Four years ago, Achy Obejas and her girlfriend, Tania Bruguera, were having a rough time finding a tattoo artist who would solemnize their relationship. All they wanted were simple double infinity symbols on their ring fingers. The first artist flatly said he didn’t do hands. The second was more flexible, but wanted to know the story behind the tattoos. “I need to be able to feel it,” he said.
Bruguera and Obejas told him how they’d met and ended up together, and that they would be geographically separated for a time. At the conclusion of their tale the artist said, “Nah. I just don’t feel it.” He cautioned them that, once tattooed, one no longer belongs to the mainstream. “You become part of the other,” he said. “You become a part of a community of outsiders….It’s a big step, one not to be taken lightly.”
Obejas smiles, remembering her response: “I told him, ‘Look, I’m a woman, a Latina, and I’m queer.'” She holds up her hand and crosses her fingers. “‘Me and the other are like this, OK?'” The tattooist still refused, but on their third attempt they found a shop where the only prerequisite was cash in hand.
Questions of identity–who a person is and where she comes from–were central to Obejas’s first two books, Memory Mambo and We Came All The Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? In her third, Days of Awe, identity is an inseparable mix of blood, religion, sex, politics, history, and obligation.
The novel’s narrator is born on New Year’s Day, 1959, as Castro takes power. Two years later, her parents escape from Cuba in the middle of the night and make their way to Chicago. Growing up in Rogers Park, she is curious about the past–about her parents, about what really happened. Through her father she learns that interpretations–of history, of phrases, of revolutions, of others’ lives–are never exact.
“This is one of the inescapable things,” Obejas writes, “about being born in Cuba: The life that was somehow denied by revolution and exile, our lives in the subjunctive–contingent, emotionally conjured lives of doubt and passion. Everything is measured by what might have been, everything is wishful–if Fidel hadn’t triumphed, if the exiles had won at Bay of Pigs, if we hadn’t left.”
Days of Awe’s generational stories of rebellion and repression read like languid daydreams. While Obejas says this book isn’t autobiographical, she cites her father’s stories as the inspiration for her writing in general. “We grew up listening to all sorts of stories that were not conceivably in any way true,” she says. “All stories in which he’s always much admired, heroic, absolutely lucid and clear. They don’t all match up with the reality of the person we know!”
Obejas doesn’t see these unsettled accounts as anything unique, only as more endemic to exiles than immigrants. “When you’re an immigrant you live in one of two states,” she says. “You live in a state of complete rupture where you say, ‘I don’t want to be Irish anymore, I’m now an American, damn it.’ Or you live in a state in which you can go back and forth.” Exiles, on the other hand, be they Chilean, Iranian, Chinese, or Cuban, “are kept from going back to the source of isolation, which is your home country–the place you left, the place that defines you.” One result is the development of an extraordinary nostalgia. “You can see this in exiled communities….I mean, nobody ever got stung by a bee in prerevolutionary Cuba. It was perfect.”
Since 1995 Obejas has been learning about Cuba through her own visits. But in Days of Awe the personal is so entwined with the political and the historical that Obejas’s research and rewrites substantially altered the plot. “I sent the book to some friends in Cuba to read,” she says, “because there’s too much stuff about Cuba for me to feel like I’ve got it down, and there’s too much stuff from the perspective of people who are living in Cuba and I had a couple things just downright wrong.” Like her protagonist, Obejas says she’s still learning the history of her family and their homeland with each visit, and still learning that the truth will continue to change depending on who’s telling the tale.
Achy Obejas will read from Days of Awe on Tuesday, October 9, at noon at a Heartland Literary Society luncheon at the Northern Trust Company, 50 S. LaSalle, sixth floor. Tickets are $60, which includes a copy of the book; call 312-444-3519 for reservations (required). At 7 that evening she’ll read at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th (773-684-1300), as part of Chicago Book Week. It’s free.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.