Cuban-American might, perhaps, be the most natural label you could tag on Achy Obejas as a first point of reference for anyone unacquainted with her figure. The most natural, perhaps, but also thoroughly inaccurate – not because Obejas is not Cuban-American (she is), or because she is not just Cuban-American (that much would be obvious), but rather because she hardly falls within the stereotype usually connected to such label. Which might be a roundabout way of saying that Achy Obejas resists categorization: intellectual, sentimental, creative, analytical, politically conscious, activist, militant, Cuban, yes, but also American, and therefore Spanish but simultaneously English, so, naturally, also translator and interpreter and so on… The list could go on, but this would make for a truly terrible introductory line.
So, looking for an alternative, let’s try a category of (relatively) recent coining: “1.5 generation.” Used to refer to immigrants who arrived in their host country during their childhood, this generation is often depicted as dual, insofar as their emotional and cultural attachment is shared between the two places that marked their personality. The difference between this concept and that of “second generation” (children from immigrants born in their parents’ host country) is subtle but relevant: while the latter are often described as being caught between their roots and their present reality, the personality of the former peels itself into coexisting and often overlapping portions that embrace elements from both cultures, even if those elements are seemingly contradictory. This, precisely, is what happens at many levels to Achy Obejas – not least her fiction.
Born in Havana in 1956, her parents immigrated to the United States when she was only six – which, perhaps, makes her a tad young to be of the generation 1.5 … maybe she should be included in generation 1.7, or 1.3, depending on the way you look at it! Either way, Obejas’ parents settled in Michigan City, starting her passage through the mid-west, which saw her study at the University of Indiana and live in the great metropolis: Chicago. In other words, far, far away from the stereotypical Cuban-American triangle of Havana, Miami and New York/New Jersey. Which is not to say she distanced herself from her heritage: on the contrary, Obejas has embraced Cuba as the foundation of her identity, but she has done so (perhaps she was forced to) in a distinctly different way. So much is palpable in her latest novel, Ruins, published by Akashic Books in 2009.
Set in the summer of 1994 and with the backdrop of the mass exodus that followed the lenient policy established by Castro’s regime that year, Ruins carefully maps the misery prevalent in Havana after the fall of communism, which became the primary reason why so many thousands sought asylum in the U.S., despite the perils of the sea for travelers who often launched themselves into the Caribbean waters with little more than a precarious raft (balsero, as Cubans would come to be known, comes from the Spanish word for raft, balsa). However, rather than taking the traditional view on the subject, the perspective of a future exile, longing for a better life abroad, or a nervous family member in Miami or the Keys, awaiting the arrival of a cousin or a lover delivered, quite literally, by the tides, Obejas chooses the far less habitual, and also less popular, impersonation of a “loyal” comrade, still faithful to the revolution after 35 years of failure.
Ruins thus becomes the journey of an individual, whose life is affected directly by the “desertion” of seemingly everyone around him, not because of the circumstantial changes this will bring in his routine, but because direct confrontation with a different (an “other”) reality produces a shift in the behavior of the protagonist, in the values he upholds and, therefore, in his person as a whole. Obejas’ depiction of this character is symbolic from his very name, Usnavy, a common name across the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, taken from the ships or members of the U.S. Navy who might have wrought havoc or lust across through land and sea, and translated into the vernacular Uss-nah-vee everywhere from Cuba to Venezuela.
Forced by his principles to help his best friend in a time of need, Usnavy becomes involved in the former’s preparations to set off towards Key West with his wife and baby. Seemingly incorruptible, Usnavy is faced for the first time with the concept of yearning – an emotion he cannot understand, because he has always had everything he needs. Except, at the end of the adventure he has more, because his friend leaves him a bike, which he can now give to his 14-year-old daughter. On his way back from the expedition, with one bike on each hand, Usnavy comes across a collapsed house that impedes his progress. Curious, he puts the bikes aside and scavenges for a lamp, which turns out to be highly valuable. His bikes get stolen, but by the time Usnavy realizes that the lamp could give him a good head start into buying a new bicycle, he discovers the meaning of the verb “want”.
This marks the turning point in the internal struggle of the protagonist, whose integrity is questioned (by himself) as soon as he realizes that by being loyal to his friend he was betraying his community. But Usnavy turns out not to be incorruptible, after all, and suddenly the precepts he had held as true for so long, despite the mock and scorn of his friends, prove to be nothing more than the rubble from the collapsed house where he found his lamp on the first place. Indeed, Ruins is full of allusions, metaphors and symbols that link the Revolution at large with Usnavy’s character, his love for a great lamp that hangs in his small shack, his fascination with the glass that refracts the light that comes from the lamp, rather than for light itself, the grandiose style of the lamp contrasting sharply with the state of despondency in which he and his family live, and so on.
This constant game of parallels ultimately harms the overall effect of Ruins, rendering it somewhat moralizing at times and predictable at others. Nevertheless, the redeeming features in Obejas’ voice more than make up for flaws that are understandable, if also avoidable. Straightforward, natural and free-flowing, Obejas’ narrative encapsulates the best of the duality of her own identity. Both sympathetic and critical of the Cuban establishment, she manages to incorporate fully idiosyncratic concepts, such as salao (a Cuban version of “extremely unlucky,” linked through the supernatural to the notion of fukú, explored by Junot Díaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which she translated into Spanish) within a more general context, available to all. Similarly, her translation into English of the very specific rhythm of Cuban conversation is not only accurate, it is admirable. Along the same lines, she freely inserts Spanish words in her narrative (plaza, derrumbe, etc), not even distinguishing them with italics (as she does with salao, for instance), and thereby staking their claim to being an indistinguishable part of the English language (sharing the same status as turquoise, for example).
Undoubtedly at her best when inspecting the nuanced details of seemingly innocuous routines, Obejas truly shines in the short story genre. So much is evident from her earlier collection, We came all the way from Cuba so you could dress like this? (1994), where she explores in seven spellbinding stories tropes as common as the great American dream, or the great American road trip, emptying them from their standard meaning and loading them with a new, different code. Similar moments of genius occur in Ruins, less frequently, but occasionally, for instance in her description of the games of dominoes in which the old men engage for hours on end, or in her reproduction of the good-natured, savvy interaction between Usnavy and Virgilio, an expert glass maker who fixes the found lamp and procures him previously unimaginable riches.
From her depiction of America (the land of plenty, of opportunities, of an “other” life, where you can, if you so wish, transform your sexuality and go from being Reynaldo, to being Reina), to her use of language, Obejas is constantly asserting herself both as American and as Cuban. Except that, just like Usnavy’s story serves as an excuse to look into the wider picture of Cuban reality, Obejas also asserts the rights of the community to which she belongs when she voices concerns of her own. Because, ultimately, she is constantly challenging her readers to (re)think their positions in relation to the most basic principles that govern our attitudes towards each other. Which is to say that her fiction is the ultimate expression of her activism: a relentless questioning that is neither angry nor histrionic but that, in end effect, permeates to every level of our life.
PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF SINT MAARTEN’S THE DAILY HERALD ON SATURDAY, DECEMBER 18, 2011.