Tuesday, April 12, 2022

Achy Obejas’s Proud and Defiant Bilingual Verse—National Poetry Month 2022

                            Achy Obejas--Cuban and American, refugee, feminist and lesbian, Catholic and Sephardic Jew.

Achy Obejas is an example of the wide diversity of voices and perspectives that often get lumped together as Latinx. I first took note of her as a contributor to the local Logan Square community weekly newspaper.  I was active in the Logan Square Neighborhood Association in the early ‘80’s and her journalism was an important contribution to the community.  Later I watched as her star rose as a writer for the Chicago Tribune and as a literary figure.

Achy Obejas with her Cuban refugee family in Chicago.

Obejas was born in Cuba in 1956 into a family with Sephardic Jewish roots..  In ’63 her family became part of the mass exodus of anti-Castro dissidents and middle class citizens to the United States.  Unlike most exiles who settled in Miami and became a dominant force in that city, her family moved to the much smaller Chicago community which, living cheek-to-jowls with the much larger Puerto Rican community, often felt isolated.  Cubans were often mistrusted for their largely middle class origins and for the sometimes rabid anti-Communism.

Obejas honored and celebrated her Cuban heritage and culture.  On the other hand, she chaffed at the political expectations of her community as she became, as others in the second generation, increasingly politically progressive.  She also had to deal with her sexual identity. She became an outspoken feminist and open lesbian incorporating all of these experiences into an increasingly rich body of work as a journalist, memoirist, novelist, and poet with an international reputation.

Obejas's most widely read novel, Days of Awe, is semi-autobiographical and deals with a young Exile woman returning to Havana as a translator and discovering a family secret--the are descendants of Sephardic Jews forced to convert to Catholicism during the Spanish Inquisition.

She has written three novels, Memory Mambo in 1996, Days of Awe in 2001, and Ruins in 2009; the story collection We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?; and the poetry collection This is What Happened in Our Other Life.  All of this in addition to a prolific career as a journalist and magazine writer.  

Obejas now lives in San Francisco.

Boomerang/Bumerán, her latest book published by Beacon Books in 2021, confronts questions of immigration, love and liberation. Like a boomerang, these ideas return throughout the collection, even as its three sections each focus on a major theme.

Every poem features an English and Spanish version, although the versions do not perfectly mirror one another, reflecting the nuances of both of her languages.  Bilingualism stakes out her own personal and political space.  Regardless of language, Obejas keeps the writing mostly gender-free.


Now the beat
(there is always a beat).
Now the drums
and the darkness within.
Now the dance.
The standoff.

Now the story about the jailer
who frees the future dictator out of pity.
Now his lover (the invisible ink).
Now the reports from the front.
Now the betrayal which becomes myth,
the homemade bomb that doesn’t go off,
the priest that intervenes (to his regret).

Now the carnival
that yields the (unexpected) victory.
And the sick.
And the wounded.
The triumphant speech before the multitude.

Now the same horizon
as yesterday,
orange instead of blue.

The damned circumstance.

Now the fleets.
Bactris cubensis, pinus cubensis, the strangler fig.

Repeat, repeat, ad infinitum.

Now the old man on the precipice.
Now the holy burden of being the last one standing.
Now the chess game in the afternoon.
And the milk rice pudding.
And the walk in the garden.
And the toenails that need to be clipped.

This is not History.

Pages marked with highlights.
The story reenacted for posterity.
Photos retouched for accuracy.
Events (an ordering).

This is how it was and it wasn’t
and how it really was.

Repeat, repeat, ad infinitum.

Now the clearing.
Now the bones along the ocean floor.

Achy Obejas


Ahora la clave
(siempre hay una clave).
Ahora los tambores
y la íntima oscuridad.
Ahora el baile.
La pausa.

Ahora la historia sobre el carcelero
que por piedad libera al futuro dictador.
Ahora su amante y la tinta invisible.
Ahora los informes desde el frente.
Ahora la traición que se convierte en mito,
la bomba casera que no explota,
el sacerdote que interviene (a su pesar).

Ahora el carnaval,
grito de victoria (inesperada).
Y los enfermos.
Y los heridos.
El discurso triunfal ante la multitud.

Ahora el horizonte (el mismo)
como ayer,
naranja en vez de azul.

La maldita circunstancia.

Ahora las flotas.
Bactris cubensis, pinus cubensis, higo estrangulador.

Repetir, repetir, ad infinitum.

Ahora el anciano en el precipicio.
Ahora el bendito compromiso de ser último en pie.
Ahora el juego de ajedrez por la tarde.
Arroz con leche.
Paseo por el jardín.
Las uñas de los pies que necesitan ser recortadas.

Esto no es historia.

Página marcada y subrayada.
La historia re-presentada para la posteridad.
Foto retocada con precisión.
Eventos (ordenados).

Así es como fue y no fue
y fue de verdad.

Ahora el claro.
Ahora los huesos a lo largo del piso del mar.

Achy Obejas

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