By Tom Lynch
On an unusually warm and muggy evening in early March, a sizeable crowd has gathered at Andersonville’s Women and Children First Bookstore, all here to help celebrate the release of “Ruins,” local author Achy Obejas’ new novel. All seats taken, some are forced to stand in the back, near the table that supports the bottles of champagne and large white cake, with the book’s title and the author’s name scribbled across it in edible coloring. After a few announcements, Achy’s introduced, and she sweetly refers to W&C as “home base”; her reading’s received well-everyone’s here to see her, after all-and afterwards, you get the sense she’s relieved by the audience’s lack of questions, that she’d rather not be at the center, with all eyes on her. Either that or she wants to hit the booze and cake as soon as possible.
“I still get really nervous,” Obejas says. “Nobody believes me when I say that, but I still get insanely nervous about reading.”
Obejas keeps a blog that documents her book tour—achyontour.blogspot.com—and on it she later describes the evening’s audience as a “raucous cosmic rabble out there: former students, current students, a former roommate, the boy whose birth I witnessed, other writers, my girlfriend’s friends, my ex-girlfriend’s friends (but no ex gfs!), former Trib pals, folks who formerly worked at the Trib whom I’d never met until that moment, that woman who comes to every reading I do at WCF, the folks from my writers group, a former landlord, the girl I met on a layover in Jamaica en route to Cuba who was dating a friend of mine (and whom I liked so much right away, I wanted to warn about his, er, wandering eye, but didn’t), bunches of dykes, at least a couple Orthodox Jews, a hip little cadre of Art Institute girls, really cute Cubans (some new ones!), poetry community big wigs like Mike Puican…”
Such a support system isn’t surprising for a writer who’s been living in Chicago since the late seventies. Obejas got her start as a journalist, and over time wrote for a variety of papers throughout town, most notably the Chicago Tribune, but also the Chicago Reader and Windy City Times. In 1994, her first book was published, “We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?” a highly autobiographical collection of stories and essays that features several lesbian narrators living through break-ups, watching friends suffer from AIDS, living as an activist and more. One piece tells the tale of an immigrant Cuban family from the daughter’s perspective. “Memory Mambo,” her first novel proper, hit shelves in 1996, and told the story of a Cuban-born lesbian living in Chicago. “Days of Awe,” Obejas’ epic, came five years later in the summer of 2001, and features a protagonist that left Cuba for the States at a very young age, and later in life discovers her family’s Jewish heritage. Needless to say, much of Obejas’ output, up until this point, was taken from her own life.
“It’s a book that I’m still very hurt about,” Obejas says of “Days of Awe” as we sit in her Kenwood home. “It got really fantastic initial press, it was looking really good, and then 9/11 happened and logically, fairly, all focus shifted to immediate and urgent things, and I understand that. But it suffered in its initial launch-it’s had a really steady and beautiful afterlife, like a lot of my books have, though. I was just sorry that it didn’t get the fanfare like [the other books], when you see distant cousins you haven’t heard from since the last book, when former students come out of the woodwork. I was pretty sad.”
After that disappointment, Obejas traveled back to Havana for an extended stay with then-girlfriend, Cuban visual artist Tania Bruguera. “I wanted to write something to cleanse my writer palette,” Obejas says. “I was just going to write a short story. I was interested in the people in my neighborhood, so I wanted to write something in honor of them, a really simple little story.”
After spending time in her neighborhood in Cuba and allowing the people and culture to sink in-she even visited the Museum of the Revolution, where she saw “Fidel’s bloody shirt, Raul’s bloody shoes, Che’s asthma thing, lots of bloody clothes,” she says. “The thing that struck me was the disconnect between the items. They were not war items. The army dressed in the equivalent of Hawaiian shirts. There was a sort of ordinariness of things that created this incredible socialist environment.”
In December of 2001 the Tribune asked her to venture to the town of Guantanamo to do a color piece, where she met and learned the stories of even more locals, including a woman who owned a collection of priceless original stained-glass Tiffany lamps. “The house was worn and torn and full of cobwebs,” Obejas says, “and I was like, ‘You could sell one of these suckers and you would solve all your problems,’ and her attitude was interesting. She couldn’t fathom who would buy them, which was typical of the Cuban disconnect with the rest of the world. It was just too much trouble, and also, more importantly, these were family heirlooms, how could you even think about selling them? All these things started to converge, and this short story became this novel.”
“Ruins,” Obejas’ resulting new novel, tells the story of a struggling, poverty-stricken family in 1994 Havana. Her protagonist, Usnavy-named after his mother spotted an American navy ship in the sea-fights to support his wife and daughter, clings to his steadfast belief in the Revolution, listens to friends as they plot escapes to the States. They are so poor, rations so limited, that they’re forced to eat pieces of blanket as a substitute for meat. Usnavy’s one prized possession is his mother’s Tiffany lamp, which raises questions of the balance between family history, monetary value, day-to-day needs and unwavering dedication and loyalty. “Ruins” is a moving dissection of a family facing the bleakest of despair, led by a dreamer, a man who’s seen the land he loves fall to almost nothing and still has the courage to hope for better days to come.
There’s a bit of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” at work here, too. His late-career novel, one of the author’s most celebrated, is his only one to address his Cuba years, which, and this may come as a surprise, at more than two decades was the longest period he spent in any one place. “It’s a wrenching portrait,” Obejas says. “I’m always struck by how simple that novel is. It really is just a guy on a boat in the sea. The title couldn’t be more illustrative. But it’s a tour de force of language and tension. It’s so lyrical… It’s really fascinating that that novel has a timelessness to it. It was written in the 1940s, and it’s relevant now. There are people who live like that now. [When] I started writing, this thing just blew out of control.”
Obejas’ Kenwood home sits directly across from where Muddy Waters once lived, a factoid Obejas offers from her days as a Northwest Indiana kid who would venture with friends on weekends to Chicago’s South Side, specifically to the old Checkerboard Lounge. The home is filled with the traditional fare-shelves of CDs, books, a fireplace, a bicycle taking rest near a wall, a couch covered in cat hair from seemingly absent pets. She excitedly shows me two pieces she made from a glass-blowing class that was part of her research for “Ruins.” One’s your typical class-work staple-a vase. The other, which she describes as her “piece de resistance,” is a paperweight in the form of a man lying on a bed of nails. “It looks like a man on raisin bagel, I know,” she laughs. “Isn’t that silly?”
In 1963, when she was only 6 years old, she and her family left Cuba, taking residence in Indiana. “My memories about it are very confused,” she says. “I had memories when I was a child, but they became romanticized in a lot of ways, injected with memories of other people, telling me what to remember. Not as a directive…but I was in an ambiance of constant remembrance. I mean, the act of exile is an act of constant remembrance. Because that’s how you hold on to who you are. You have to remember where you come from, and where you can’t go back to.”
But she did go back, several times, so many times that Cuba changed for her, she came to know it as an adult, she earned a more advanced knowledge of the land than even her relatives. “There’s a role reversal in my family which is a little uncomfortable,” she says. “I know Havana more than the people of, let’s say, parental age, who came [to the States] as adults and who don’t go back. It shifts the burden of knowledge in weird ways. Before I started going, all of us-the kids, the siblings, the cousins-we relied on our adult relatives to tell us about Cuba. They were the experts. They knew Cuba. They got to paint it however they wanted-I don’t think there was any kind of deliberate misrepresentation, but there was their own romance, their need to see Cuba in a [certain] way, but also justify the experience of leaving Cuba… And it’s very difficult for them to give up that expertise.”
Obejas tells of a conversation she had with her mother about two streets in Havana, which her mother insists intersect, but Obejas knows to run parallel. “About ten or fifteen minutes into the argument I realized, okay, she needs to be right about this. And I was like, ‘You know what, I think you’re right. I think at some point those streets do intersect.’ And I just backed away from it. I think she knew what I had done, but I think we both agreed that she needed to be the expert. It’s part of her identity in a way that it isn’t mine. I mean, not that Cuba isn’t part of my identity, God knows it is, but in different ways. I also feel very much for Chicago, I grew up in Indiana and I feel a tremendous affinity and love for Indiana. So I have other things that I can hold on to.”
Obejas says that when she travels now, it takes her about two days before she doesn’t stick out anymore, about the length of time it takes her to get some color on her skin. “It’s an incredibly emotional experience,” she says of writing about Cuba. “It’s a place I love passionately, and it’s also a place that I have a lot of mixed emotions about. I love it in the way you love a really difficult lover, you know?”
Obejas’ years as a full-time journalist earned her various awards, including a team Pulitzer at the Tribune. She still writes nonfiction as an occasional contributor to the Washington Post, penning music reviews, but says she doesn’t miss her days as a reporter. “Never miss it, not once, never,” she says. “I was very passionate about my journalism, but I hated the process in ways that I’m free from now… I feel like I was very lucky, what I don’t miss is the day-to-day. I feel like I quit just in time, in December of 2003. I used to write long, non-urgent pieces, pieces that I think were about real life. I don’t miss arguing for a story, and I think I would’ve had to do that a lot more these days.”
She’s taught classes pretty much everywhere around the city, including Columbia College, Northwestern, the Art Institute, University of Chicago (where she says she first learned to love teaching) and DePaul, where she’s in her third year and teaches in the Latino Studies department. She keeps a close relationship with her former students-a handful of them are members of a writing group with Obejas, a collection of scribes that also includes “Free Burning” author Bayo Ojikutu. “I feel like it keeps me fresh,” Obejas says of teaching. “I love that part of teaching. You’re constantly engaged. It’s unpredictable. Your students will take you places where you could never take yourself, and never manage a way to provoke it without them.”
Along with her work as a fiction writer, Obejas is a published poet—her 2007 chapbook “This is What Happened in Our Other Life” still resonates—and she edited the Havana entry in Akashic’s “Noir” series, plus translated Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer-winning “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” into Spanish.
Though she’s considered permanently relocating to Cuba in her past, especially when she was with Bruguera, she thinks of it less now. “I don’t know how practical it is anymore,” she says. “And you know, I want to spend time there. As I get older, I hope to spend more time there, but I think Chicago might be home base forever.”
A bookstore that gives you a cake for your book-release party sounds like a pretty nice home base. “Wasn’t that sweet? They are the nicest people. I’ve lived here a long time. When I didn’t, I lived close enough to here to feel like it was familiar. Chicago’s never been a different place to me. I always felt like it was my town.”
She continues, “I love the fact that I live here. Roughly around January, I hate living here. It’s a big annual event in my life. But then fall comes and I’m just enraptured. I can’t imagine being anywhere else in the world.”