It is a treat when a new work of literature emerges that sparks enthusiasm in and critical engagement by scholars from multiple disciplines. Rita Indiana’s La mucama de Omicunlé (Omicunlé’s Maid), the first Spanish-language book to win the grand prize at the Caribbean Writer’s Association Awards (in 2017), is one such work. The novel, which was published in English translation as Tentacle in 2018, is at once a work of dystopic science fiction (set in a future Dominican Republic where hi-tech surveillance and machinery allow the state to vaporize plague-ridden Haitians); climate fiction, or cli-fi (an already fatal 2024 tsunami washes biological weapons into the Caribbean Sea); speculative time travel (contact with a Santería deity sends characters back in time); and queer fiction (opening with a gender-transition surgery); as well as a meditation on contemporaneity in art, colonial history, race in the DR, and more. In this issue of sx salon, the discussion of the novel by three University of Virginia colleagues offers a glimpse of what the Greater Caribbean Studies Network at UVA has afforded us. Founded by Charlotte Rogers (UVA) and Kaiama Glover (Barnard) in 2017, the network brings together junior and senior Caribbean scholars from Africana studies, American studies, architecture, English, history, Spanish, and religious studies, among others. Reading and hearing each other’s work in workshops, at colloquia, and in informal discussions have widened our perspectives from the still-siloed academic departments and disciplines in which we must work, allowing us to see the submarine unity, even the tentacles and sargassum that connect us in an expansive Caribbean.
Although Rita Indiana (born Rita Indiana Hernández Sánchez) is known in anglophone Caribbean circles mostly for her novels in English translation—Papi (trans. Achy Obejas, 2016) and Tentacle (trans. Achy Obejas, 2018)—she is well known in the hispanophone Caribbean and broader hemisphere as a performance artist, musician, and prolific novelist. One of a rarefied group of Caribbean novelists who are also musicians,1 Indiana, at only forty-two, is a veritable international electro-merengue star and author of five novels: La estrategia de Chochueca (Chochueca’s Strategy; 2000); Papi (Daddy; 2005); Nombres y animales (Names and Animals; 2013); La mucama de Omicunlé; and Hecho en Saturno (Made in Saturn, 2018).2 Although Achy Obejas’s beautiful translation of Papi introduced anglophone readers to Indiana’s fiction, English speakers are the poorer for their limited access to Indiana’s incredible catalog, of which Papi and Tentacle, her two best-known novels, are just a tiny glimpse into an artist who is not only one of the most important writers in the region but also a writer whose multimodal, intersectional, border-crossing work captures the essence of Caribbeanness.
“Like a Blender”
Indiana’s biography, like her music and fiction, is notoriously hard to summarize. Her roots and branches are protean in true Caribbean fashion. On the surface her fiction might seem anchored in the Dominican Republic of her own childhood and adolescence, during Joaquín Balaguer’s cyclical hold on power in the turbulent 1980s and 1990s. Chochueca is a kind of Santo Domingo noir; the city is the central protagonist as much as is its narrator, Silvia, who roams the streets with her uber-cool friends trying to return a pair of stolen speakers. Papi, a thrilling reinvention of the Dominican dictator novel, is the story of an eight-year-old girl coming to terms with her absent father’s larger-than-life persona and its impact on her quest for models of selfhood, gender, and sexuality.3 Indiana’s fiction rarely travels from this locale, even when peopled with hemispheric characters. Tentacle, for example, contemplates the entanglement of ecosystem collapse across various centuries but on the same spot—the former World War II Jewish colony and current tourist hotspot of Sosúa Bay in the Dominican capital. The exceptions: the young narrator of Papi visits her father in the United States, and Made in Saturn sees its Dominican protagonist fleeing to Cuba after a bout with drug-induced “paranoia” (Indiana’s hilarious ret-conning of the time-travel narrative of Saturn’s prequel, Tentacle).
Despite their inexorable rootedness in Santo Domingo, Indiana’s novels are all published in Puerto Rico, where she has lived for more than a decade, and she and her music—the merengue of her native DR—crisscross the Caribbean Sea between countries. Her continual movement between islands in her travels and art redraws the Caribbean in intriguing ways: ferrying her hard drive full of self-composed electro-merengue loops across the more than two hundred miles between San Juan and Santo Domingo, she draws attention to the vibrant interisland diaspora of shared language and shared music between these neighbors that are more alike than their different histories and independence statuses might suggest.4 She also constantly troubles the geopolitical border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the two nations that share the island of Hispaniola. If the border has been hardened by colonial and postcolonial histories—Saint-Domingue as French colony, Santo Domingo as a Spanish one; the kingdom of Haiti’s annexation of its larger neighbor in 1822–48; the anti-Black, anti-Haitian resentment that animated Rafael Trujillo’s brutal policies in the 1930s—the phenotypically white Indiana has deliberately claimed the influence of Haitian music on hers and on the DR’s national idioms. In Chochueca, Nombres y animales, and Tentacle, Dominican characters explicitly borrow from Haitian cultural retentions, especially the gagá (Haitian rara), a fusion that Indiana herself undertakes in her music. In tandem with her invocation of the Haitian influence in Dominican art and in her own embrace of the still-denigrated and erased Afro-Haitian sounds, we also hear her frequent critiques of anti-Haitian policies and rhetoric in the DR and the United States, as her op-eds for El País attest (she is a regular contributor there, on everything from pop culture to politics). In a post titled “Magia negra” (“Black Magic”), she criticizes the stripping of citizenship from Dominican-born Haitians by the ruling Partido Revolucionario Dominicano in 2013 as an act of “legal ethnic cleansing” and “a necrocide”—a pun on both killing Black folk and killing the already-dead. She frames this act of juridical murder as just one loop in the spiralic violence that “opened in October 1937, when more than 30,000 Haitians were killed on Dominican soil” during what is known as the Perejíl (Parsley) Massacre.5 Indiana would reprise this theme in her music, most explicitly in “Da pa’ lo’ do’” (“There Is Enough for Both”), which, as Karen Jaime has argued, sees Indiana appropriating drag, brownface, and monstrosity (her own nickname is La Monstra) to perform “a different way of being in the Dominican Republic, one in which the literal and figurative borders are porous enough to allow for the queer, for the female, for the black, and for the other to coexist.”6
Queerness and porousness—of national borders, of gender and sexuality, of form—are central to Indiana’s work and are among the prevailing interests of extant Indiana scholarship.7 Like the author herself, an out lesbian who styles her six-foot frame in androgynous dress and cropped hair, Indiana’s characters “transdress” and transgress the binaries of sex and gender.8 The child narrator in Papi models her developing identity on male American and Caribbean rock stars; the folkloric, carnivalesque Chochueca borrows and dons the clothes of funerary mourners; in Tentacle Acilde’s performance of boyishness during sex work is so believable that she convinces a client to perform the illegal surgery for her to transition to a man. If Indiana’s characters shape-shift, so do her novels: for instance, Papi’s virtuosity is entirely the result of its hard-nosed, hard-eyed child narrator who riffs in extended flights of fancy that morph sentence by sentence and even mid-sentence from realism to fantasy, from horror to satire, and more. Tentacle’s innovative form of time travel (which I discuss in my essay in this issue) often happens on the level of a single sentence: readers and characters alike fly from seventeenth to twenty-first century on the axis of a “meanwhile” and on the curve of comma. In brilliant English translation by Achy Obejas (Papi and Tentacle) and Sydney Hutchinson (Made in Saturn), some of the linguistic virtuosity of Indiana’s original Spanish is exquisitely captured, but one really has to read her written interviews and op-eds to get a sense of the way that code-switching is only a verbal approximation of her multilingual, multimodal, multigenre consciousness.9
In some ways, Indiana’s music, from her performance art to her band Rita Indiana y los Misterios to her forthcoming solo work, is the place where a number of the themes, genres, and spaces that animate her fiction converge even more seamlessly—or jarringly, depending on your ear. Like her fiction, her electro-merengue songs and performances are filled with intertextual allusions to myriad art forms from far and wide—the art of Francisco de Goya, the science fiction of Isaac Asimov and H. P. Lovecraft, the aesthetics of Japanese anime—as well as to music from both within and without the Caribbean.10 Merengue, mambo, gagá, bachata, and boleros are all here, rubbing shoulders with Euro-American club bangers. One of the delights of 2010’s El juidero (The Getaway), the lone full-length release by the Misterios, is “Dulces sueños,” the reggae-inflected Spanglish remake of the Eurythmics’s “Sweet Dreams,” in which the popular refrain “Everybody’s looking for something” starts out as “Todo el mundo está buscando algo” but becomes, in the end, “Everybody’s looking for mambo.” In Tentacle, Donna Summer’s 1977 club hit “I Feel Love” serves as a central motif, and its innovations in futuristic sounds and temporality—multiple mixes of various lengths by producer Giorgio Moroder, from whom one of the novel’s time travelers takes his pseudonym—serve as one of its many temporal models. In an interview with Ed Morales, Indiana explains that this cross-genre mixing is a fruit of her own creoleness: “I write a song and suddenly those elements are there, because they’re inside me like a blender. . . . There are times for example, [in] ‘El Blu[e] del Ping Pong,’ when we play it, there’s gagá in there, a magic religious Dominican rhythm, there’s blues in there, there’s punk. . . . There’s a whole bunch of things. . . . Things come out because I am filled with all that music and my musicians also come from different backgrounds.”11
Indiana has spoken of moving between music and fiction and between literary genres as outfits that she dons depending on “the idea that [she] want[s] to express.” In that vein, and as the essays in this discussion section will illuminate, Tentacle is an evolution in and expansion of the signature Indiana style of multigenre performance art, even as the author here dons literary genres different from her earlier work. Tentacle is a significant pivot in point of view from the first-person stories narrated by young girls that comprise what Indiana calls her “trilogy of the crazy girls” to a new sequence of novels narrated in limited third person by adult men.12 Indiana performs a bit of sleight of hand with both Tentacle’s opening chapter (circulated widely before the novel was published) and its original title, which focuses on the main character’s femaleness and servitude (la mucama, the maid)—the two things the protagonist quickly divests herself of after transitioning to a man near the beginning of the novel.
This book discussion offers bite-sized meditations on the literary innovations and regional affinities of this novel that is just beginning to generate sustained critical attention. With her “eco-queer” science fiction novel, as Juan Duchesne Winter has described it, Indiana joins a corpus of anglophone Caribbean writers whose works trace an evolving queer Caribbean aesthetic: Staceyann Chin, Marlon James, Helen Klonaris, Shani Mootoo, Leone Ross, and Lawrence Scott, among others.13 The three essays herein examine Tentacle’s queer politics and poetics from various angles, but Charlotte Rogers’s piece, “Rita Indiana’s Queer Interspecies Caribbean and the Hispanic Literary Tradition,” shows how the novel expands on earlier works by Hispanic Caribbean writers such as Lydia Cabrera, Alejo Carpentier, and Gabriel García Márquez to offer a fantastical, queer, and interspecies approach to ecological disaster in the archipelago. While Rogers traces Indiana’s homage to Cabrera in Tentacle’s recourse to Afro-Caribbean cosmology, particularly Olokun, the androgynous deep sea orisha, Alison Glassie’s “Into the Anemone: Ocean, Form, and the Anthropocene in Tentacle” explores the biology of the hermaphroditic Giant Caribbean Anemone—the Condylactis gigantea—that serves as the orisha’s totem in the novel and the source of time-traveling properties. Drawing on her background as a mariner and her research on marine biology, Glassie unpacks the science of ocean warming and overfishing and their ecological, narrative, and temporal impacts. If both Rogers and I lament the novel’s narrative investment in male time-travelers who selfishly opt out of preventing the ecological disaster, both Rogers and Glassie interrogate the consequences of ignoring the voice of Linda, the novel’s marine biologist whose careful research, scientific data, and Cassandra-like prophecies of the fate of the oceans go unheard. As Rogers argues, Tentacle suggests that “our current environmental crises [might] require a greater flexibility in sexual mores, a collapsing of rigid definitions of species, and nothing less than an imaginative rethinking of humans’ relations with each other and the planet.” In this way, as Glassie shows, Tentacle is in dialogue with other Caribbean cli-fi and sea fiction, most notably Monique Roffey’s Archipelago. With increasing attention to Caribbean precarity in the wake of the 2010 Haitian earthquake and Hurricanes Irma, Maria, and Dorian, Indiana’s fiction and these scholarly perspectives are both timely and critical: the author uses sci-fi to engagingly warn us of our very likely futures.
One could draw productive lines between Tentacle and American science fiction authors such as Philip K. Dick and H. P. Lovecraft, whose work Indiana admires, and to the time-travel narratives of Isaac Asimov and Octavia Butler, which the novel echoes. But Tentacle shows its Caribbean roots as well. The novel belongs to an emergent Caribbean science fiction (and broader speculative) tradition that includes thinly veiled sci-fi dystopias by Cuban rocker and novelist Yoss and the Grenadian Tobias Buckell, and hybrids of hard sci-fi and Caribbean myth by the Puerto Rican Pedro Cabiya and the Jamaican Trinidadian Nalo Hopkinson. In “‘Another Shape to Time’: Tentacle’s Spiral Now,” I situate the novel in the context of time-travel narratives from the Caribbean and beyond and amid ongoing debates about responses to impending climate disaster. Instead of the time machines and time portals of her favorite American sci-fi authors, Indiana illuminates the Caribbean’s unstable, spiral spacetime—the fruit of ongoing political instability and (un)natural disasters. I argue that the novel’s spiral temporality expands the Now, multiplying the moments for potential action while raising questions about the shape of Caribbean time. In this light, Tentacle is continuous with speculative time-travel narratives by the Barbadian Karen Lord and the Jamaican Marcia Douglas, with innovative narrative meditations on time by the Jamaican Erna Brodber and the Guyanese Wilson Harris, and with the spiralist narratives of Haitian writers Frankétienne and René Depestre, among others.
We hope our brief interventions here inspire further conversations about Tentacle’s engagement with key issues in Caribbean studies beyond science fiction and environmental studies, including the issues all three essays raise about race, art, indigenous cultures, history, trauma, and memory. The pace and appeal of Indiana’s work remains unabated: although she abruptly retired from music after the 2010 El juidero, a new solo album is forthcoming, tentatively titled Mandinga Times. This musical rebirth will be a great sequel to and timely reminder of the open-ended, unfinalizability of Rita Indiana’s art and the Caribbean that produced her. As Antonio Benítez-Rojo beautifully expressed it: the Caribbean novel is like a mambo or rumba—there is no ending or period, just a comma (punto redondo) or a narrative roundabout (rotonda) that allows you to pause, turn, and begin again.14
Works by Rita Indiana
Ciencia succión. Santo Domingo: Amigo del Hogar, 2001. [As Rita Indiana Hernández]
Cuentos y poemas (1998–2003). Santo Domingo: Cielonaranja, 2017.
La estrategia de Chochueca. Santo Domingo: Riann, 2000. [As Rita Indiana Hernández]
Hecho en Saturno (El día siguiente). Mexico City: Océano Hotel de las letras, 2019.
El juidero. LP, as Rita Indiana y los Misterios. Premium Latin Music, 2010.
Made in Saturn. Translated by Sydney Hutchinson, from the original Hecho en Saturno. Sheffield, UK: And Other Stories, 2020.
Mandinga Times. Solo LP. Forthcoming, 2020.
La mucama de Omicunlé. Cáceres, Spain: Periférica, 2015.
Nombres y animales. Cáceres, Spain: Periférica, 2013.
Papi. Santo Domingo: Vértigo, 2005; Cáceres, Spain: Periférica, 2011. [As Rita Indiana Hernández]
Papi. Translated by Achy Obejas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Rumiantes. Santo Domingo: Riann, 1998. [As Rita Indiana Hernández]
Tentacle. Translated by Achy Obejas, from the original La mucama de Omicunlé. Sheffield, UK: And Other Stories, 2018.
Brady, Amy. “Tentacle Is a Unique Caribbean Spin on Climate Fiction: A Conversation with Dominican Singer-Songwriter and Author Rita Indiana.” Chicago Review of Books. 16 January 2019. chireviewofbooks.com/2019/01/16/tentacle-is-a-unique-caribbean-spin-on-climate-fiction/.
De Ferrari, Guillermina. “Science Fiction and the Rules of Uncertainty.” Small Axe, no. 61 (March 2020): 1–10.
Ferly, Odile. “Defying Binarism: Cross-Dressing and Transdressing in Mayra Santos Febres’s Sirena Selena vestida de pena and Rita Indiana Hernandez’s La estrategia de Chochueca.” In The Cross-Dressed Caribbean: Writing, Politics, Sexualities, edited by Maria Cristina Fumagalli, 239–52. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013.
Herrero-Martín, Rosana. “Olokun, or The Caribbean Quantum Mind: An Analysis of Transculturated Metaphysical Elements within Rita Indiana’s Novel Tentacle.” Journal of West Indian Literature 27, no. 2 (2019): 52–67.
Humphrey, Paul. “‘El manto que cubre el mar’: Religion, Identity, and the Sea in Rita Indiana’s La mucama de Omicunlé.” Sargasso 16–17, nos. 1–2 (2016): 109–25.
Horn, Maja. “Still Loving Papi: Globalized Dominican Subjectivities in the Novels of Rita Indiana Hernández.” In Masculinity After Trujillo: The Politics of Gender in Dominican Literature, 102–22. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014.
Hutchinson, Sidney. “Listening Sideways: The Transgenre Work of Rita Indiana.” In Tigers of a Different Stripe: Performing Gender in Dominican Music, 173–210. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Jaime, Karen. “‘Da pa’ lo’ do’’: Rita Indiana’s Queer, Racialized Dominicanness.” Small Axe, no. 47 (July 2015): 85–93.
Luis Alamo, Hector. “Interview: Rita Indiana Hernández.” Gozamos, 22 December 2013. gozamos.com/2013/12/interview-rita-indiana-hernandez/.
Rivera-Velázquez, Celiany. “The Importance of Being Rita Indiana-Hernández: Women-Centered Video, Sound, and Performance Interventions within Spanish Caribbean Cultural Studies.” In Globalizing Cultural Studies, edited by Cameron McCarthy et al., 205–27. New York: Peter Lang, 2007.
Strobel, Leah. “The Cool, the Quick, and the Erotic: Outrunning Identity in Rita Indiana Hernandez’s La estrategia de Chochueca.” In New Readings in Latin American and Spanish Literary and Cultural Studies, edited by Laura M. Martins, 121–32. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2014.
Valdez, Elena. “Transnational Romances and Sex Tourism in Chochueca’s Strategy by Rita Indiana Hernández; “Emoticons” by Aurora Arias; and “Heading South” by Dany LaFerrière.” Transnational Hispaniola: New Directions in Haitian and Dominican Studies, edited by April J. Mayes and Kiran Jayaram, 138–60. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2019.
Njelle W. Hamilton is an associate professor of English and African American and African studies at the University of Virginia. She specializes in twentieth- and twenty-first-century Caribbean literary and cultural studies, especially narrative innovations on the postcolonial Caribbean novel. She is the author of Phonographic Memories: Popular Music and the Contemporary Caribbean Novel (Rutgers, 2019), and her essays on sound studies, trauma theory, and the physics of time have appeared in Anthurium and Journal of West Indian Literature, among others. Her current project, tentatively titled “Caribbean Chronotropes: The Physics, Poetics, and Politics of Time in Contemporary Fiction,” reads recent time-bending novels through the lens of physics, phenomenology, and Caribbean theory.
1. Others include Anthony Joseph, Kwame Dawes, and Yoss (José Miguel Sánchez Gómez).
2. For their translations into English, Papi retains its Spanish title, while La mucama bears the title Tentacle. Made in Saturn (trans. Sydney Hutchinson), the English translation of Hecho en Saturno, was published in March 2020. Indiana is also the author of three collections of short stories; see her full bibliography at the end of this introduction.
3. Among the two most famous Dominican dictator novels are Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies (New York: Algonquin, 1994) and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (New York: Riverhead, 2007). For a scholarly treatment of the topic, see Ignacio López-Calvo, God and Trujillo: Literal and Cultural Representations of the Dominican Dictator (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2005).
4. Her album El juidero began as samples Indiana created on her laptop while living in Puerto Rico. She brought the files to a band in Santo Domingo who would reproduce with real drums—tamboras, güiras—these born-digital sounds. “It was an interesting marriage,” Indiana explains, “between analog and digital, so I think that’s why it’s so unique.” Rita Indiana, “Rita Indiana: Taking Caribbean Music and Literature to New Heights,” interview by Daniel Alarcón, Radio Ambulante: Unscripted, Public Radio International, 23 October 2014, www.pri.org/programs/radio-ambulante-unscripted/rita-indiana-taking-caribbean-music-and-literature-new-heights. Rita Indiana y los Misterios, El juidero, LP, Premium Latin Music, 2010.
5. “Limpieza étnica legal”; “un necrocidio”; “abierto en octubre de 1937, cuando fueron asesinados en territorio dominicano más de 30.000 haitianos”; Rita Indiana, “Magia negra,” El País, 9 October 2013, https://elpais.com/internacional/2013/10/09/actualidad/1381345925_372245.html. All translations are mine.
6. Karen Jaime, “‘Da pa’ lo’ do’’: Rita Indiana’s Queer, Racialized Dominicanness,” Small Axe, no. 47 (July 2015): 93. For a fuller discussion of the Haiti-Dominican Republic link in Indiana’s music, fiction, and activism, see Sydney Hutchinson, “Listening Sideways: The Transgenre Work of Rita Indiana,” in Tigers of a Different Stripe: Performing Gender in Dominican Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 179.
7. See, for instance, Leah Strobel, “The Cool, the Quick, and the Erotic: Outrunning Identity in Rita Indiana Hernandez’s La estrategia de Chochueca,” in Laura M. Martins, ed., New Readings in Latin American and Spanish Literary and Cultural Studies (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2014), 121–32; and Maja Horn, “Still Loving Papi: Globalized Dominican Subjectivities in the Novels of Rita Indiana Hernández,” Masculinity After Trujillo: The Politics of Gender in Dominican Literature (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014), 102–22.
8. In an exceptional reading of clothing and performing gender in Chochueca, Odile Ferly defines transdressing as a combination of passing, trespassing, and cross-dressing: infringing “the ethnic and social hierarchies, gender roles, and sexual norms[, as well as] taboos around death.” See Odile Ferly, “Defying Binarism: Cross-Dressing and Transdressing in Mayra Santos Febres’s Sirena Selena vestida de pena and Rita Indiana Hernández’s La estrategia de Chochueca,” in Maria Cristina Fumagalli, ed., The Cross-Dressed Caribbean: Writing, Politics, Sexualities (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013), 246–47.
9. See, for instance, her meditation on Cardi B’s performance of diasporic Dominican survival ethos: “Sobre Cardi B,” Granta, 26 November 2018, https://granta.com/sobre-cardi-b/.
10. Sydney Hutchinson (“Listening Sideways”) has written extensively on the prominent musical aesthetics in Indiana’s novels, both in their overarching structure and in their content, as well as in their intersection with the author’s music.
11. “Yo hago una canción y de repente ya esos elementos están ahí, porque están adentro de mi como un blender. . . . Hay veces que por ejemplo, ‘El Blue del Ping Pong’ cuando lo montamos, ahí hay gagá, que es un ritmo mágico religioso dominicano, ahí está el blues, ahí hay punk, hay un montón de cosas. . . . Las cosas surgieron porque yo estaba llena de toda esa música y los músicos míos también venían de backgrounds diferentes”; Rita Indiana, “Rita Indiana: No la llamen Lady Gagá,” interview by Ed Morales, 80 grados, 1 July 2011, http://www.80grados.net/rita-indiana-no-la-llamen-lady-gaga/ (Morales’s translation at https://edmorales.net/la-musica/, below the interview with Calle 13).
12. Indiana, “Rita Indiana,” interview by Alarcón.
13. Juan Duchesne Winter, “Rita Indiana y sus nuevos misterios,” 80grados, 15 May 2015, www.80grados.net/rita-indiana-y-sus-nuevos-misterios/.
14. Antonio Benítez-Rojo, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992), 25.