Obejas, Achy 1956-

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OBEJAS, Achy 1956-

PERSONAL: Born June 28, 1956, in Havana, Cuba; daughter of Jose and Alicia Obejas. Education: Attended Indiana University, 1977–79; Warren Wilson College, M.F.A., 1993.

ADDRESSES: Home—4346 S. Lake Park Ave., Chicago, IL 60653-3704. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Writer and journalist.

AWARDS, HONORS: National Endowment for the Arts, poetry fellow, 1986; Lisagor Award for journalism, 1989; Lambda Literary Award, Lambda Literary Foundation, 1997, for Memory Mambo, and 2002, in lesbian fiction category, for Days of Awe; named best book, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, 2001, for Days of Awe; Pulitzer Prize, with Chicago Tribune staff team, for explicatory journalism, 2001; Illinois Arts Council completion grant; Yaddo fellow, twice; Ragsdale Foundation fellow, four times.

WRITINGS:

We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress like That?, Cleis (Pittsburgh, PA), 1994.

Memory Mambo, Cleis (Pittsburgh, PA), 1996.

Days of Awe, Ballantine (New York, NY), 2001.

Contributor of articles to Vogue, Chicago Tribune, Nation, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Reader, Girlfriend, High Performance, New City, and Chicago Reporter.

SIDELIGHTS: Cuban-born Achy Obejas is the author of We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress like That?, a collection of short stories published in 1994 which explores the plight of refugees as outsiders. Several of her narrators are lesbians trying to figure out how to make relationships work. In "Forever," one character says of her ex-lover, "We're good lesbians: we've been painfully breaking up for two years." In "Wrecks," the narrator explains that she is due for another car crash because her lover has just left her; every time that happens, she gets into a wreck. Other characters include junkies, people with AIDS, and Cuban boat people. In "Above All, a Family Man," a married man insists to his gay lover that he is not at risk for AIDS since he is married. The title story tells the history of an immigrant Cuban family, with its fragmented memories and dreams of returning home. A Kirkus Reviews commentator, in a review of We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress like That? declared that Obejas has written "very accessible, sweet stories" which are "down-to-earth," and Whitney Scott in a Booklist review asserted that Obejas's prose "moves us." Deanna Kriesel, assessing the collection in Belles Lettres, noted that "the subject matter is compelling and fresh."

In the novel Memory Mambo, which was published in 1996, Obejas continues and deepens the story of Cuban immigrants in Chicago. Protagonist Juani Casas ponders the unreliability of memory as she tries to understand the secrets, obsessions, and true history of her family, both biological and extended. Because Juani, a twenty-four year old lesbian, walks a thin line between being "out" about her sexuality and the need to be discreet around her biological family, she allows her cousin-in-law Jimmy to tell them lies about her relationship with Gina, which ended violently. She comes to believe the lies herself and loses her ability to distinguish fact from fiction. Jimmy has a violent nature and abuses Juani's cousin Caridad, but Juani is a batterer herself, more like Jimmy than she is willing to admit. Donna Seaman in Booklist called the novel "raw, powerful and uncompromising." Catey Sullivan, writing for Outlines, maintained that Memory Mambo stood out from other family dramas because of "the absolute immediacy and the gorgeousness of Obejas' prose."

In her 2001 title, Days of Awe, Obejas "keenly dramatizes the anguish of concealed identities, severed ties and sorely tested faiths," according to Booklist contributor Donna Seaman. Set both in Chicago and Cuba, the novel follows the quest of Alejandra, a young woman born in Cuba on the day Castro came to power, and raised in Chicago, where her parents fled. As a young woman, Alejandra returns for a visit to Cuba in 1987, to discover an island and a personal family history more complex than she imagined. Specifically, she learns that her father's family were converted Jews, which explains so much of the mystery and the unspoken background of her own youth. Seaman dubbed this award-winning book an "arresting second novel," but a critic for Kirkus Reviews found it "inert," and its protagonist, Alejandra, "humorless, self-absorbed, and long-winded." Other reviewers found more to like, however. A contributor for Publishers Weekly thought Days of Awe was a "thoughtful novel" with a "searching narrative." The same reviewer praised Obejas's "clear-eyed, remarkable fresh meditation on familiar but perennial themes." And Harold Augenbraum, writing in Library Journal, felt the same novel was a "well-considered and heartfelt examination of exile and return."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Belles Lettres, January, 1996, Deanna Kriesel, review of We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress like That?, p. 55.

Booklist, October 15, 1994, Whitney Scott, review of We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress like That?, p. 394; September 1, 1996, Donna Seaman, review of Memory Mambo, p. 63; June 1, 2001, Donna Seaman, The Booklist Interview: Achy Obejas, p. 1816, review of Days of Awe, p. 1817.

HUES, summer, 1997, review of Memory Mambo, p. 53.

Kirkus Reviews, August 15, 1994, review of We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress like That?, p. 1079; June 1, 2001, review of Days of Awe, p. 766.

Library Journal, August 1996, Ina Rimpau, review of Memory Mambo, p. 113; April 15, 2001, Harold Augenbraum, review of Days of Awe, p. 133.

Publishers Weekly, July 8, 1996, review of Memory Mambo, p. 79; August 6, 2001, review of Days of Awe, p. 63.

ONLINE

En La Vida, http://www.wctimes.com/0enlavida/ (September 1, 2001), Gregg Shapiro, "In 'Awe:' Achy Obejas on Her New Novel."

Outlines, http://www.suba.com/~outlines/ (October, 1996), Catey Sullivan, review of Memory Mambo.