba managing the United Fruit sugarcane factory and the U.S. government-owned nickel mine.    This book was mesmerizing- beautifully written and truly evocative of the time and place of the story. Kushner paints an indelible picture of life in the United Fruit company's outpost in Cuba, her words creating a vivid portrait …
About the reviewer
Dera R Jones Williams ()
Ranked #984
Dera is a writer, editor, genealogist, writing mentor, researcher, and family historian, and she is active in local literary and national literary circles. She is the keeper of family stories, archivist … more
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About this book


Rachel Kushner's first novel,Telex from Cuba, doesn't read like your usual debut. Using family stories, extensive archival research, and all the tools of the novelist's imagination, she creates a portrait in many voices of a small society at a crucial moment in time: the American sugar cane and nickel-mining colony in the last years before Castro and the first moments of his revolution. As seen through the lives of the children and wives of American executives, and the parallel intrigues of a nightclub dancer with powerful friends and a former French collaborator--along with striking cameos by historical figures like the Castro brothers, Hemingway, and, yes, Colonel Sanders--Kushner's Cuba makes the raw materials of revolution, and its aftermath, come alive.

Questions for Rachel Kushner

Amazon.com: You're writing about the end of one era for Cuba at what may be the end of another. Was that in your mind as you wrote?

Kushner: It wasn't so much, actually, but that might be because I wrote the bulk of the book before Fidel fell ill with diverticulitis, and before the American media's obsession with his (like all of ours) eventual death hit a pitch point. Even now, I find this sense of waiting and the media's focus on it to be an odd tautology: the "breaking" story is often that there's a breaking story, but then the story never comes. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Fidel Castro's policies, his segue out of public view has been pretty brilliant. He trumped the media's ...

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ISBN-10: 141656103X
ISBN-13: 978-1416561033
Author: Rachel Kushner
Publisher: Scribner

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