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Achy Obejas Talks About Cuba, Books and Sexuality
by TRACY BAIM
2008-01-02

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Chicago-based lesbian writer Achy Obejas is an award-winning journalist, author and poet, and her talents are showcased in two new books.

The first, Havana Noir, is a collection of essays edited by Obejas, part of the noir series by Akashic Books. She has her own essay in the book, which features a wide range of Cuban writers examining 'the dark side of a city characterized by ironic and wrenching contradictions.'

The second book is a small chapbook, This is What Happened in Our Other Life, a collection of poems of love and passion, providing a glimpse into the more lyrical side of this Cuban-born writer. It is published by A Midsummer Night's Press, a specialized company; see www.amidsummernightspress.com .

Obejas will be joined by writers Cris Mazza and Richard Fox for a reading and book-signing Wed., Jan. 9, at 7 p.m. at Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark.

As part of a new history project, Windy City Times Publisher Tracy Baim interviewed Obejas to discuss the latter's writing activism and Cuban roots. ( She was born in Havana June 28, 1956. ) Following are excerpts from that interview.

Tracy Baim: What it was like for you during the first 10 years of your life?

Achy Obejas: Both my parents were Cuban. … Both of them were the first in their families to go beyond sixth grade, and they were obscenely overachieving sorts. My mom had a doctorate in pedagogy, my dad had a law degree and when they came to the United States, they each got a Ph.D. I'm the oldest child in my family, and I have a younger brother, his name is Mario and he was born, I'm not making this up, on Jan. 1, 1959 exactly as the bullets were whizzing by and the revolution was coming into play. … At one point, from all of the evidence that I can muster, [ my mother ] supported the revolution in some form. My father never did. …

TB: Let's talk about your years getting here, when that happened.

AO: I was six and a half; that happened in February 1963. My mom had been in a literacy campaign; my dad was actually working actively against the revolution. They had separated for a couple of years, by all accounts for political reasons, although now that's blurry in the family history. At some point my father was under a lot of pressure. He was wanted—he had been getting a lot of people out of the country—and so we were sort of forced to step up and make that decision. He never intended to come to the United States permanently, he thought this was a temporary thing until the U.S. went in there and knocked Fidel [ Castro ] out, as the U.S. had been wont to do with every other Latin American dictator, and my mom actually was delighted to come to the United States, the very notion of whiteness, capitalism, economics and easy street was really appealing to her. We left Cuba by boat on Feb. 10, 1963—there were 44 of us, it was a 28-foot boat; 17 of us were kids. We lost a lot of our fuel during the course of our trip, we ran into terrible weather; it was a terribly, terribly frightening event. We were left adrift in the ocean for at least a couple hours, and then we were spotted by an American oil tanker, and we were picked up by that oil tanker and we were taken to Miami. They actually went out of their way to drop us off. They didn't turn us over to the Coast Guard … they actually took us straight to Miami.

… We went to Miami, as that was the port of entry for most Cubans back then; we were put on public assistance, which was a tremendous blow to my dad's dignity. We were there for a year and a half while he and my mom were trying to figure out what was going on; they kept waiting for something to happen in Cuba and nothing was happening. My dad didn't want us to be Americans; he didn't want us to grow up here, so he started concocting a scheme to take us to the Dominican Republic. My mother, always very concerned about race, was terrified that if we wound up in the Dominican Republic, we would end up marrying people of color. Much more of color than us. So she actually came up with her own scheme, which was to sign us up for a program which was sponsored by the Department of Health Education and Welfare, and that was a mainstreaming program that would take my parents to Terre Haute, Ind. My dad's scheme fell through, my mom's scheme came through, and so we wound up in Terre Haute and that was a big shockarooey. … I grew up in Michigan City; my dad eventually got a job very close to Michigan City in a place called Chesterton. A town that was essentially constructed as the whites fled out of Gary. They both became Spanish teachers, high school Spanish teachers.

TB: When do you think your sexual orientation started mixing with your coming into the country, your identity as a Cuban, as an American?

AO: I knew I liked girls from like the first grade; it's just that I also liked boys, so the whole thing was sort of open and fluid for me. There's a terrible stereotype about Latin Americans because of Catholicism primarily, being sort of prim, et cetera, and that's true of certain places; it's not true of Cuba. Cuba is not very Catholic, and never has been. Even during the time of the colonies, this is one of the great mistakes in judging Cubans, and the Caribbean as a whole, but Cuba in particular. So there's a very sort of lax sense of sexual play and sexuality and, like I said, in Cuba in particular. Remember, Cuba was known as the brothel of the Caribbean prior to the revolution. People went to Cuba to do the things they couldn't do in their home countries, but were free to do there. So Cubans have a sort of thick skin to most sexual stuff, which is not to say that my parents did, but as a general rule in the environment and the culture, there's a lot more possibility. I never had any sense of shame or anything like that.

… [ I was ] curious about all of these things that were being attached to me by the rest of the world, you know the rest of the world reflected me back. The rest of the world being Michigan City, Ind. It reflected me back as Cuban, not Latino, not Hispanic. There was not this sense of pan-Latinoness like there is now. This was in the 60s, early 70s, and there was no other Latino population in town to sort of suggest what one could be if one were Latino. In fact there was one other Cuban family in town. They were pre-revolution immigrants to the United States and, therefore, to the left of Mao.

TB: When and where did you go to college that might have taken you away from that?

AO: We used to go to Miami every summer. Also I had a relationship with Chicago, from the time I was in the tenth grade. We came to Chicago a lot as a family, because there was no Hispanic presence in Michigan City. … I think my real radicalizing moment came inadvertently thanks to my father. … He set up for me to go to Mexico for a summer when I was 15, just me, living with a Mexican family. At that point, all I knew about Cuba and about being Latino was from my parents, Miami and Michigan City. I had a very specific sense of what all of that meant, and I remember getting off the plane in Mexico City and while in customs, seeing a woman with a Che [ Guevara ] T-shirt, which was really shocking, it was really really early, because this was like 1973 or ྄ or something. It was shortly after he died actually [ in 1967 ] , and it wasn't the iconic image we all know now, but it was nonetheless a Che thing. … The following summer, I had behaved so well, my dad sent me again, and this time one of my cousins came with me. We were in that school, for I don't know, 24 hours, then we packed our little bags, and traveled through Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama. We got all the way to the Columbian border where they wouldn't let us in because we were minors. The whole time we were driving, our parents would say, because we were reporting in, we would call collect, and then we would just kind of hold the phone out while our parents screamed bloody murder at us about how we were going to be grounded for the rest of our natural lives, et cetera. We wanted to let them know we were OK, but we also were sort of on this journey of discovery for ourselves. … So to me that was really very important, and coming to Chicago was also very important. I used to come to Chicago all the time when I was in high school … . You came to concerts in Chicago, there were tons and tons of all-ages concerts in Chicago, and a lot of them were on the South Side.

In terms of my own sexuality, I don't know what it was, but I just never blinked. I was always amazed when other people did; I was always sort of flabbergasted when people would suffer angst about it. I understood that it was taboo and all of that, but I chalked it up as a kind of a generational problem. … Then I went off to college and I went to a very unfortunate place called Franklin College in Franklin, Ind. Franklin College is associated with a Baptist convention. The reason I went to Franklin was very straightforward: I dropped out of high school, and the only way my parents were going to sign that damn slip is if I went straight to college. So I had a total of two weeks between the first semester of my senior year, and my first semester of college. ... Then I went to Indiana University, which to this day remains a time that I think of; as much as I look back in horror at Franklin, I look back with immense pleasure at my time in Bloomington, it was a great town, it was a real radicalizing experience for me because it was my first contact with a lesbian community.

TB: Let's fast forward to the 1980s in Chicago, your being a journalist, but also politically active in helping with the human-rights ordinance.

AO: In the 1980s I worked for Windy City Times, and Windy City Times was very political at that time, and had a publisher and an editor who was very engaged with the whole notion of the Human Rights Ordinance, so for us it was not a conflict of interest, but rather an ethical commitment to do that. I had a weekly column of a political nature, so it all extended into that. Eventually I became involved in a sort of secondary way with the Gang of Four [ activists working on the ordinance ] , because there was a kind of a confluence of interests, one was that it was imperative to move aldermen of color to get votes. … It was a tremendously exciting time, I don't regret any of it. It was also a very strident time; I think that a lot of us played out some roles, some very terrible roles, and a lot of us played out some very good roles. I'm pretty proud of a lot of the stuff that I did, I actually wrote Mayor [ Eugene ] Sawyer's speech that he gave, that accepted the ordinance, and I did a lot of lobbying that I know made a huge difference. I will happily take credit for [ then-Alderman ] Luiz Gutierrez's position on gays. …

Actually, all the Latino aldermen, who were all crucial to the vote, not one was a sure bet. … I actually think that Mayor Sawyer ended up being more genuinely committed in his heart to it than [ Mayor ] Harold [ Washington ]; . I worked for Harold in '87 I had a relationship with Harold, I wrote speeches for him, I was on his media team. I think Harold was committed in principle, but he was not going to sacrifice a lot for that, and I think that was clear the first time that the ordinance got voted down. … He actually said, 'It wasn't my ordinance.' Which was shocking to a lot of people. I also think that he was tagged with a lot of gay rumors, and so he needed to get some distance from that, but even after you get through all of that, it just wasn't one of his top 10 issues; he had a lot on his plate, and he had an insane situation in City Council where it was maddening to get even the simplest thing passed. … I think for Mayor Sawyer, it turned out to be a really crucial and transformative issue.

TB: Can you talk about your official capacity with the mayor's committee and your work with Jon Simmons [ who was mayor's liaison to the gay community; he was later murdered while visiting Los Angeles ] ?

AO: The mayor's committee was an advisory committee on gay and lesbian issues that was put together after a number of other committees on various other interest groups like Latinos and Asians had been put together. Jon Simmons was one of the original members of the committee, we came in together to the committee. We became instant best friends and conspirators, and we ended up forming kind of a crucial block in that committee. Jon was white, and extremely sensitive to racial issues; he worked for Joseph Holmes Dance Company, which was a Black dance company, and he had an amazing discourse on race and ethnicity. … He was also absurdly, ridiculously, savagely funny, and we worked very, very well on that committee. … We proposed him [ to become the director of the committee ] , and he got the job. And he was great. …

The gay and lesbian, transsexual, transgender, bisexual queer community is one that is very, very diverse in every single sense. In terms of class, in terms of race, in terms of sex, in terms of marital status, in terms of children. … But a lot of the iconography of our community doesn't reflect that, and back in the '80s and early '90s, even less so. I think that one of the things that really changed that was AIDS. AIDS really made us have to deal with other communities in ways that we probably wouldn't have. And radicalized us in ways I think we wouldn't have. There was this whole business of, we're just like everybody else, we just stick it in a different hole. Then AIDS came along, and actually we're not like everyone else, we have a completely different lifestyle, we do things in a different way, we think about things differently, and we challenged the way people relate. As much as this particular arrangement is interesting, so is this one, and so is this one. Jon was just perfect for doing a lot of that outreach. People remember him for his work in the Mayor's Committee, and his position as the Mayor's liaison in terms of gay issues. I think where his legacy really lies is in AIDS work and AIDS outreach. He just did so much quiet work around that, and he managed to bring in so many people from the South Side, the West Side.

TB: Can you speak to your work in journalism, and the books you have done?

AO: Journalism, to me, was always a practical thing; it was less anything that I was actually ambitious about, than just something that, you know I had to pay rent, and limited talents, so this seemed a way to take care of that. So I worked for Windy City Times, I've written for Outlines, I've written for The Advocate, Out, and—at the national level in terms of non-gay stuff—Vanity Fair, Playboy, Ms., The Village Voice. I've also written for a lot of Spanish-language stuff both here in the United States and abroad. In terms of regular relationships, I was a staff writer for many years for the Chicago Tribune, I continue to have a warm relationship with them and sort of contribute whenever I want. I'm also a contributor to the Washington Post on a regular basis.

I've written three books. We Came All The Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?, which is a collection of short stories, and is published by Cleis Press, whom I love. They're all stories that take place in Chicago, they're all but one stories that engage the queer community in Chicago in some way. My second book is Memory Mambo; it was a novel and it's about the tensions that exist between public and private identities, and sort of the way that families create myths. My third book is called Days Of Awe, and it had the misfortune of coming out August of 2001, so that it got fabulous publicity and criticism, and then was completely blown away, literally, by some little incident in New York. It mostly takes place between Chicago and Havana, and again it sort of expands more on the idea of tensions between public and private identity.

I [ now ] have an anthology called Havana Noir; it's part of the Akashic series of noirs, and it's crime stories that take place in Havana, and I translated 13 of the 18 stories, so I am extremely excited about it as a showcase for that particular skill. It features some amazing writers. I [ also ] have a chapbook of poetry called This Is What Happened In Our Other Life, which is out with Midsummer Night's Press, a little enterprise by Lawrence Schimel, who I've known for many many years, who I actually met through Cleis. Cleis is still this great thing, they keep the books in print, they're just amazingly supportive. Days Of Awe came out with Random House, it was a very good and interesting experience. I had an amazing six-figure advance, and it allowed me to enter adulthood finally, buy a place, get rid of debts, pay the IRS. But I feel like my heart has always been in these alternative presses like Cleis. And now, working with Akashic I'm just delighted, they're just an amazing group of people and really committed to a lot of things that I'm committed to, so I'm looking forward to future projects with them as well.


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