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Achy Obejas On Cuba, Rupture And Literature

Achy Obejas
Achy Obejas

Even though Achy Obejas’s family left Cuba when she was very young, the island nation has an enormous influence on her work.

Obejas is a writer, translator and journalist whose novels include Memory Mambo, Days of Awe and Ruins. She has also written collections of stories and poems. Obejas told KGOU’s World Views that Cuba is the subject of her work because she often focuses on rupture.

“If it hadn't been for forces outside of our family, my family would have remained in Cuba,” Obejas said.

She was six years old when her family fled Cuba, following the Cuban Revolution. Her family assumed they would go back to their home country because, she said, because Cuba went through coup d’états every so often, and everything would eventually return to normal.

“No one thought that there was going to be a permanent change,” Obejas said.

Her father hoped they would eventually be able to go back to Cuba, so he prohibited English in their home. This irritated Obejas and her brother, even though now she is grateful to be fluent in Spanish. She also learned about Cuba’s literary culture through her parents, such as the works of the Cuban national hero and poet José Martí. In addition to his great works of journalism and poetry, Martí wrote children’s books for his young son.

“These are classics that are read to every Cuban child. And so I was very much introduced to poetry as something beautiful and very soulful very early on,” Obejas said.

Obejas says she went back to Cuba in 1995 and she began to live permanently in Cuba in 1999.

“When we talk about my memories of Cuba, my memories of Cuba are actually fairly recent and they're  adult memories, much fresher and much more vivid than the memories from being a little kid, as one would expect,” Obejas said.

Her novel Ruins is about Cuba following the post-Soviet collapse, and Days of Awe uses the history of Jews in Cuba as its backdrop.

And rupture, identity and how power influences people are among her common themes.

“It [leaving Cuba] didn't just disrupt our lives, it disrupted the lives of my grandparents, the lives of my cousins, the lives of my aunts and uncles,” Obejas said. “Our leaving created a hollow, a space of absence. So that absence had its own weird ironic presence. And every Cuban family has that.”

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Suzette Grillot: Achy Obejas welcome to World Views.

Achy Obejas: Thank you for having me.

Obejas: It's great to have you here of course for one of my favorite events, the Neustadt discussion. But let's talk about your work and in particular let's start with kind of your background. I mean you are a writer of poetry and fiction. You're a translator of literature. You've worked as a journalist. You are obviously a widely read scholar and writer. So tell us about your influences. You know the things that kind of took you down this path.

Obejas: Well poetry I've been writing since I was a little kid I was born in Cuba and we came here to post revolution and my family assumed like a lot of people who came here specially in the early years of the revolution that we would be going back. No one no one thought that there was going to be a permanent change. And the history of Cuba is that, you know, there was a coup d'etat, every so often in the United States intervened every so often. So the presumption was that this would happen again. And so my father was very concerned that we'd be able to go back to Cuba and function as Cubans. And so it was very important to him that we speak Spanish. English was completely prohibited in our home. And if he caught us speaking English it was a big deal and he'd yell and, you know, my brother and I were both constantly irritated by this and you know we fought him a lot. Now of course I'm very grateful because I'm fluent in Spanish. Thanks to that insistence on my dad's part. But one of the things that was part of his cultural preservation thing was that, of course, he wanted me to learn how to read and write in Spanish and to preserve that and keep that and the national hero of Cuba is also the national poet of Cuba, Jose Marti. And so very early on I must I must have been like six or seven, you know, we were reading poetry and talking about poetry because we were talking about Jose Marti. And Jose Marti wrote for kids he actually has you know a couple of books that are you know he wrote for his son when his son was a little kids so these are classics that are read to every Cuban child. And so I was very much introduced to poetry as something beautiful and you know very soulful very early on and I was interested in of course you know like everybody. I started writing poetry but you know I had some very early successes. I won a statewide contest in Indiana when I was like 11 or something like that. So poetry was always very personal thing that I did. And I you know kept with me.

Obejas: I didn't really ... The next thing that I became interested in was journalism because in high school I got involved with a high school newspaper. We had a very active high school newspaper. We were a very rebellious high school newspaper. We did a lot of stuff that the administration and want us to do which was exciting. We got into a lot of trouble, you know, by virtue of that which was of course made it all the more attractive. And I loved the sort of activist bent of journalism, that is that journalism can enact change and it can can cause people to think about things differently.

Obejas: When I got to college I, by accident really, I couldn't get into a poetry workshop because they were all full and I ended up signing up for a fiction workshop with a Jewish Polish professor who wore a bow tie and who referred to every single person in his class by their last name. So of course I was Miss Obejas. Melvin Platensky. And Dr. Platensky was running this fiction workshop and you know we never should have gotten along but I adored him. He really taught me about story and about how to move into fiction.

Obejas: I remember a lot of my first drafts I was still thinking in journalists' terms and I would defend the actions and the story by saying, "But that's how it really happened." And he would say, "It doesn't matter. You're the god of the story. You can do whatever you want. You can make it happen. You know anything can happen." So I started writing fiction and really enjoying writing fiction.

Obejas: Translation is a really kind of a perverse thing that happened. It took me a long time to realize that I've been translating for a really long time because I've been translating translated from my parents. You know, when we had to place a call to Cuba I was the person who had to talk to the international operator, oftentimes official papers came in and I would be the person who would have to explain to my parents. My parents are professionals and there were English speakers. But obviously when, you know, a kid you absorb language like a sponge. It's a very different thing and you get all the nuances that you don't get when you learn languages as an adult. You learn language intuitively as a child. And so I was doing a lot of interpreting for them. I didn't realize that's what I was doing. I was just sort of bridging for my parents. So I always had this facility and I used it but I didn't really understand it as such. When I started doing creative writing as a practice, I began to translate poems just for the sake of doing the close reading that's required of translating. And when I worked as a journalist at the Tribune I oftentimes would translate for the Spanish language section and things like that, but I didn't see myself as a translator.

Obejas: It wasn't until I edited an anthology called Havana Noir where I sort of by accident ended up translating 13 of the 18 stories that I had to sort of grapple with this notion of being a translator in the world. My editor and I hadn't realized that there would be a translation component when we came up with a contract for the project and in fact we had to sort of back up and say well actually, you know, you have to pay me now for this extra thing I did. And there was no qualm. I mean, they they were happy to pay me. These guys are great. But it was just not, it hadn't even enter our minds when we started talking about this. And then I sort of entered the world as a translator which was a really curious thing. And then the next thing that happened was sort of momentous which was that I was hired to translate Junot Diaz and then that became a very big deal. And I had to sort of take the label and, you know, adopt it and claim it and embrace it and say I guess I do this.

Grillot: So I'm going to follow up on this notion of translation of course and in a second. And particularly what you said grappling with the title and taking the label. But let's let's talk about Cuba first your Cuban heritage. You've also written a title, "This Is What Happened in Our Other Life," a chapbook by that title. Is that kind of referring to ... I mean how much you remember about Cuba you said you left there or at least I read on your website maybe that you left at a young age I think...

Obejas: I left at a very young age. I left when I was six and a half. We came by boat, middle of the night, whole thing. Got lost at sea, were rescued by an American oil freighter. But I went back as an adult in 1995 and then I made many many many many many many many many many many visits after that. And in 1999 I went back to Cuba to live. So my memories of early Cuba are very much tainted by my adult experience and, you know, functioning as a citizen in Cuba and being a part of Cuba. I was born in Cuba. I don't just have Cuban heritage. I was born in Cuba. I am a Cuban citizen. I have a Cuban passport. I'm also an American citizen. I also have an American passport.

Obejas: I think a lot of people don't realize that you can be Cuban and an American citizen. Right. And Cuba doesn't recognize American citizenship which is really interesting. I mean for me to get in and out of the country, I have to use the Cuban passport. So when we talk about my memories of Cuba, I mean my memories of Cuba are actually fairly recent and they're, you know, adult memories, much fresher and much more vivid than the memories from being a little kid, as one would expect. We tend to have fresher more detailed memories of more recent events.

Grillot: But these experiences both when you were a child and in your many times that you've been back and have lived their sense influenced the kind of work that you've done.

Obejas: Absolutely. Cuba is very much my my topic. It's interesting that you mention "This Is What Happened in My Early Life" because that's probably the least of the least Cuban of all of my books. It's a poetry chapbook. It's really about heartbreak and love and relationships that don't necessarily work out the way we want. But a lot of the other work that I've done has been very much about Cuba. Ruins is about Cuba post the Soviet collapse, what's called euphemistically "the special period," and about the sudden poverty of everyone on the island and how everyone wanted to leave. And it's a story that's very sympathetic to its protagonist who is a very committed militant of the revolution, but whose world has completely shattered by virtue of this economic turn. And Days of Awe is a novel that uses as a as background the history of Jews in Cuba, which is very complex and very mysterious and awkwardly documented because Jews weren't technically allowed in the Spanish colonies and Cuba was a colony until 1898, so very very early in the game. The last of the Spanish colonies to be free.

Obejas: So it's very much my subject in part because there's so much rupture in my life around Cuba. And so I write about rupture. I write about belonging and not belonging. I write about, you know, private and public emotions. I write about power and how power affects people. You know if it hadn't been for forces outside of our family, my family would have remained in Cuba, you know forces that we could not control. You know, power, history at play to create a situation which was untenable for my parents, and so that disrupted our lives. But it didn't just disrupt our lives, it disrupted the lives of my grandparents, the lives of my cousins, the lives of my aunts and uncles, you know. Our leaving created a hollow, a space of absence, so that absence had its own weird ironic presence. And every Cuban family has that. Every single Cuban family has it. And that's the situation isn't unique to Cuba. Every country that's had this kind of disruption you know has had war, revolution, you know, civil strife like this, economic collapses - this is happening all over the world that's happening right now in Venezuela, it happens in Haiti every other day, it happens in the Dominican Republic. You know it happens, you know, it's happening in the Middle East. God knows Syria is completely convulsed and, you know, this notion of this constant absence and longing and belonging and trying to create families through these fractures and through ruptures, these are the things that interest me.

Grillot: Well let's talk quickly here as we conclude about being a translator, because the way in which you characterize it, I was going to ask you about being a translator but you characterize this kind of grappling with it and taking the label. Why? Why?

Obejas: Because I'm a writer. I'm a writer.

Grillot: So it's hard for writers to say I'm going to be a translator?

Obejas: For me it was there was a risk of then being viewed as a translator as opposed to a writer. You know I'm a writer who has had a great deal of critical success but who is know a midlist writer who, you know, I'm not Junot Diaz. I don't sell like that. And so to turn to translation, which is an activity I love, I absolutely love translation. I love, you know, handling the language. I love the conundrums and the challenges of translation. But the the idea of suddenly being perceived by the world as a translator as opposed to a creator of work, it was a little bit anxiety-provoking.

Grillot: I guess in my mind, the translator, I mean, you obviously get to take some, you have to make some choices.

Obejas: Oh yes it's all decisions.

Grillot: So you're making choices about how to present somebody's words in another language. And that's very important, right. The language itself. So it's almost kind of like you're maybe not writing it from scratch but that you're, you know, writing in a way, but it's in a different way.

Grillot: You know, it's absolutely a creative act. There's no question about it. I mean there's it's an art. It's a creative act. It's a practice. It absolutely feeds my work. My original work, my creative writing, and I'm and I'm happy to do it. But it is a different practice, you know. And it's one that I well I would never reject it. I am I don't want my embrace of it to reject my first love, you know, which is writing my own stories, my own novels, my own work. You know, it's a little bit like I feel about poets and poetry. You know, I write poetry. I love poetry. I read poetry every single day. I make my students, my prose students, read poetry. I think poetry is the lifeblood of literature. I think everything is derived from poetry. But I am loath to teach poetry. I've been approached about teaching poetry and I always back away from it and say, no, I'd rather not. Because I know that it would require, you know, a different energy for me than what I use for prose. And also because I like being intuitive about poetry. I don't want to have to get down in the nitty gritty and take it apart and be conscious and aware of it the way I am of prose. You know, I like this sort of innocence with which I still can, you know, love poetry. I can respond to something without necessarily knowing why it's working and feel fine about it. And I think for me that's part of the awe and wonder. I know that there's awe and wonder in understanding all the mechanics of it. I mean I feel that way about a lot of prose. What I love is exactly what they're doing and I love that knowing how they're doing it. But I feel this sense of magic about poetry that I really want to protect. So I feel this sense of ownership about my own work that I never want anyone to think that I am less loyal to it than I am.

Grillot: So ten seconds you're not only a writer you're a tweeter. I think 25000 tweets Why? Does this help you get your words out there? Is this something that is or is it kind of hearkening back to that kind of exciting activist in you?

Obejas: It's a little bit of the journalism. What I love about Twitter is being able to curate the news and hooking into all that stuff. But, I mean, it's fun it's it's a fun thing to do. I don't like the fact that they've upped it to 280.

Grillot: Actually I don't either.

Obejas: I'm really happy with the 140. It makes it quick.

Grillot: Which is strange as a writer. You want more space.

Obejas: Right.

Grillot: But no.

Obejas: No. I got used to 140. I'm happy with 140.

Grillot: And to be honest it's kind of a creative thing that you have to be very creative in 140 characters.

Obejas: Succinct. Yeah, yeah. Focused.

Grillot: Alright. Well Achy, thank you so much for being today, a really interesting story about your work and your life. Thank you.

Obejas: Absolutely. Thank you.

Copyright © 2018 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

Jacob McCleland spent nine years as a reporter and host at public radio station KRCU in Cape Girardeau, Mo. His stories have appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Harvest Public Media and PRI’s The World. Jacob has reported on floods, disappearing languages, crop duster pilots, anvil shooters, Manuel Noriega, mule jumps and more.
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