Synopses & Reviews
An astonishingly wise, ambitious, and riveting first novel set in the American community in Cuba during the years leading to Castro's revolution, this masterful debut will put Rachel Kushner on the map of American fiction.
Rachel Kushner's mother grew up in Cuba in the 1950s, in the United Fruit Company enclave where Telex from Cuba takes place. Calling on a rich trove of family letters, photos, meticulously kept journals, and historical research, Kushner sets free her brilliant imagination in this profoundly resonant story of a world that was paradise for a time and for a few.
For half a century, Americans controlled Cuba's sugar and nickel operations — the country's two most lucrative exports. Between the United Fruit Company's three-hundred-thousand-acre plantation and the nearby Nicaro nickel mines, Americans tended their own fiefdom in Cuba's Oriente Province. Everly Lederer and K. C. Stites come of age in this world. Each has a keen eye for the indulgences and betrayals of the grown-ups around them. Meanwhile, in faraway Havana, a cabaret dancer and a French agitator with a shameful past become enmeshed in the brewing political underground. When Fidel and Raúl Castro lead a revolt from the mountains just above the Americans' privileged enclave, torching sugarcane fields and recruiting rebels, K.C. and Everly begin to discover the complexities of class and race and the barely disguised brutality that keeps the colony humming. If their parents seem blissfully untouched by the forces of history, the children hear the whispers of what's to come, as Kushner deftly merges the rural and urban dramas.
At the time, urgent news was conveyed by telex. Kushner's first novel is a tour de force, haunting and compelling, with the urgency of a telex from a forgotten time and place.
"Soundly researched and gorgeously written, the creative story also serves as a history lesson. An imaginative work that brings Cuban-American history to life." Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
"Kushner has written a gripping tale of what it was like to live through a momentous time. It is a powerful, haunting look at the human side of revolution." Booklist
"This first novel by Rachel Kushner is a pure treat from the cover to the very last page. It's the kind of thing you should stock up on to give sick friends as presents....Rachel Kushner uses her considerable powers to bring [this world] back for us, one last time." Carolyn See, The Washington Post Book World
Rachel Kushner has written an astonishingly wise, ambitious, and riveting novel set in the American community in Cuba during the years leading up to Castro's revolution -- a place that was a paradise for a time and for a few. The first novel to tell the story of the Americans who were driven out in 1958, this is a masterful debut. andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; Young Everly Lederer and K. C. Stites come of age in Oriente Province, where the Americans tend their own fiefdom -- three hundred thousand acres of United Fruit Company sugarcane that surround their gated enclave. If the rural tropics are a child's dreamworld, Everly and K.C. nevertheless have keen eyes for the indulgences and betrayals of the grown-ups around them -- the mordant drinking and illicit loves, the race hierarchies and violence. andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; In Havana, a thousand kilometers and a world away from the American colony, a cabaret dancer meets a French agitator named Christian de La Maziand#232;re, whose seductive demeanor can't mask his shameful past. Together they become enmeshed in the brewing political underground. When Fidel and Raand#250;l Castro lead a revolt from the mountains above the cane plantation, torching the sugar and kidnapping a boat full of "yanqui" revelers, K.C. and Everly begin to discover the brutality that keeps the colony humming. Though their parents remain blissfully untouched by the forces of history, the children hear the whispers of what is to come. andlt;BRandgt; andlt;BRandgt; At the time, urgent news was conveyed by telex. Kushner's first novel is a tour de force, haunting and compelling, with the urgency of a telex from a forgotten time and place.
About the Author
Rachel Kushner was an editor at Grand Street and Bomb and now coedits Soft Targets. A frequent contributor to Artforum, she has a BA from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA from Columbia University. She lives in Los Angeles.
Reading Group Guide
Cuba has long fascinated and compelled writers -- from Ernest Hemingway and Graham Green to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Russell Banks. Most writers and readers know about the glamorous, renegade, romantic, often corrupt communities of expats and iconic locals in Havana. But there's another piece of the American experience. For half a century, the United States controlled the sugar and nickel operations in Cuba -- the country's two main exports -- centered in the lavish, expatriate "sister" enclaves of Preston and Nicaro, 600 miles east of Havana, but intimately connected.
The United Fruit Company owned 300,000 acres in northeast Oriente Province, an area long considered the cradle of Cuban revolutions. In the midst of UF Co's vast cane plantation were 100 acres the company did not own. Those 100 acres belonged to Fidel and Raul Castro's father. The sons, who grew up excluded from a privileged American world, started the revolution there. Telex from Cuba is the story of that world, told from the point of view of three narrators: a boy whose father runs United Fruit's sugar operation, a girl whose father runs the nickel operation, and a French agitator who helps train the rebels.
Like every great novel told through the eyes of a child, from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird to Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, Telex from Cuba seduces the reader into the drama of a family encountering unexpected conflict and the story of the gradual awakening of adolescents to issues of class, race, and social injustice. KC Stites and Everly Lederer are extraordinarily compelling narrators, and their parents and their parents' friends are portrayed with a combination of scrutiny and forgiveness that beguiles the reader. The book's multiple perspectives -- including that of the more jaded La Mazière -- round Telex into not just a coming-of-age tale but a story of political change. The revolution does come. The families are evacuated. The company town is expropriated. And it is all told in a novel that will put Rachel Kushner on the map of contemporary American literature.
Group Discussion Questions:
1. KC Stites tells his story as an adult. Why do you think Rachel Kushner chose to write his story in first person (as opposed to the others told in third person) based on a grown man's memories? How might the story be different if a young KC was telling it?
2. Everly notes that "If her parents ever did get rich, their old selves would hate their new selves" (p. 42). Discuss the importance of social class in 1950s Cuba, both amongst the expatriates (the Stites, Lederers, Allains, etc.), their servants (Annie, Willy, etc.), and the locals, such as Mr. Gonzalez. Are there rigid laws, or can people maneuver between classes? Why are issues straightened out native to native (pg. 187)?
3. La Mazière believed Rachel K "gauzed her person in persona, but sensed the person slipping through, person and persona in an elaborate tangle" (pg. 55). Discuss the significance of identity in Telex from Cuba. Who is not what they seem? The Lederer daughters have a doll, Scribbles, whose face they can erase and then re-draw. Are other people capable of reinventing themselves?
4. Why do these families move to Cuba? Do they arrive seeking to escape their pasts, hoping for new business opportunities, or looking forward to a new adventure? When they leave, have they accomplished their goals? What do they take away?
5. Throughout the novel, many characters note the red haze of nickel oxide that floats from the company's mines and covers the whole area. What, if anything, does this red dust symbolize?
6. "A human trapped inside a monkey trapped inside a cage. But when she tried to put him down, he screeched like a vicious animal" (pg. 97). What role do animals play in this novel? Consider the shark Del insists on killing, Mrs. LaDue's caged monkey Poncho, and the pig Mr. Stites beats to death to teach KC a lesson.
7. In this novel, what is the significance of one's nationality? Rachel K claims to be French, people believe La Mazière is German, Mr. Carrington is actually Cuban, and Deke Havelin renounces his American citizenship to become Cuban. Is a person's nationality a matter of choice, where they're born, the family they're born into, or how they appear to others?
8. What drives La Mazière? Why is he in Cuba, and why does a Frenchman join an army of Cuban rebels? Does he have true political motivations, or is he simply an instigator? And will he always yearn for a "luminous bubble, for an impossible time of privilege and turmoil" (pg. 200)?
9. Do you believe the story Rachel K tells La Mazière about her past, or does she merely like to play games? Does she have true feelings for him? What is the significance of her painted on fishnets?
10. When Mr. Carrington returns home from being kidnapped, his wife never sees him on the lawn because the indoor lights are on: "she'd have to put herself in darkness in order to see" (pg. 253). When thinking about Rachel K preferring to sleep without blankets so she can freeze and then make herself warm, La Mazière ponders what the director said about Woodsie, that she "gives radiant joy, but then she takes it away" (pg. 229). What do these observations imply about the women? Can you think of other examples of dichotomy?
11. Why does KC give Everly the Pullman car's door handle? What does it represent to each of them? Does KC truly have feelings for her, or does he want to please his mother?
12. KC thinks Everly has a funny look, but "maybe everyone has that look, but they know to cover it" (pg. 267). Which characters are best at wearing masks?
13. As they're being evacuated, Everly looks over the island from the boat and realizes "It's so niceÉwithout us" (pg. 277). How did the families of the United Fruit Company impact Cuba, for both the good and bad? Will anyone be sad to see them leave?
14. In the closing words of Telex from Cuba, KC states "You don't call the dead. The dead call you" (pg. 317). What does he mean by this? Who is calling KC and the other families who once lived in Cuba?