LITERARY LOCATION: Cuba Libro (bookstore), Calle 24, Esquina 19, Vedado, Havana.

Having lived and worked in Cuba for five years in the mid-1960s, Shirley Langer has a deep and abiding knowledge of Cuba that resulted in a young adult novel, Anita's Revolution (Shirleez Books 2012), recalling Castro's literacy campaign of the early 1960s when school children were sent into the countryside to teach one million illiterate Cubans how to read and write. Some were killed by counter-revolutionaries. Cuba's literacy rate later rose to almost 100%. In 2014, Anita's Revolution was translated into Spanish. That translation led to a book launch in January of 2015 at Cuba Libro.

As Langer describes: "Cuba Libro, the English-language bookstore in Havana, sent out 200 email invitations to attend the presentation of my book, Anita's Revolution. Fifty people squeezed into a space appropriate for forty. Some of those attending were those young volunteer teachers called "brigadistas". They're in their 60s now, but remember well that exciting time in 1961 when as teenagers they were part of the thousands who volunteered for the literacy campaign that taught almost a million illiterate Cubans to read and write in less than a year.

"In the audience was a journalist from Montana, an historian, several Canadian tourists, some Cuban teachers of English and some book people. I had just begun my talk when proceedings were interrupted by the arrival of around 22 visiting Art and Architecture students from an American univesity and their prof. My presentation was well-received, and the Q&A period after was lively. The audience was very moved by vivid descriptions by the people who were "brigadistas"; in 1961 telling of their experiences as young people teaching adults, the primitive conditions some people lived in then, the varied challenges, and the dangers some experienced from enemies of Cuba's Revolution."

Set in Cuba in 1961, Anita's Revolution is a work of historical fiction, primarily, but not exclusively, for young adults. The protagonist Anita, a 14-year-old girl, is one of the more than 100,000 young people who volunteer to assist with the national literacy initiative. Many, including Anita, endure primitive conditions, great challenges, and even dangers while on their assignments.

A second book launch arose in February, 2016 at Cuba's 25th annual Internacional Feria del Libro, the International Book Fair. Langer attended Cuba's Book Fair from February 11-21.

The principal venue in Havana is the grounds and buildings of the historic Fortification of San Carlos, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982. In addition to the hundreds of publishers and book exhibits, there are book and author related presentations as well as artistic events. One of those presentations in 2016 honoured the 130th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Cuba.

The 2014 fair saw over 2000 titles on sale with around 260 writers and intellectuals, 140 editors, 80 Cuban, 60 international, from 41 countries actively involved. Considered one of the foremost cultural events in Cuba, the fair attracted 387,000 in Havana in 2014.

In 2013, Shirley Langer sent a copy of her book to Fidel Castro and included a copy of BC BookWorld, "so Fidel could read the feature article about Celia Sanchez, a Cuban heroine. His office acknowledged receipt of the package, signed by Fidel himself. I am thrilled to say that the Cuban Book Institute has notified me of their interest in translating Anita's Revolution into Spanish and publishing it in Cuba. I have also been invited and am going to Cuba's International Book Fair which takes place in Havana and throughout the island in February."


My husband Dr. Joseph Langer, myself, Shirley Langer, and our four children spent almost five years in Cuba in the mid-sixties. Dr. Langer, an orthopaedic surgeon, set up an intern and residency training program in orthopaedic surgery, while I worked as a translator and ESL teacher. This was only a few years after the country-wide literacy campaign which UNESCO declared to be the single most successful literacy program to date. I learned that in 1960, 25% of Cuba's six million people were totally illiterate: one million adults and half a million school age children. In the short space of seven months in 1961, the national campaign reduced illiteracy from 25% to 3.9%. Over 700,000 adults learned to read and write ending nearly 500 years of successive generations being Cuba's forgotten people.

My respect for education, books, and the power of literacy propelled me to find out how such a feat had been accomplished. Clearly, the newly-installed revolutionary government under the leadership of Fidel Castro understood, that regardless of political orientation, education is the single most important tool to effect change. The most remarkable element of the campaign were the volunteer teachers?over 100,000 teenagers?the average age being fifteen? volunteered to go and live with and teach the illiterate families. Called brigadistas (members of a brigade), they were assigned to teach in isolated rural dwellings, towns, tiny villages and remote places in the mountains. Some brigadistas received a week or two of teaching instruction. They went forth with two changes of army-type clothing, a pair of boots, a Che Guevara style beret, a hammock, a wool blanket, some flimsy workbooks, a teachers manual and a Coleman-style kerosene lantern since there was no electricity where many were assigned. What they had a surplus of was youthful health and energy, enthusiasm and the will to overcome all obstacles in order to make their country "a territory free from illiteracy";. Do it they did, and the result of their efforts was to transform a people and their country forever.

I didn't write the story of that remarkable campaign right away when I returned to Canada. I raised my family, got a university degree in Spanish/Italian Language and Literature from QUEEN'S University, translated some of Robert Munsch's books for children into Spanish, served as Mayor of the City of Belleville, and wrote a book of short stories about Tofino, a remote village on Vancouver Island's Pacific coast where I lived for fifteen years. The idea to write Anita's Revolution dawned gradually as I became aware of the numbers of Canadians who are illiterate or functionally illiterate, and how that diminishes their lives and affects the creativity and productivity of our own Canadian society. Rather than write an article for a magazine or an academic paper, I decided to write an historical fiction novel. Following the completion of research, including interviews with many of the campaign's volunteer teachers now in their sixties and seventies, I created the novel's protagonist, a young teenage volunteer teacher named Anita. Through this young girl and her experiences, we experience the daunting challenges of those seven months, challenges that were faced in a 100,000 different ways by each of those 100,000 brigadistas. Fifty years have passed since Cuba proudly declared itself ";A Territory Free From Illiteracy";. According to UNESCO, it still is. Currently, Cuba has a literacy rate of 99.9%! Surely Canada should be able to say the same.

It is my hope that people are not put off by the setting of the novel: Cuba, and all the political baggage invoked by that small island and its leadership. Rather I hope that people will see what good can be done within a country if there is the political and social will, and what youth is capable of if given the opportunity and confidence of their elders. Anita's Revolution, above all, honours youth and celebrates the power of education to transform.

Numerous British Columbians have written books about Cuba including Amanda Hale, Adolf Hungry Wolf, Alan Twigg, Linda Rogers, Rosa Jordan and Trevor Salloum.


Road's End: Tales of Tofino

Anita's Revolution (Shirleez Books 2012) 978-09812538-1-7 $15.95 eBook (ePub for Adobe Digital Editions) $5.95

[BCBW 2015] "Cuba"