Castro turf

Cuba tilts toward revolution in Rachel Kushner's debut.

CUBA LIBRA Kushner found her subject in the story of her mother's expat childhood.

CUBA LIBRA Kushner found her subject in the story of her mother's expat childhood. Photograph: Beth Herzhaft

When you consider Rachel Kushner’s family history, it seems logical that she would write her first novel, Telex from Cuba, about a wealthy bastion of Americans living in eastern Cuba on the eve of Castro’s revolution. The author’s mother and aunts spent their early years in a nickel-mining town on Nipe Bay, only ten miles from where Raúl and Fidel grew up. The women remember the wealthy Castro boys from yacht parties in their youth, and they recall the summer of 1958, when American employees of sugar and nickel-mining corporations were kidnapped and taken to the Sierra Maestra mountains.

But it wasn’t until after Kushner decided to become a writer, and after she finished her M.F.A. at Columbia, that she realized the artistic potential of her family story. In 2000, her mother took her on her first trip to Cuba. “The place was bursting with historic and political meaning, and it was immediately clear to me that this country and its prerevolutionary ghosts would be my first subject,” the author and onetime TONY contributor, 39, says from her home in Los Angeles. Several trips to collect oral histories and visit libraries followed, and a deeply political book with a masterful series of domestic dramas took form.

Telex opens in Cuba in 1952, when Everly Lederer, a young, goofy American girl, moves to the Oriente Province with her family after her father takes a high-paying position with the United Fruit Company. There, the Lederers are surrounded by other expats, including K.C. Stites, another child of an American businessman. The young characters slowly uncover the increasingly complex world behind Oriente’s facade of leisure: Everly befriends her family’s Cuban gardener, Willy, who quietly feeds her an alternative to UFC’s official line about American benevolence; K.C. confronts revolt in his own home when his older brother escapes to the mountains to fight alongside the guerrillas. Meanwhile, their parents work hard to ignore the impending upheaval, throwing lavish fetes and having affairs practically until the rebels set the fruit fields on fire.

Kushner’s plot builds into subtle musings on communism, American imperialism and liberation movements. But for all its political currents, Telex never reads like a lesson. This is largely because the novel’s ideas are expertly blended into its story line, which gains momentum with thrillerlike passages, stunning descriptions and a compelling cast. “The challenge,” Kushner says, “was to make real and believable characters and yet open them to their surroundings so that history could flow through them.”

We get cameos from superstars such as the blustery Ernest Hemingway and the Castro brothers, presented here, intriguingly, as sexually ambiguous firebrands. But it’s lesser-known figures such as the exotic dancer Rachel K. that truly drive this book. Rachel brings gorgeously melancholy moments of quiet into the book as well as a sexy heat: She seduces both Cuban president Fulgencio Batista and French arms dealer Christian de La Mazière—all the while operating as a spy for Castro. (Despite her name, this dancer isn’t a stand-in for the author, who explains that “Rachel K. is a real-life figure of pre-Castro Cuba who became an icon after she was found mysteriously murdered in a hotel room.”)

Like any novel, Telex required a great deal of solitary work: Kushner researched midcentury Cuba, read authors she admired (she cites Nabokov, Proust and the Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier) and, of course, wrote. But the book, says the author, was also the product of her collaborations with other writers and artists, particularly contributors to the journal Soft Targets, which she edits with her husband, the literary theorist Jason Smith, and poet Dan Hoy. “We are a group of friends who are inspired by one another—it’s what I thought my adult life would look like when I was younger,” Kushner says. She published an excerpt of Telex in the journal before signing her deal with Scribner.

“I don’t believe in the model of pure inspiration,” the author continues. “All of my creative work stems from a dialogue with others. We’re part of what we think of as the Soft Target family, corny as that may sound.” In this sense, Telex from Cuba stemmed from Kushner’s interactions with two different families—the one she grew up with, and the one she created with her artist comrades. These exchanges are an appropriate foundation for a book that so elegantly weaves together a gripping story of individuals and their lives leading up to one of the most notorious revolutions of the 20th century.

Telex from Cuba (Scribner, $25) is out now. Kushner reads Tue, Jul 22 and Wed, Jul 23.