“THE MALDIVES,” a story included in Achy Obejas’s most recent collection, The Tower of the Antilles (Akashic Books), is about a woman leaving her cramped, limited home in Cuba for the United States. She’s lesbian, and in the process of being “saved” from her country by a father who is determined to convert her to Christianity, and whom she never gets to see. Of course, she doesn’t get saved in the way she thought she would, either. The story’s pragmatic voice and its themes of dislocation and everyday hardship are all typical of Obejas’s body of work. A journalist, and the author of three novels, a poetry chapbook, and numerous works of translation, Antilles is her second story collection. Her writing consistently asks how much access we have to each other and to ourselves. It questions the limits put on place and belonging for those who don’t fit one or many of the cultural stipulations about correct behavior, level of ability, sexual orientation and expression, gender, or religion. Foremost, however, Obejas understands that language is access.
The Tower of the Antilles houses 10 stories. The first and last tell a kind of fragmented origin narrative, bookending the more personal tales, and they begin with the same first line: “What is your name?” They are delivered in numbered sections; the first has seven, the last has six. The seven parts of the first evoke the Biblical creation narrative’s seven days. Called “The Collector,” it seems to alternate between two distinct time-periods — one primitive, one modern. The pieces come together, however, to show that this difference is of language, not of time. The islanders “had no calendar, no writing system, and kept track of days by counting on their fingers and toes.” When “visitors” first came to the island, the natives asked “through grunts and signs” how the new people had arrived. “We sailed on these big boats, said the visitors.” But the islanders saw no boats — theirs were small, made from maca trees. These visitors came on “caravels, each sporting three lateen sails angled against the wind.” After this encounter, the unnamed protagonist begins collecting all manner of sailing craft, renting spaces to keep them. In the end though, he undoes “each and every vessel,” and inventories the parts, “folding the fabrics left to right” like flags. Rather than a creation to begin with, we are given a discovery followed by a dissembling, as if to set us up for the clash that happens internally for people of colonized lands. Without the pre-packaged, acceptable identity of the mainstream, characters in Obejas’s fiction frequently encounter small identity crises.
Obejas writes with gentleness, without flashy wording or gimmicks, about people trying to figure out where they belong. For example, in a story from her 1994 collection We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?, the protagonist’s friend is “too indio to be Mexican, and too Spanish to be Indian.” Her stories center around ill people, men who can’t face their attraction to other men, and a pair of women who sex-play with guacamole and put it back in the refrigerator afterward, only to have their male roommate eat it (unaware of its recent use). None of her characters is perfect; most of them are a little mean. In Antilles though, it’s impossible to miss the tenderness with which these flawed creations are handled. She’s both keenly aware of all the ways that people behave badly and of the complex emotional states from which those behaviors stem.
Full of odd, erotic encounters, Obejas’s work ripples with subtle humor. The titular character in “Kimberle” at one point wears “a harness with a summer sausage dangling from it.” The protagonist of “Kimberle” works for a man who smokes meats, and flesh is strewn throughout the story, so when the “summer sausage” shows up in the harness, it makes strange sense. “Kimberle” is about lust, need, violence, and precariousness, but these themes arise organically from the events, from the women’s dialogue and their choices, not from any summation by the author. Speaking with The New Yorker in January, writer Yiyun Li said, “With fiction one creates a set of characters and does everything possible to give them the space to live, including never interpreting them or analyzing them.” This is what Obejas does.
The two most affecting stories in the collection follow lead characters who have difficulty hearing, allowing Obejas to play with language in a way that perhaps only she and fellow translators can. “The Sound Catalog” follows Dulce through an inventory of heard things: “The radiator hissing,” “A bell,” “A thousand katydids.” Attached to each of these is a memory of Dulce’s. In one section, Obejas shows that learning a new language can be like the experience of having limited hearing. Dulce faces both challenges; her ESL teacher illustrates common American expressions through props. For one session, she brings a bell. “Whenever you hear a bell ring,” Dulce hears her teacher say, “anger turns on a swing.” By the time Dulce learns the actual adage, it has lost all possibility for meaning, and she concludes that she hears better in her native Spanish. Like the islanders from the first story, Dulce faces a problem that’s at once physical and intellectual. The islanders saw the boats but didn’t recognize them as boats, and so didn’t have language for them. Dulce neither recognizes the words very well nor hears them clearly, and so can’t attach the intended meaning to them. She recedes back to her own plane of understanding. Obejas lines up these spheres of knowledge and presents seeing and communicating with all of their limitations. In doing so, she demonstrates how easy it would be for the more powerful interlocutor to presume that the people facing these limits were in some way dull, rather than understanding that the system in which they were trying to function wasn’t built for them.
One of the last stories in Antilles, “The Maldives” best exemplifies Obejas’s multilayered awareness. It follows an unnamed woman as she leaves Cuba for the United States. Shortly before leaving, her ear begins to feel plugged. At the airport, though quite emotional, she discovers she can’t cry. A twitch in her eye makes her stop to consider if her symptoms are psychosomatic — is she dreading seeing her father? She eschews the plan to continue traveling to meet him, and instead settles with an American acquaintance. Shortly thereafter, she seems restored to perfect health, but her relief will be temporary.
The procedure she needs would be impossible in a Cuban hospital — this is no spoiler; the story begins with a brain tumor diagnosis — and herein we reach the crux of Obejas’s work. The systems Cubans fled weren’t working, but, as the protagonist of “The Maldives” discovers, the US systems aren’t either. She doesn’t have the money for medical care in the United States, and knows that if she returns to Cuba, it will only be so her family can care for her. She buys a one-way ticket to the Maldives, the country being consumed by the sea, an effect of climate change, and where the Maldivian president says he wants “the world to take responsibility.”
After arriving in the Maldives, the protagonist gets a job washing dishes:
I figure I can do that, or maybe gardening, until my eyes fail. Then I will sail to one of those islands where no one goes […] I will sink into the firmament of the Maldives one centimeter at a time and let the waters rise, lifting me, guiding me through the silent dark to my own Atlantis.
The talk of waters rising and the word “firmament” again, as with the collection’s inaugural story, evoke the Biblical. The language we use and the stories we tell impact the futures we can imagine, but they are also restricted by what has come before. Obejas’s Cuban characters, like most Americans, have limited access to the resources they need. One gets the sense that Obejas, like the Maldivian president, thinks it is time that the world takes these systemic problems on.