How does art survive a hostile social and political environment? Can it survive? How does an artist flourish, or even muddle through, when the inspiration and sources for one’s art gradually leave, one after another, eventually leaving the artist alone?
These are the questions behind Everyone Leaves, Cuban writer Wendy Guerra’s semi-autobiographical novel of growing up in Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s, translated by Achy Obejas. It tells the story of Nieve (“Snow”) Guerra, who watches her family and those of her friends fracture and fall apart under the weight of a deadening communist regime. Most eventually leave the country for Miami or Europe (everyone leaves, she keeps reminding herself); some “leave” or disappear within the country.
Nieve is an artist who gradually stops painting. She is also a survivor, due in no small part to the diary she begins to keep as a young child and maintains through adolescence and into young adulthood. The journal entries, in fact, are the structure of the book, beginning as brief if pointed and intelligent observations and continuing as longer entries as Nieve grows older. And there are gaps, which we can fill based on what we know and what we will know.
Through her diary, we follow Nieve from the small city of Cienfuegos to the mountains and finally to Havana. We watch her experience her parents’ separation, their custody battle over her, her life with a brutal, alcoholic father, and finally a reunion with her mother. We see her grow as a young artist, and we watch as she continues to behave very much the independent in a society that demands conformity and acquiescence. We observe her friends gradually leave, and her acceptance of her isolation.
The diaries are important. It is through her written (if hidden from others) words that Nieve finds personal survival, the only place she can be herself. She understands the dangers, but the worse danger will be not writing at all.
“”Because of what I write,” she says, “I hide my Diaries in the loft at home, under the boards. The humidity destroys them, but I copy over the letters with blue ink and I don’t write everyday in the new notebooks so they’ll last a while…My Diary is a luxury; it’s my medicine, what keeps me standing. Without it, I wouldn’t live to see twenty. I’m it, it’s me. We’re both wary.”
The words are stark and spare, heightening Nieve’s description of isolation and abandonment. There is much she comes to accept, only because she can live in the words of her diary. Everyone Leaves is a moving and often disturbing book, written with a sense of detachment, the detachment one needs to survive in a society that flattens individual expression.