The erotics of the revolutionary: Key West 1886
Joy Castro. One Brilliant Flame. US: Lake Union Publishing, 2023. 357 pages
There are historical moments that, for an instant, dramatically expand our collective horizons of political possibilities. Such is the case of this brilliant novel, set in Key West during 1886. These are historical moments in which the need for a revolution is so obvious that pockets of freedom start to emerge and in them new ways of living, new ways for experimenting with life. Moments in which a rainbow of different struggles coincide, and new solidarities emerge across class, race, nation, and gender, that were before unthinkable. These are highly erotic contexts; the sensuality of the revolutionary figure seduces all of us. Our minds go first to the revolutionary fervor of 1968, but students of political history might also think back to the 1880s, where anarchism, socialism, abolitionist, and independentist movements are redefining modernity after the Industrial Revolution. There is something we found particularly cruel about reading novels that recreate these historical periods for us in the present.
They are cruel precisely because this is not the case of our historical present; our collective horizons of possibilities are locked into catastrophe, and even the most creative of us struggle to imagine a better world or worlds. We know that capitalism is destroying the planet, that oil wars seem eternal, that we are on a set course of cyclical catastrophes. We need a revolution, but we have no clue where to start; we can only resist as our oppressors grow stronger and our ecosystems weaker. There is dignity in resistance, but only revolution is sensual. Why does Joy Castro want her readers in the year 2023 to travel to such a context in 1880s, get our hopes up, only to burn it all down? To feel the pain of history, for this too literature was invented. To give us what we don’t have and quickly take it away. One Brilliant Flame is an exceptional historical thriller that reconstructs a context in which anarchism and free love seemed like an answer, where the revolutionary figure is eroticized and literature was powerful, but only for an incendiary instant.
“I did believe a day would come, perhaps, when we who were deformed might shine. And in that way I, too, was a utopian. I supposed -but for a cause I could not utter. Not now, not yet. My only heroism: refusal, the gallantry of the damned.
Sometimes you sold your soul to the Devil, because he was the only one who wanted it” (Joy Castro, One Brilliant Flame, 321).
The Book Review
Months ago, we finished writing a manuscript of a long experimental novel that took us 7 years to finish, and so we craved the opposite of experimentation: structure that plays by the rules of its craft, the pleasure of well-written fiction. And that is how we found ourselves reading One Brilliant Flame, by Joy Castro, a writer we have read before, particularly her two noir novels set in post-Katrina New Orleans, and her beautiful autobiographical book of essays, Island of Bones. Like her two New Orleans-based novels, this one is a sort of historical thriller, carefully researched, with a crime at the center and a historical catastrophe haunting the plot. In just the first chapters, we readers enter the meticulously researched and historically accurate world of Key West in 1886. The crime? A fire in cigar factory. The characters? Mostly Cuban from various social classes and races. The historical context? The Cuban wars for Independence and anti-slavery movement (the Ten Year War (1868-1878), the Little War (1878-1880) and right before the set up for the War of Independence (1895-1898) that ends with the US Invasion of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Phillipines), the political life of tobacco workers in the US, the last days of the Spanish Empire and the rise of the American one. In just a couple of days, we finished reading the entire novel and enjoyed every bit of it. We learned so much, both about craft and about this fascinating historical moment in Key West, where revolutionary ideologies clash left and right: anarchism, communism, capitalism, free love, early feminism, abolitionist and independentist movements, maroonage, masonry, syndicalism, santería. This is a context that particularly fascinates us as students of Latin American anarchism and of the historical phenomenon of the loud readers (lectors) in tobacco factories across the Caribbean and the east coast of the US. One of the great accomplishments of this novel is precisely to reimagine the social world made possible through this fascinating practice of loud readings. Lectors or loudreaders, as the historian Aracely Tinajero teaches us, became an alternative proletarian pedagogy that would create the most educated proletarian class on the continent between the 1880s and 1920s. While doing the boring job of rolling cigars, the workers’ unions would pay one of their workers who could read, to read books aloud during the work shifts. They read romantic novels and the daily, but quickly, by the request of their own workers, the loud readers would also read the latest in revolutionary philosophy. All over Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Key West, Durham, Ybor City and New York, the tribunes of the loud readers in tobacco factories were circulating writings by Bakhunin, Kropotkin, Marx, Tolstoi, Malatesta, even Nietzsche, and the early feminist thinkers like Madelaine Vernet and Rosa Luxemburg. The practice of the loud reader effectively transformed a place of proletarian oppression into an alternative university, in a world in which workers not only didn’t have access to the university but in which most of them were illiterate. In many cases, as in Puerto Rico, the texts circulating in the loud readers tribunes were more recent and sophisticated than the ones circulating in the university. A true “pedagogy of unruliness” is how we describe it in a recent article about the most famous loud reader in tobacco factories, the Puerto Rican anarcho-feminist, Luisa Capetillo. In the tobacco factories, workers were learning the philosophy of unruliness they could apply to their lives, against their bosses, their husbands, their owners, their nations. One Brilliant Flame carefully reconstructs the social world made possible by the loud readers or lectors, a fascinating world in which the most oppressed Cubans, amidst an anti-colonial war for independence from Spain, and just after the abolition of slavery, had access to a rich intellectual environment where the most revolutionary ideas, such as anarchism and free love, constantly questioned the modern superstitions we all took for granted: private property, marriage, wage labor, Christianity, capitalism, all appeared as they are, ideologies and superstitions, in the tribune of the lector. For a historical instant, on the tiny island of Key West, a bunch of Cuban rebels and workers could imagine a world without empires, without marriage, without owners. This novel takes the historical potency of this moment to seduce us in the present.
The trick of that seduction lies in the way the writer eroticizes its six main characters, all searching for a distinct form of freedom that passes through their bodies and their sexualities. Zenaida, the protagonist, is the daughter of a murdered Cuban journalist and intellectual. She is an aspiring poet seeking to romanticize her world through the bodies of two love interests: the black freedom fighter, Maceo, and the feminist tobacco worker, Chaveta. With that love triangle of Zenaida, Maceo and Chaveta, Castro painfully explores how the traumas of slavery and patriarchy condition the ways we love and make love. Then there is a second triangle, centered around the character of Sofía, a rich girl and daughter of a wealthy owner of a cigar factory, who dreams about a cosmopolitan and bohemian life, freed from the grasp of tradition through an aristocratic desire that effectively turns her love interests into puppets or objects. And her love interests are no other than Feliciano, the Spanish anarchist lector in the tobacco factory of her father, and Líbano, the black cafetero who also works for her father. Rich girl Sofía is able to turn these two aspiring revolutionaries into playthings, into objects of desire to be controlled. If in the first love triangle sexuality is all about emancipation from the prisons of race and gender, in the second love triangle sexuality is all about possessing the other, all about the “pleasure of owning a body”. Here we need to highlight Castro’s abilities as an erotic writer. At moments in the novel, it seems that Castro is allowing herself to be seduced by the same romantic novels the tobacco workers were reading (rather listening) during the 1880s. She uses classic romantic literary tools to eroticize the social experience, almost as if she is translating modes of desire from another time, and, in our view, she does it convincingly; Castro translates desire, and we find ourselves as readers partaking in the perverse sexualizations of Sofía and in the naïve sexual utopianism of Zenaida. By eroticizing the figure of the revolutionary from these two different angles, we are left both enchanted and disgusted with our own politics of sex. This confusion is not a flaw, but quite the contrary. When it comes to art and literature, confusion is not a problem, but rather the goal, and it is an ancestral one. Understanding something has a lot to do with obeying, and a lot more with controlling. The enchantment of literature was invented precisely to confuse us. It was and is a magical tool our ancestors created to loosen the grips of obedience and control. Perhaps we in the present should be inspired by certain revolutionary eroticizations of the 1880s, when love and revolution, especially for the anarchists and early feminists, were inseparable.
But as we get to the ending of the novel, without spoiling the plot, and as it is to be expected (we are told in the very beginning that all that world will burn), we are left politically and sensually dissatisfied. Neither the erotics of the revolutionary figures nor the expansion of the horizons of political possibility of this historical time, can collectively revolutionize the structures of oppression. The ending is bleak and somewhat tragic. The only happy ending is reserved for a secondary character, the actual arsonist, who will have revenge and her little piece of individual utopia. In One Brilliant Flame, ultimately, no “pedagogy of unruliness” can free us from “the lesson of the lash”; the only answer, perhaps accurately, is to burn it all.
With the following quote we end this book review. The rest is just ideas we had while reading that we would like to share and document. This is a fascinating novel that challenges our understanding of American history while also making us desire the re-emergence of the revolutionary erotics in our present.
In one of the climatic moments of the novel, Zenaida’s mother delivers a sort of memorable speech that will later be refuted by some of the characters. She says, referring to those being raised through bondage:
“’They look for the strongest. And then they obey.
‘It’s the only way they can feel a little safe. Do not mock their brokenness as cowardice. The shame belongs to those who broke them, not to the broken ones.
‘Obedience is written in their flesh’ she said. She picked up the plates again. ‘This is the lesson of the lash’” (Joy Castro, One Brilliant Flame, 240)
There are many ghosts in this novel— First is the great-grandfather of the author, Juan Pérez Rolo, whose memoirs, Mis recuerdos (1928) are an eyewitness prose account of the era. But also there is a poem by her grand-father, Feliciano Castro (included as the poem of the character of the same first name). The father of the author (among his possessions she found her great-grandfather’s writings, Mis recuerdos) also shares the name of one of the characters, Líbano Castro. The writing of the novel as an homage to her ancestors gives the novel an autobiographical bent that unites the two main genres of Castro’s work: the memoir and the noir.
But there are two other ghosts that feel present yet unnamed or barely named: José Martí and Luisa Capetillo. While the novel is happening in Key West in 1886, José Martí is living in New York and writing some of his most iconic and famous pieces like: “The martyrs of Chicago” about the anarchist migrants who are hung after the Haymarket riots in Chicago, or about “The mulatta Lucy Parsons” who was the mourning wife of one of the anarchists and later became a fierce leader of the workers movements, and later, the famous “Our America”, the essay that will define Latin American politics during the next century. Martí is writing these essays in New York while the events of the novel are taking place, and he will lataer return to Cuba to join the War of Independence were he will die (1895) as some of the characters in the novel do. Much as been written about the importance of Martí’s stint in the US where he witnessed so many other struggles that profoundly marked his pluralist thought, and exposed him to new revolutionary ideas, including anarchism and the US black liberation thought. Perhaps the world One Brilliant Flame shows us, in which an unusual exchange of political ideas pass through the cigar factory helps us also understand the world in which José Martí is ideologizing the future of the Latin American struggle. It is easier to imagine where the uniqueness of Marti’s ideas come, after reading about Key West in the 1880’s
And the second one is Luisa Capetillo, the anarcha-feminist Puerto Rican loudreader that has become the object of fascination and many studies in the present. Capetillo is the ultimate example of a DIY intellectual revolutionary. Contrary to Martí, she did not have access to the university, and was vehemently ignored by the other intellectuals of her time. She writes without caring about good taste or form, ignoring the hierarchies of the lettered city, faithful to her public (workers in tobacco factories), and ardently revolutionary. Capetillo, nonetheless, was only a child during the events of the novel. We, as students of Latin American culture, have found One Brilliant Flame very useful to understand the transformation of the figure of the revolutionary intellectual from Martí to Capetillo, from the sophisticated modernista, to the utopian self-taught loudreader
Chaveta – It is a common expression in Puerto Rico to say, “perder la chaveta”, as a way of saying, “losing one’s mind”. Only reading this novel I learned that the word “chaveta” refers to the brand of the preferred knife tobacco rollers used. It is also the nickname of the most interesting character in the novel for us, Chaveta, the strong feminist character that works with the men in the tobacco factory, has a side gig as a sexual worker, and seduces the female protagonist. Chaveta’s character, we believe, is an homage to Luisa Capetillo. To what Luisa Capetillo, in all her radicality, could not become (Capetillo, although being today a queer icon, “the first woman to wear pants in the Carribbean”, was, regrettably and perhaps understandingly, homophobic and repressed, although writing about free love and against marriage). Accuracy and attention to detail is a trick writers use (daemons, writers are reality-twisting daemons!). Chaveta is indeed the knife that pierces through the tragic and fatal plot of the novel. When the protagonist Zenaida loses her (she decides not to follow her to Cuba to fight) she loses both her chance for a revolutionary life and her ability to write poems. “Perder la chaveta” acquires a new meaning.
Latinx literary politics in the US market – We do not belong to the American literary world at all. Creative Writing programs and the US literary market are still quite a mystery to us. In Puerto Rico, perhaps in most of Latin America, literature grows in quite a wilder environment. We are naturally suspicious of professional writers, literary agents, big presses, and M.F.A programs, even if that is changing somewhat in the current neoliberalization of the world. In our tradition, a book is valued above all for its rejection of the standardized forms of writing dictated from above (and in this sense, “teaching” how to write is fundamentally problematic). And yet, for many generations, Puerto Rican and Latin American writers have consumed and admired US literature (for this, see Jeff Lawrence’s amazing study and comparison of the two literatures of the Americas). What to do in this context with a writer such as Joy Castro, an obvious master of her craft, a champion of anti-racism in the academy a passionate Latinx and Cuban-American writer, yet positioned within the US literary institutions even if she is profoundly critical of them, playing by their rules only to become a sort of doble agent, to “sabotage” from within as the memorable name of the horse of Maceo in her novel. Here there is a dislocation, at least from our point of view, between form and content. How can such a tale of disobedience be written in a form that is so obedient to the rules of the genre and the literary market? Why not, like Luisa Capetillo or the vanguards, rage against the straitjacket of classical forms? (If this was a scholarly paper I would answer this question analyzing the curious passion that the protagonist Zenaida has for the form of the haiku). We have no idea if One Brilliant Flame will become a literary “success”. As we said, we are profoundly ignorant of the US literary market. We think it should. It illuminates a crucial moment in the history of this country, while its craft performs the right kind of trans-historic magic to think in the long time of history and not the lonely time of the individual, to experience the possibility of freedom, even for an instant, that is denied to us in the present. But in a previous review (about Raquel Salas Rivera’s latest book of poems, here), we said that Puerto Rican writers have two obvious paths to succeed in the (white) US literary market: either follow the identitarian mandate to its most folklorist formal expressions, or erase it completely in a universalist aspirational form. This novel is formally neither. With Joy Castro we might find yet another path for Latinx writers. Become a master of the craft designed by our oppressive literary institutions and from there write an entire oeuvre (not just this novel) that make your readers feel the pressure of a rebellious scream muzzled by a formal and apparent obedience. This too, we believe, is the “lesson of the lash”.
Luis Othoniel Rosa (Bayamón, Puerto Rico, 1985) es el autor de las novelas Otra vez me alejo (Argentina: Enropía 2012; Puerto Rico: Isla Negra, 2013) y Caja de fractales (Argentina: Entropía, 2017; Puerto Rico: La Secta de los Perros, 2018). La última fue traducida al inglés como Down with Gargamel! por el poeta Noel Black (USA: Argos Books, 2020). También es autor del estudio Comienzos para una estética anarquista: Borges con Macedonio (Chile: Cuarto Propio, 2016; Argentina: Corregidor, 2020). Estudió en la Universidad de Puerto Rico y se doctoró en Princeton. Es catedrático asociado de Estudios Étnicos y Literatura Latinoamericana en la Universidad de Nebraska. Para El Roommate ha reseñado libros de Michelle Clayton, Raúl Antelo, Lorenzo García Vega, Margarita Pintado, Rafael Acevedo, Mar Gómez, Isabel Cadenas Cañón, Romina Paula, Mara Pastor, Julio Meza Díaz, Sergio Chejfec, Balam Rodrigo, Juan Carlos Quiñones (Bruno Soreno), Sebastián Martínez Daniell,Colectivo Simbiosis Cultural y Colectivo Situaciones, Margarita Pintado (¡otra vez!), Ricardo Piglia , Francisco Ángeles, Julio Prieto, Julio Ramos,Federico Galende, Julio Prieto (¡otra vez!), Áurea María Sotomayor, Noel Black, Marta Aponte Alsina (varios que se pueden encontrar en este Dossier), Naomi Klein, Mara Pastor (otra vez), Nicole Cecilia Delgado, Cristina Rivera Garza, Carlos Fonseca, Luis Moreno Caballud, Margarita Pintado y Raquel Salas Rivera.
 Aracely Tinajero. El Lector: A History of the Cigar Factory Reader. University of Texas Press, 2010
 “Luisa Capetillo and the Pedagogy of Unruliness” Small Axe. No. 69, November 2022. pp. 84-96. Peer-Reviewed.
 Jeffrey T. Lawrence. Anxieties of Experience: The Literatures of the Americas from Whithman to Bolaño. Oxford University Press, 2018. Our review here
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