Monday, March 06, 2023

One Brilliant Flame by Joy Castro

Joy Castro is a brilliant writer of historical fiction. Many of you readers will know her for her novel Flight Risk. Today I want to talk to you about her 2023 novel, One Brilliant Flame. In her afterward entitled “Gratitude”, she explains part of her motive for writing the book:
For most of my life—and I am fifty-four now—I knew nothing about the political history of Key West or its importance as a rebel base for the anti-colonial insurgency in Cuba. It is a moment in US history that has been largely forgotten or erased—a utopian moment of hope for true racial and gender equality. Unfortunately, it was eclipsed by Key West’s Great Fire and the events that followed.
My ignorance is much more profound than hers, and I found this novel to be fascinating on so many levels. Besides the well researched historical content, she also creates a wonderful cast of characters and a juicy story.

Most of her lead characters are girls or women. Chaveta is a powerful figure who begins working in a cigar factory at the age of twelve, stripping and cleaning tobacco leaves.
By the time I was twelve and the Flores Cubana factory would hire me, I was already the fastest stripper on the bench. I worked for only a year on the top floor with the other children and some women (smaller hands) before they moved me down to the main floor. At thirteen, I became the youngest roller in a shop of five hundred souls.
Zenaida is a young writer, a girl who writes poetry (unheard of!), and also a roller who is paid by the number of cigars she rolls in a day. Sofia is the very much spoiled daughter of the owner of the factory—contemptuous of the servants and all those she considers beneath her. She is imperious, but distrusts boys and men and means to stay clear of them until her father dies and makes her a rich free woman.

Feliciano is a rebel fighter who fights for the liberation of Cuba from Spain, and, unlike most of his follow fighters, sees freedom for Cuba must be linked to freedom of girls and women. As his friend Chaveta points out:
“If you are willing to kill and die for Cuba to be free”—she glanced around sweeping the whole auditorium with her gaze—”then must you not also liberate every girl and woman in your midst? Must we not all be let alone, free and unmolested, to do as we will, and to choose whomever we want—or choose no one at all?”
Every year in the town there is a pageant held to decide on the most desirable girl in the village. All the mothers seem eager to have their daughters appear at the pageant, partly for the monetary reward, but more simply for the recognition. But even Sofia, usually the good girl who curries favor with the older more conservative members of the community senses the pageant-stage is not so far removed from, the auction block.
Standing there in a row with other girls to demonstrate our figures and fine posture, gazed at by hundreds of eagerly chattering Cubans. I could not help thinking of the auction block.
Among the many political discussions on how to liberate Cuba and whether or not to enlist the help of Americans, the topic of art arises, what it is and whether it can ever be used politically without compromising it. Poetry begins to appear on walls in town and shows the rift between various factions fighting for Cuba’s independence. The factory owners certainly have different interests and goals than the factory workers and the rebel fighters. The radical poet is named The Thorn and everyone assumes the writer is a man. Women can’t write poetry. Of course eventually the town is in for a surprise.

A tremendous fire destroys Key West and sixteen of its cigar factories and essentially quells the dreamed of rebellion.
When I was growing up the period of Caribbean/US history was not taught in public school or college. In my own lifetime, we were mostly poor and marginalized people: my father and older relatives never talked about the past.
Castro is determined to talk about it, and to educate the rest of us about this unique time and place in history. The novel is worth reading for the story standing alone, but the historical significance is obvious.

No comments:

Post a Comment