a home without a country
Achy Obejas’s story collection, The Tower of the Antilles (Akashic Books), is haunted. It’s a book populated with Cubans and Cuban-Americans who, either literally or emotionally, cannot escape the island of their birth.
There are several stories in this collection that I love and make me wish I were still an academic so I could foist them onto students for years to come. In “Kimberle,” a Cuban-American college student invites a suicidal friend to stay in her apartment and piece her life together. Over the course of their co-habitation, valuable books begin disappearing from the narrator’s bookshelf, and her suicidal friend keeps inviting strangers into the narrator’s bed for encounters that quickly blur all the lines of their relationship. There’s also a lot of roasted meats and a serial killer (or killers) on the loose in their small Indiana town. In one scene, the narrator recalls a drive she takes with Kimberle:
Without another word, Kimberle aimed the Toyota out of town, past the last deadbeat bar, the strip malls, and the trailer parks, past the ramp to the interstate, until she entered a narrow gravel road with dry cornstalks blossoming on either side. There was a brackish smell, the tang of wet dirt and nicotine. The Toyota danced on the gravel but Kimberle, bent over the wheel, maintained a determined expression.
“Are you ready?”
“Ready…? For what?” I asked, my fingers clutching the shoulder belt.
“This,” she whispered. Then she turned off the headlights.
And in “Supermán,” Obejas uses a legendary construct—literally, each paragraph begins “They say”—to tell the story of Enrique, a small-town hero and sexual stunt performer whose fame and love life are threatened by the Cuban revolution. Here’s the stellar opening:
They say that, for the longest time, Enrique didn’t know he was a superman. What he understood was that men liked his dick. He’d known it since he was a boy, when an older neighbor had kiddingly pushed him into the water off the Malecón and stared at the wet outline of his member after they dragged themselves laughing up to the rocks.
In truth, many of the stories that didn’t excite me would have been more resonant for me if I could have heard them in the author’s voice. There is a clear musicality and poetry to the kinds of circular rhythms that Obejas slides into that would dazzle an audience at a reading. But at my picnic table in the yard, some of these circuits felt more dizzying than clarifying. In the interest of being an honest critic, I will admit that it was hard for me to meet the work where it lives, and embrace the more lyrical stories: “The Collector,” “North/South,” “Waters,” and the title story. This is not the author’s fault. I think our politics have knocked some of the poetry out of my ear, and it makes sentences like “The children bop under the surface like slow-motion dancers, their muffled torches blinking while the aunts splash and scream, pulling up bunches of sea grapes and fistfuls of sand” from “North/South” a bit harder to hold on to and appreciate. Readers who are more adept at making the switch from grounded stories to lyrical ones within the same collection will find this book even more satisfying than I did.
Obejas’s sentences often glisten with sparkling images, and the concreteness of stories about suicidal kleptomaniacs and depressed brothel performers makes the less tangible, more sensually lyric stories feel a bit hollower by comparison. I’m glad to have read these stories, even if too many of the characters share a similar kind of obsession with permutations of immigrant identity. I’m glad because Obejas reminded me that home as an idea is a deeply unstable thing. And whether we ever leave them, our homes can and do often leave us behind.