A Future That Rests with the Fate of the Oppressed: On Rita Indiana’s “Tentacle”
By Kristie SoaresFebruary 1, 2019
Tentacle by Rita Indiana
The novel centers on Acilde Figueroa, a sex worker and maid turned prophet, who is tasked with saving the oceans from ecological destruction. Acilde is introduced to the reader as a woman, but is soon revealed to be a trans man in search of the funds needed to obtain a gender reassignment. Upon the death of his mentor, the spiritual leader Omicunlé, Acilde assumes the responsibility of traveling back in time to prevent the Dominican president from allowing Venezuela to store its biological weapons in the Caribbean sea. If he is unsuccessful, the weapons will be dumped into the ocean after a seaquake destroys their holding cell. To accomplish this, Acilde, as well as other characters in the novel, learns to exist in various timelines dating as far back as the 17th century.
The fact that the fate of the world is placed upon the shoulders of Acilde, a trans white-passing Dominican man, itself makes this novel worth a read. The narrative pushes us to consider what the world might look like if its destiny rested upon the marginalized. In a future plagued by extreme consumerism and grotesque violence, it is Acilde who has the power to travel into the past and save humankind from itself.
Acilde is not an idealized character, however, and his complex positionality allows the reader to engage with the messy power dynamics that surface between oppressed groups. The narrative opens, for instance, with the following grizzly scene:
[Acilde] positions her eye and activates the security camera that faces the street, where she sees one of the many Haitians who’ve crossed the border, fleeing from the quarantine declared on the other half of the island.
Recognizing the virus in the black man, the security mechanism in the tower releases a lethal gas and simultaneously informs the neighbors, who will now avoid the building’s entrance until the automatic collectors patrolling the streets and avenues pick up the body and disintegrate it. Acilde waits until the man stops moving to disconnect and return to cleaning the windowpanes, encrusted on a daily basis with sticky soot.
The brutality of Haitian extermination in this scene is a direct reference to the racially loaded conflict that has characterized Dominican-Haitian relations since the colonial era. The Dominican Republic has historically defined itself in opposition to Haitian blackness, with the 1937 Parsley Massacre enacted under the dictator Rafael Trujillo serving as just one gruesome example. This anti-Haitianism was seen most recently in 2013 when a court ruling stripped up to 200,000 Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship status and authorized their deportation (a practice that is ongoing today). Indiana has long been an outspoken critic of anti-Haitian prejudice in the Dominican Republic, so it is no surprise that she would gesture toward it in Tentacle. The fact that the novel depicts a white-passing trans man who is complicit in this extermination marks one of its greatest strengths, in my opinion. Indiana refuses easy solutions, and she reminds us that even a marginalized trans subject can be invested in white privilege.
Readers can see the complicated workings of power within the character of Argenis, as well. Argenis, an artist turned psychic hotline operator, becomes a sort of antagonist in the narrative. His constant racist and misogynistic outbursts shock the reader into confronting the presence of bigotry in this futuristic universe. The fact that these outbursts are also present in his incarnation as a 17th-century French buccaneer, Côte de Fer, reminds the reader that this violent rhetoric is not specific to Argenis. Rather, it was key to the foundation of the Spanish Colony of Santo Domingo (1493), the French Colony of Saint Domingue (1665), the modern Dominican Republic (declared 1821, then redeclared 1844 and 1865) and the 20th-century US occupations of this Caribbean nation (1916–1924 and 1965). In other words, racism and misogyny are not — as we might wish — traits particular to this one unlikable character. They are instead problems of history, with which we must all wrestle.
Of note also is the translator Achy Obejas (who has also translated other seminal works of Latinx literature such as Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao). Obejas is masterful in her ability to preserve the nuances of Dominican Spanish in English. In particular, she chooses to consistently translate the term “maricón” as “faggot” in English, which is notable because the word is frequently and colloquially used in Spanish to mean everything from coward to bastard. Obejas’s dedication to translating it as “faggot” keeps the issues of homophobia and transphobia front and center for the Anglophone reader.
Obejas also chooses to translate the Spanish word “negro” as the n-word in several instances throughout the narrative. Her translation is key to our understanding of Argenis’s character, as it takes great care to distinguish between Argenis’s obsession with blackness and his disdain for black bodies. In the former case, she translates “negro” as “black,” whereas in the latter she uses the n-word. Toggling between the two highlights the fact that anti-blackness often exists at the intersection of fetishism and hatred. We are reminded of this in Obejas’s translations of Argenis’s horrific rape fantasies “in which a black man sodomized her [a prostitute] while a one-armed man cut off her head with a scimitar.” In my view, Obejas’s translation has produced a more nuanced text in these instances, inasmuch as it shines a light on the connotations of anti-blackness that the original Spanish manages to obscure.
Still, there are differences in language for which even Obejas’s translation cannot account. There is, for instance, no way to get around the gendered grammar of Spanish and its disappearance in English. As a result, the reader in the English translation is unable to appreciate that Acilde’s adjectives, as well as his pronouns, are gendered female in the original Spanish prior to his gender reassignment surgery. It is only after his body is graphically altered by Rainbow Brite — a street drug that allows such a procedure to occur without surgery — that the narrative switches to masculine pronouns and adjectives. This dramatic shift makes the scene where he takes Rainbow Brite even more impactful:
At midnight her small breasts began to fill with smoky bubbles as her mammary glands consumed themselves, leaving a wrinkled web that looked like gum around her nipple, which Eric removed with pincers so it wouldn’t get infected. Underneath grew a masculine skin. Her cells reconfigured themselves like worker bees around her jaw, her pectorals, her neck, her forearms, and her back, filling up to become hard where before there were just soft curves.
The use of not only feminine pronouns but also feminine adjectives in the original Spanish version of the scene above highlights the disconnect that Acilde feels between his body and his gender expression. That the narrative itself misgenders Acilde until the reassignment is complete is a painful reminder that transphobia continues to exist, even in the speculative world of the Dominican Republic in 2037.
As may by now be clear, there are parts of Tentacle that are quite difficult to read. This is due not only to the brutality of Indiana’s prose, but also to the impenetrability of the plot structure. For the majority of the narrative, the reader is unaware of exactly how or why characters exist in multiple timelines. As is common in futuristic texts that are not science fiction, the focus is more on the speculative possibilities of this timeline than on the mechanics of the science that makes it possible. Such a setup, however, leaves the reader unsure even of basic plot points.
As frustrated as I was by my sense of confusion while reading, I have come to understand Indiana’s opacity as one of the strengths of her writing. Like fellow Caribbean writer José Lezama Lima (who Indiana has cited as an inspiration), Indiana excels at making the reader feel lost so that they may have a moment of realization. This process is echoed in the character of Argenis, below. Upon realizing that he is living in multiple timelines at once, Argenis responds as follows:
Experiencing these two realities at once was like putting together a jigsaw puzzle on the table while watching the news on TV. The news was his present, predictable and harmless; the world of the buccaneers was the jigsaw puzzle he had to focus on, lifting his head now and again without dropping any pieces. The two suns didn’t compete for his attention, instead appearing one on top of the other, like stacked negatives.
Here Argenis articulates not only his own confusion, but also the sense of disorientation produced in the reader that must likewise try to keep track of the narratives “without dropping any pieces.” I would compel the reader to see the above as a strength of the narrative, rather than a weakness. While it is true that the reader can finish the narrative unsure of the particulars, it is also true that this feeling of bewilderment reinforces Indiana’s main points. It is, in fact, disconcerting that the ecological future of our planet can be guaranteed only by fantastic time traveling. The reader that is not perturbed by this sense of helplessness is perhaps missing the point.
Tentacle is not a book that produces catharsis. It is the opposite. It is a book that demands reflection from its reader and then, hopefully, action. To ignore Indiana’s call to action is to guarantee that history will repeat itself. To quote Omicunlé — head of the Afro-syncretic religion in the narrative and confidant to Trujillo’s successor Joaquín Balaguer — the past was “[a]lmost as bloody as now.” This is perhaps the thesis of Tentacle. The cruelty of the past is also that of the present — a reality ensured by those who cling to power and its many cloaks: white supremacy, misogyny, and transphobia. If the future is to be different, it will be up to the marginalized and to those who are willing to disinvest in privilege. Our planet’s future rests quite literally, the novel suggests, with the fate of the oppressed.
Kristie Soares is an assistant professor of Women & Gender Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. She is also an active performance artist invested in decolonial theater traditions such as spoken word poetry and Theatre of the Oppressed.
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