Identity Runs Deep in Leslie Sainz’s Have You Been Long Enough at Table20 September, 2023
In the alcohol section in UK supermarkets, there is sometimes the lesser-spotted ‘Che Guava’, a
“radical lager” boasting a “totally tropical explosion” of flavour. The development of Che Guevara
from revolutionary leader to the namesake of an alcoholic beverage seems indicative of the
West’s narrow understanding of modern Cuba and, as a consequence, the commodification of
its recent past. Perhaps Leslie Sainz’s sensitive debut anthology can go some way in impeding this
essentialisation of Cuban culture.
As the daughter of Cuban exiles, Sainz’s first anthology Have you Been Long Enough at
Table brims with critique of American foreign policy and its effects on Cuba’s sociopolitical
landscape. From “the US” placing “sudden upward pressure” on her mother’s abdomen, to
parodistic classified CIA documents, Sainz writes with the personal and political conviction of
someone who has born witness to the perniciousness of neo-imperial politics. It seems fitting,
therefore, that the anthology starts with a quote from José Martí, the godfather of Cuban
independence who fought and died fighting the Spanish at the end of the nineteenth century.
This is not however, just a critique of American neoimperialism. It is equally a poet exploring
their position within the complexities of American-Cuban relations. What does it mean for family
members to become disillusioned by revolution? What does political disillusionment do to one’s
sense of belonging? Is “she”, Sainz questions, “altogether un-American”? Explorations of cultural
identity run as deep as the language in which the verse is written. Whilst predominantly English,
the punctuations of Spanish throughout remind the reader of the decision taken by a poet not
just of what to say, but in which language to say it.
Despite the gravity of the subject matter, many of the poems are still dotted with neatly-timed wit and a sure sense of irony. Now that she doesn’t “name her onions”, as one stanza tells us, she “cries a little less” when chopping them. Sautéing an onion will never be the same again.
Leslie Sainz’s Have You Been Long Enough at Table, published by Tin House, is available from 26 September.
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