It is the best book on Cuba that I’ve ever read - void of political heat, the pick this side or that side adventure narrative.
ada ferrer holding her book Cuba: An American History
Ada Ferrer holding her book Cuba: An American History. Photo: Ada Ferrer

I promised Ada Ferrer I wouldn’t go all fan girl on her. She’s one of the most highly regarded Cuba historians in the US and a Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean studies at New York University and I needed to tell her that I’d been studying Cuba since 2006 and her book, Cuba: An American History completely changed my life.

It is the best book on Cuba that I’ve ever read – void of political heat, the pick this side or that side adventure narrative. It reads like fiction and to illustrate this point, I shared how I had to wait in a two hour car rental line in Boston and when I finally got the keys and returned to my fiance, he asked me how it  went, I told him, “Oh the time flew–I had Ada’s book.” 

We all need Ada’s book.

We live in the world and in order to understand our own history, it is vital to view our histories through the eyes of others and how they mirror and experience us.  

Ada started writing this book in 2015. She had a lot of ideas and was back and forth with themes about the Revolution but this was right around the time that Obama was thawing the freeze on U.S.-Cuban relations and Americans were “re-encountering Cuba”, in Ada’s words. She thought they might need a fresh history of Cuba because Cuba is so much more than communism, Castro, cars and cigars. 

She was resistant at first about the title, Cuba: An American History, but she realized that so often we only learn, understand and appreciate our own histories as if they are separate from the histories of other nations. Histories and personal stories don’t work like that. We live in the world and in order to understand our own history, it is vital to view our histories through the eyes of others and how they mirror and experience us.  

Not only is it one of the richest reference books on Cuba that I have encountered, but the writing is absolutely exquisite. 

She believes  “For an American to seriously engage in Cuban history, it would give a new perspective on America itself.” 

 And oh, it does. Not only is Cuba: An American History an antique mirror that you stash in your purse to keep yourself honest, it is also a Cuban history textbook and saga, complete with Game of Thrones-esque violence, mob scenes and the U.S. Vice President William Rufus King, who took the oath of office on Cuban soil. Ada takes the familiar Cuban missile crisis and Bay of Pigs stories and “unsettles” readers, as she likes to do, emphasizing that the missile crisis and the Bay of Pigs are not just stories of presidents and prime ministers, but of human beings. 

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It is from that perspective that Ada writes, ever so effectively. She doesn’t take this side or that side, she takes every side and every story seriously. 

“There was another major reason that support for the Castro government remained strong in 1960: the United States. Fidel Castro made repeated references to a hostile US government eager to punish Cuba for its popular revolution. And at every turn, the United States proved his point.”

And that is what Cuba: An America History is – a work of great literature. 

I asked Ada if this belief still resonates today. She spoke of the language, such as “liberate Cuba,”, which is completely contrary to the historical accounts between our two countries because the United States never liberated Cuba. Even before Jefferson’s time, the United States has attempted to control and occupy and own Cuba. The island is, after all, geographically located in a spot that would make the United States ever more rich and powerful. 

I liked her interpretation of my question but it wasn’t precisely what I was asking. I wanted to know if Ada Ferrer believes that the Cuban government still uses the United States (i.e. the United States embargo against Cuba) as a scapegoat, hiding beneath it in order to avert attention away from its own responsibilities and failings. 

ada ferrer with her book Cuba: An American History in the park
Ada Ferrer with her book Cuba: An American History. Photo: Ada Ferrer

Though there is no way to poll the Cuban people, Ada doesn’t think they buy that their government’s failings are a result of the United States embargo. Of course the embargo has an impact on the Cuban people but this governmental tactic, of blaming the embargo, works for Cuba on the international stage. The U.N. has always condemned the United States’ embargo against Cuba and Cuba likes its role on this stage, pointing its finger at the United States’ policy against it and highlighting how this little island has been able to stand up to its enormous neighbor – a symbol of revolution.

What would Cuba do if the embargo was lifted? Could it still hold its own on the international stage as a symbol of revolution, standing up to the United States? Only time and a major act of Congress will tell.

And when that moment comes, we will all be grateful that Ada Ferrer wrote this book. She did the world a service by writing and by researching Cuba: An American History. Not only is it one of the richest reference books on Cuba that I have encountered, but the writing is absolutely exquisite. 

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I had to ask her, therefore, which fiction writers she admired. I had to know who this magnificent writer reads to elevate her own writing to a place where the reader forgets she’s reading history. Ada walked with the phone into her living room where she houses her fiction and as she walked, she told me about her young years reading Thomas Hardy and 19th century British literature. She has also always admired Alejo Carpentier and A.S. Byatt and more recently, Marisa Silver, Colson Whitehead, Mat Johnson, Karan Mahajan, Jeff Eugenides and Julia Alvarez. She told me that truly, she could go on for hours.

Because I promised Ada that I wouldn’t go fangirl on her, I didn’t end our conversation by telling her that I could go check three boxes of dreams come true. Not only had she given me the opportunity to interview one of my favorite writers on my favorite subject but she shared with me some of her favorite writers, inviting me to join a dialogue not only about Cuba but about literature.

And that is what Cuba: An America History is – a work of great literature. 

An American History of Cuba was published on September 7, 2021 by Scribner (566 pages) and is available wherever books are sold.

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Kate Oberdorfer is a writer from Tampa, Florida. She studied English and music at Mount Holyoke College, and spent a semester in Havana in 2007. She has returned to the island almost every year since then. Kate wrote her master’s thesis on the Cubans of Union City, New Jersey at the Columbia Journalism School. She is currently finishing her first book in Bethany Beach, DE. Kate loves to cook, sing, and dance and is a diehard Washington Capitals fan.

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