Elena Schwolsky’s memoir of AIDS and healing in Cuba, Waking in Havana, is provocative and captivating from the first sentence of its preface: “In 1972 I left my two-year-old son with his father at a rural hippie commune north of San Francisco and traveled to Cuba to wield a machete in solidarity with the young Cuban revolution.”
Flash-forward 20 years and Schwolsky, who had spent a decade as an AIDS nurse, loses her husband to the disease. Grief-stricken and adrift, she decides to return to Cuba to work in the country’s controversial AIDS treatment program, which required all those afflicted to live in sanatoriums. The notebooks and audio tapes she filled with observations about her time there, as well as stories about the patients she cared for, became the basis for Waking in Havana, published in November 2019 by She Writes Press. It’s a memoir about youthful activism and her own travails as a young widow as well as a visceral accounting of how AIDS affects surviving family members — including her own.
“Schwolsky’s recollections are not so much a linear blow-by-blow account as a living, breathing, re-creation of the pulse of the island’s efforts to martial its resources to fight the plague of AIDS,” writes Michael Berkowitz in a review for People’s World. “The author weaves a rich tapestry of everyday events and lively characters caught up in the larger struggles that defined their time.”
Elena Schwolsky discusses and signs copies of Waking in Havana: A Memoir of AIDS and Healing in Cuba at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 6, at Collected Works Bookstore (202 Galisteo St.). Free admission; 505-988-4226 or collectedworksbookstore.com.