The Cubans in Achy Obejas’s story collection are haunted by islands: the island they fled, the island they’ve created, the island they were taken to or forced from, the island they long for, the island they return to, and the island that can never be home again.
In “Supermán,” several possible story lines emerge about a 1950s Havana sex-show superstar who disappeared as soon as the Revolution triumphed. “North/South” portrays a migrant family trying to cope with separation, lives on different hemispheres, and the eventual disintegration of blood ties. “The Cola of Oblivion” follows the path of a young woman who returns to Cuba, and who inadvertently uncorks a history of accommodation and betrayal among the family members who stayed behind during the revolution. In the title story, “The Tower of the Antilles,” an interrogation reveals a series of fantasies about escape and a history of futility.
With language that is both generous and sensual, Obejas writes about existences beset by events beyond individual control, and poignantly captures how history and fate intrude on even the most ordinary of lives.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Achy Obejas is the author of the critically acclaimed novels “Ruins,” “Days of Awe,” and three other books of fiction. She edited and translated (into English) the anthology “Havana Noir,” and has since translated Junot Díaz, Rita Indiana, Wendy Guerra, and many others. In 2014, she was awarded a USA Ford Fellowship for her writing and translation. “The Tower of the Antilles” is her latest work.
Q&A with Achy
Why did you write The Tower of the Antilles? I’d been steadily writing stories over the last 10 years or so, between novels and other projects, and a friend suggested it was time to put some of them together for a book. So in a way, it was more a curation project for me than a writing project because, with the exception of the first and the last story, the stories emerged pretty independently of each other over time. Figuring out the themes to focus on, the arc and the pacing were the greater task; what to include, what to leave out; how to weave it all together.
What was the most challenging thing about writing this book? There are a couple of stories in the book that could easily be read as poetry, where language was paramount. Polishing those to fit with stories that are more concrete and focused and that observe more traditional notions of what a story should be was excruciating. I didn’t want the more language-focused pieces to stick out, but I also didn’t want them to lose their essence. That balance was so important.
How might fiction help us to explore contemporary issues? Fiction — literature — gives us a way to identify with others who might seem unlike us, to navigate through previously unknown worlds. It’s the perfect platform to explore conflicting ideas, to let the reader engage and safely confront issues that might otherwise be frightening or threatening. The best part about fiction, I think, is that it doesn’t need to come to a conclusion, that the reader can finish the story in her own head, in her own way. I love when that happens.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power? When my family first came to this country, my father was the only one who had any English facility. At the time, we heard it practically as a Shakespearean song. But as I got older, I realized it was actually quite limited and heavily accented. As my own vocabulary and confidence in English grew, I began to realize how often he missed nuances, and how my own English was much preferred to his by everyone from overseas operators to gas station attendants. Instead of being a point of pride, it was actually a terribly sad insight: My father, and by extension my family, was vulnerable in a way I hadn’t realized before. Slowly, and even though I was a child, I became the person who handled the telegrams, the prescriptions, the explanations to the lawyers. My English became my family’s shield.
What book(s) have made you see the world differently? When I was in junior high, one of my uncles brought home an anthology, Literatura Chicana: texto y contexto/Chicano Literature: Text and Context, that really blew my mind. Up to that point, I had imagined myself in a Cuban cocoon. That book introduced me to incredible voices, like Alurista, that helped me think of my roots more broadly and with immense pride. Later, Reinaldo Arenas’ The Palace of the White Skunks taught me about time, and about cruelty. And Olga Broumas’ Beginning with O was fundamental for me. More recently, Michael Odaantje’s Handwriting has been what I keep going back to in order to remember how the private and the public come together meaningfully.