Q&A: Achy Obejas on Being Cuban-American, Sexuality, Exile, and Her Short Stories

It has been more than two decades since Achy Obejas’ first story collection We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? dazzled readers. Since then, she has won two Lambda Literary Awards, published three novels and a poetry collection, worked as part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting team at the Chicago Tribune, and translated, among other works, the Spanish language edition of Junot Díaz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Obejas returns to the short story with a new collection, The Tower of the Antilles (Akashic Books, 158 pages). In her delicate but fiery stories, Obejas contends with the contradictions and cross-currents of Cuban-American identity, sexuality, immigration, and exile. Obejas, who isDirector of the MFA in Translation,  a program she created at Mills College, reflected on her new story collection with The National.

Q: You take your collection’s title from its final story, and the refrain “What is your name?” and response “You already know my name” echoes through it. How did you decide to close your collection with this particular story, and I wonder if you can speak to its title?

A: I wrote “The Tower of the Antilles” a while back and, frankly, never imagined it titling a collection. It was sparked after viewing “Archipelago en mi pensamiento,” a towering installation of weather-beaten dinghies, bottles, ropes, suitcases and inner tubes by the Cuban artist Kcho at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 1999. At the time, I wasn’t even sure if what I’d written was a story or a poem or something else. Its dreamy quality was like nothing I’d written before.

The piece, of course, echoes the biblical Tower of Babel, but here it is a peculiar island tower. It’s constructed as an interrogation is taken place. And as the interrogation — which is useless, because the interrogator already knows the woman he’s interrogating — goes on, the woman imagines escape by designing boats on her thighs, in the air, wherever. And, in effect, she conjures the boats, which begin to drift up on the shore, creating a tower for the natives to scale.

I really didn’t think about that piece again for many years after I wrote it, probably more than a decade. I brought it out when a lit mag asked me for something, maybe last summer, and that was it.

In the meantime, a young Cuban-American woman named Natalie Catasús asked me to be an outside adviser for her thesis project at the California College of the Arts. The project concerned the work of a man named Humberto Sánchez, a Cuban exile, who had at one point been collecting some of the extraordinary crafts that wash up on the shores in South Florida. Refugees from the islands in the Caribbean, but especially from Cuba and Haiti, are quite creative in what they’ll use to get away. Sanchez wanted to save these, as a memorial to all the people who didn’t make it. And so he basically stacked these boats everywhere he could carve out a few feet of storage room. Natalie’s research and photos were incredibly compelling, especially because I came from Cuba on a boat. And because we ran into trouble on the seas — we were rescued by an American oil tanker en route to Florida about midway through our journey — I had a very strong reaction to these ghost boats. (As a side note, in the last few years I’ve become friends with the daughter of the captain of the boat that plucked us from the ocean.)   

At some point, I realized the Sánchez boat towers echoed the tower I’d written about. And so when I started writing the story, “The Collector,” I went back to my first story. I decided to borrow some aspects of the structure and language because they were, it seemed to me, spiritually related. (And, no, neither Natalie nor I have ever met or even been able to locate Sánchez.)

When I began putting together the stories for this collection, they were obvious bookends. I mean, I don’t know that they could have gone anywhere else. “The Tower of the Antilles” has that open-ended, disturbing conclusion … and “The Collector,” I think, hits all or most of the themes in the rest of the stories.

Q: So your opening story, “The Collector," is about . . .

A: Memory, about the futile struggle to remember. It’s a eulogy to all the people who flee the terrible conditions in their home countries, desperately hoping for a better life here, and never make it.

Q: The stories bear the sense of being geographically stamped, formed by Cuba, except for “Kimberle.” It’s a tightly constructed story with tension mounting between two women as each page turns, and just a bit of a reference from the narrator to Cuba. How important is that dislocation to the story?

A: I think it’s crucial. The narrator is an outsider. She’s not Midwestern, not American, though she’s trying to be. And a lot of the tension between her and Kimkerle — beside the sexual tension, obviously — is rooted in Kimberle’s casual racism at moments of incredible tenderness and vulnerability. If the narrator were a Hoosier, that dynamic wouldn’t exist.

Q: You’ve segued between novels and short fiction, so how did you determine to write stories now?

A: I’ve always written stories, just not very often. I’ve been working on a novel that’s had me stumped for about eight years now and, you know, when you have kids, especially little kids, stories are just so much more satisfying. You can actually finish them!

Q: You wrote these stories over a span of years, and I wonder how the death of Fidel Castro – or any changes in Cuba – changed your fiction?

A:  Cuba is at the heart of my fiction, even when it’s just an echo, like in “Kimberle.” I don’t think a day goes by that I don’t remember in some conscious way that I’m Cuban. But my relationship with Cuba changes as time goes by, not just because of changes in Cuba but because of changes in my own life. When my son was born almost six years ago, it totally altered everything. For example, instead of going to Cuba, I spent a great deal more time in Miami, because that’s where my mom lived, and I really wanted my son and my mom to have a relationship.

But Fidel? Fidel was a rumor by the time his physical death was announced. He is, without question, the most important and most influential figure in the history of the island, for good and for very bad. But it had been years before he died since he actually mattered to most Cubans.

This interview was edited for publication.