Say the word “Cuba” and 24 students and professor of English Robin Metz think Ernest Hemingway.
Metz is teaching a single-author course on the works of Hemingway this term. Integral to this course is the study of place and how an author’s personal experiences can be reflected in his or her work.
“Underlying my approach to all the literature and creative writing courses that I teach is the idea that our creative and imaginative experience is grounded in our observation and our memories,” Metz said. “The dynamics of place… had such an influence on the art that’s created there that you have to experience the context in which the art’s created.”
This belief has led Metz to organize a variety of travel experiences for his classes. Over the course of his more than 40 years as a professor, Metz has taken students on numerous trips to better understand the works of authors, including a trip to Wales for last year’s Dylan Thomas course, and helping to found the London Arts Alive program.
“It’s something I’ve been doing for more than twenty years – that whole idea of travel and study and relationship,” Metz said.
Metz’s most recent travel ambition was to take his Hemingway class to Cuba. The problem: the United States is the only country in the world that refuses to allow its citizens to enter Cuba.
Getting to Cuba
Initially, Metz hoped to circumvent this problem by getting a special exception from the State Department.
“Knox has some important ties with people in high places politically,” said Metz.
However, the college was unable to obtain permission for its students to be excused from the embargo. This effectively meant that Knox could have no tie whatsoever with any student or faculty member who might decide to enter Cuba through an alternative route – flying to either Canada or Mexico and then proceeding on to Havana.
Those in the class who choose to go to Key West will be traveling over December break and receiving course credit for doing so.
“It’s alleged that, following that experience, that some members of the group functioning as individuals in a way that’s not sanctioned by Knox and is dissociated from Knox will be traveling on to Cuba,” Metz said.
This means that independently of the college and through their own initiatives, receiving no financial aid or course credit, some college students who happen to have taken a Hemingway course at Knox College in the fall of 2010 might coincidentally all be in Havana at the same time.
“I have spoken several times to government officials over the past year – White House representatives, Congressional representatives, Treasury Department, State Department,” Metz said. “Everyone assures me that any day now the sanctions are going to be lifted. But my own feeling is that’s not likely to happen before the November election. So Knox as an institution can’t be associated with travel or study that is restricted by the government.”
Over the past few years, according to Metz, “tens of thousands” of Americans have traveled to Cuba and experienced no problems upon their return to this country. Numerous Canadian travel agencies actively advertise their programs to send Americans to Cuba via various Canadian cities. In December, a large group of Americans, including members of the Illinois Supreme Court, will be visiting Cuba themselves. In short, it is unlikely that any individual choosing to visit the country will experience problems upon re-entry to the U.S.
Metz felt there was a certain irony in having to fly to Mexico from Key West before entering Cuba.
“In Key West, you’re only about 90 miles away from Cuba. If the U.S. government sanctions are lifted, one could just take a boat right to Havana harbor,” he said.
Legal problems are not the only obstacle. Since the college can be in no way associated with an individual’s choice to go to Cuba, each student must pay for the entire cost of the trip out of their own pocket (although the college is associated with and subsidizing the cost of the stay in Key West).
For those individuals who do decide to take a trip to Cuba, a large variety of Hemingway resources await. Hemingway’s house is still standing and has been preserved exactly the way he left it.
“You take a book off a shelf and you’ll see all his marginal notes were there,” Metz said. “You start to see what his thoughts about a text were. It’s tremendously revealing.”
Metz, who has presented work about Hemingway in Cuba prior to this trip, has numerous local contacts that will assist individuals in finding research and other resources that others might be unable to access. In addition, he described the local culture as being tremendously revealing about the author’s works.
“It’s a very vibrant place,” he said. “There is a terrific museum of Afro-Caribbean religions that in some ways figure into Hemingway’s work. There’s really a lot that one can learn from a study, a visit to cigar factories, Hemingway’s house.”
Overall, Metz felt that such journeys could often be key to a complete understanding of an artist.
“The way to understand any writer’s or artist’s work is to find the baseline of where the experience was and then assess the transformation they might have undergone in creating the work,” he said.