Thursday, September 10, 2009

BROOKLYN BOOK FAIR THIS WEEKEND!


I'll be reading Sunday, Septemper 13, at the Brooklyn Book Festival, with Colson Whitehead, H.M. Naqvi, and Matthew Aaron Goodman, 1 p.m., at the Borough Hall Courtroom (209 Joralemon Street). Please join us!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

NPR interview

Author Tells Of A 90s Cuba

July 23, 2009


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.

Copyright © 2009 National Public Radio®. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

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.

Copyright ©2009 National Public Radio®. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to National Public Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Seattle


Beautiful cup of coffee at Elliot Bay Books!!!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

LA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


We took the long, scenic route to L.A., thinking it'd be a beautiful, leisurely stroll south from the Bay Area. And, it was -- except that, er, it took us about 13 hours to get there. At some point, the crashing waves and seagulls and death defying cliffs were, well, impossible to see anyway. Night time robbed us of all beauty and left us in an inky, ghostly fog. And, oh, yeah -- the Whale Watcher Cafe? Kill me now. Don't, whatever you do, order the calamari steak. Yeah, my idea. Don't do it.

The whole point of the exercise was the fabulous L.A. Book Fair. My alarmingly handsome publisher, Johnny Temple, was there, as was the beautiful and passionate Johanna Ingalls, his literary partner, with a massive sampling of the Akashic catalogue. Stuff was just flying off that table!

I had a hot date at a panel moderated by the newly minted editor of Granta, John Freeman, on memory. Place was packed (300+), conversation flowed like smoothest of wines, people stood in line forever to sign books. Joan Silber -- the amazing writer, my former teacher -- and I snuck in a five minute catch up in the Green Room. Wow, we we're exhausted by the end of it all!

But we still managed to get in some fun: Hung out with Lynda Gorov, an old pal from the newspaper wars, and her charming daughter, Rae; saw my old roomie, Terry; we had breakfast with M's pal, Lauren; and a fabu evening with performance artist Tim Miller and his partner, the writer Alistair McCartney.

We trudged back on the 405 -- six hours. Soooo relieved!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Q & Chicago State


Quraysh Ali Lansana and I met way, way back, a few lifetimes ago, in a dark little basement cabaret room where he and his buddies, The Funky Wordsmyths, had just turned the whole Chicago performance scene on its head. These days, he's over at the Gwendolyn Brooks Center at Chicago State University -- appropriately enough, since Miss Brooks was a mentor to him -- and holding court at the school's annual writers conference. This year, like every year, he put together a a stellar list and drew hundreds of folks to the fest. Luckily, I got invited to be a part of it too -- a reading, a workshop on a sweet warm day, and at least one big hug from the big guy and a bit of hanging out. Not enough, really but, when it comes Q, it never is in my book.

Thanks, Q!


Monday, May 11, 2009

Bryn Mawr & Swarthmore

Surrounded by handsome men in Philly: Lazaro Lima and Luciano Martinez.

A delightfully marvelous time -- that's how it was at Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore. Absolutely everything went well, and the company -- two sweet and gorgeous professors, Lazaro Lima and Luciano Martinez -- made the stay great fun. Lazaro and I had only met last year, at a conference in Santa Cruz, but found ourselves talking and sharing as if we'd known each other all our lives.

We started with a translating workshop led by Lazaro's collegue, Karl Kirchwey, chock full of smart and eager students, all translating from different languages (old style French, contemporary Russian, olde English -- wow!). Then we had a reading and Q&A period followed by a reception. The questions were lively and provocative and kept me thinking late into the night.

The next day, Luciano picked me up for a quick breakfast and we went to Swarthmore, where his students grilled me about We Came All the Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? 

Philly was sunny and breezy, and Luciano and I yakked and yakked all the way to the airport. Simply put, it was too short a visit!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Kathie & Kolumbia


When I got home from the first big leg of the tour, I was pretty much dead to the world. Felt like I'd been asked every question on earth, felt like I'd been poked and probed (and in a good way) like never before. So once home and nestled in bed, I wasn't thrilled when I remembered I'd promised my pal Kathie Bergquist that I'd visit her class at Colombia College the very next morning.

I dragged my not so little butt out of bed and headed downtown expecting the usual classroom experience: a roomful of kids of which maybe half had read the book, and questions that had little to do with literature, if any, and lots to do with Cuba tourism.

Well, wow: surprise. What I got was a gallery with not just Kathie's but various classes worth of students, all of whom seemed to have read Ruins thoroughly, questions about the book, about writing and the process of writing, and a public conversation with Kathie that didn't just wake me up but which rocked. 

Oh, and there was a spread -- a sumptious spread -- and a book table and genuinely sweet folks hanging out afterward.

Go Kathie!


Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Providence

We trekked up to Ada Books, an adorable matchbook sized store in Providence, in our rental, the three of us: Bobby, M and me. This was Bobby territory. He'd gone to school here. His sister was waiting. Friends were excited to see him after so long. And we were thrilled too. One super gift from the East Coast tour: Knowing Bobby.

We practically ejected from the car in front of the store, as we'd been pushing it time-wise. And Bobby went in like a rock star, shaking hands, getting hugs. His sister -- I knew right away, her Cubanness preceeded her! -- was all proud smiles.

And we began. I went first, did my ten minutes, then gave the floor over to Bobby. But he hadn't gotten his rhythm yet when his brother-in-law, who'd been sitting second row center, got up and signaled to Bobby's sister. They quietly stepped outside as Bobby continued.

Then we heard the thump.

From there on, it was chaos: Bobby's brother-in-law had fainted, his weight had crashed against the store's door. Ambulances, firetrucks, paramedics.

Bobby's sister asked if we could drive him to the hospital. We said yes and went to get Bobby, dealing with everyone inside. He had a local friend, someone who knew where he was going on, who'd already volunteered. Bobby was pale, his hands fluttering.

We walked back to the car with him to get his bag.

"Oh, I almost forgot," he said, rummaging in his luggage. "I'm a romantic, a sentimentalist."

He pulled out a bottle of bubbly. It was from New Mexico, his home state, one of M's fave places.

"For your anniversary," he said.

We were celebrating our first one that weekend.

We couldn't believe the sweetness of the gesture. We couldn't believe he'd remember in the midst of such frenzy.

We hugged him and sent him on his way, glad to have him in our lives, and set off, back to New York.

Bobby's brother-in-law, as it turns out, is just fine. It was a scary moment but, honest, nothing. (Thank god!)

And we had our romantic dinner, a little music with the Afro-Cuban All-Stars later, and an extra day in New York thanks to storms that canceled flights to California.

So we saw "Monsters v. Aliens."

And we drank Bobby's brew.

Monday, April 6, 2009

CO-BLOGGER ALERT!: Bobby Arellano writes New Jersey!!!

A cold rain in Jersey couldn't keep 25 people from coming to Raconteur Books in Metuchen for our stop on the Akashic "Cubanization" tour. Achy was un poquito enferma, but I read from my novel Havana Lunar and answered questions while Raconteur co-owner Alex Dawson poured the wine and played Beny Moré on the house stereo.


I have been talking with Achy, who as readers of this blog know has
touched down in half the eastern states over the past eight weeks, about why some good independent bookstores seem to be thriving despite the shrinking economy. Dawson has a theory about their staying power. Identifying Raconteur as a "thrift" enterprise that sells used as well as new books, he says that people who a few months ago might have just walked by the funky display in his front window are now being drawn in by the prospect of saving 25% or more off big-chain book prices. This new business, together with a devoted local clientele who credit the owners with prompting a cultural revival in this medium-sized suburb (more than one patron told me, "Alex is doing great things in this town"), makes Raconteur confident about the prospect of continuing to sell books while growing new programs -- a journal called the Raconteur Reader, a music/circus/literary festival at a 200-seat theater three blocks from the shop, and an annual beard-growing contest in honor of George Bernard Shaw.


Thanks, Raconteur! Achy, Akashic, and I all hope to be invited back!


http://www.raconteurbooks.com/



Sunday, April 5, 2009

What Edmundo Said

OUT OF HAVANA


For fifty years the revolution has been in power in Cuba.


I returned to the island in 1960 to embrace the dream of a radical new life. At about the same time, Achy Obejas abandoned Cuba with her family and Robert Arellano’s parents left as well. Thirty years later, Achy and Robert returned to a social nightmare. Between the three of us we have experienced the dream and the nightmare of history.


The island of Cuba is both a reality and a myth. Reality is what we are given, what we are born into and myth is what we create as writers. We transform the chaos of experience into narratives, stories that help us see and feel, interpret the world around us, to go on.


Ruins by Achy Obejas and Havana Lunar by Robert Arellano are two novels that give a human face to the agony of the Cuban revolution during the years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The startled communist government called it “período especial de paz” -- “a special peacetime period” -- a monstrous and bloodless euphemism for a period these two writers here with us tonight have attempted to define through characters in a landscape of scarcity, of agony, of survival.


Two epiphanies of scarcity are enough to reveal the cruel humor of survival. The first one is from Ruins. “The week before, Rosita had been selling those very sandwiches on the street –she’d even offered him one. But no sooner had Usnavy pulled up the bread and seen the flat layer of pith covered in seasoning, than he recognized its true provenance: These were pieces of a blanket normally used for mopping floors which Rosita had beaten and marinated in spices and a little beef broth. The texture of the wool had been transformed into what they all imagined steak was like, something tender and chewy. The success of her enterprise had come as much from her ingenuity as from the tricks memory plays.”


And this one is from Havana Lunar: “Carlota told me there was a rumor going around Marianao of bread –fluffy white flour rolls, not tough pan integral, and fresh, made the day before. We would keep it a surprise in case the lead turned out false…

“Pablo was ecstatic: bread for his birthday. But it was like a bad movie on El Cine de las Ocho when Tirso rushed in seconds before we could sink our teeth into those beautiful sandwiches. '!No! !Echaron vidrios en la harina!' I slapped Pablo’s hand before the sandwich could get to his lips. Pablo saw real fear in my eyes and began to cry.

“ 'Please, Pablito. There might be glass in the bread. There are bad people out there.’

“Tirso said, “The government did it to sabotage the black market.’

“Biting his lower lip, Pablo proposed, ‘We can try it, and if we feel something in our mouths we can spit it out.’ ”

Both these fragments I have read might seem unnecessarily cruel, but they reveal, in some ways, a return to sanity. After the revolutionary dream of plenty, of abundance and social justice, the attempts to impose socialist realism in literature, Achy and Robert have returned to one of the roots of Spanish literature –the picaresque novel. The struggle for survival in Spanish realism of el siglo de oro. Humor, in Cuba, is an instrument of survival. When situations become very intense and unsustainable only a joke can break the spell.

Both these novels are expressions of our predicament. Ruins is a literary jewel, a novel that turns history into literature, the language at certain moments turns the pedestrian into poetry. Usnavy is a character that incarnates the last fifty years of the Cuban revolution: From the illusion of a better world to the tragedy of failed idealism. Havana Lunar has Julia, an adolescent turned into a jinetera, a prostitute, a murdered pimp and a doctor that talks with Che Guevara. You can’t stop turning the pages towards the ultimate surprise. It is a marginal world, where marginal action reveals the crisis of the revolution. As you follow the characters you discover the urban and rural landscape of the island.

These are Cuban novels written in English. The Spanish language also struggles to enrich the prose of these narratives. Arellano sees the needs to often say it in Spanish to make the situations more real, like “Echaron vidrios en la harina.” Obejas is more selective, she chooses only certain words that have no equivalent in English, that have a weight and a meaning that cannot be translated. She uses sapo to name the onlookers at a domino game, and you can hear the word sapo (frog) flop and rest like a damp passive back seat driver. Or derrumbe to help you feel how the collapse of a building turns into a ruin. The Spanish English Velázquez dictionary cannot give us a single word for the verb: “Derrumbar: to precipitate, to throw down headlong. To precipitate one’s self headlong. To sink down, crumble away, tumble down; said of a building.” And for the noun it has: “Derrumbe: A tumbling down, collapse. A landslide.”

One of the more revealing secretions of these novels is in the language, the clash of English and Spanish and their psychological and cultural implications. Achy through rigorous poetry and Robert through the crunching of prose. Ruins and ruinas; lunar and blemish, birthmark. Lunar is untranslatable. Lunar: “mole, a natural spot or discoloration of the body, note or stain of infamy.” La luna, the moon is black compared to the sun. Lunática, lunatic. “Ese lunar que tienes cielito lindo junto a la boca, no se lo des a nadie, cielito lindo que a mí me toca.”

If there is something that characterizes, in my experience, the Cuban revolution, the word is intensity. Intensity that, as far as I am concerned, is more important than being right or wrong. These books reveal that intensity and whatever political judgment you must certainly make, it must come from the characters and events these novels bring before your eyes.

There is a poem by a Catholic poet, Cintio Vitier, ten years older than I am, who decided never to leave the island and gave us this image of the tragic beauty of living these years in Cuba. It’s called Estamos, that is, "We Are."

Estás

haciendo

cosas:

música,

chirimbolos de repuesto,

libros,

hospitales,

pan,

días llenos de propósitos,

flotas,

Vida con tan pocos materiales.

A veces

se diría

que no puedes llegar hasta mañana,

y de pronto

uno se pregunta y sí,

hay cine,

apagones,

lámparas que resucitan,

calle mojada por la maravilla,

ojo del alba, Juan

y cielo de regreso.

Hay cielo hacia delante.

Todo va saliendo más o menos

bien o mal. O peor,

pero se llena el hueco,

se salta,

sigues,

estás

haciendo

un esfuerzo conmovedor en tu pobreza,

pueblo mío,

y hasta horribles carnavales, y hasta

feas vidrieras, y hasta

luna.

Repiten los programas,

no hay perfumes

(adoro esa repetición, ese perfume)

no hay, no hay pero resulta que

hay.

Estás, quiero decir,

estamos.

EDMUNDO DESNOES, Nueva York y 2009

[You are doing things: music, spare parts for the broken down, books, hospitals, bread, days with a purpose, fleets, life with such pathetic materials.

Sometimes you think you’ll never make it, see tomorrow, and suddenly you ask yourself and yes, there are movies, black-outs, lamps that resuscitate, street marvelously wet, the eyes of down and sky on the way back.

There is sky ahead.

Everything is coming along, more or less, right or wrong, or worse, but the hole gets filled, we jump, you go on, you are making such a heart breaking effort in your poverty, people of mine, even horrible carnivals, and even ugly window displays, and even the moon.

They keep repeating the same programs, there are no perfumes (I adore that repetition, that perfume), there isn’t, there isn’t any but it so happens that there is.

You are, I mean, we are here.]

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Edmundo & Felicia

Bobby, me, Edmundo & Felicia

M and I snuck a kiss when no one was looking.


In New York, we stayed with Edmundo Desnoes and Felicia Rosshandler, a powerhouse intellectual couple with a sweet and enduring story. Edmundo, of course, is the writer of both the book and the script of Memories of Underdevelopment, which was recently named the most important Latin American film of the 20th century by a prestigious critics group. Felicia is the author of a book I love and frequently teach, Passing Through Havana, a novel about being a young European Jew in Cuba during World War II.

They are both smart, elegant, a little unpredictable, and great fun. They are also, each of them, just ridiculously beautiful. That they’re also charming and open is an extra added bonus.

I don’t remember whom I met first – I sought out Felicia because I wanted to use Passing for my Jewish Latin American lit class at the University of Chicago (it proved a great hit, especially with girls). And I sought out Edmundo because I’d gotten obsessed with getting a blurb from him for my novel, Days of Awe (which he gave, and which I’m very proud of).

Their love story, however, is what thrills me. They were sweethearts as teens – Felicia still refers to him now and again as her novio cubano. And you can tell that it was one of those great illuminating young romances, the kind that imprint the way you give and receive love.

And, like most young romances, it ended and they went their own ways, to other lives with other people. Felicia moved to New York, married and had kids. She worked for Life magazine, wrote, took up photography.

Edmundo stayed in Cuba, committed to the revolution, wrote many things, married, divorced, then began to have doubts. In 1980, at the Venice Biennale, he defected (back when it was still called defecting). He continued writing, editing books, critiquing, teaching.

Then, about 18 years ago, they made their way back to each other.

And I’m enraptured by the idea of a Great Love to bookend Life.

They are both masters of the art of conversation, and so each visit is filled with much sharing and questioning and provoking of the best kind. Edmundo always makes me think, Felicia always make me feel.

This time I also got to wear one of her absurdly fashionable little jackets – this one a fairly simple down – so my fashion quotient jumped up about 20 percent. And this time M and I prepared breakfast for them one morning and they indulged us (Edmundo: “The eggs are wonderful, the potatoes are not bad”). And we hung out with the very worldly Olivia, Felicia’s seven year-old granddaughter, who hacked into M’s Facebook page and uploaded pix and left “I love you” messages on walls far and wide.

Edmundo was also our “moderator” at a reading and public conversation Bobby Arellano and I had at the 92nd Street Y, one of New York’s most prestigious literary venues. Still, when I put out the sked with the news, I was surprised by how many emails I got congratulating me on the gig. I was also a bit taken back when I looked at the evening’s agenda and discovered that Edmundo, Bobby and I were at the 92nd Street Y at the very same time as Barbara Walters, who would be autographing her memoirs. I was outwardly pretty cool about it, but inside I was dying: Would anybody come?

To my surprise, we had about thirty people: they came with great energy, interest and armed with many good questions for us. Edmundo gave a magnificent intro, Bobby read with pure abandon, and I had to summon my last reserves of charisma just to keep up. These guys were amazing!

Afterwards, Edmundo suggested celebratory cake and M packed her handful of pals and we went off into the bright New York night to satisfy our tummies and spirits!





Thursday, April 2, 2009

Bluestocking Pix by Jason Smith






We were lucky enough in NYC to have Jason Smith, an old friend from Chicago, come to the reading and take pictures. He's one of the finest photogs I know, and these are just a little sampling. For a look at his portfolio, pls go to jasonsmith.com.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

CO-BLOGGER ALERT!: M writes NYC, part 1


We stayed, for the first portion of our time in New York, with Edmundo Desnoes and Felicia Rosshandler, good friends of Achy's, each very accomplished in their own right (and whom Achy will talk more about in NYC: Deux). They greeted us in their amazingly gorgeous Upper West Side apartment with a most indulgent after-travel snack: champagne, cheese, ladyfingers, and chocolate truffles. As if that weren't enough to make me insanely envious of their lives, when asked what they were up to these days, Felicia said, rather dreamily: "Oh, we're both writing, we read, we eat, we drink...occasionally we have house guests...". I nearly died. What must we do to be them when we grow up? To have exquisite taste, lovely things, a content sense of routine, a gorgeous view?? Whatever it is, I hope a little bit rubbed off in the three nights we were with them.


I'd never been to Bluestockings before, but as soon as we walked into the tiny New York bookstore, I was sorry I hadn't made it in sooner. The store is small-ish, and the walls are stocked with more or less my ideal home library. It identifies itself as a radical activist space, though it used to be a women's bookstore, and thus has a similar groove to Women & Children First (Achy's Chicago bookstore homebase and my beloved former employer) -- I felt pretty at home. We didn't get there in time to grill the staff about whether or not it's another flourishing indie, but they seemed to be doing pretty alright -- well stocked, a thriving 'zine rack, lots of the kinds of neat sidelines you expect from a funky little shop, etc. There was a sizable crowd of listeners there for the reading, including beloved friends of both Achy and I, Bobby's friends and family, as well as the good folks from Akashic Books. The crowd - including the staff - was super engaged, and asked a lot of interesting questions during the Q&A period.


After the reading, we hung out with Johnny and Ibrahim from Akashic, as well as Achy's cousin Maggie, at a pretty little French restaurant near the bookstore. We had an awfully good time eating, drinking, and telling absurd stories. This restaurant had a cocktail called the "Old Cubano," which, after Bobby & Achy's readings, seemed obvious and appropriate, and so I ordered it (twice). It's made from rum, mint, lime, and champagne (like a mojito, I suppose, with champagne instead of sugar and soda), served muddled and strained into a champagne flute instead of over ice. And thus we ended our first day in NYC as indulgently as it had begun.

Monday, March 30, 2009

BALTO!!!


After a day hanging out in DC with Teresa and Rollie in their home, M and I packed the rental (it’s a Ford Focus with Wisconsin plates – M thinks it’s red, I think it’s kinda mauve) and headed to Baltimore for the second reading with Robert Arellano and the first on this leg of the tour not at a bookstore.

 

Bobby – a classic barbudo whose kind eyes undercut the severity of his guerilla look -- is an Akashic stablemate but also an Akashic stalwart. Havana Lunar, from which he’s been reading on this tour, is his third outing with them. The first two, Don Dimaio of La Plata and Fast Eddie, King of the Bees, were masterfully crazy political satires about corruption in New Jersey – so Havana Lunar, a crime novel set during the same period and, in some cases, even the same places as Ruins, is a new direction for him.

 

Bobby, who was conceived in Cuba but born in the U.S., says he started working on this novel more than 10 years ago, when he first went to the island, but it took this long to pull all the pieces together. He went back every year for ten years (we heard stories on the road that led us to believe Bobby’s had a very interesting life: three months in a cabin in Baja California, touring as a guitarist with radically avant garde bands … ), each time adding more and more to the collection of anecdotes and observations.

 

During our travels I was most amazed by the fact that Bobby reads something different from the novel every single night. Considering that it was in Baltimore when I felt my selection was finally right, I found this akin to reading on a highwire. Seriously, my tour copy of Ruins is so severely marked up -- whole stretches are scratched out, others crowded w/ notes – no one else could possibly read from it at this point, or even understand what I’m doing.

 

We were also flabbergasted to hear that Bobby’s wife is nine months pregnant and taking care of their 3 year old boy back in New Mexico, with a C section scheduled for Monday immediately after our journeys. I mean, talk about living dangerously!

 

At the Enoch Pratt Free Library, we were set up in the Poe Room at a long formal table. We each read and took questions until the library closed down around us. Then we tried desperately to take our picture next to the giant windows with the banners with our names but the high intensity lights kept washing Bobby and me out. Damn!

 

In Baltimore, we also hung out with M’s friend Aaron, a city native who kept bemoaning the fact that we weren’t staying so he could show us around.

 

“What would you show us?” I asked.

 

“Let me think … “ he pondered. But he never did he get back to us on this. (Baltimorians, please let us know what we should see next time we’re in your city!)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

CO-BLOGGER ALERT!: M writes DC!!!



Photos by Rollie Hudson.

Traffic approaching D.C. from the south is HORRIFIC. We left Durham with plenty of time to spare, hoping to have a leisurely dinner with Achy’s good friends (and our D.C. hosts) Teresa and Rollie before the reading at Busboys and Poets. 80 miles outside of the metro area, we were at a dead stop. We figured it was an accident, but when we were still inching 40 minutes later, we called Teresa, told her we’d meet them at the reading, and went renegade on the GPS. It took the lady in the GPS machine a good 15 miles to come to terms with the fact of our rerouting, and we made it to Busboys and Poets a good 15 minutes into Robert Arellano’s reading. (Oops...) Bobby was joining our rental car extravaganza tour beginning with D.C., and he was as gracious and kind right through Providence as he was that first tardy night in D.C.


Busboys and Poets is a cool venue. The area where Achy + Bobby read is partitioned off from the rest of the place -- which is a cross between a cafe, a restaurant, and a bar. The food and cocktails were both pretty delicious. I got to meet LOTS of Achy’s people at this reading -- all very sweet and welcoming -- but spent precious little time with them. Next time we go to D.C., we need much more time for hanging out, visiting, and, you know, tourist-y stuff. Next time we go to D.C., we’re flying in.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Durham: TIA OLGA!!!!





One of the really great things about this tour has been seeing folks I hardly ever get to visit. And with M along, it’s also been a great sharing experience … I’ve been meeting her friends along the way, and she’s been meeting mine.

 

Durham turned out to be a real milestone in that department.

 

The reading was in the afternoon, at a Barnes & Noble at a spacious mall. In spite of the warm, sunny weather and the ridiculous 3 p.m. start time (honest, on a Saturday?), there were a good 15 people who came for the reading then hung out for a really long and invigorating Q&A.

 

Among them was our host, Rosa Perlemuter, a fine Sor Juana scholar and writer herself, who had us stay in her beautiful and cozy home for the night then treated us to an exquisite breakfast the next morning.

 

But first – oh yes – M and I travelled to Rockingham, North Carolina, immediately after the reading to visit my 94 year-old Tía Olga.

 

Growing up, Tía Olga was the saucy, liberal aunt – and the one relative you appealed to if you were in deep, deep trouble. (Of course, if you were in trouble with her, you were beyond screwed.)

 

When we arrived at her sweet little bungalow, she welcomed us with open arms. Showing M pix of her late husband, the urbane Alberto, she said, “Dated him for three years, and no cuchi cuchi.” M’s eyes almost popped out of her head. Except that my aunt was now pointing to her wedding pix. “See? No bra.”

 

Oh, it went on. We had dinner at the Peking Wok, where apparently the whole world knows her, and she explained to M how homosexuals are still people to her.

 

The best part? At evening’s end, after she’d asked us to stay longer cuz she was having such a good time, she tried to pay for her copy of Ruins, which we refused, then tried to give us gas money. M finally took it, then left it in the bathroom.

 

“I’m glad to have met you,” she said, gazing up at a much, much taller M. “You’re someone I would like to have as a friend.”

 

Growing up, all of cousins were always grateful to have Tía Olga as our friend.

 

 

Monday, March 23, 2009

CO-BLOGGER ALERT!: M writes Asheville

On the road to Asheville.
At Malaprop's.
M, Achy, Stella Jo, Seth, Lauren


North Carolina is one of the pleasantest places to road trip.  My plan was to arrive and taskmaster this tour -- no more car troubles, no more running late, no more greasy burgers.  So far, there have been no more car troubles.  

If we had three days to spend, there are about a thousand places along the highways of North Carolina that I’d stop: thrift stores galore, the “As Seen on TV!” outlet, scenic outlooks, etc. As it was, our bodies rejected the alarm clock and got a late-ish start to Asheville.  We also got sidetracked en route by my need for Dairy Queen soft serve.  

We stayed in Asheville with Lauren and Seth, friends from Minneapolis who I hadn’t seen in a couple of years.  Since we last saw one another, they’d moved south, gotten hitched, and procreated.  Stella Jo is about the cutest, serious-est, most expressive 3-month-old I’ve ever seen (eyebrows to die for!).  She sleeps 10-12 hours a night, meaning that her parents had to rouse her so we could go to breakfast on Saturday (imagine! Lauren is sure they’ll be punished later).  Lauren also, coincidentally, works part-time at Malaprops, yet another THRIVING independent bookstore, where Achy read Friday evening.  They were lovely hosts, and we had a great time with them.  

Malaprops is really cozy, with a tiny cafe corner for coffee and nice warm colors and lights.  It’s a surprisingly large store, and they’re apparently also doing just fine, in spite of all the rumors about this “recession” I heard about.  There was a really nice turnout for the reading -- over two dozen literary fans on a Friday night as spring is breaking!  We were much impressed.  Achy read a few poems, cracked a couple of jokes about phallus-related microphone anxiety, and a selection from Ruins.  People had a surprising number of political questions about Cuba (or, I guess, surprising to me), and were really pumped on the book.

I have long-standing fantasies about moving to Asheville (a fantasy, it turns out, shared by a lot of people like me who have spent little to no time there but hear it is the stuff of legends).  We had a sweet, but too brief visit.  Lauren and Seth strongly encouraged us to move to Asheville, and we left feeling pretty receptive to the possibility.

Tiffany-Like Lamps in Cincy


I’m obviously living in a parallel universe, where independent bookstores are doing gangbuster business. When I arrived in Cincinnati, I couldn’t believe my eyes: Joseph-Beth Booksellers was busy and bustling on a bright sunny warm spring day. Inside, the warehouse like store was a wonderland of books. And I was flabbergasted: The Ruins display also included Tiffany-like lamps! I was greeted by a small but enthusiastic audience, including two young women who’d driven up from Lexington and had brought their worn and much annotated copies of Days of Awe to be signed. Afterwards, Michael, my host, and I hung out and talked about Obama and the economy – and the fact that, yeah, in spite of everything, Joseph-Beth is doing amazingly well.

 

Kinda gives you hope, you know?

Sunday, March 22, 2009

ST LOUIS!!!!!!


The last time I read at Left Bank Books in St. Louis – for Days of Awe or Memory Mambo, I don’t remember, but certainly years ago – the bookstore’s future seemed precarious and I actually had an escort back to my car. This time – wow! – the neighborhood surrounding Left Bank has been transformed into the hip part of town: restaurants, antique shops, boutiques. And Left Bank itself is renewed: flushed with light, expanded, its shelves full and colorful, the staff young and professional. I could hardly believe it was the same store – and I couldn’t keep from grinning.

 

“We’re actually expanding,” said Kate, one of the booksellers. “We’re working with a developer and opening a store downtown.”

 

Was Left Bank Books the only indie store in the world to be doing so well? Just a few days before, I’d heard the news about the closing of Stacey’s in San Francisco, which had been widely recognized as the country’s largest independent. And every indie I know has had trouble in the last few years, whether it’s because of competition from the internet, chains or just feeling the ripples of the economic downturn.

 

A cheerful room of folks came to the reading at Left Bank, including local teachers and students, a few folks I knew from Chicago, a friend’s mom, and the parents of one of M’s best buds, Michael and Mary Beth, who were also my hosts for the night.

 

They were most gracious, and after the reading, we went back to their house for an informal get together with some of their friends. The best part came, however, after everyone left, when Michael and Mary Beth told me about their lives, especially how they’d founded a radical Catholic collective. That night, I slept beautifully under a framed poster of the Grateful Dead.

 

 



That's Michael and Mary Beth in the pic above, and this is their house in St. Louis, where I stayed.


Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Library Journal

Obejas, Achy.
Ruins.
Akashic. Mar. 2009. c.300p.
ISBN 978-1-933354-69-9. pap. $14.95.


This superb novel by Cuban-born writer and poet Obejas (Memory Mambo) follows the story of Usnavy, who, despite a bleak childhood in a small provincial city near Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, achieves his rightful place in the world as a standard bearer for Castro and Che after the 1959 revolution. However, this all changes in 1994, when the Cuban government permits any and all to leave Cuba by any and all means. Usnavy's best friend leaves without a word, and suddenly the dollar becomes the currency for all goods necessary to his wife and daughter—and to himself. In the midst of this turmoil, Usnavy's only constant is his pride in the oversized stained-glass lamp he inherited from his mother, and for the first time he becomes curious about its origins. He seeks out knowledge from the aptly named Virgilio, a restorer of old glass lamps, and is led through the Dantean mazes of Havana and a secret family history. Although initially confusing, Obejas's writing style effectively mimics the plot, as the author navigates a maze of histories and ethnicities. Recommended for larger public and all academic library collections.

—Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Booklist

Ruins.
Obejas, Achy (Author)
Mar 2009. 300 p. Akashic, paperback,20$15.95.


A fatherless child named in honor of the big U.S. Navy ships in Guantánamo Bay, Usnavy, weary and
destitute at 54 in 1994, still believes fervently in Cuba s Communist mission even though his neighbors are
fleeing to the U.S. under the cover of darkness on any thing that will float. Usnavy works, navigates state
bureaucracy, plays dominos in the square with his ribald buddies, and basks in the radiance of his only
treasure, an opulent, Tiffany-like stained-glass lamp. A rare object of beauty, an embodiment of light and
transcendence, it links humble and honest Usnavy to a hidden facet of Cuban history, and to the freer world of creativity and its shadow side of greed and desperation, deception and secret justice. Following the substantial Days of Awe (2001), prizewinning, ever-innovative Cuban American writer Obejas evinces a new, focused lyricism as she penetrates to the very heart of the Cuban paradox in a story as pared down and intense as its narrator's life . Inlaid with images of transformation, this Havana story in the Hemingway mode illuminates the tragedies and resiliency of a twilight land caught in the spell of a failed dream and portrays with exquisite sensitivity a man reaching toward the light.
-Donna Seaman


Monday, March 16, 2009

The Wild Pug, Chicago


We’d really only planned one gig in Chicago – the WCF reading – for a while and then Drew Ferguson wrote me an email out of the blue, asking if I’d take part in his series up at the The Wild Pug in Uptown. I thought he meant, you know, later. But he meant right away.


Drew, by the way, was absurdly modest in all his communications. Like, for example, didn’t mention that he’s the author of The Screwed Up Life of Charlie the Second. The Chicago Reader has a review of it in which Robert McDonald says: "...the resulting blend of humor and heartache makes for the most true-to-life queer coming-of-age story since John Fox's 1994 Boys on the Rock..."


So last Thursday I drove up to my old neighborhood – I really love that neck of the woods – for the reading. The area’s been changing since before I moved up there (in the mid80s, then again in the mid90s, after a brief excursion up to Rogers Park) but there are things that remain exactly the same, like the Green Mill and the fried rice joint on Argyle with all the dead ducks in the window.


And there are things that are in constant flux. When I stood in front of the The Wild Pug – now spacious and inviting, with a separate bar and reading room in the back – I was sure I’d known it in its previous incarnations but I simply couldn’t remember any of them.


Also on the bill at this gig was Brian Bouldrey, an old grad school chum. Brian wrote The Genius of Desire, Monster: Gay Adventures in American Machismo, is editor of a slew of Best American Gay Fiction and author of so many other titles it’d take a page to list them all. He’s also hysterical, on and off stage so – while I was thrilled to see and hear him (and gossip: he’s got a new job in Alaska!) – I was a tad worried: He’s a really, really good reader – and my stuff, by contrast to his (though his can be dark too), is pretty sober.


Plus, reading at a bar is a whole different experience than in bookstores. And the reading room at The Wild Pug is the epitome in a lot of ways. For starters, there’s, you know, liquor. Hard core. Me, personally, I had a Glenlivet.


And it’s dark, or at least hazy. For me this meant some readjustment. I’ve gotten pretty familiar with the Ruins text but it’s not memorized, so I still need the page as a reference. But in the dark, it was a bit more of a challenge.


And it’s noisy – I mean, really noisy. I don’t have the strongest voice so I had to really put the lungs to work. But the static created by bar noise – voices, glasses, laughter – has a certain charm. It can knock me off balance – I lost my place a couple of times and quickly recouped – but the tension, I think, adds to the overall ambience.


Don’t get me wrong, I love bookstores, with their flood of light and all-ages comfort, but there’s something inviting and seductive about reading at bars that I find enchanting. And Thursday at The Wild Pug, I think I had one of the best readings so far on this tour.



Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Car Gods Are Angry


After Madison came the vast American pampas of Iowa, where presidential dreams rise and fall. It’s amazing to me, cruising past these Midwest acres which are so the picture of apple-cheeked Americana, that the current commander-in-chief found the wave here.



Of course, I’d barely slept the night before worrying about the car wobbling and had, in fact, had the tires “weighted” and “balanced” (whatever the hell that means) at the Madison Firestone, and while we the car was no longer doing a violent shimmy shimmy, it was still on Parkinson’s watch in that crucial 45 to 60 mph zone.



Truth is, I love cars, love driving, love being on a highway, and love when the Midwest opens up with its infinite horizon. And for the full effect, you really do have to leave the cities and venture out to where the interstate becomes a grey ribbon sided by green and gold acres like a giant patchwork.



Sigh.



And, er, that bastard GPS decided that it was Iowa-friendly and actually guided me beautifully, with ETA and maps and where to fill up, all the way to M’s parents’ house.

There, I managed to get about an hour’s worth of sleep before the reading. It was a wet and foggy night and M’s mom and dad drove me to Prairie Lights in Iowa City, about 30 minutes away, where we met up with M’s sister Carrie and her friend Allison. There were about 20 people, a good chunk of them students earnestly taking notes. At least one of them was a Cuban-American – I deciphered this from his questions and later realized I knew his dad (perpetuating the notion that all Cubans know each other).



One of the real pleasures of reading at Prairie Lights this time was the introduction I got from Roberto Ampuero, whom I’d met last summer in Spain during the Semana Negra de Gijon (which was actually ten days … ). Roberto is a critically acclaimed and best-selling Chilean novelist and, as it turns out, professor at the University of Iowa. He’s the author of the Cayetano Brulé detective series and Nuestros años Verde Olivo (about his years in exile in Cuba) and the metafictional mystery Los amantes de Estocolmo.



In other words, he’s a very, very big deal. And hearing him talk about how much he loved Ruins, and how powerfully it evoked Havana – “La Habana,” as he said with a grin -- was both moving and an honor for me.



After the reading, M’s family and Allison and I retired literally next door for a celebratory round of white Russians and a couple of beers. And then we went home, where I crashed so hard it felt like I’d hurled down a long black elevator shaft in a 12 story building.



The next morning, resting in Cedar Rapidian splendor, I vaguely heard the phone, like an echo in a very vast valley. I finally climbed downstairs – M’s parents were long gone to work – and found a delicious bag of chocolate chip cookies and a small black piece of what turned out to be my car.



I really couldn’t face the awful reality of it so I sipped some coffee, checked my email, puttered, and finally surrendered to the voicemail and the evidence on the back of my PT Cruiser: M’s dad, perhaps sleepy from what was for him a late night (I did consider the possibility of displaced anger … ), had banged into my car. It was a rather small area but he did manage to hurt three different parts: the tail light, the bumper and the back fender.



On the way home, the GPS worked great (I also had M’s mom’s GPS as backup), the wobbliness was fairly contained, nothing fell off the car, and, now, the challenge is before me for this week: to rush repair or rent for the rest of the tour?



I’m mulling, I’m mulling.