Yoss: four letters carefully chosen for maximum impact, a lone vowel surrounded by three consonants. You read it and wonder if it’s the name of a rock band. Or a new sporting goods brand, or a deodorant, or God know what crap they’re trying to sell you now, even though you don’t have the slightest need to buy it.
But maybe you’ll glance at the photos anyway and keep on reading.
So. A writer from Cuba. Yoss is the pseudonym that the very Latin writer José Miguel Sánchez hides behind.
And at first glance, he looks almost too perfect a generic ‘80s rocker to be real. This is a writer? A mane of hair, wristbands, boots, tattoos, tight jeans, sleeveless T-shirts, all those rivets and skulls. You can tell from a mile away he’s some sort of fabricated character, maybe the lead in a ridiculous new Hollywood flick like Rock Star.
But maybe you’re one of the curious individuals who don’t like to leave a mystery unsolved, so you keep reading. Ah. He also sings in a Cuban heavy metal band… Wait, they have rock in the land of Salsa?
And he writes science fiction? The literature of change, of daring ideas, on an island that has clung for half a century to the idea that the Revolution (don’t forget the capital R) has already taken place and must be preserved at all costs? In a small, underdeveloped Caribbean country that refuses to be a simple tourist destination, that insists on following the now-discredited economic and sociopolitical concept called socialism?
Well, yes. Yoss is me: Cuban, rocker, writer.
Science fiction is how I get around censorship. When I talk about problems that take place in the twenty-fourth century, I’m really extrapolating from what’s going on today. I wrote Se alquila un planeta (A Planet for Rent) from 1995 to 1997, in the midst of the Special Period, when the fall of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc set the Cuban economy adrift and opening the country up to capitalist tourism was one of the few alternatives to total collapse. Rent out an island, a Revolution, and pocket your nationalist rhetoric until better times are back. Prostitute a nation. After years of hearing our leader scream himself hoarse about never abandoning our victories, we discovered it was all a matter of timing. Patriotic opportunism.
I wrote the book fueled by rage and disappointment. It was published in 2001, in Spain, and then in 2011, in France—but it still hasn’t appeared in Cuba.
I’ve published a few realist pieces, some humor, some science journalism, even criticism. But mainly science fiction, the literature of consequences, the genre that asks where each decision made today might lead us tomorrow.
Writing about the reality of Cuba, with no whitewashing or paternalism, no bitter regrets or political posturing from left, right, or center, is a complicated business. The largest island in the Antilles is going through things that no other country has faced in this twenty-first century, after the end of history proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama. Making its way as a country that had to drop socialism but never quite turned capitalist, because its aging leaders didn’t damned well feel like it... And we, their people, still have no say in the matter. We can’t even choose our new masters: Chinese, Brazilians, Venezuelans?
I won’t list my résumé here. A friend once told me I already have more awards than a rooster has tail feathers. I’ll just say that this year, 2014, is the twentieth anniversary of my decision to live from telling stories, as we say here in Cuba. I decided that I would just write, not work for the state, or for anybody else.
In Cuba you can’t plan for tomorrow. My life is like Tarzan’s journey through the jungle: from vine to vine, with lions, leopards, and crocodiles down below. I go from book award to royalty payment, from lecture honorarium to literary prize. Sometimes there’s a break in the vines and I fall down and feel the bite of the wild beast, hunger. I can survive from my writing only because I live in Cuba, where a hundred dollars is still enough to make it through the month. I decided not to have children. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink coffee or alcohol, and obviously I don’t spend much on clothes (boots are cheap). I can be frugal, but how could I explain to a child that there won’t be any toys this month because papa wasn’t able to sell any of his stories?
I write stories, novels, articles, reviews, monologues—everything but poetry, which I respect too highly. I spend between five and six hours sitting at a computer keyboard every day without thinking it much of a strain, especially in the afternoon and at night. I spend mornings at the gym. A rotten mind in a healthy body.
I was born in 1969. I pursued a degree in biology, graduating in 1991, because I wanted my science fiction to have a truly scientific basis—and also, to be honest, because I worried at first that I wouldn’t be able to live from my writing. What if I wasn’t good enough? Now I’m confident. Maybe I’ll die without publishing a masterpiece, but even if I’m no Isaac Asimov, with his four hundred titles in print, I hope I’ll be remembered for a few good books. So far I’ve published twenty-seven, including the anthologies I’ve compiled, and that’s not counting translations. Not bad.
I like my country and the way people here live, though I’m no fan of heat and prefer the cold. Except for a period between 2000 and 2004, when I was married to a Cuban woman and spent most of my time with her in Rome, I’ve always lived in Havana. I don’t want to emigrate. This is my country, and if it has any problems (it has plenty, I think), I feel it’s my duty to try and make it better the only way I can: through literature. Violence is only good for trading one dictatorship for another.
Since I was eleven and José, the name my parents gave me, turned into Yoss (at first as a nickname from my friends and later as my pen name), I’ve been a rocker. This is a whole attitude in Cuba, where for years rock music was denounced as meaningless noise created by the enemy with the sole aim of leading the youth ideologically astray and keeping them from the true struggle—and also from genuine Cuban music. The police were constantly arresting me for my long hair and the way I dressed. Sometimes they still keep me off TV programs because of my tattoos and mane. That’s their right. But they shouldn’t hold their breath waiting for me to put on a tie, tuck in my hair, and look more conventional.
One dream that has come true: after a lifetime of listening to rock, I’ve been a singer for the rock band Tenaz since 2007, and I also more or less know my way around a harmonica. I’ll never be a great soloist, but standing on the stage and singing, seeing whether the people who hear me approve or disapprove, is magic.
I love spelunking and hiking with a handful of friends—a pack on my back, a knife and a canteen on my belt, cutting across the countryside, all over the island or other places. I also like parties where half the people don’t know who the other half are and nobody has any idea what might happen, or with whom.
Apart from reading, sex (only straight—so far, at least), and drinking Coca-Cola like water, I don’t think I have any vices. But this stoic abstinence (as some might call it) hasn’t turned me into an intolerant fundamentalist fighting for the rights of the teetotaling, non-smoking community and stigmatizing anyone who doesn’t agree with my belief in healthy living.
I love combat sports and martial arts. I’ve practiced boxing, judo, karate, aikido, kendo, wushu, savate, saber fencing—all with a lot of enthusiasm and not quite as much success. I can defend myself, but I’m not an aggressive guy. I’m also not an extreme fitness fanatic, though I can run seven and a half miles in fifty minutes, do ten reps of a 240-pound bench press, and my biceps measure fifteen inches. I spend two hours a day in the gym, five days a week, to make up for all the candy and ice cream in my diet, the reason I’ve never been able to develop that perfect six-pack.
My whole life I’ve strived to obtain that unattainable fantasy of Solid General Knowledge, though I’ve always been aware that the more things you try to know, the less you’ll know about each of them. Maybe it was in part to justify my hunger for information about so many subjects that I decided to become a writer—one of the last generalist professions we still have, in this age of hyperspecialists who know everything about nothing.
Is this all of Yoss? Yes and no. Do you think you know me now? Of course not; I don’t even know myself completely. But if you want to know more, there’s my writing. Read, and tell me what you find.