The challenge of writing about a foreign setting…

As you know, the Inspector Ramirez series is set in Cuba and since I don’t live in Cuba, I have to rely on a lot of research to get the small details. I’m always a little surprised at how many readers check the facts I put forward, but I’m grateful for their input, since I don’t always get things right. When they do find errors, I let the publisher know and these are put in a file to make sure they’re corrected for reprints and other editions. (These include a note I got from a reader the week after The Beggar’s Opera first came out, with a comprehensive list of every typo!)

Regarding The Poisoned Pawn, a reader told me today that her Cuban friends disagreed with the date I indicated the libreta (ration book) is issued. I had it as January 6th, which I had remembered because that’s the Day of Three Kings, the day that gifts were brought to baby Jesus, and I found that ironic. However, her friends stated the coupon book was issued at the end of December each year.

And so I spent a couple of hours on-line looking and was unable to find a specific date (although I found this wonderful video about rationing).

All the references I could find today talk about it being issued early in the year, rather than at the end of the year, but I kept looking. Then I realized I had probably confused the day that the coupons for children’s toys  that are part of the ration book can be used (January 6th) with the date of issuance of the entire book. 

I have asked Stephen Wicary, the former Globe and Mail journalist now living in Cuba if he can find out the exact date the libretas are issued for me; he’ll ask around.

But meanwhile,  I’ve dropped a note to the publisher and we will tweak that part of the book when it comes out in paperback next year (that’s when it will hopefully hit the US market as well).

Another concern the reader raised related to the jutia, the tree rats that I mention Cubans eating in the story. Her Cuban friends were offended; they claim that there were only rumours of people eating jutia and that people weren’t that desperate.

Now I actually did a lot of research on the jutia and I have to disagree with the expats on this one.  There were  lot of jutia on the island at one time but they were hunted almost to extinction.  There are dozens of online references to them being eaten, including these comments on Flicker photos from Cubans who not only talk about eating them and how they cooked them but make reference to a family that kept a baby one as a pet and joked about how they wouldn’t eat it.

Since the largest of these rodents can reach twenty or so pounds, I would find it extraordinary if they weren’t being eaten at a time of serious food shortages. And this very year, the Cuban Santeria Council of Elders asked its followers to make sacrifices to the orishas of different kinds of food, including smoked jutia.  So that point stays.

The final comment this reader made was that I was wrong about Cubans not being allowed in tourist restaurants. She pointed out that she visited Cuba this year and took some Cubans out for a nice meal in a restaurant.

I don’t doubt that’s true. A lot of things have changed since Raul Castro took power. But in 2006-2007, which is when the book is set, Cubans weren’t allowed in tourist restaurants or hotels.  They also didn’t have Internet access except through authorized institutions and it was illegal for unauthorized Cubans to have cellphones. (I have had several discussions with a Carleton University professor about this; she says her research team always had access to the Internet at the university,  therefore I am wrong. But the university, like tourist hotels, had authorized access. Regular Cubans at that time did not.)

This is one of the reasons I have resisted going back to Cuba. I know if I do, I will forget what it was like when I was there, and start confusing what things are like now with how they were then.

All of which is to say that writing about a foreign setting is a challenge and so I really do appreciate it when readers take the time to provide me with feedback.

In this case, this reader’s feedback  gave me an opportunity to correct and clarify the date of the libreta, which was clearly my  mistake. And in checking the other questions she raised, I not only verified my original research but found  some great information I can use in future books.

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