2008 National Book Award Finalist,

Rachel Kushner

Telex from Cuba


Photo © Jason Smith


A profound and lush evocation of 1950s’ Cuba, this debut novel is the first to tell the story of the American executives who were driven out by Castro. Though the chief observers are two keen-eyed American children, Kushner masterfully portrays the complex and varied forces of revolution through the perspectives of dictators, workers, the Havana underworld, the revolutionaries in the hills, and the Americans in denial that their colonial paradise is doomed.


Rachel Kushner co-edits the literary and art journal Soft Targets and is a frequent contributor to Artforum. Her essays and fiction have appeared in the New York Times, the Believer, Fence, Grand Street, and Bomb, where she is a contributing editor. She has a BA from the University of California at Berkeley and an MFA from Columbia University and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. Telex from Cuba is her first novel.

ABOUT THE BOOK (from the publisher)

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.

In Havana, a thousand kilometers and a world away from the American colony, a cabaret dancer meets a French agitator named Christian de La Mazière, whose seductive demeanor can't mask his shameful past. Together they become enmeshed in the brewing political underground. When Fidel and Raúl 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.

At the time, urgent news was conveyed by telex.


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Telex From Cuba's website

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From TELEX FROM CUBA by Rachel Kushner. Copyright © 2008 by . Reprinted by permission of Scribner, an Imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc, NY.


Everly Lederer, January 1952

There it was on the globe, a dashed line of darker blue on the lighter blue Atlantic. Words in faint italic script: Tropic of Cancer. The adults told her to stop asking what it was, as if the dull reply they gave would satisfy: “A latitude, in this case twenty-three and a half degrees.” She pictured daisy chains of seaweed stretching across the water toward a distant horizon. On the globe were different shades of blue wrapping around the continents in layers. But how could there be geographical zones in the sea, which belongs to no country? Divisions on a surface that is indifferent to rain, to borders, that can hold no object in place? She’d seen an old globe that had one ocean wrapping the Earth, called Ocean. In place of the North Pole was a region marked “Heaven.” In place of the South Pole, “Hell.”

She selected the color black from a list of topics and wrote her book report, despite feeling that reducing Treasure Island to various things colored black was unfaithful to the story, which was not about black, but perhaps how boys need fathers, and how sometimes children are more clever than adults and not prone to the same vices. The Jolly Roger was black, and there was Black Dog, who showed up mysteriously at the Admiral Benbow, demanding rum. There were black nights on the deserted island, creeping around in shadows amid yet more blackness: the black of danger. Also, the “black spots” that pirates handed out—a sort of threat. A death sentence, really. “Who tipped me the black spot?” asked Silver. This death sentence, a stain of wood ash on a leaf of paper. The leaf, torn from a Bible, which now had a hole cut into Revelation. And holes are black as well.

She’d read about Sargasso, a nomadic seaweed city, and hoped they would encounter some. Other things floated on the ocean as well: jetsam, which is what sailors toss overboard to lighten their load, and flotsam, things caught and pushed out to sea, such as coconuts, which rolled up on the shores of Europe in a time before anyone knew what lay to the west. Maybe coconuts still washed up, but they ­weren’t eerie and enchanting now that you could buy one at the store. In that earlier time, people displayed them as exotic charms. Or cut them open. A strange white fluid poured out, greasy and foul-smelling. Not poisonous, just spoiled from such a long and difficult journey, a fruit thousands of miles from its home under the green fronds of a palm tree.

To get from green to red is easy: they are twins. Thin membranes, like retinae, attached at their backing. Her father saw red as green, and green as red. A permanent condition, he assured her. And there was a red grass native to the Antilles from which you could make green dye.

Now picture red velvet drapes.

Part them.

Beyond is a room with perfect acoustics. In it, a gleaming black piano. She can see her face in its surface, like she’s leaning over a shallow pan of water. She sits down to play—Chopin, a prelude for saying good-byes, for dreaming in a minor key.

Spin the globe slowly, once, and return to where the dashed blue line skims above the island of Cuba.

She will cross the Tropic of Cancer and begin her new life.