Antonio Orlando Rodriguez (Ciego de Ávila, Cuba, 1956) began writing for children when he was 16 years old and has not stopped since then. Today his bibliography includes more than twenty titles, in addition to a career recognized by the public and critics to the point that he is the winner of the SM Iberoamerican Prize for Children’s and Youth Literature 2022, which you will receive on November 29 within the framework of the Guadalajara International Book Fair.
In parallel, the Cuban narrator has developed a less prolific career, but equally recognized in the territory of adult literature. his novel petitefor example, obtained in 2008 the Alfaguara Novel Award.
After leaving his country for political reasons, the narrator has lived in Costa Rica, Colombia and currently in the United States, “I always try to get the best out of each place and start a dialogue with the readers,” says Orlando Rodríguez a few weeks after travel to Guadalajara to receive the award.
Under what circumstances did you start writing your first book? Granny Miracle, and children’s literature?
Granny Miracle, I wrote my first book when I was a teenager, I was 16 years old, and at 19 I sent it to a contest. It is a story almost on the way between childhood and young adulthood. It feeds on fantasies, memories, of my peasant family. I wanted to recreate the peasant universe of Cuba, its folklore, some traditions. It was written without much pretension.
From the beginning he opted for children’s literature.
For the first ten years of my career I wrote children’s books. It is a genre that I find very attractive because of the imaginative freedom and the use of humor that it allows. Once I started writing, I realized that in the territory of literature for adults, what was expected in Cuba from an author of my generation was that he write works committed to the epic of the Revolution and with social issues that I did not I was not interested at all. Furthermore, children’s literature was a refuge during the years of very strict ideological censorship. It was a space where there was room for the imaginative, games with the absurd and the marvelous. Then certain circumstances changed and I started publishing books for adults.
Through children’s literature could I make some social metaphor?
Those were years with too strong an ideological charge. In the case of children’s literature, I preferred to look to the past, to the history and origins of the Cuban nationality and folklore. We lived too bombarded by ideological issues. When I wrote books for adults, I was able to play with metaphors, with words, and make slightly incisive stories.
Are your children’s books the ones you would have liked to read as a child?
I was lucky to read wonderful works. I was a privileged child, the secretary of Alejo Carpentier, director of Cuba’s national press, lived next to my house and she gave me books. I was lucky to read Platero and me, the last of the mohicans, The island of the treasure. I think that the books I have written for children are the ones that I wanted at all times and in which I could give free rein to my sense of humor, my fantasy, my taste for the absurd.
Did you know Alejo Carpentier?
I did not know him, only his secretary who was a young woman who lived in the building next to the one where I lived with my family.
It was a buoyant time for Cuban literature.
Yes, I was lucky enough to share with great authors of literature for adults who also wrote for children, for example, Dora Alonso, Jorge Cardoso and Eliseo Diego. A generation of emerging writers who approached children’s literature with a very marked aesthetic sense and with the desire to make great literature. It was a moment of richness, which was later lost and all that flourishing of the 70s and 80s faded over time.
How did meeting these authors mark you?
Meeting these authors, an Eliseo Diego, marked you because, at least in my case, it invited me to emulate them, try to get closer to their stylistic mastery and try to perfect the language, the stylistic tools. As a writer of children’s books, that is something that has always interested me, the search for perfection, to get closer to the most refined in language and forms. I feel heir to all that tradition.
Does the display of imagination change when you write for children compared to when you write for adults?
In either of the two there is a lot of imaginative play, a lot of presence of the absurd and the marvelous. There are always important spaces for the fantastic and the irreverent, and that combination with the colloquial, lyrical, is very attractive to me as a writer. I feel very comfortable combining them, whether it is a children’s story or a novel for adults.
After almost 50 years writing for children, what remains of childhood in you?
The capacity for wonder and the desire to discover are the two qualities in childhood that I appreciate the most and have forced to keep. The ability to admire myself in the face of reality and to admire the creations of others; of trying to discover the beauty in small things following Andersen’s model. I love minimal stories where the characters can be a firefly or a mockingbird, trying to imagine a world for themselves, imagining emotions, aspirations and conflicts.
Do you miss anything from those years?
No, I have never been a nostalgic person. Each stage of life has brought its own. I would have gladly skipped adolescence because it involves many doubts and questions. It was a period that I did not enjoy.
How to continue to maintain the childish tone when you get older?
For me, writing for children is linked to the pristine, transparent and, above all, to escaping from solemnity. Children’s literature has to do with what is direct, spontaneous, with fluid communication without giving the matter much thought. I really like humor and for me it is very comfortable to travel in all its nuances, writing children’s books is a pleasure for me. Writing for children and for adults is like having two chips that one has to activate, but that step from one chip to another comes naturally. Adult books are that territory for exploration and the most difficult searches.
Now with the stimuli that children have and the presence of issues such as climate change or violence, what kind of challenge does writing pose for minors?
My principle in writing for children has always been to be true to myself. For me, children’s writing does not have a utilitarian character. There are very important topics, but if they are not an expressive need of mine I will not touch them, I do not like to write to enter into a certain trend, I write thinking about the children, but above all thinking about myself.
Do your books circulate in Cuba?
No, I’m an exiled writer. When a writer leaves Cuba because he does not agree with the political ideas of the regime and expresses them abroad, he is excommunicated from the national culture. My books have been read in Cuba because they have been circulated from one friend to another.
No. I always think that I would like my books to be read by Cuban children and adults, because that would be my natural audience, because I feel part of Cuban literature, I am heir to that legacy, but I am not a person of nostalgia. I lived in Costa Rica and Colombia, now I live in the United States and I try to get the best out of each one of those spaces, to find readers with whom to dialogue, it doesn’t hurt anymore, I don’t know if it ever hurt. When you escape from a concentration camp, does it hurt you, do you miss it? No, he misses his culture, friends, but not reality.