Havana-born Achy Obejas is the author of “Boomerang/Bumerán,” an unique and inspiring bilingual collection of poetry written in a bold, mostly gender-free English and Spanish that addresses immigration, displacement, love and activism. It was released in fall 2021 by Beacon Press.
Obejas also authored “The Tower of the Antilles,” which was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner award, among other honors. Her novels include “Ruins” and “Days of Awe,” which was a Los Angeles Times Best Books of the Year. Her poetry chapbook, This is What Happened in Our Other Life, was both a critical hit and a national best-seller.
As a translator, Obejas has worked with Wendy Guerra, Rita Indiana, Junot Díaz and Megan Maxwell, among others. She is the recipient of a USA Artists fellowship, an NEA and a Cintas fellowship, among other awards.
She also has worked as a writer/editor for Netflix and taught at Mills College, the University of Chicago and DePaul University. She has worked as a journalist at the Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times, The Washington Post, The Advocate and Ms. magazine and published in many other publications. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including a shared Pulitzer Prize in 2001 and the Studs Terkel Community Journalism Award in 1996.
Obejas was one of the organizers of the #15novCuba Poesiá Sin Fin marathon in support of the recent protests in Cuba. She lives in the San Francisco Bay area.
WHAT INSPIRED THE BOOK?
One of the things about being out here in California is that I have been gender- challenged since the day I got here. I moved in 2013 after teaching at the University of Chicago and DePaul. The issue of something as simple as a pronoun had not been brought up in the intense way that it was here. Walking into my class at Mills College everyone wanted to go around and do their gender pronouns. The notion of it wasn’t new. But the idea of doing it in a class as an introduction was kind of surprising.
The gender constructs that a lot of the young people have has been really interesting to me. They go at the non-binary in very creative and inventive ways. It’s challenged my own thinking about gender.
I started experimenting with my own work and using the “e.” I love what happened, the sound of it and the way it made you rethink the whole relationship. I redid the whole book, after I did the whole manuscript and sent it to Beacon. I took it back and redid the whole thing.
HOW DID YOU DECIDE TO CHANGE THE LANGUAGE IN THE BOOK?
First, I made the decision that I would go with the “e” rather than the “x.” I wanted it to be readable. And the “x,” as you know, in Spanish isn’t very easy to read. In fact, it’s unpronounceable.
I also felt uncomfortable with the blurring of gender on certain subjects. There’s a poem that is dedicated to Ana Mendieta, a tragic figure and an amazing artist who had suffered a lot as a child. She came as a child through the Peter Pan program; she was taken in by a foster family and separated from her family for many, many years. She went from Havana to Iowa. She was someone who suffered greatly by virtue of being a woman and, more specifically, a woman of color. I believe she was killed, when she fell or was pushed out of a window in a high rise in New York, by her then-husband. So many things around Ana had to do with how she was female and struggled against it. She used her very curvy female body, menstrual blood, notions of motherhood and goddesses, so much of her work was wrapped up with femaleness. So much had to do with who she was and what she was as a woman. To blur her gender would take away the reasons for her rage in terms of her being and her artwork.
There’s a brief poem that mentions my mom standing in a line behind [Ernest] Hemingway in Havana. My mom said to me: You know you’re a writer because I used to stand behind Hemingway and I would just suck in his vibe.
I couldn’t render these characters honestly in these pieces unless I recognized their gender. Ditto with Hemingway. How could you possibly blur his masculinity? He is the portrait of toxic masculinity.
There may be some utopia we will get to in which gender is a relic, but I think we’re still a long way from that.
WHAT’S THE HISTORY OF THE “e” and “x”? WHAT IS INNOVATIVE ABOUT YOUR USE OF “e”?
The “e” is not my invention. It’s actually common in Latin America; it’s a response to the “x” actually.
The “e” started to come around at the beginning of the century in response to the “x.” It replaces the gender construct of “a” or “o” in nouns, but it doesn’t address the rest of the language. What ends up happening is that you’re sitting at a feminine table drinking masculine coffee with your ungendered friend. But the table and the coffee remain gendered. I cannot figure out what the utility is of gendering the table or coffee. There’s nothing inherently male about coffee or inherently female about a table. In fact, body parts are a bit confusing in Spanish. Why is it la p**la? Why is it el clítoris? It just makes no sense to me. What I did was keep the gender of certain people but degenderized all the inanimate things.
WHAT IS YOUR TAKE ON “x”?
The “x” is problematic. I get why it happened. It’s a very U.S.-centered issue. In English it sounds great. It flows very easily from the tongue. But it’s unpronounceable in Spanish. To pronounce it in English is to surrender to this hegemonic language. I think that’s part of the problem. [Latin American] people don’t want people in the U.S., even when it’s U.S. Latinos, telling them how to handle their language. That’s the biggest response to the “x” in terms of its rejection. People in Latin America want to come up with their own ways of handling these issues. Most U.S. Latinos do not speak Spanish well enough to have a truly informed and educated opinion about how to use the Spanish language. People who are fluent in Spanish in the U.S. and who are also fluent in English, who are truly bilingual, are a rare breed. We tend to be dominant in one language or the other. It’s just the way our brains work. This isn’t a slam on anybody.
I think the “x” is more of a young person’s thing. It’s about eliminating the gender in Latino and Latina. It makes perfect sense that young people who are questioning gender in such important ways would want to create something like that. But I can’t fathom my parents saying Latinx, even in English.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE ON HOW WE USE LABELS IN THE COMMUNITY? WHAT WORDS ARE WE SUPPOSED TO USE?
People should be called whatever they want to be called. We start there. But we’re different things in different places. Maria de los Angeles —“Nena” — Torres wrote in one of her books something to the effect, like, in Texas I’m Latina, in Miami I’m Cuban, in Chicago I’m brown and in Havana I’m white. Our identities are somewhat defined by the context in which we find ourselves. I’m very much Cuban in certain places. In Miami, being Cuban means something. In Chicago, that is a little bit less true. The context defines us. You can insist you are one thing, but if the world sees you as something else you have to grapple with that whether you like it or not. That’s part of the battle. In Havana, there’s no point in saying I’m not white. When I stroll into a hotel lobby in Cuba, nobody is going to stop me, because I look like I’m white and I’m in charge, or a tourist. If one of my darker cousins does that, they’re going to be stopped at the door. In Chicago, my hands start flying and people go, ‘What’s wrong with her?’ We are who we say we are until it comes up against some other reality.
I don’t think any group is a monolith. The urge to label is understandable and human, but it sort of defies the reality of our world, which is so multifaceted.
When struggling for terms for identity, what we are really looking for is affinity. I say I’m from Cuba and the next question is “Where from?” The minute I say Havana that separates me from people in the provinces. Then, ‘Where in Havana?’ I’m from old Havana. A block off the cathedral. Ohh, that means something. It breaks down like that. And this happens in Chicago, too.
Thirty years from now, my children, who currently identify as Latino, Latinx, Cuban and Jewish, may identify very differently.
*This is an edited transcript.
Achy Obejas is a writer and translator, born in Havana and now lives in the Bay Area. Her latest book, “Boomerang/Bumerán,” is an unique and inspiring bilingual collection of poetry written in a bold, mostly gender-free English and Spanish. Her novels include “Ruins” and “Days of Awe,” which was a Los Angeles Times Best Books of the Year. As a translator, Havana-born Achy has worked with Wendy Guerra, Rita Indiana, Junot Díaz and Megan Maxwell, among others. She has worked as a journalist at the Chicago Tribune, Sun-Times, The Washington Post, The Advocate and Ms. magazine and published in many other publications. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including a shared Pulitzer Prize in 2001 and the Studs Terkel Community Journalism Award in 1996.