The Rumpus Book Club chats with Achy Obejas about her new story collection, The Tower of the Antilles (Akashic Books, July 2017), the differences between working in fiction and journalism, what she’s learned from translating works of others, writing toward a “primordial Cuba,” and why we should all read poetry every day.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming writers include Wioletta Greg, Carmen Maria Machado, Jon McGregor, Kate Braverman, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Marisa Siegel.
Marisa: Welcome the The Rumpus Book Club chat with Achy Obejas about her just-released collection, The Tower of the Antilles!
Achy: Hi! So ready to try and answer your questions!
Marisa: Let’s get started! Achy, you write fiction, poetry, and have also had a long career in journalism Do you have different writing processes for each genre? Which genre did you first land on when you began to write? Your fiction is so poetic that my guess would be poetry… but I’m often wrong. 🙂
Achy: Oh, you guessed right! I started writing poetry in grade school.
Achy: I even won a statewide poetry contest in Indiana when I was in sixth grade. And poetry is, other than news, probably what I read the most at this time in my life.
Marisa: Who do you read/who were your foundational poets?
Marisa: I also started writing poetry in grade school (I often joke I wrote poems before I knew what they were), and I think those first poets I pulled off the library shelves continue to influence me, even if they’re no longer my favorites.
Achy: Each genre has its own process. I’m very intuitive about poetry. I usually write first and second drafts out by hand. The other end of the spectrum is journalism, which is much more cerebral, more thought-out and planned. Fiction lies somewhere in between. I usually start intuitively but eventually I need to stop and consider structure, or research, or both.
Achy: I think the first poet that really caught my attention as a kid was e. e. cummings, which I think is not unusual for an American-educated fifth- or sixth-grader.
Marisa: Me, too! I was just discussing that with another writer, that his work allows a young writer to find so many ways to play with language.
Achy: But the first poet that got under my skin, the one who really made me want to write, too, was probably Alurista, a Mexican-American/Chicano poet.
Eva Woods: Hi! I’m late, so sorry!
Achy: My parents had brought home a Chicano lit anthology—I think it was the first one ever—I still have it—and I couldn’t stop reading his stuff over and over. Then I discovered Miguel Piñero, the Nuyorican poet. And in college, my first serious lover turned me on to Olga Broumas, Judy Grahn, and Adrienne Rich.
Marisa: Do you have a favorite story in Tower?
Achy: I have different favorites in Tower but the two that always hover around #1 are “Kimberle” and “Supermán.”
Eva Woods: “Kimberle” was my favorite!
Marisa: Yes! I have questions about both, and “Kimberle” is hands-down my favorite.
Eva Woods: My jaw dropped at the end, and I immediately read it again.
Achy: Ooooh I love that!
Eva Woods: Part of why I liked it is that I like female bad guys. I don’t think we get enough of those.
Achy: Oh god, I couldn’t agree more!
Marisa: “Kimberle” was such a swerve from “The Collector,” too. I was immediately snapped into a totally different voice and reality.
Eva Woods: If there’s anything you want to share about the process of writing that, I’d love to hear. I’m a horror fan, and didn’t see horror coming, but was so glad to find it.
Marisa: Did you order the collection yourself? Was that an aim?
Achy: Yeah very different moods, and modalities, there. For starters, “Kimberle” was originally written in Spanish.
Achy: I wrote “Kimberle” in Cuba, during a very hot sweltering summer, bizarrely missing the Midwest.
Eva Woods: Do you usually write in Spanish or no?
Achy: I had been hanging out with Ena Lucía Portela, a Cuban writer who writes a lot about murder, and I had just finished editing Havana Noir.
Marisa: Havana Noir is an awesome anthology; Eva, you’d really enjoy those stories.
Eva Woods: I ordered it!
Achy: So I think I was in very noir-ish place. Cuba is very much that way, too, so everything just kind of lent itself to that. Plus, I went to school in Bloomington, and it seemed every year, girls disappeared. We were always terrified of being one of those girls found in the fields in the spring.
Eva Woods: Jesus, that’s awful that that was inspired by real life!
Marisa: You give a little bit of (what I read) as your thoughts on language in the beginning of “Waters.” I had the same question as Eva: do you usually write in Spanish first? What language do you dream in?
Achy: I don’t usually write in Spanish, but that’s mostly because I’m usually in an English-language environment.
Eva Woods: That seems romantic to me, writing in Spanish while you’re missing the Midwest.
Achy: I do have one story, about thirty years old, that can’t seem to decide if it’s in English or Spanish. I feel like I’ll never finish it because of that.
Eva Woods: Wow!
Marisa: Ooh I want to read that story!
Eva Woods: Probably just publish it in half and half.
Achy: M, to answer your other question—yes, I curated the collection, laid out the order of the stories. I was trying to go from a place of exile back to Cuba, but to a different, sort of primordial Cuba.
Eva Woods: When your books get translated into Spanish, do you do the translation?
Achy: I try not to. It really is like writing the story all over again, and the temptation to edit is great.
Marisa: I was just going to ask how your work in translation plays into your own writing (or if it does at all).
Achy: But I feel possessive about stories I write in Spanish and so I usually end up translating those into English myself.
Eva Woods: Oooh I can imagine. What you said about a “primordial Cuba” is AMAZING.
Achy: Translation has absolutely affected my writing, in really profound ways.
Marisa: Do you have a favorite work you’ve translated? I wish my Spanish was good enough to read your translation of Junot Díaz. I find the entire idea of translation so fascinating.
Achy: I’ve gotten to try on voices very different than my own, and I’ve become much more aware of structure than ever before. Also, you really weigh every word. There’s no closer reading then when you read to translate.
Marisa: I never thought of that! The part where you are learning from other writers as you do the work. That’s perfect and seems so obvious now that you’ve said it.
Eva Woods: What do you think the effect of the embargo ending is going to be, culturally?
Marisa: Alongside Eva’s question about the embargo ending, I’m wondering what your feelings as a writer are given our… political environment. Do you feel a calling to write more politically or return to journalistic writing?
Achy: Well, I think we’re a long way from the embargo ending. Look at what just happened with the rollback of Obama’s Cuba policies. Two idiot congressmen convinced our idiot president to make it harder on Cubans on the island.
Marisa: It’s terrible. So much progress undone. I studied Cuba pretty intensely as an undergrad in a course that culminated in a trip to the island I missed due to travel anxiety (a huge regret), but I know more about Cuban history and especially what the embargo has done than I otherwise would’ve.
Achy: And the embargo ending requires an act of Congress… and I don’t see the Democrats winning the Senate back in ’18.
Eva Woods: I don’t, either. Which is depressing. This kind of goes with Marisa’s question about journalistic writing, but I’d like to know if the political climate has affected your work? It has for me, a lot. I have a harder time making things now.
Achy: The legacy of the embargo will be Cuba’s poverty and desperation. When the island comes out of it, they’ll be even more desperate than they are now about the things they think they’ve missed. I think one of the unintended results of the embargo is that Cuba is quite consumerist—and I’m talking about the people, not the government or the official propaganda.
Marisa: What I remember most from that class was thinking, Why did we (the American government) ever think this was good policymaking? Why are we still enforcing this now? And that would have been in 2004, when I was a junior in college. I was also more naive/hopeful then.
Achy: Journalism is not something I miss a lot, I have to say.
Achy: I sometimes feel a rush to say things, and sometimes I’ll reach out to friends and publish an essay or opinion piece, but journalism requires a different mindset than literature.
Marisa: Politics are definitely present within your fiction, though. You are writing with specific contexts in mind.
Achy: Journalism is very much public writing, writing with an audience in mind, writing for publication, and frequently writing quickly. And I know that when I worked daily journalism it really affected my patience with literature, which I think requires reflection, and a different kind of engagement.
Eva Woods: That is super interesting. I hadn’t thought of the mindsets of the two before.
Achy: In journalism, if there’s a hole in your story you figure out a way around it because you’ve got a 4 p.m. deadline. It’s a neat skill to have but it’s deadly for literature. In literature, you need to stare at that hole, not ignore it. You need to figure it out.
Achy: I do write with politics in mind, no question about it. I think it’d be hard not to if you’re a queer little Jewish Cubana.
Eva Woods: Hahaha, true.
Achy: Who’s also a mom of a very light-skinned half-Cuban boy being raised with another woman.
Eva Woods: Ooh how old is your son?
Achy: Because our everyday lives involve engaging very overtly political situations.
Marisa: Has being a mom changed your work? I have an almost three-year-old and have found it so much harder to write.
Achy: He’s five-and-a-half.
Achy: It’s way harder to write, no question. I’ve ended up writing more stories.
Marisa: Of course, I also in that time became Managing Editor, and then Editor-in-Chief/owner of a literary site, and spend a lot of time editing and reading. But inside my mind, it’s mostly all mom stuff, all the time right now.
Eva Woods: I have a twelve-year-old. I loved five!
Achy: I’m taking forever on this next novel…
Eva Woods: Can we ask what it’s about?
Marisa: Do you still write poetry?
Achy: You’re doing pretty great, M!
Marisa: ::blushes:: Thank you! Trying!
Achy: I’ve been writing more poetry, yes. But you know, I don’t really attribute that to him so much.
Marisa: What do you teach at Mills? (Disclaimer: I have my MFA in poetry from Mills and was so excited to learn they have you there right now!)
Achy: This is going to sound nuts but it took me forever to figure out why I’d stopped writing poetry—I mean, I went about a decade where I wrote very little poetry and I thought it was because I was doing a weekly blog. And then when we moved, I reconfigured my writing desk. The previous one had had very little space to write by hand. And suddenly, the poetry was gushing!
Marisa: That doesn’t sound nuts to me! I wrote poetry like breathing for most of my life, but for the last four years it’s been like pulling teeth.
Achy: So, it was more a mechanical problem than anything else.
Marisa: Yes, I need to get off the computer sometimes and back to the notebook, I think.
Achy: E, the novel is a dystopian thing that was initially inspired by Conrad’s “Amy Foster,” a short story about a castaway who lands in England.
Eva Woods: I love a good dystopia. Since the election, I think, they’ve been my favorites?
Marisa: Well, our real world is ever more dystopian, so that makes sense.
Achy: But it has since evolved. It’s become something much different, and inadvertently about healthcare, and about what it means to have good health, and to be able to have good health.
Marisa: That sounds fascinating!
Achy: So much depends on our health, and we tend to take it so for granted.
Marisa: Is this an English or Spanish novel?
Eva Woods: Oooh that’s so interesting! I love that theme.
Achy: It’s in English. And takes place on an unnamed island that has a very extensive healthcare system…
Eva Woods: I think a lot about the word “healthy.” And who’s called it, and why.
Eva Woods: Marisa and I have a friend who writes about being fat, and how her health is always up for debate.
Achy: Yeah, that’s nuts.
Eva Woods: But at the same time, she gets worse medical treatment for the same reason.
Eva Woods: This is such a cool topic and I can’t wait to read the book.
Achy: There are so many assumptions at work about who is and isn’t healthy, and about who has a right, if any, to healthcare.
Eva Woods: YES!
Achy: And there are also a lot of variations on “healthcare,” and I don’t mean just by the GOP.
Eva Woods: I’m a reproductive rights activist, and what is called healthcare is a huge struggle for us.
Achy: I can imagine. My wife works as a doula and she spends so much time just educating people about simple things, like that they’re in charge of their labor.
Eva Woods: Like the framing of “choice” has hurt us in some ways because abortion isn’t seen as a medical procedure…
Eva Woods: Oh, that’s wonderful!
Achy: Oh god, yes, exactly.
Achy: Interestingly, in Cuba abortion is treated as lightly as getting a mole removed, which causes other problems.
Marisa: I used a doula and even though I ended up having a C-section she was so helpful to me. And I’m an educated woman who certainly speaks her mind, but in that situation, you really do need an advocate.
Achy: Totally! Just the other day, my wife was on the phone with a client and the conversation was about how she was in charge, that she got to decide.
Marisa: But even then, there are so many issues of privilege and access. I thought about that so much during my pregnancy. I think every woman should have access to a doula if she wants one, but it’s certainly not affordable for many women.
Eva Woods: I signed myself out of the hospital early after my daughter was born, because I was up and eating pizza and fine, and they acted like I was insane. I had a perfectly normal birth.
Achy: Yeah… both childbirth and abortion are medical procedures but neither is an illness, and sometimes they’re both treated as such.
Eva Woods: Your wife sounds amazing! I have to run, but thank you so much for chatting! I really loved the book.
Marisa: Thank you, Eva!
Achy: Thanks, E! So happy you liked it!
Eva Woods: See you on the Internet!
Marisa: Achy, before we run out of time, I want to ask a few more questions about Tower. We got some of the context and origin for “Kimberle.” I’m dying to hear about where “Supermán” came from! What a strange and layered story that was.
Achy: Thank you! “Supermán” is about a real person, a guy who worked at the Shanghai, which was a real place, just as described, with almost one thousand seats it could fill in its heyday.
Marisa: It did feel like something that almost had to be rooted in a real story, if that makes sense.
Achy: I first heard about Supermán from my dad.
Marisa: Ha! That must’ve been an interesting conversation.
Achy: And some of my uncles, because of course they all had gone to the Shanghai.
Achy: So weird, though it didn’t sound weird at the time. Because it was just one more fantastic story about Cuba.
Marisa: I think hearing a story like that, you almost have an obligation to turn it into fiction!
Achy: Some of the guys I know in Cuba mentioned him, too, and I went to Los Sitios because I heard about the graffiti, which was there.
Achy: About a year ago, a Miami publication sent two reporters to Cuba to look for Supermán, but the truth is that no one knows what happened to him after the revolution. And so I decided to do some research, and I found the stories about Ava Gardner and Brando.
Marisa: Oh, wow. So a lot of the story has foundations in reality. That’s fascinating.
Achy: And I researched the Shanghai, which was an amazing place, and even had its own daycare and tutors for the performers’ kids.
Marisa: Wow! That is amazing. That’s a whole separate book. Or a very in-depth article.
Achy: The Brando quote in the story actually comes from a New Yorker story, in 1958, after he did Guys and Dolls and had come back from Havana.
Achy: Oh god, yes, the Shanghai deserves its own book.
Marisa: It’s becoming apparent how your journalism background sneaks into your fiction process!
Achy: Oh absolutely. I’m never afraid of research. I relish it!
Marisa: We only have a few moments left. We didn’t delve into teaching much, but what is one piece of writing advice you always offer to students?
Achy: To read, and to write every day. To read everything, even stuff they think they’ll hate. To read the classics and to read trash. To read nonfiction, and most of all, to read poetry.
Marisa: Yes. I had a poetry professor at Mills who made us write every day, and I wrote a lot of crap, but also some great stuff that I never would’ve gotten to otherwise.
Achy: Juliana Spahr?
Marisa: Stephen Ratcliffe. But Juliana is another HUGE influence on my writing, and the workshop I took with her was part of that.
Achy: I tell people to have a relationship with their work every day, even if it means you just move a comma.
Marisa: I’ve found, in the wake of the election, that poetry suddenly feels very critical again. I hope that people will read the work of poets like Solmaz Sharif, Kaveh Akbar, Nikki Wallschlaeger, Ocean Vuong, Saeed Jones, Mai Der Vang, Danez Smith, Jennifer S. Cheng, and so many others that are just telling the truths that can’t be said in other forms.
Achy: I don’t know if you know what’s going on at Mills, but Stephen was just fired. He’s one of the five tenured professors who were booted because of a declared financial emergency. It’s an outrageous, scandalous thing. Stephen is terrific.
Marisa: I do know. I wasn’t sure if that was off the table. I have a lot of feelings about that, and about tenure and how professors are treated in general. A professor at Mills once told us never to go into academia if we wanted to be treated well in our jobs.
Marisa: And to fire tenured professors, when it’s so hard to get there… it is scandalous. I loved my time at Mills, and often recommend the program, so I was very sad to learn this happened.
Achy: Not off the table—Mills, I suspect, is either going to be turned into some vocational school by the new president or will slowly die.
Marisa: It’s such a shame. It was a truly diverse writing program, which is rare, and allowed us to study inside and outside our genres. And I worked with undergrads both through teaching composition and through volunteering as a TA in women’s studies courses and the undergrads were remarkable.
Achy: It’s a beautiful school, with great history, and amazingly dedicated and accomplished professors. I wish the board appreciated them.
Marisa: I hate to think of it dying slowly or becoming anything other than a liberal arts school that offers access to more people than most do.
Achy: I suspect the real fireworks will come in the fall, when students are back. The firings happened during break, when no one was around.
Marisa: Yes, which was cowardly. I hope the student population will respond. I know some of my graduate class cohort has been trying to organize some response.
Achy: Me, too. I’ve loved my time there. Looooved my students (I’ve taught writing and craft and translation); loved my colleagues.
Marisa: We do have to wrap up, but thank you so much for your candidness and for writing such a powerful collection! I can’t wait to see what you publish next.
Achy: Thank you so much for having me! Loved talking with you!
Marisa: Same! A truly wonderful conversation.
Achy: See you next time!
Author photograph © Megan Bayles.