Author Tells Of A 90s Cuba

Whether at the beach, poolside, or on a city rooftop, summer is a great chance to grab a cool drink and relax with a good book. That's why throughout the hottest months Tell Me More has been recommending great reads. This week we speak to Cuban American author Achy Obejas. Obejas' latest book, Ruins, is an insightful look at Cuba in the mid-90's.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We're going to continue our international briefing by opening the pages of a new novel about Cuba. It's part of our Summer Reading Series. All summer long we've been interviewing authors of new works set in summer. And then we asked them to pass on the love by recommending another author to our listeners. We started with Colson Whitehead who recommended Junot Diaz, who in turn recommended today's guest, Achy Obejas. Her latest novel is "Ruins." It's set in Havana in the summer of 1994. And she is joining us now from Chicago. Welcome, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. ACHY OBEJAS (Author): Well, thank you. Appreciate being here.

MARTIN: What inspired the book, how - how did you start?

Ms. OBEJAS: I finished "Days of Awe" my last novel and then the world sort of collapsed. The book was released in August 2001 and then a month later, in the middle of tremendous criticism and reviews and everything, the whole publishing universe obviously was deeply affected by the events in New York. But for me it was important to sort of just get away from all that. And I went back to Cuba. And I had sort of packed in haste and I didn't take a lot of books with me. And when I was scouting around the house I stumbled across a copy of Hemingway's, "The Old Man and the Sea."

And it's a book that takes place entirely in Cuba. It's the only book of his that takes place entirely in Cuba. It took me back to a fishing village called Cojimar which is where he lived. But also it was the sight of the 1994 exodus in Cuba, were more than like 70,000 people left. And I started talking to people in Cojimar about that exodus. And obviously the people of Cojimar who were telling me the stories about what happened and how it been to have tens of hundreds of thousands of people leaving from this little village, were people who had chosen to stay. So, I wanted to write that story. I wanted to write the story about the people who stay.

MARTIN: Usnavy, the name of your protagonist, which is spelt U-S-NAVY.

Ms. OBEJAS: Right, correct.

MARTIN: U-S-NAVY.

Ms. OBEJAS: Correct.

MARTIN: Forgive me that I don't know this, but is this a common name. And why did you choose that name? Because as you pointed out this is set in 1994 at the time when many people are leaving. And the whole point of Usnavy is he doesn't to leave.

Ms. OBEJAS: Yes.

MARTIN: He is true believer. So, why did you call - is it just to make that connection to the constantly looking out at the sea and wondering?

Ms. OBEJAS: Absolutely. And the thing is he is 54 years old. So, he is a pre-revolutionary child, and all of the things that the U.S. embodied for people were things that his mother sort of projected on to him. And then wanted to give him a name to, you know, reflect that. Because what happened was young mothers looking out Guantanamo Bay would see this very powerful U.S. Navy ships. And they would name their kids after, you know, what they saw as kind of mighty and majestic. So, names become very symbolic in Cuban culture.

MARTIN: There's also a look at homophobia in Cuban society. Ronaldo, the young son of one of Usnavy's friends is gay and he ends up leaving and going to America. And we later find out in the book that he gets a sex change and he becomes Vena(ph), and then he returns as a woman. What gave you this idea?

Ms. OBEJAS: I've always been sort of fascinated by how, in Cuba, a lot of the discussion about homosexuality is extremely complicated because of the terrible history in Cuba during the '60s, that is in during the revolutionary times, when there were labor camps set up for homosexuals. They were calls UMAPs.

What it's done, it's created this society that's very aware of this terrible history that they never talk about officially. It's not in the history books. No one's ever stepped up and taken responsibility for the UMAPs. No one's ever dealt with it in any way to explain why it happened. And the issue of homosexuality is very present, but it's very present at a kind of a street level.

MARTIN: Let me just jump in briefly just to say if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with author Achy Obejas about her latest book. It's called "Ruins," and it's set in 1994 in Havana.

You know, Achy, one of the things that I also - I was impressed by how you got inside the mind of this middle-aged man and all of his, kind of his longing and his desire to be a stand-up guy.

Ms. OBEJAS: I think for me, one thing is that, you know, I had a very tumultuous but very close relationship with my own father. There's a tremendous amount of yearning in his life, and a yearning for a return to Cuba, which he never really managed, and so that was, you know, very much informing this character, but I think the other person who was very much informing this character was Miguel Brullieta(ph), who the book is partially dedicated to.

Miguel was the father of an ex-girlfriend of mine, someone who participated in the revolution from the very beginning, as a teen, and died the summer of 2006, actually while I was Havana, and, you know, went to his death very much a believer. A person who would wave the flag if necessary, would take up guns, take up arms to defend Cuba from any American invasion. But who, on the other hand, was experiencing a tremendous crisis of conscience and ethics. And for me it was a tremendous lesson in sort of watching this extremely dignified man struggle with these things and feeling a certain impotence but also questioning his life in some very fundamental ways. I mean, the revolution was his life.

MARTIN: Forgive me if it's too personal, but I just wondered, where are you in this story? Often when someone has taken a journey, one's life has taken a journey from this place to that place, sometimes, you know, my body is here, but my heart is there. And you have the ability to travel between worlds. And I'm just wondering: Where are you in this story? Are you now at home in both places? Are you never at home? Where are you?

Ms. OBEJAS: Well, I think I'm both. I think sometimes I'm very much at home in both places, and sometimes I'm not quite at home in either place. In "Ruins," I'm not so much in this story. I left Cuba. I left Cuba at six. It wasn't my decision to leave. So to a certain extent, it gives me a pass.

Certainly in Cuba, oftentimes when I'm introduced to someone who lives abroad, it's always curious to me that people will say oh, this is Achy Obejas. She lives in the States. She was taken by her parents. And that will be the, actually the phrase that will be used, (speaking foreign language).

I'm never assigned responsibility for having left. So to me, it's really, it's a very interesting and curious point that's always made, but…

MARTIN: Do people find it strange that you come back so often?

Ms. OBEJAS: I think at this point, some people do find it strange. Because I think there are many Cuban-Americans who have gone back, certainly, and there are people who go back for a little while, and then life takes them in different directions, and you know, they get absorbed back into, for lack of a better word, their regular life or their real life in the States, and the romance sort of ends, or they find some disappointment, or they get hurt or whatever.

MARTIN: But I must tell you. That's a story we don't hear very often. The story we hear very often, at least kind of in the major-media narrative, is I'm not going back until Fidel is gone. Or I go back to visit my aunties and then to bring them some shoes. And that's it, and I'm not going back. I really don't think we hear very much about people who go back.

Ms. OBEJAS: Yeah, I think - well, I think it's because what happens is that people go back for a little while, and then they stop going back because, for example, the aunties die, and then you don't have to go back anymore. Or you know, you have, you know, a political, you know, falling apart with, you know, Cuba in a variety of different ways.

I mean, it can happen, you know, and I think for me, I've been remarkably constant in my relationship with Cuba, if you want to call it that, in part because I want to be a part of Cuba.

I know that I cannot reclaim a life that might have been. And I have no interest in that life that might have been. I'm very happy with the life that has been. But I'm interested in this country, and I'm interested in this culture and not as a tourist and not as an outsider, but as a person who comes from that place.

You know, the fact that I was born in Cuba is the most determining factor in my life. It absolutely affects everything in my life, and it's not something that I can change. So I very much embrace this idea of having a relationship with my home country.

It's caused a lot of problems. Believe me, my mom, to this day, is still angry at the idea that I go back. She's one of those people who mentioned, who would rather die than go back.

MARTIN: Wow, and finally, for our summer reading series, we are asking the authors we interview to please recommend our next author, hopefully a contemporary one, hopefully something pretty new. So, what do you think our listeners should read after they finish your book?

Ms. OBEJAS: Well, I mean, I'm going to give you two things, and you worry about what you want to do with it, okay?

The one that I'm reading right now, this moment, is a book called "Santa Evita," and it's by an Argentine writer named Tomas Eloy Martinez. He does live in the States, and it's a book that's a few years old, but I don't think it ever got enough attention.

It's a fascinating book about the cult around Eva Peron, and it's written as a novel, in a first-person way, as this character sort of investigating the cult of Evita Peron and all the insanity around Evita Person, especially the journeys of her body.

I don't know if you know this, but she was embalmed in this crazy way, and the body spent years being kidnapped and exhibited and hidden, and you couldn't make this stuff up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, you could. You're a writer.

Ms. OBEJAS: Oh my God, it's just madness. It's just, really - and of course, the other one of is "Love and Obstacles" by Aleksander Hemon, another Chicago writer. But I find Sasha's(ph) work to be just stunning, what he does with language, how he constructs a story. All of that to me is just mind-boggling and fantastic, and I'm constantly tipping my hat to him.

MARTIN: Achy Obejas, her latest book is "Ruins," and she was kind enough to join us from Chicago. Achy Obejas, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. OBEJAS: Absolutely. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And you can read an excerpt from "Ruins" and learn more about Achy Obejas' other literary favorites by logging on to our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TELL ME MORE.

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