Achy Obejas' new collection, The Tower of the Antilles, is a definitive introduction to the often poetic Cuban-American writer. Though the stories come from all different places in Obejas' writing career, they are united by their exquisite language and loving exploration of character.
"I've never curated a book quite like I've curated this one," Obejas told Windy City Times. "At some point, I realized that I probably had enough stories for a collection, and hadn't really thought about it. I hadn't been published in a little bit; the novel I've been working on is just kicking my butt. I had gone back to stories as a way to sort of feel a sense of completion about a project, and I was really struck by how some of the stories fit together."
Immediately, Obejas saw a connection between the first and last stories, though they were written years apart. While the Tower of the Antilles, the final and title piece, had been previously published, Obejas learned about the inspiration behind the main character of the opening tale, "The Collector," from a student she was advising, and felt compelled to fictionalize him.
"Her thesis project kind of blew me away," Obejas said of her student's work. "It was looking at the aesthetics and the politics of all these vessels that drift on shore, in South Florida, from all the folks escaping not just Cuba, but Haiti and a number of other places. It was crazy to think about this, and she told me about this guy who is trying to get a museum for this thing. I never met him, I never talked to him, but I sort of imagined this story. And I realized as I was writing it that a lot of the rhythm was echoing the Tower of the Antilles. So I put those two together, and those became the bookends of the stories, and then the question was, how does this work, what's in the middle, what's the progression? What are the themes I want to touch, what is the flow?"
Obejas had assembled anthologies before, but found arranging her own work quite different.
"You are so much more objective about others than about your own stuff," she explained. "You're much freer when you don't have a connection to the creative process, in the process of curating or editing. You can be both more ruthless and more generous."
Tracking Obejas' writing through time is to observe substantial evolution. First-person novels like Memory Mambo, featuring a young lesbian navigating complicated family dynamics in Chicago, are now supplanted by the complicated Ruins, which follows a 54-year old man in his struggle to survive and make sense of his life in Cuba. The stories of The Tower of the Antilles are a mix of these styles, often narrated by queer women, but occasionally slipping into more omniscient perspectives. For her part, Obejas thinks she understands more about story structure now and can therefore be less concerned with it, but she acknowledges this shift in focus.
"In my 20s and my 30s, I wrote very much in a first person narrative, that in fact, was often confused as autobiographical," Obejas recalled. "It wasn't very often autobiographical, but I mean, I still remember a review from Publisher's Weekly that said, 'It reads like autobiography.' Or all the reviews that came in on my first book of stories that people assumed were first-person stories. Often the narrators seemed, at least on the surface, similar to me. Usually Cuban American, usually lesbian, oftentimes imagined ... thinner than myself."
Obejas sees a readership used to memoir being eager to look for threads of her experiences in her fiction. "I never was offended by it or anything, I was more amused. Often at readings when people were asking about character they would say, 'but then you did this,' and I would say, 'but I didn't do that.' When I tell people the work isn't necessarily or even all that much autobiographical, I either get a bit of surprise, or I get this wink, wink. And I'm like, no really, I've never had an 18-inch dick. It's obvious it's not autobiographical."
Yet Obejas still uses details from her life in her work: It's just both more deliberate and less obvious than readers might expect.
"There's a story in the collection called 'The Sound Catalog,' which I wrote very much when I was starting to contend with my hearing loss," she said. "I had a real hyperawareness of all sorts of things that I now don't even think about. There was a time where I would get up in the morning and the house would be completely silent. And I had no idea if it was completely silent because I couldn't hear anything. I'd be rattling things and tapping things and making noises and snapping my gums, and anything, you know, to make noise, to see what I could and couldn't hear.
"I don't do that anymore, because I'm fairly confident about where my hearing levels are at. But at the time I remember being aware of it, and being very conscious of the fact that this moment would pass. That, at some point, this would not be new or interesting or scary to me. And that I wanted to remember that it had been new, and important, and most of all, scary to me. Because I know it will be scary to other people, and I want to be able to be in that space when someone says it happened to them, and I'll say, 'It will pass.'
"You use personal experience. It doesn't mean you write autobiography. That's the thing that people confused. I write about Cuba because I know it really well. It doesn't mean that every story I tell about Cuba is something I did in Cuba."
Place has always figured strongly in Obejas' work, whether it's a character's current location or the absence of an imagined homeland. Obejas desires a deep intimacy with place before she puts it into story, and Chicago rivals Cuba in terms of how often it appears in her work. Though Obejas now lives in the Bay Area, and has for nearly five years, that intimacy still hasn't quite developed enough for her to write about her new home.
"Whatever I wrote about it would be touristic, so I'm disinclined to write about it, even though I'm obviously not a tourist, I know quite a bit about where I live," Obejas said. "But I'm very aware of the fact that other people know it so much better than I do, and that's there a story here that I'm probably missing, and I don't want to be a dope about it. The places that I end up writing about are places that don't just grab my imagination, but also that I fall in love with. I was in love with Chicago the whole time I was living there. I loved all the weird idiosyncrasies about it; all the things I hated I also loved. They're part of the story that you tell about the city. You don't just say, "It's a beautiful city." Of course, I say it's a beautiful city, but you also talk about the things that frustrate you and drive you nuts."
As she added the finishing touches on The Tower of The Antilles late last year, Obejas couldn't help but to be conscious of the shifting political climate, both as an individual and as a writer whose work often invokes, if not often centralizes, marginalized identity.
"There's certain aspects of my being which had become not particularly interesting under the Obama administration," Obejas said. "I think I can say that on a day to day basis I did not think of myself as a refugee or an immigrant. I'm well aware of the fact that I'm Latino, and that comes into play all the time, but that's a little different. And in certain circles, being queer was the most boring thing in the world, like, "oh big fucking deal". And now, I feel like I'm a refugee every damn day, and I'm an immigrant every damn day."
Regardless of these new pressures, Obejas finds it vital to continue to write and share stories like the ones she creates.
"This is an important and critical time for writers, especially queer writers of color, to tell our stories," Obejas said. "Otherwise, we will be erased. We will be made invisible, and once we're made invisible, people will not understand that we're also part of the fabric of humanity and that our issues are real.
"It's so important to tell these stories in which we're queer people of color, queer parents of color, queer kids of color, in which we are immigrant kids, in which we are refugee kids, in which we are queer refugee or immigrant kids. I do really believe that familiarity does not breed contempt. What it breeds is sympathy, empathy, love ... and I honestly believe that when we tell these stories, they're a political act. They are important because they are getting the word out about who we are. I honestly really believe that."