SEPTEMBER 6, 2017
AFTER FLEEING Castro’s revolution, my grandparents and mom settled in the exile enclave surrounding Union City, New Jersey. There, they were joined by a large population of Cuban exiles distributed among the collection of dense urban cities and townships just across the river from Manhattan. In his later years, my grandfather Pepe loved nothing more than to walk a circuit from one convenience store to the next, chatting with acquaintances and buying lottery tickets. When I was five years old, my parents left Jersey for the warmer climates and cheaper housing of Florida. My grandparents stayed behind.
If Pepe’s life-in-exile in the North provided some semblance of the community that he’d known back on the island, our home in the Americano suburbs of south Florida did not. We lived an hour and a half’s drive from Miami and there wasn’t anywhere to stroll to in our subdivision. For my grandfather, who never learned English and loved to go on walks, visits down South became tedious. My brother and I went to school and both my parents worked, leaving him with scant opportunities for a robust social life. On evenings and weekends, fishing excursions and trips to the ice cream shop provided some entertainment, but during the weekdays, Pepe’s primary distraction became the radio. He listened non-stop to Radio Mambí, a Miami-based news/talk radio channel operated by Univision that frequently included counter-revolutionary programming. Sitting in a folding chair in our garage, Pepe spent his days playing the lotto scratch-offs my parents bought for him and offering his nihilistic take on whatever topic the disc jockeys happened to be discussing at the moment. (Castro wasn’t the first dictator to seize control of Cuba and I’m certain my grandfather doubted he’d be the last.) It was an isolated life, removed from Cuba and Union City, but the disembodied voices carried aloft on radio waves filled in, to the extent that they could, the gaps between here and there.
I’ve never visited Cuba. My parents left when they were children. I know nothing of what life is like on the island. My concept of Cuba is filtered through the nostalgia and homesickness of people who fled more than half a century ago with young families and little more than faith in a better life Stateside. Yet, it’s impossible to excise the country entirely from my identity. My childhood is the product of Cuba — the food and language, yes, but also the way that we related to ourselves, each other and the world — even though my entire life has taken place elsewhere. This sense of cultural dislocation is not a uniquely generational phenomenon, however. Rather, as Cuban-American author Achy Obejas demonstrates in her new collection of stories, The Tower of the Antilles, that in-betweenness is the product of exile steeped in a moment of separation.
Exile is a murky subject that inevitably calls into question what it means to be Cuban — on and off the island; then, now, and in the future. Obejas came to this country as a refugee and her stories offer a nuanced view of the changes that take place within refugee communities over the course of a prolonged exile. Caught between the United States and Cuba, her characters often feel adrift, caught between nations, diverting cultures and languages. These feelings often manifest in their bodies and in their interactions with others. The Tower of the Antilles reveals the extraordinary power that feelings of instability and in-betweenness arising from the trauma of exile hold over those who leave and those who stay. Reconciling the two iterations of dislocation proves more challenging than either group would admit.
To be Cuban is, in many ways, to wish to be someone else, somewhere else. The disembodied voice of the collective exile community in “Exile” describes this desire as a longing for alternate national and ethnic identities. “We wanted to be Jews. We wanted to be Polish or German. We would have settled for Danish,” the narrator explains. “We explained that where we come from the greatest achievement is to leave.” Yet, if leaving is a wish at the heart of Cuban identity, it is also a source of anger and resentment for those left behind. In “The Cola of Oblivion,” a chorus of Cubans that the narrator is visiting vent their frustration at the poor treatment they’ve received from a countryman who’s fled. “Carmela abandoned us,” they say. “Like so many others. As soon as she was settled in her new life, she forgot about us.” Though they may be hurt by her refusal to send back even “a single vitamin [or] a throat lozenge,” they must also admit that Carmela’s exile was their own doing: they’d denounced her as counter-revolutionary to Castro’s government. Envy for her new life in the United States only further complicates their feelings, as evidenced by the question they pose to the narrator before not-so-subtly asking for money: “[H]ave you thanked your parents for that, for taking you?” The flight that abandoned friends back home saved the children borne away from the island and its troubles.
For Cubans who do manage to make it out, the experience can create a sense of instability when abroad that, for Obejas, is often rendered through a physical deterioration that symbolizes the severing of community. “Kimberle” tells the story of two best friends — the unnamed bisexual narrator and her troubled, sometimes-lover, the eponymous Kimberle. The pair are college students in Indiana and vaguely worried about becoming the next victims of a serial killer who abducts and kills one girl each fall. Of larger concern for the narrator, however, is Kimberle’s suicidal ideation and penchant for stealing her prized first-edition books. “I was a bit unsteady myself,” the narrator explains, “afflicted with the kind of loneliness that’s felt in the gut like a chronic and never fully realized nausea.” Her nauseous loneliness is rooted in homesickness. The narrator of “Kimberle” is living away from her mother for the first time and while distance affords her some advantages — sexual exploration without fear of parental reprisals, for instance — it also leaves her adrift. Clinging to her rare book collection provides continuity between her past life, her current life, and the life she is yet to live. This tension between the freedom of life in a new place and the desire for connection to a past that exists only in fragments is emblematic of the exile condition Obejas sketches in The Tower of the Antilles.
The physical cost of dislocation is also a focus for Dulce, the protagonist of “The Sound Catalog,” who suffers from hearing loss. Though the reason for her illness is never explained, exile seems to exacerbate it in odd ways. For instance, caffeine — the kind found in Cuban café con leche — we’re told, constricts the blood vessels in her ears, making it harder for her to hear. Ironically, the café she consumed back home was often cut with crushed peas that reduced the stimulant’s negative effects. These additions, Obejas suggests, were just some of the things lost in the movement from Cuba to the United States. There are, of course, advantages to exile for Dulce and her nameless “Cuban ex-lover.” In Chicago, their love, which “no one had ever talked about […] before, not openly […] not in any way she could hear and understand” in Cuba, is embraced by Dulce’s family. Eventually, the pair link up with other Cuban exiles. While Dulce doesn’t “recognize the Cuba they long for,” she nonetheless enjoys slipping into “her easy, casual Spanish” with the exile community in Chicago. Yet even in this moment of apparent connection, Obejas is quick to point out that exile closes off avenues of community, as Dulce increasingly isolates herself from group discussions due to her hearing loss.
Hearing loss comes up again in “The Maldives,” where the narrator initially attributes her sudden impairment to the stress of leaving the island to reunite with her estranged father in the United States. “[O]ver the next few days my hearing seemed to fluctuate wildly,” she notes. “Most of the time, it felt like everything was at a great distance, as if everyone were talking to me from the bottom of the sea.” Her hearing loss turns out to be the result of a tumor that will be fatal if she doesn’t remove it. As an immigrant working under the table, she lacks insurance and can’t afford the expensive operation. She briefly considers returning to Cuba, but dismisses that option in a not-so-subtle swipe at the much-vaunted Cuban healthcare system: “I didn’t want to have brain surgery at a hospital where the power went off and on without regard to what was happening on the operating table.” By associating the tumor so closely with finances, Obejas draws our focus to the support networks that are the vital lifeblood of exiles everywhere. In the end, the narrator is faced with two options: either she returns to Cuba and uses the money that she’s saved to compel her family to care for her throughout her decline, or she uses it to fly out to the Maldives where she will drown herself. She chooses the latter.
Throughout the collection, Obejas grapples with the legacy of a long exile for people separated by small geographic distance but long experiential histories. For the communities in Miami, New Jersey, Chicago, and elsewhere, the metaphor of sensory loss is apt. Leaving Cuba removes a person from their community without, necessarily, providing an acceptable replacement. For those who remain, familial bonds can become uncomfortably conflated with financial support and oscillating feelings of envy and moral superiority. Both groups harbor an aspiration for reconciliation, suggesting that the Cuban impulse to leave finds its inevitable conclusion in a desire to return.
The unnamed narrator of “Waters” embodies that desire, returning to Cuba to visit Isabel, a mutual lover’s ex-girlfriend. Her attempts to reconnect with her native land are frustrated, first by a well-known poet and, later, by locals who insist on treating her as an outsider. “We must create a place for poets like you, who write in English,” the poet tells her when they first meet. “A Cuban place, of course, yet different.” The narrator pushes back, determined to claim her mainstream Cuban identity despite also embracing an identity as a Cuban American, as evidenced by her usage of English in some of her poems and Spanish in others. “‘The poet’s true language is the one in which he thinks,’ [her] host announced abruptly. ‘And you? In what language do you think?’ ‘It depends,’ [the narrator says]. ‘Right now, I was thinking in Spanish. […] I go back and forth, depending on who I’m with, what I’m doing.’” The poet is not impressed and the meeting ends shortly afterward. Here, Obejas points us to the ways in which language both unifies and divides communities across space, time, and experience.
When the narrator and Isabel encounter a group of prostitutes later in the story, she must again defend her identity as a Cuban. While neither woman is interested in buying sex, the narrator is fixated on one of the prostitutes, a young woman named Mayra. The narrator identifies herself as Cuban and seeks an affirmation Mayra refuses to give, glowering at Isabel, “full of pride and hate.” The story ends when the narrator reencounters Mayra at a nightclub. Mayra doesn’t recognize her this time, instead hailing her “as if [they’re] old friends, perhaps neighbors.” The narrator feels “something loosen and drop” within herself at the demonstration of camaraderie. Obejas ends the story here, without telling us whether or not the narrator succeeds in reconciling her experience in exile with her homeland. However, the fact that the possibility of reconciliation seems to only exist in a nightclub — where momentary passions take precedence over enduring socioeconomic and political realities — tells us a bit about the obstacles that face Cubans on either side of the Florida straits. Neither the narrator nor Mayra — who is a stand-in for those who stayed behind while others fled to the United States — have to defend their choices in this setting. Any kind of sustained communion beyond the dance floor, however, will undoubtedly force the question. By focusing on the nightclub, Obejas seems to suggest that reconciliation is possible, but that it may begin within a narrow band of experiences that sidestep political and economic questions in favor of shared cultural experiences.
My grandfather’s final visit to Florida ended with emergency gallbladder surgery. Shortly after his return to New Jersey, the illness that would ultimately claim his life began its prolonged siege. He stopped going on walks. The small handheld radio that had long been his companion in Florida resumed its role in Jersey, where he soon found other voices of community, resistance, and exile all talking across and over each other on the AM dial. It wasn’t Radio Mambí, but it probably sounded a lot like it.
Dan Lopez is the author of The Show House, named a Best Book of 2016 by the Chicago Review of Books, and the short story collection, Part the Hawser, Limn the Sea, a Lambda Literary Award finalist. You can visit his website at danlopezauthor.com.