Home and Away

Professor Victor Rodriguez-Nunez embraces his native Cuba in Gambier

Victor Rodríguez-Núñez came to the United States in 1995 from his native Cuba because he loves adventure and never wanted to live in just one place. But what this prize-winning poet, journalist, essayist, and teacher has rediscovered in this country is his Cuban home and identity.

"I never in my life wanted to be Cuban," says Rodríguez-Núñez, an assistant professor of Spanish who started teaching at Kenyon in 2001. "But trying not to be Cuban, I become Cuban. You can only reach your identity if you see yourself from another perspective." In the United States, and lately on this hill in Gambier, the forty-eight-year-old man of letters has come to embrace the strengths of his native culture.

A prematurely silver-haired author of seven volumes of poetry, Rodríguez-Núñez began reading Cuban poets only after leaving his country. "I read French, American, any other kind of poetry when I was in Cuba. But far away from Cuba, I started reading and learning a lot from the Cuban poetic tradition. I am so proud right now to belong to that tradition. And that's something I could realize only through the eyes of another culture."

Gambier would certainly seem to provide that otherness. And yet Rodríguez-Núñez is quick to point out that he grew up on a farm and so finds much in the rural Ohio landscape familiar and endearing. "I love living close to nature and seeing farms. I love hearing the birds sing, because it reminds me of my childhood. So it is like being here and at the same time returning home."

Locale is not the only seemingly big change that Rodríguez-Núñez classifies as not really a change at all but a return to an earlier experience.

Take his midlife career switch. After ten years as a journalist writing for El Caimán Barbudo, the most important cultural journal in Cuba, Rodríguez-Núñez decided to pursue an academic career. He earned a master's degree in Spanish at the University of Oregon and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, Austin ("don't mess with Texas, I love it"). But asked about this career move, he notes that because he had spent a year teaching sociology (in which he earned his bachelor's degree from the University of Havana) before becoming a journalist, he is now returning to his first profession.

And it is a profession he loves. "One of my goals as a teacher is to be a friend to my students. I think in four years I will know half the students," he says. He has already earned a reputation as an inspiring teacher, as has his wife, Kate Hedeen, a visiting assistant professor of Spanish.

Meanwhile, Rodríguez-Núñez has been active on a number of intellectual fronts. Last year he won the prestigious international Juan Rulfo-Guimarães Rosa Essay Prize for his critical essay on the Cuban poet Emilio Ballagas. In addition, he was instrumental in organizing a two-week Cuban film festival at Kenyon featuring the work of the most important Cuban director, Tomas Gutierrez Alea, although Alea was ultimately denied a visa and could not attend. "Alea was a model intellectual who kept the balance between commitment to the revolution and the ability to criticize what has resulted," he observes.

At El Caimán Barbudo, Rodríguez-Núñez wrote about literature and film in addition to interviewing dozens of prominent Cuban and international writers. A compilation of his interviews is due to be published in book form this year. Yet the professional activity that has continuously defined his adult life, whether earning his living as a journalist or as an academic, is the writing of poetry, whose demands finally convinced him that a decade of journalism was enough.

Journalism had fed his sense of adventure. And in Latin America, he points out, unlike in the United States, journalism is respected as a form of creative writing practiced by dedicated poets and statesmen alike. He rattles off five or six exemplars, including Jose Martí ("the father of Cuba"), Gabriel García Márquez, and Mario Vargas Llosa. "But if you want to work as a journalist you have to write all the time. That's good discipline, but it can kill you if you want to be a poet. I had to try to find time to devote to writing poetry. That's what I was looking for when I came to the United States," he says.

Currently a permanent resident, Rodríguez-Núñez hopes at some point to become an American citizen. His father was a Cuban-American and he has family members who are "American-American," as he says, "and I think that I belong to this country, too." He does not consider himself a political exile and believes that if he wished to speak against the Cuban government, the only legitimate place to do that would be in Cuba, whatever repercussions that act might bring.

Rodríguez-Núñez finds Gambier "a sort of paradise" in which to continue developing as a poet and scholar. "Kenyon is a piece of high civilization right in the middle of the country. And that's one of everybody's dreams, to have both worlds at the same time."

Being in Gambier has been working magical changes in Rodríguez-Núñez's poetry. In the last year he has been surprised to find himself working in a new form and different poetic style. Having previously written what he calls "short and rational" poems, he is currently at work on a lengthy lyric of some two thousand lines, composed of "crazy, very varying discourse. I felt the need to change a little bit. But I am changing so drastically!"

He has been trying to find an order within the material, editing and dividing it into sections. "I know the book will have fourteen parts, so I think what I wrote is a sonnet," referring to the fourteen-line poetic form. "A very long sonnet, in which each section stands for one line."

Perhaps the stretched-out hills of the Gambier countryside are nurturing a more expansive poetic vision in this thoughtful artist.

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