Reinaldo Arenas was born on July 16, 1943 in the Cuban easternmost province of Oriente, the illegitimate son of José Arenas and Oneida Fuentes. Raised in poverty in the countryside, he grew up to be one of the most talented and prolific writers of the Hispanic World despite the relative cultural sterility of his early rural environment.
At the age of 14, he joined the rebel forces fighting the dictatorship of once populist Fulgencio Batista [1952-58]. In 1959, the Revolutionary Government awarded him a scholarship to a former military school —converted into a polytechnic institute— to study agricultural accounting. This allowed him to move to Havana three years later when he enrolled in a professional development course for agricultural accountants at the University of Havana. It was in the capital city that young Reinaldo met accomplished intellectuals who mentored him, most notably two gay writers: 1) Virgilio Piñera, a brilliant dramatist who was an existentialist before Jean Paul Sartre and wrote theatre of the absurd before Eugene Ionesco; and 2) José Lezama Lima, author of Paradiso, considered a zenith in 20th-century Latin American letters.
Arenas’ first book —the only one allowed to be published in Cuba— Celestino antes del alba , despite the persevering support of Piñera, received only an honorable mention in the  competition of the government-sponsored Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, the infamous [in Arenas’s words] UNEAC, which Arenas referred to as an arm of the official, ruling Communist Party. The book was bypassed for the first award inasmuch as it was objected by zealot functionaries of the UNEAC, as Arenas later related, because it portrayed: a) a realistic deprived quality of life that was supposed to have been eradicated after the Revolution, b) an implied homosexual relationship between the boy and his cousin, and c) a literary repression suffered by the boy-poet main character.
This first falling out with officialdom further deteriorated with his second novel, El mundo alucinante, later published in Mexico, 1969; and in the U.S. as Hallucinations (1971), that depicted the life of an 18th-century Mexican friar who suffered persecution. To the governmental “cultural commissars,” as Arenas referred to them later, it was far too critical of a remote totalitarian state that mirrored the ubiquitous Cuban regime. Despite the support of Piñera, who that year  was again a member of the nominating committee; the novel was never published in Cuba and, once more, was passed over for first prize, and ultimately banned. Arenas managed, however, to smuggle the manuscripts out to France, where it was first published in a French translation which won —along with G. García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude— the first prize for the best foreign book published in France in 1969. This breach of state control, the circumvention of the official UNEAC’s consent [dictating what can or cannot be published] would lead to trumped-up charges of child molestation in an unrelated case. Arenas was incarcerated for two years, part of the time in the 16th century Morro Castle, which at the time was one of the most feared and sordid prisons for anti-Castro political dissidents.
Arenas languished, often in solitary confinement, in a vermin-infested cell not big enough for him to fully stand up in, and where he drank water from a pipe on the floor next to a hole in the ground that doubled up as a toilet. He survived amongst common criminals by ghost-writing letters for them addressed to their loved ones. Meanwhile, the government launched an insidious external campaign. Although by then Arenas was an internationally renowned writer, when foreign intellectuals asked UNEAC officials for Arenas, the foreigners were told that “there is no writer by [that] name […].” As he relates years later in the Néstor Almendros documentary, Improper Conduct [France, 1984], “I came to incarnate a typical character of [George] Orwell […], I became a non-person,” an ingenious comparison typical of Arenas.
After his release from prison in 1976, he was followed closely by a policeman whom in his memoirs, he called “Víctor.” The victim of a non-ending and methodical persecution, as Arenas called it, he had long given up hope that any democratic reforms that might affect his life would ever take place under Castro; therefore, his only hope was to escape from the island.
When the Port of Mariel was opened to allow —what ironically Castro labeled— “la escoria anti-social” [“the anti-social scum”] to leave “his island,” Arenas jumped at the opportunity. After all, prominently figuring within the maligned “escoria” [sic] were the persecuted members of the LGBTQ community, many of whom, like Arenas, had become respected creative writers notwithstanding the repressive environment in revolutionary Cuba. Despite his insertion into the “escoria” category as a homosexual, Arenas’ name had been added to a list of Cubans forbidden from leaving the country due to his notoriety as a dissident writer. Arenas managed to obtain exit documentation through a stroke of luck due to a bureaucratic error at his neighborhood’s police station and vigilante committee.
After a brief stay in Miami, at the age of 37, he settled in New York City, where he rewrote his old manuscripts confiscated by the Castro regime and crafted new ones. For instance, he rewrote Otra vez el mar [1982, translated as Farewell to the Sea, 1989], which had been confiscated or “lost” in Cuba and is the third installment in his self-styled Pentagonia [agony in five parts]. Essentially, this is a five-book autobiographical series on the history of Cuba, starting with 1) Celestino antes del alba, 2) El palacio de las blanquísimas mofetas [1980, translated as: The Palace of the White Skunks, 1991], 3) Otra vez el mar [1982, translated as Farewell to the Sea, 1986], 4) El color del verano [1991, translated as: The Color of Summer or, The New Garden of Earthly Delights, 2000], and 5) El asalto [1991, translated as The Assault, 1994]. Additionally, he wrote other novels, including La loma del ángel [1987, translated as: The Graveyard of the Angels] —a satirical take on the Cirilo Villaverde’s 19th century Cuban classic Cecilia Valdés— and his first novel set in New York, El portero [1987, translated as The Doorman, 1991], short stories, a book of essays, experimental theatre pieces, poems, many letters to editors as well as to friends, and he founded a literary magazine, Mariel: A Magazine of Literature and Art [spring ’83 to winter ‘85]. This publication united around him what came to be known as the “Mariel Generation,” a group of writers that came via el Mariel and whose objective was to use their art to denounce Castro’s oppression. His autobiography, published posthumously, was among the New York Times’s ten best books of the year and was later turned into an award-winning movie by famed U.S. painter turned movie director Julian Schnabel [Before Night Falls, 2000].
A rather short and slim man, but full of energy, Arenas created much controversy as an exiled dissident, particularly, for his star participation in Improper Conduct [San Francisco Lesbian & Gay Film Festival’s best documentary, 1984], which exposed what Arenas referred to as the Castro dictatorial rule’s systematic repression of gays —who were vilified as “counter-revolutionaries” and “enemies of the people”— and which encompassed mass incarceration, such as in the infamous Military Units to Assist in Production’s [UMAP] concentration camps in the mid-60s. The film put foreign apologists of Castro in a bind, given that it presented irrefutable proof that homosexuals, as well as free-thinking intellectual men and women in general —whose rights the foreign intelligentsia claimed to defend everywhere—, were victims of severe, methodical repression in Cuba for “conducta impropia” [therein the film’s title, “Improper Conduct”]. Paradoxically, Castro admirers opted to defame the message bearers, charging that the testimonials in the film were exaggerated and that the interviewees were not representative of the Cuban population as a whole because they were overwhelmingly white [this, notwithstanding the scandalous racial unrepresentativeness of the population in Castro’s nomenklatura].
More than anyone else, Arenas was at the forefront of combating the Castro regime’s worldwide campaign as Arenas explained, to demonize dissidents as —paradoxically— rift-raft and “lumpenproletariat” who had failed to internalize the presumed Ché Guevara’s “New Socialist Man’s altruistic values.” Arenas was amazed by the gullibility demonstrated by so many in the U.S.’s media, academia, publishing, and even some governmental circles who accepted and duplicated pro-Castro’s sound bytes uncritically. But in Arenas’ view, if the alleged social conscious-absent young Cuban exemplified the reverse of the non-existent “New Man,” only the government’s failed policies were to be blamed.
In Miami —the Cuban-American capital— Arenas’ gay militancy rubbed some of the more traditional members of the community the wrong way; and he openly complained that the wealthier personalities were not supportive enough of exiled artists who, ironically, were marginalized by the pseudo-left tilting mainstream publishing houses, journals, and newspapers. Within U.S. intellectual circles, his situation was immensely worst as his adamant anti-Castroism challenged the conventional pseudo-liberal establishment. Indeed, Arenas wrote in his autobiography that not few college and university professors dropped his books from their curricula as he increasingly vocalized his criticism of Castro and his defenders. Likewise, the situation was no better abroad. During a presentation in Sweden, exiles from the Chilean dictatorship of Pinochet —instead of fraternizing with their anti-dictatorial Cuban cohorts— shouted Arenas down for daring to criticize Castro. In fact, Arenas was convinced that many of the attacks against him were directly instigated by the Cuban government.
Vividly, Arenas argued that whereas anyone living in a foreign nation receives the support of his/her respective country of birth through its diplomatic representatives, the Castro regime uses its formidable resources —a redoubtable propagandistic apparatus, unprecedented for a country of Cuba’s size— encompassing worldwide news agencies, subsidized publishing houses, film institutions, cultural fairs and conferences to discredit Cuban exiles, especially human rights and intellectual advocates. Better than any social scientist, he theorized that Cubans in diaspora did not have a country of origin but an “anti-country” behind them, another Arenas’ ingenious idea.
If anything characterizes Arenas, aside from his creative genius, it was his intellectual honesty and irrepressible defiance in the face of all kinds of oppression. One of his last acts of defiance, two years before he took his own life due to his advanced deterioration from AIDS, was to organize a campaign of open letters to newspapers around the world, signed by 175 world-renown intellectuals and artists, asking Castro to hold a plebiscite on his rule. On December 7, 1990, symbolically the day that republican Cuba commemorated the death of 19th century Afro-Cuban War of Independence hero Antonio Maceo, Reinaldo Arenas —then 47— took his own life by swallowing an overdose of sleeping pills mixed with alcohol. He had concluded his Pentagonia by finishing the 4th installment, The Color of Summer, a Rabelaisian masterpiece, and he wrote several hand-written farewell letters that were sent out to friends and newspapers. In these epistles, he condemned Castro for all of his sufferings, and asked Cubans to continue fighting for freedom. It concluded: “I want to encourage the Cuban people out of the country as well as on the island to continue fighting for freedom. I do not want to convey […] a message of defeat but of continued struggle and hope. Cuba will be free. I already am.” No truer words than these faithfully capture the life of this great writer who has been compared to Rabelais, Jonathan Swift, Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Ezra Pound, and García Lorca, among others. Fittingly, as his literary work and political discourse inspire a growing mountain of doctoral dissertations worldwide [except in his own native island], film documentaries, and even a movie, Arenas is hoisted on to the pantheon of extraordinary writers. In death as often happens with so many great artists, he is finally receiving the recognition that was to him denied in life.
REINALDO ARENAS’ BIBLIOGRAPHY
Arenas’ complete works are yet to be brought together into a single compilation in any language.
- Critical studies of Arenas in English:
Barros, Sandra R., Rafael Ocasio, et al. The Dissidence of Reinaldo Arenas: Queering Literature, Politics, and the Activist. University of Florida Press; 1st edition (February 25, 2022).
Olivares, Jorge. Becoming Reinaldo Arenas: Family, Sexuality, and the Cuban Revolution. Duke University Press. 2013.
Soto, Francisco. Reinaldo Arenas. New York: Twayne Publishers; London: Prentice Hall International, c1998.
Soto, Franciso. Reinaldo Arenas: the Pentagonía. University Press of Florida, 1994.
- There are many critical studies and other works of Arenas in Spanish [though none published in Cuba], e.g.:
Abreu, Juan. A la sombra del mar: jornadas cubanas con Reinaldo Arenas. Editorial Casiopea, 1998.
Carrera, Liduvina. Reflexiones de Lozania: cinco ensayos de critica literaria. [Caracas], Venezuela: Fondo Editorial Toromaina, 1995.
Ette, Ottmar. La Escritura de la memoria: Reinaldo Arenas: textos, estudios y documentación. Frankfurt am Main: Vervuert Verlag, 1992.
Hernandez-Miyares, Julio E., Rozencvaig, Perla. Reinaldo Arenas: alucinaciones, fantasía y realidad. Recopilación, selección, introducción, notas biobibliográficas y cronología a cargo de Julio E. Hernandez Miyares y Perla Rozencvaig: Glenview, 1990.
Lugo Nazario, Félix. La alucinación y los recursos literarios en las novelas de Reinaldo Arenas. Miami, Fla.: Ediciones Universal, 1995.
Machover, Jacobo. La memoria frente al poder: escritores cubanos del exilio: Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Severo Sarduy, Reinaldo Arenas [Valencia]: Universitat de València, 2001.
Negrín, María Luisa. El círculo del exilio y la enajenación en la obra de Reinaldo Arenas. Lewiston [N.Y.]: E. Mellen Press, 2000.
Paz, Luis de la. [editor]. Reinaldo Arenas, aunque anochezca: textos y documentos. Miami: Ediciones Universal, 2001.
Rozencvaig, Perla. Reinaldo Arenas, narrativa de transgresión. México: Editorial Oasis, 1986.
- Works translated into English:
The Assault; translated by Andrew Hurley. New York: Viking, 1994.
Autoepitaph: Selected Poems / Reinaldo Arenas; edited with a prologue by Camelly Cruz-Martes; translated with an introduction by Kelly Washbourne. University Press of Florida, 2014.
Before Night Falls; translated by Dolores M. Koch. New York: Viking, 1993.
The Color of Summer: or The New Garden of Earthly; translated from Spanish by Andrew Hurley. New York: Viking, 2000.
The Doorman; translated from Spanish by Dolores M. Koch. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1991.
Farewell to the Sea: a Novel of Cuba; translated by Andrew Hurley. New York: Viking, 1986.
Graveyard of the angels; translated by Alfred J. MacAdam. New York: Avon, c1987.
The ill-fated peregrinations of Fray Servando; newly translated by Andrew Hurley. New York, N.Y.: Avon Books, c1987.
Mona and other tales. New York: Vintage Books, 2013.
Old Rosa: a Novel in Two Stories / Reinaldo Arenas; translated from the Spanish by Ann Tashi Slater and Andrew Hurley. New York: Grove Press, c1989.
The palace of the white skunks; translated by Andrew Hurley. New York: Viking, 1990.
Singing from the Well. Translated by Andrew Hurley. New York: Viking, 1987.
- Among Arenas’s works in Spanish [besides the Pentagonia] are:
Adiós a mamá: de la Habana a Nueva York; prólogo de Mario Vargas Llosa. Barcelona: Altera, 1995.
El central: poema. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1981.
Con los ojos cerrados. Montevideo: Arca .
Final de un Cuento. [Huelva, Spain]: Diputación Provincial de Huelva,  (Huelva, Spain: Imprenta de la Diputación Provincial).
Leprosorio: trilogía poética. Madrid, España: Betania, c1990.
Necesidad de libertad. Argentina: Kosmos-Editorial, c1986 (Mexico: Editorial Tierra Firma).
Persecución: cinco piezas de teatro experimental. Miami, Fla.: Ediciones Universal, c1986 (Barcelona: Artes Gráficas de Editorial Vosgos).
Un Plebiscito a Fidel Castro / [recopilado por] Reinaldo Arenas, Jorge Camacho. Madrid, España: Editorial Betania, c1990 (Madrid: Artes Gráficas Iris).
Termina el desfile / Reinaldo Arenas. Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1981.
Voluntad de vivir manifestándose. Madrid, España: Editorial Betania, 1989 (Madrid: Artes Gráficas Iris).
Martín, Jorge. Composer. Librettist. Before Night Falls [Sound Recording] CD. Albany Records, 2010.