Born 28 June 1956, Havana, Cuba
Daughter of José and Alicia Fleites Obejas
Cuban-born Achy Obejas came to the U.S. by boat with her family at the age of six. Upon their arrival, the family was sent to Indiana, where Obejas grew up in Michigan City. In 1993 she received a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from Warren Wilson College in Asheville, North Carolina. A poet, fiction writer, and journalist, she has worked as a reporter in Chicago since the early 1980s. In addition to her weekly column for the Chicago Tribune, her articles also regularly appear in national publications like the Advocate, Ms., Latina, Out and Nation. She received the Studs Terkel Award for journalism in 1996.
Obejas' short stories and poetry have been widely anthologized in collections such as Cubana (1998), Little Havana Blues (1996), The Way We Write Now (1995), and Latina (1995). She was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing fellowship for poetry in 1986.
Obejas' characters are often the disenfranchised. Gay men and lesbians, junkies, abused wives, and people with AIDS speak from the margins of urban life in America. While her work gives voice to the outsider, it is a voice as often humorous as it is tragic. In her collection of short stories, We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?, María de los Ángeles, the Puerto Rican narrator of "Forever," states, "I'm a lesbian activist. Part of my job is to fall in love, over and over and over." As she describes the decline of a relationship and subsequent therapy sessions, María says, "We're good lesbians: we've been painfully breaking up for two years." By story's end, the comedy of the first line is echoed to reveal deeper, sadder truths: "We will all love the wrong people, over and over and over." This mapping of the trajectory of relationships, whether between two women, two men, or a man and a woman, is a central theme in Obejas' work.
Eroticism is also boldly depicted in Obejas' fiction, and issues of ethnic identity are at the forefront of the search for sexual fulfillment. In the title story of We Came All the Way from Cuba, the narrator, a Cuban American lesbian, alternates between scenes of her arrival at ten in the U.S., her parents' inability to adapt to their daughter's politics and lesbianism, and her own quest to find a lover who is like her. She describes her two blond lovers, then continues, "But the first time I make love with a Cuban, …she will say, Aaaaaayyyyyyaaaaaayyyyaaaaay, and lift me by my hair from between her legs, strings of saliva like sea foam between my mouth and her shiny curls.… And when she rests her head on my belly, her ear listening not to my heartbeat but to the fluttering of palm trees, she'll sit up, place one hand on my throat, the other on my sex, and kiss me there, under my rib cage, around my navel, where I am softest and palest." For the exile, the question of "What if?" looms large, and it is as haunting for the narrator as it has been for her parents: "The next morning, listening to her breathing in my arms, I will wonder how this could have happened, and if it would have happened at all if we'd stayed in Cuba."
Obejas' first novel, Memory Mambo (1996), received the Lambda Literary Foundation award for fiction in 1997. Set in Chicago's West Town, it deals with the unreliability of memory and the fictions people weave to make their own pasts more bearable. The main character, Juani Casas, may have been named after her island birthplace, which was originally called Juana by the Spaniards, or, as she suspects, for an old flame of her father's. It all depends on whose story she chooses to believe. Her mother, who proudly professes the whiteness of her ancestry, urges her children always to walk on the shady side of the street to protect them from the sun that she knows will bring out their darkness and their true racial heritage. Juani's father may indeed be the inventor of duct tape, his recipe stolen from him by a CIA plot, or he may simply be a delusional old man. Those who really know the truth, like her Uncle Raúl, who accidentally helped set the Cuban Revolution into motion because of his poor driving on the night of Fidel Casto's raid on the Moncada barracks, are not talking. In the course of the novel, Juani, the truth-seeker, finds out that she, too, is capable of the worst kind of deception. And, "Lies," says Juani, "destroy everything, but especially love." Memory Mambo has been hailed as the first Latina lesbian novel and has opened the doors for many other "out" Latina writers to begin publishing their work.
Smorkaloff, P. M., Contemporary Cuban Writers on and off the Island (1998). Zubiaurre, M., Chasqui: Revista de literatura latinoamericana (1999).
Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Lambda Book Report (1996). "Talk of the Nation," National Public Radio (24 July 1997).
AND HELENA ALONSO