Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. This interview was first aired in November 2001, in a somewhat different form, on the program “Conversations with Ilan Stavans,” on PBS-WGBH.
ILAN STAVANS: Days of Awe, it strikes me, is about the tension between public and private identities.
ACHY OBEJAS: Indeed. It runs from the fifteenth-century Jewish diaspora during the Spanish Inquisition to contemporary Midwest America. But it’s not exactly a linear story. Told from the point of view of Alejandra San Jose, the daughter of Cuban exiles living in Chicago, it’s her personal journey through the family’s history—and Cuba’s history, too—to reconcile her identity and her soul. So it plays something like memory does: It moves according to her needs rather than a traditional time line.
IS: Memory—individual memory, family memory, national collective memory—plays an essential role in your work. This is in tune, of course, with Jews and Cuban Americans, whose memory is highly charged.
AO: With Jews, of course, memory is fundamental: to remember the essential; and the recovery itself is a mission. With Jews memory is history and moral lesson. But memory is crucial among Cuban exiles, too, even though as a people we don’t have a very long history. What makes this community a bit different from other Latinos in the United States—and similar to the biblical Jews—is that the relationship with the homeland is ruptured. This might be changing among Cubans now, since there is a great deal of travel to the island, especially for post-1980s immigrants and those who grew up away from their birthplace and want to see it again. The young generation is tremendously curious. It asks, What is there in Cuba for me? Is it at all like the Cuba of dreams and fantasy I was brought up with?
IS: Like a lot of your characters, you left Cuba on a boat at the age of six. Do you remember the departure and arrival? How has the scene played itself out in your memory? Has it changed?
AO: It has a fragmented, impressionistic texture. Obviously I could not imagine, at that tender age, the unfolding drama. So, as a child, it was just an adventure. There were a total of forty-four people in a twenty-eight-foot boat. Seventeen of us were kids. It was late at night. We were told we were going fishing. For me, the sequence of events is episodic. For instance, I remember the inky blackness of the water. I also remember a storm. And I remember that we got sprayed with salt water. Halfway through the trip, we were picked up by an American oil tanker. Our little wooden boat suddenly was at the side of this huge metal ship. It was gigantic. I couldn’t see above it, to the sides, under it—it was tremendous. It was like a wall in the ocean and Cuba was on the other side. Rope ladders came down. The little ones like me were handed up to the sailors by our parents. My father pushed me up. I remember a hot, pink arm, completely hairless, and the sailor’s smell. The sailor grabbed me and hauled me up—not in a violent fashion but gently. Then he put me down on the floor of the oil tanker. I remember looking up at him and thinking, Might I have landed on Mars?
IS: What happened during the first few years as a little cubanita in the United States—the process of arrival, assimilation, the process of becoming, slowly, through school, through family, una americana?
AO: My family was in Miami for about a year and a half. Then my parents signed up for a program designed to assimilate Cuban professionals into American society. It was in Terra Haute, Indiana. So the family got transported to the Midwest. The landscape changed dramatically. I found myself in fields of corn, surrounded by lots of people who didn’t understand us, while we didn’t understand them. I spent six to eight months not uttering a word because I was in a classroom where it was forbidden to speak Spanish, and, obviously, I couldn’t yet speak English. I was afraid of being made fun of if I spoke en ingles. So I made a decision: I wouldn’t speak English until I could do it without an accent.
IS: How does it feel to be called a Latina? Or are you a Cuban only?
AO: I often feel Latina, although my metabolism, I take it, is different from other people’s. I live in Chicago, which has substantive, representative numbers of different Latino subgroups, none of which dominates the mix: a gazillion Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, and smaller components, such as the Cuban minority. No matter how segregated the city might be, everybody ends up knowing everybody else. In a Mexican restaurant, the jukebox will have Celia Cruz and Tito Puente. In a Cuban restaurant, the waitress—who is probably Nicaraguan—brings tortilla chips to the table. The collage is inescapable. It means that we are all over each other.
IS: Another essential element in your literature is sexuality.
AO: When it comes to sexuality, I’m not especially interested in assimilation but I am interested in normalization. What I mean is that there are different cultural imperatives for gay, bisexual, transgendered, and other people with alternative sexualities—whatever they might be—and I think it’s important that those identities be recognized and celebrated. I think that can be accomplished without shock, without judgment, and certainly without the kinds of legal consequences that make queer people second-class citizens in most of the world. In Days of Awe, I tried to just let everybody be whatever they were going to be, to live and love according to their hearts rather than any particular label.
IS:Days of Awe is rich, yet its style isn’t baroque …
AO: It seems that in the United States, books by Latin American and Latino writers that have the slightest abstraction or surrealism frequently get tagged as “magic realist,” whether they fit the bill or not. Cuban fiction isn’t really like that, and neither is Days of Awe. This is a story grounded not just in history, but in reality–in a reality that’s astounding, but reality nonetheless. Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban author of The Lost Steps and an essayist of much influence in Latin America, called this phenomenon lo real maravilloso—the marvelously real, or the marvelous reality. The idea, to which I wholeheartedly subscribe, is that reality, real life, is already so awe-inspiring that we don’t really need to invent much for it to be truly amazing.
IS: The novel pays homage to Cuban literature, doesn’t it? There is a myriad of overt and hidden references to authors and characters.
AO: What I was trying to do was pay tribute to Cuban writers who have been influential or to whom I feel I owe a debt. Most readers will recognize the reference to Celestino, the boy who writes poems on tree trunks, as an allusion to Reinaldo Arenas’s Singing from the Well, and Pilar Puentes, a Miami-based performance artist, as a possible grown-up version of the character invented by Cristina Garcia in Dreaming in Cuban. Other characters—they are cameos, really—echo Cuban writers: Farraluque, the well-endowed erotica writer, sprung from Jose Lezama Lima’s Paradiso; Rene, the chocolate- smeared cemetery caretaker is a possible twist of fate—a woeful one–for the character Virgilio Pinera created in Rene’s Flesh; Teresa Rodriguez, Alejandra’s Cuban interpreter friend, is a nod to Guillermo Cabrera Infante, author of Three Trapped Tigers. There are also brief mentions of poets: Eliseo Diego, Nicolas Guillen, Dulce Maria Loynaz, and Gaston Baquero. For me, these writers are the cream of the Cuban crop. The idea was to have a kind of discourse with the canon. The only significant writer left out, I think, is Carpentier—but that’s because he’s rather overwhelming, and I may need more time and another vehicle for him.