Achy Obejas is a Cuban-American journalist and writer based in Chicago. She left Cuba when she was six and lived most of her adult life in Chicago, where she worked as a freelance journalist for the Chicago Tribune. Her first fictional work was the 1994 collection of short-stories We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?, followed by the acclaimed novels Memory Mambo (1996), Days of Awe (2001), and recently Havana Luna, (2009) and Ruins, (2009). In 2008, Achy translated Junot Diaz's Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao into Spanish. This interview was conducted on 13June, 2007.
Marika Preziuso: How would you comment on your decision to use a glossary and italics for the Spanish words and expressions in your first collection of stories - We came all the way from Cuba so that you can dress up like this! , in the light of other bilingual authors’ choice to leave on the ‘cultural weight’ of Spanish or French terms, vis-a-vis the dominant English of their writing?
Achy Obejas: The decision to italicize was made by default, really. It’s standard practice – or it was when my collection of stories came out in 1994 – to italicize non-English words. Even then, it was a chore – is barrio really non-English? And it was uncomfortable. It felt utterly arbitrary. By the time Memory Mambo was ready to go to print, I knew there had to be a better, different way. In my life, I’m constantly code-switching, and I’m not unique, and I wanted the language on the page to reflect that. But it took a conversation with Junot Diaz, the author of Drown, to really move me to stop the italicizing, and when Days of Awe was bought by Random House, I asked them to just let it be, to which they agreed.
Language, of course, has to do with one’s identity. It isn’t the end all or be all. And being Latino in the U.S. isn’t specifically language-determined, but being Latin American does have a linguistic component, not always, but frequently Spanish. And the ability to play with language – in a specific language – not just understand it or function within it – has to do with mobility.
The glossary’s a different story, because it’s not just language-based. It’s about culture and history. It was a way to create context, for those readers who wanted it, without interrupting the flow of the story … there are no footnotes, so the reader has to decide whether she wants to see if there’s anything back there, in the glossary, about whatever it is she thinks she may have missed, or wants to know more about. So it’s a bit more personal, and more intimate. The italics I’ll never use again; the glossary, yes.
MP: Could you expand on the following "When it comes to sexuality, I've never been especially interested in assimilation but I am interested in normalization"?1 I would have thought that the two definitions were not too dissimilar.
AO: When I think of assimilation, I think of a deliberate strategy to blend in, to conform. For me, normalization is just what happens when we’re who we are, whatever we are, and we all just get used to it …
MP: I am quoting from the same interview: “I’ve always loved history, I’ve always been fascinated by the ‘what if?’”2 What counts for you as more relevant to people’s lives, the “what if” related to private events (i.e. familial incidents) or to history, especially in the context of the experience of migration of Cuban-Americans or the narratives of official history – that seemingly leave no room for “what ifs?”
AO: I don’t know what counts more … they both bring incredible weight to a situation. They both have aspects which are frequently tragic. I find them both compelling, inescapable. And, to be frank, I’m not sure that the two are that separate.
MP: To what extent does Memory Mambo suggest that politics is often blamed for individual and intimate stories of unhappiness, misunderstanding, and pain? Would you agree that in the novel politics - the politics of the Cuban Revolution and the Cuban diaspora in the USA - not only vitiates the “truth” that the protagonist Juani seeks out, but it also smoothes out the potential disorder that women especially may represent to the established order (for instance the independentista politics in Puerto Rico side-steps the questions raised by the lesbian and gay movement)?
AO: Certainly the independentista movement in Memory Mambo trumps the gay-lesbian-bisexual-transsexual elements within it, but this has not really been the case in real life … After all, the GLBT movement is alive and well and the independence movement of Puerto Rico is at a historic low point.
Here’s the thing: History is not impersonal. History doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of individual stories coming together, of those stories becoming catalytic, and then those survivors telling their versions of what happened … history is a form of testimony. And it always reads differently depending on who’s telling it. In Cuba, the War of Independence is pretty glorious, lasts more than a generation, has bold heroes like Jose Marti and Antonio Maceo, and leaves the island either a) sovereign (the traditional version) or b) tied to U.S. interests against its will (the revolutionary version). But in the U.S., that same military skirmish is the Spanish-American War – Cuba isn’t even mentioned, in spite of providing, minimally, motivation and setting – and it’s a charming little war with little chance of being perceived as anything but that. The individual stories – when I read something like Edward Van Zile Scott’s The Unwept: Black American Soldiers and the Spanish-American War – can fit, tragically, into either version … do I privilege it over the larger story? No, I don’t think so … because I see the larger histories as made up of these testimonies, being colored by them, set in motion by them …
MP: What helps more Juani’s survival and self-understanding: her desire to know the truth about Cuba and her family’s migration, which also implies what she calls ‘the perfect memory’, an idealisation of certain events, or her desperate willingness to believe what others have said about these? In other words, is Juani’s more a “search” or a “surrender”?
AO: I think there’s no question, for me at least, that her willingness to know the truth, no matter how awkward or painful or at what cost, is what propels her. Does it save her? Is she saved? I’m not sure I know, actually.
MP: Would you agree that there is a link between Juani’s initial depersonalization and the discourses of Cubania/Cubanidad in the island, for which the individual acquires significance mostly within the national frame of the revolution?
AO: Within the national frame of Cuban history, not just the revolution.
MP: In the funeral scene in Memory Mambo, where Cubans ‘perform’ an American rite of mourning of their dead, which is definitively non-Cuban, I saw an example of cultural exchange, potentially productive, rather than simply evidence of Cubans’ assimilation to the American ways.In the light of my comment, would you see ‘transculturation’ as a valid model to describe the cultural exchanges in contemporary Cuban-American communities? Is the topic of racism in Memory Mambo a response to the Cuban revolutionary rhetoric that in the Island racism does not exist?
AO: Yes, transculturation is a valid model, among many, to describe cultural exchange in the Cuban-American communities. However, Cuban-American communities are made of different groups, from different eras, different immigration waves, who have different attitudes. Older, earlier arrivals – like their peers in the U.S. – tend to have a limited vocabulary with which to discuss race and are quite uncomfortable with the topic. This is further complicated by the fact that this group is primarily white and “becomes” non-white upon arrival in the U.S. when it is viewed as “Latino” – a traumatic transformation, not necessarily racist, but one which implies a power dynamic in relation to greater society which is new and unsettling. Mariel and post-Mariel arrivals are younger and more racially mixed – as is the island – and so they view race differently – not necessarily in a non-racist fashion either, but with a greater awareness of it, and with a greater awareness of racism as a socially unacceptable and politically indefensible position.
Because Cuba is a top-down society, and because Fidel Castro declared racism over decades ago, it’s been virtually impossible to discuss it because it supposedly doesn’t exist (it’s also been the moral edge in much U.S- Cuba debate). It wasn’t until the late 90s, during the Special Period, when Castro, clearly saddened, acknowledged racism had not been vanquished, allowing the possibility of a wider discussion. Roberto Retamar took up the cause, with the same acknowledgement of societal failure, and then Afro-Cubans were able to publicly take on the issue “within the revolution”. But the discussion is still very basic, and the language is very elementary. The Special Period and post-Special Period arrivals are still different, with a much more relaxed attitude toward race and an increasing willingness to discuss it.
Moreover, the fact that Cuba’s official policy was that there was no racism, did not mean that, privately, people weren’t racist or didn’t discuss racism in personal terms. This idea that Cuba has ever been even vaguely close to eliminating racism exists, I think, only outside of Cuba, among idealistic lefties and people of color anxious to believe in the possibility of justice. But not among Cubans, certainly no Cuban would tell another such a thing – on or off the island.
My awareness of race comes from my experience living as a Cuban-American, a Latina, in a black and white city. My consciousness is a debt to the African-American community in Chicago, with whom I live, and where I learn daily.
Marika Preziuso was awarded her PhD in Comparative Literature from the Caribbean Diaspora, in 2009, at the University of London, Birkbeck College. She has written extensively on the literature from the Francophone, Hispanic and Anglophone Caribbean, and on Latinos/as in the USA. She is currently a Research Fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, University of Virginia. Her current book project is titled Borders as Crossroads: Counter-narratives of Postcoloniality in Caribbean Literature from the Diaspora.
1 Laura Sheppard-Brick, “Interview with Achy Obejas,” The Jewish Reader, July 2002, http://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/node/327).
2 Sheppard-Brick, "Interview with Achy Obejas." Note to the reader: The father’s side of Obejas’s family was descended from Anusims, Spanish Jews, forced to convert to Christianity.