PARIS — The moment exiled Cuban novelist and poet Zoé Valdés learned of Fidel Castro's death last Saturday she felt ecstatic, and draped a Cuban flag from the window of her apartment overlooking the Seine.
"I was joyous," she told The Daily Beast during an interview at her home in Paris. However, her euphoria was short-lived.
"Immediately afterwards I began to remember all the people who died in exile, as well as all of the people he murdered," she said. "And then my thoughts turned to his victims."
She specifically names fellow Cuban artists, including writer and activist Lydia Cabrera, who died in exile in Miami in 1991, as well as singer Celia Cruz, often referred to as the "Queen of Salsa," who died more than a decade ago in New Jersey. She thought also of her late parents who never returned to Cuba. Her father, she added, was jailed for five years under the Castro regime before fleeing the country.
The author of over 20 novels and the winner of the prestigious Azorín Prize for Fiction, Valdés was born in 1959, the same year Castro came to power. She relocated to Paris in 1995 following the publication of her debut novel, La nada cotidiana (published in English in 1999 as Yocandra in the Paradise of Nada), a sad, humorous, and sexually frank tale of a young woman in revolutionary Cuba. Castro, unsurprisingly, was none-too-pleased with her candid account of life under the regime, and Valdés was sentenced to exile. She has lived in the French capital ever since.
Valdés has a warm smile, dark hair, and bright eyes. She is 57 years old, but looks younger than her years. She was wearing Ugg-type boots inside, which I thought was funny and charming. There's a trace of melancholy in her voice when she recalls, in heavily accented French, her early memories of Havana. This tranquil demeanor belies her reputation as one of the Castro regime's most outspoken critics, whose novels are known for their emotional intensity and highly graphic sex scenes. We chatted in her spacious living room with classic bohemian touches, from the garnet-hued drapes framing the tall windows, to the haphazard stacks of paperbacks on the floor. A corpulent calico cat dozed nearby on a red Persian carpet.
Valdés never knew pre-Castro Cuba, but she told The Daily Beast that she was about six years old the first time she sensed something amiss in her country.
"My family told me, 'You must not repeat at school what you hear at home about Castro,'" she recalled. "And it was something that really left an impression on me because at home my mother and grandmother were against Castro, but at school everything that I heard was pro-Castro. So from a very early age I was taught two opposing ways of speaking and two opposing value systems."
"I learned that if I thought differently (from the government's party line) I was not to say it or to express it, and to be discreet," she added.
Adolescence was a different story, however, and Valdés, a self-described rebel, began writing—first in a personal journal before trying her hand at fiction. She was particularly affected by the sudden departure to the United States of three close friends, sisters whose father had been imprisoned by the regime. Immediately upon his release, the family fled the country—a loss that was painful for Valdés.
"I began a period of revolt," she remembered. "My mother kept telling me to stay calm, telling me that I too could be jailed."
In the 1980s, Valdés was arrested at Havana's storied Plaza de la Catedral for chauffeuring two Spanish tourists around the city, which violated a regime law forbidding Cubans to associate with foreigners. She was detained for three days. The experience, Valdés told me, was among her worst memories of her home country.
"The thing that was worse than the fear itself, was the acceptance of the fear and the way living in fear became a normal part of daily life," she said. "That was the most terrible thing."
When I asked her to recall her fondest memory, her voice softened as she described a reoccurring image from her girlhood of her mother on the balcony of their home in Havana.
"In the evenings she would wait for me to come back from a party or an outing with friends. My mother on the balcony. That is my most beautiful memory."
Indeed, the themes of love, sorrow, the feminine experience, and the pain of exile permeate Valdés's novels, as do florid, gritty descriptions of her home city. Open one of her books, and Havana itself emerges on the page as a living, breathing entity in equal parts sensual and vulgar, but always alluring.
"A saline mist draped the night in mystery. Only the yellow lights shining from the majestic and imposing lamps extending down the center of the avenue lit up the darkness," Valdés writes in the first chapter of her 1996 novel Te di la vida entera (I Gave You All That I Had in English), which takes place both before and after the revolution. "She was thinking of her family and the desolate darkness of the countryside where they lived, which suddenly seemed so dark compared to the luminosity of Havana, so beautiful and new and radiant to her eyes."
Later in the book, she writes: ''Havana, saline, maritime city, clasping one and all in its clammy grasp. Havana, city of the freshly bathed and perfume doused and talcum powder dosed and eternally sweaty. Havana, city of eyes in heat and bump and grind and skin skimming skin like flames."
Even after the country has collapsed under the weight of Castro's brutal regime, Valdés's central character, Cuca Martinez, is unwavering in her love of the Cuban capital. "The surf has swallowed up the Havana of my youth," Valdés writes. "Havana flinches like flesh, smarts like a sore or a scraped knee. But even like this, hurting and steeped in pus, she is beautiful."
Evoking Cuba on the page, Valdés said, enables her to live there once more.
"When you are in exile, your writing changes immediately," she said. "You are afraid to forget things about your country, and you are afraid to forget the people who you left behind, as well as your country's literary tradition."
However, she also noted the positive aspects of life in her adopted country, France, where reading is revered rather than viewed as an act of political dissidence.
"For me there is also a richness to exile both as a writer and a human being," she said. "I learned about other realities and other struggles, and read many books that I was forbidden to read in Cuba."
Her island, however, is never far from her thoughts. On her apartment's front door hangs a colorful vintage travel advertisement. A woman dances with maracas raised high beneath the legend: "So near and yet so foreign, 90 miles from Key West," and then, writ large: "Visit Cuba!" Indeed, like many in exile, Valdés dreams of one day returning home, and she holds out hope that the dictatorship will collapse and that democracy will eventually arrive in Cuba. However, she does not foresee such a homecoming in the near future. Although Castro's demise certainly marks the close of a dark chapter in the island country's history, she believes it will be business as usual in her homeland for the time being.
"The internal repression against dissidents and artists is still the same," she said. "I think with Raúl Castro it will continue as before. After which his children will take over the regime, plus the military is still there. So it is difficult to say that things will change immediately."
She believes the impact of Castro's death will be more symbolic, but significant in its own way.
"When one has lived almost 60 years under a dictator, the fact that he is gone is very important," she said.
She explained: "The fact that physical presence of the dictator is no longer there, that in the minds of Cubans that presence is finished…That is a preliminary step towards freedom."