FEATURE — Summer 2005


Illuminating Cuban Literature

Spanish Professor Elzbieta Sklodowska introduces students to the myths, the magic, and the many layers of meaning in Cuban culture and literature.

By Judy H. Watts

Her lightly accented English lilts like her name, Elzbieta—the z like the whispery j in jardin or maharajah—the Polish form of Elizabeth. Fluent also in Spanish and Polish, Elzbieta Sklodowska is professor of Spanish in Arts & Sciences and chair of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures. She centers her research, her teaching, and her writings in Spanish and English on the panorama of human experience as expressed in Spanish-American culture and literature. She focuses on the many forms of Cuban writing—alive with color and magic, laced with multiple meanings, yet grounded in the island's less vibrant official reality.

Sklodowska acknowledges that hers is "definitely not the most obvious research focus for someone who grew up in Cold-War Poland behind the Iron Curtain"—and some Americans, in particular, might be surprised at her choice. "In the United States, anything Cuban has a very peculiar attraction," says Sklodowska, the inaugural holder of the Raymond R. Randolph, Lee Schroth Randolph, Paula Schroth Krummenacher, and William R. Randolph Professorship. "On the one hand, people are fascinated and curious; on the other, many are fearful, anxious, and full of misconceptions about the country."

Following an early love of languages
Sklodowska's intellectual journey has involved leaps and connections, circles and intersections. In Poland, which was largely isolated from the rest of the world by politics and language not spoken globally, the government strongly encouraged foreign-language study. Throughout high school, Sklodowska studied French and Latin as well as the required Russian, but Spanish was not offered until cultural doors opened between Poland and Spain in the late '70s, following Generalissimo Francisco Franco's death. When Sklodowska learned that the University of Warsaw planned to offer courses in Spanish, she thought, "I want to explore this!"

The exotic dimension of the language was not the only attraction. On her own, Sklodowska had been reading Latin-American literature rich with "myths and magic of everyday reality"—and in it she found a similarity to life in Eastern Europe. "What I read was often as surreal as the absurdities the regime had created around me. I thought delving into the original writing would be extremely exciting."

Professors Elzbieta Sklodowska (right) and Pepe Schraibman (left) developed and taught the first seminar for the freshman FOCUS Program on Cuba in Arts & Sciences in 2001. The two have known each other since Sklodowska was a doctoral student at the University in the early '80s.

In addition to certain incongruities between the realities of existence and the truths of the human spirit, Eastern Europe and much of Latin America had a common tradition—the presence of literature in everyday life. "When I went to Cuba for my year of study abroad in college, I found the same appreciation of books there as back home, in spite of the poverty," Sklodowska says. "And layers and layers of meaning were disguised with great imagination."

In 1979 Sklodowska earned her master's degree (mandatory for graduation from the University of Warsaw) in Spanish with highest distinction. The following year, she applied to Washington University's Ph.D. program with a letter Professor Joseph (Pepe) Schraibman recalls was "so impressive in its clarity and depth that although Elzbieta lacked some necessary documentation at the time, I said, 'We have to do something,' and the graduate school agreed!"

Sklodowska received her Ph.D. in 1983. Over the next several years, she taught Spanish at the University of Warsaw. Following as a Fellow of the National Humanities Center, in North Carolina, and a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow, she returned to Washington University joining the faculty in 1990, a year after the Iron Curtain lifted. Always, she tries to instill in undergraduate and graduate students her own deep appreciation of literature, although she is acutely aware that savoring art and literature requires extended reflection. Over the years she has watched the reading culture in Poland shrink with the spread of digital media and flashier forms of entertainment. "People read for information," she says, "but acquiring depth is difficult when you just Google around and connect everything on the surface."

(Sklodowska and her husband, Philip Boehm—a literary translator and theater director who has just opened the Upstream Theatre in St. Louis—have had a television-free home from the beginning. "Our children, Carolina (Inka), 9, and Alexander, 15, are absolutely avid readers. Though we rent movies, in the absence of TV, we never feel deprived.")

Exploring Cuban culture and literature
When Sklodowska began her study of Cuban literature at Washington University in the early 1980s, her research focus was unusual: the nonfictional testimonio—an authentic first-person narrative by a witness to events that typically are traumatic, such as war or imprisonment. Traditionally, a professional writer transcribes and edits the accounts to achieve literary depth and aesthetic originality—capturing the complex historical, physical, and emotional nuances of lives that will inform, comfort, and inspire. An example is The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave, by the Cuban poet and anthropologist Miguel Barnet, the first writer to define testimonial narrative in Latin America. Cuba and the testimonio were the subjects of Sklodowska's dissertation, written under the direction of John Garganigo, professor of Spanish. Says Garganigo, who enjoys pointing out that his student has become his boss: "Elzbieta's dissertation was the finest of all my students. She is an extraordinary scholar—and has received numerous awards for her work."

"When I went to Cuba for my year of study abroad in college, I found the same appreciation of books there as back home, in spite of the poverty," Sklodowska says. "And layers and layers of meaning were disguised with great imagination."

Ten years later, testimonial narrative was a hot topic in academe—and Sklodowska's work was a classic. Then, as her study of testimonio intensified, she explored related topics: memory, forgetting, recovering neglected histories, and how memory is translated into literature. The politics of memory and forgetting is another interest: "The work of Antonio Benítez Rojo, the recently deceased writer of the Cuban diaspora, inspired my thinking," she says. Sklodowska developed her ideas in conference papers and scholarly articles. Again irony reprised: Perhaps 10 years after she thought about those issues in the Latin-American context, they are highly fashionable in scholarly circles.

"I haven't brought those projects to fruition in a book because of growing administrative obligations," Sklodowska says (it should be noted that she has published six books to date in a relatively brief career, and more than 60 articles and reviews). "I directed a dissertation about memory and forgetting and memory and trauma in Argentine history and narrative, however, and I'm very happy about that!"

Heading a richly layered department
She delights, too, in the intellectual structure of her department, which embraces Spanish, Italian, and French languages and literatures. "We have a synergy because of different natural crossroads: Spanish, French, and Italian intersect in the Mediterranean, and Spanish and French in the Caribbean cultures. I learn a lot from my colleagues in French and Italian."

Sklodowska's service as department chair is notable because of her vision, says Garganigo. "Elzbieta is an outstanding leader with very high standards."

"Elzbieta is exponentially by many zeroes better than I was!" adds Schraibman, who was chair for seven years. "She has unbelievable personal qualities and ensures equal treatment for all. She is emblematic of the University, which is an island of learning but also an island of kindness and inclusion."

Professor Sklodowska's research focus as a doctoral student was the nonfictional testimonio—an authentic first-person narrative by a witness to events that typically are traumatic, such as war or imprisonment.

Sharing new worlds with students
Another of Sklodowska's contributions was one of her "most personally rewarding experiences": the Cuba component she proposed for a freshman FOCUS Program in Arts & Sciences. Each year, selected students choose from several topics for an intensive yearlong seminar and a complementary second course, in addition to their other classes. "I thought it would be wonderful to give undergraduates the opportunity I had at their age to get a sense of Cuban people, history, and culture firsthand," Sklodowska says.

She and Schraibman developed and taught the first seminar together, in 2001. During spring break, Sklodowska accompanied 15 students to Cuba for 10 days; that group just graduated in May 2005. One is Elizabeth Leonhardt, an anthropology major from Milwaukee whose minor is in Spanish. "Taking the Cuba course was one of the richest experiences of my life, and the trip to Cuba was amazing," Leonhardt says. In the mornings, students attended seminars on topics closely linked to the capital city, the culture, and everyday life—such as religious traditions, history, theater, and the arts. The theoretical instruction was followed by, for example, a trip to a temple; a bus ride into old Havana, the scene of the 1958 revolution; and visits to theatrical productions. Adds Leonhardt: "Elzbieta is a great teacher. And from her life, I get a sense of how much is possible."

Embracing Spanish America
In time, Sklodowska will devote even more attention to the literature of Cuba's people—and, she says, "I hope I will come up with another topic nobody has thought of!" To non-specialists she suggests that literature is an invitation to travel inward as well as outward. "Literature that's not from your own realm can trigger an epiphany in which you say: 'That's what I wish for,' or 'That's what I fear.'

"I think it's very important for the American public to realize that Latin-American writers—and perhaps especially Cuban and Mexican writers—are in dialogue with the United States. American culture, history, pop culture, and politics are a constant reference. That has additional meaning for us. Spanish America is here. It's something to embrace."

Judy H. Watts is a free-lance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, and a former editor of this magazine.