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In 'AWE': Achy Obejas on her new work
by Gregg Shapiro
2001-08-08

This article shared 2307 times since Wed Aug 8, 2001
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Journalist, novelist, activist—those are just a few of the words that are fitting descriptions of Achy Obejas. A presence in print-;both mainstream and gay media-;for more than 20 years, Obejas is as much a fixture in Chicago as Roger Ebert or the late Mike Royko. Obejas received a Lambda Literary Award in 1996 for her novel Memory Mambo ( from Cleis Press ) .

Her latest novel, Days Of Awe ( Ballantine Books, $24.95, 384pp ) introduces us to another unforgettable cast of characters. The narrator of the novel, Alejandra San Jose, was born in Havana, Cuba on New Year's Day in 1959 as Fidel Castro ascended to power. At the age of two, her parents escape from Cuba with Alejandra, making their way first to Miami, then to Chicago. In doing so, they leave more than just their homeland behind, and as Alejandra grows up, she feels the desire to have answers to questions that neither parent will supply. Her quest brings her back to Cuba, and puts her in contact with a complex and perpetually unfolding past. Obejas combines the best elements of her writing—her ability to realistically present historical and political events, to create family mythology, to express passion between same-sex characters—into a novel of contemporary epic proportions.

Gregg Shapiro: When did you first start writing for the Chicago Tribune?

Achy Obejas: I first started at the Tribune in 1991, as a freelance record reviewer. I wasn't that keen on working there-;I'd been a staff writer at the Sun-Times in 1980-'81 and there's all this built-in rivalry and tension about crossing the street. Plus, growing up in Michigan City, Ind., I saw the Trib as the conservative, Republican paper. When I became an adult that became even more pronounced: During the 1980s when lesbian and gay activists were trying to pass the Human Rights Ordinance and other local gay-related legislation in Chicago, the Trib editorialized against the gay-affirmative position. So it felt pretty creepy to think about working there, even though I had friends there, like Clarence Page, who's still a buddy. But the people I worked with initially at the Trib turned out to be terrific, especially Gary Dretzka, Geoff Brown and Jim Warren, whom I knew from ( my ) Sun-Times days. I was also reunited with Kevin Moore, a sweetheart of a fellow, who had been my editor at the Sun-Times and was assigned to oversee "After Hours," the nightlife column I ended up doing for the Trib for 10 years. By 1996 we had a very nice little thing going, and I was offered a full-time job. I took it for a lot of reasons, including that the Tribune was going through some changes, especially in its thinking about gays. In recent years, I think it's had one of the most consistently progressive editorial pages on gay issues. It's also been very progressive on Cuba issues, which are critical to me. I just wish it were as solid and steady on general coverage of news and culture concerning people of color, especially African-Americans. I think that's where we're weakest right now, a shame, really, because in Chicago I can't think of a more vibrant, more historically important community.

GS: What has your experience been like at the Tribune?

AO: Generally, it's been very positive. Like you might expect at any job, there have been golden eras and gloomy eras, fantastic editors and absolute assholes. I once had an editor refer to me&-;to my face-;as the paper's "head Hispanic." I mean, pathetic. But for me there have been some important opportunities. Two that I can think of right off the bat were made possible by George de Lama, the managing editor for foreign and national news, who sent me to Florida to cover the scene in the aftermath of the Versace murder and, later, when I got to report on Matthew Shepard's funeral and the phenomenon that followed it. In features, there have been some really great moments, especially working with an editor named Kaarin Tisue, with whom I was recently reunited in a move to news. Right now, we're working on a piece about ex-gays.

GS: Would you say that there has been a change in attitude regarding queer issues at the Tribune—with your piece on Pride Sunday as an example?

AO: There was a change in attitude about everything when Howard Tyner became editor in the early '90s. Howard has a very broad view of diversity. He's low-key, personable and has a deep sense of decency. He's also a total pro: I used to read his stories when he was a foreign correspondent and had a lot of respect and admiration for him before I ever met him. It's amazing how one person can make such a difference in such a gigantic place as the Trib ... . The editorial board changed dramatically during his time as editor. The climate in the newsroom became more open, less formal. I was hired in 1996 and though there were certainly other gay people at the Trib then -;other out gay people-;I don't think anybody had been hired before as an out gay person. ... I remember going to a staff picnic shortly after I was hired and giving Howard a sweatshirt that said, "I'm not Gay-;but some of my best reporters are" and he cracked up and put it on immediately. It was a small gesture ... but symbolically it was important because it was about normalizing things, about being a human being. He was recently promoted to a corporate post-;he deserved it, of course, but, I tell you, people cried. Now we have a new editor, Anne Marie Lipinski. She's incredibly dynamic and I think she'll surprise people.

GS: Did you start writing for the gay press before the Tribune or after?

AO: I wrote for the gay press before the Trib, but after the Sun-Times. In between, I worked with the press I love most, which is the alternative. I wrote for the Chicago Reader from 1981 to 1996, though by then it was a trickle because my relationship with the Tribune was growing. But I think that's where I really found my voice and learned my chops. And I think it remains an incredibly vital component in American journalism. If I could just sit back and write books and pick where I'd place an article now and again, I'd probably choose the alternative press more often than any other. You get more space than anywhere else, a discerning readership, and in my experience-;certainly at the Reader and at the Village Voice, where I've been contributing book reviews recently—the editing has been top notch. It remains my singularly most rewarding journalistic experience.

GS: Please say something about your experience writing for the gay press.

AO: It was a mixed experience. The good part was with Windy City Times in Chicago because I was brought in by an excellent editor named Mark Schoofs. He later went on to win a Pulitzer for AIDS coverage at the Voice and is now at the Wall Street Journal. Mark was a very good combination with Jeff McCourt, the then owner and publisher: They were both ambitious, workaholics, perfectionists, aggressive, politically motivated and committed but, most importantly, total journalistic professionals. And it was an exciting time: the mid to late '80s, when the gay press was really having an impact. The not-so-good part was at The Advocate. It actually began great: Richard Rouliard was the editor and he'd completely revamped The Advocate, made it a serious magazine instead of just a skin rag, brought in real journalists, brought in women and people of color, and daring columnists ... . But Richard was ill, seriously ill. And he was also temperamental and intense. After he left, The Advocate began to retreat and the newsroom atmosphere changed for the worse. It was clear women weren't welcome, it was clear people of color were meant to be decorative and nothing more, and a lot of the coverage was softened. Eventually, there were lawsuits and bad blood. There's a different crew at The Advocate now, of course, and the editor is a woman. There are good things happening but I don't think it's ever regained the edge it had under Richard. These days, I worry about the consolidation of gay media, what with The Advocate now owning Out and all the other mergers. I think this trend puts the onus on the local gay press to be even more vigilant, bolder-;which is hard, naturally, because most gay local press is lacking the kinds of resources needed to break the big stories. I take my hat off to people like Tracy Baim here in Chicago and the work she does with Lambda Publications. It's thankless and exhausting and only a pure heart, I think, can really do it this long and keep it clean and worthy.

GS: Please say something about writing fiction versus memoir.

AO: For me, writing fiction is easier and more satisfying. I think in my case writing a memoir would be a terribly trying experience: It could only encompass what I remember, what I chose to remember, and I'm as guilty of omission as the next person. And, undoubtedly, people would get hurt—maybe people who deserved getting poked, but also good people. And that seems somewhat unnecessary. Also, though most critics always seem to think my books are autobiographical in some way—they're set in Chicago, involve queers and Cubans-;they really are fiction. I'm not Juani, I'm not Alejandra. I think where real life collides with what I do in my fiction is in the details: I know Chicago, I know Havana, I've lived through certain experiences, directly or via friends, and I think I'm a pretty good listener. I love to hear people tell me about their lives. Inevitability, some pieces stay with me and come back, but always wrapped in fiction, always different and apart from the original, because I think it's like tossing a new ingredient into a stew: It reacts, it provokes, it meshes with everything else and the end result is a new whole.

GS: I want to touch on some recurring themes in your fiction. Let's being with your writing about Chicago.

AO: For me, writing about Chicago was inevitable. I've lived here since 1979 but I grew up in Michigan City, an Indiana coastal town, and when you're on the beach you can see the lights of Chicago across the lake. When I was a kid, it was like gazing at the Emerald City, with all its implied promises. Pretty early on, I also fell in love with Nelson Algren and his stories. Then it was Richard Wright and Loraine Hansberry. In high school, I came to Chicago a million times-;the drinking age was 19 then so basically if you could reach the counter it didn't really matter what your I.D. said-;and there was a club called La Mere Vipere on Halsted Street that was frequented by these dazzling drag queens and poets-; horrible and magnificent and hypnotizing. And when I came to live in the city, Leanita McClain was writing at the Tribune, and that was turbulent, brilliant stuff. Almost immediately, I started writing for the Sun-Times, then the Reader, which was like an immersion course in Chicago at a very heady time: just as the great sleeping giant of Latino politics was waking, and Harold Washington was about to step up and make a challenge for the mayoralty.

GS: Another theme is Cuba and Cuban culture.

AO: That too, I think, was inevitable. I was born in Havana and that single event has pretty much defined the rest of my life. In the U.S., I'm Cuban, Cuban-American, Latina by virtue of being Cuban, a Cuban journalist, a Cuban writer, somebody's Cuban lover, a Cuban dyke, a Cuban girl on a bus, a Cuban exploring Sephardic roots, always and endlessly Cuban. I'm more Cuban here than I am in Cuba, by sheer contrast and repetition. And there ... well, I was born on an island that had a revolution which shook and inspired the world and split its own people in two: those in, those out. At the age of six, I was taken out, at 39 I went back in for a brief peek and was seduced by a million things that have nothing to do with the revolution: the light, the din, the salt, the bounty of beauty, the intensity, the dualities, the complexities, the constant, constant beat. And here's the funny thing: After being away for 33 years, it all fit like perfect skin. That's the mystery I find most compelling.

GS: And, of course, you also write about queer culture.

AO: Another inevitability, methinks. I mean, I'm queer, I can't help but introduce that element, even in its most innocuous form, into any situation I'm in. The minute I arrive at any point, my mere presence queers everything up.

GS: In your new novel, Days Of Awe, you write not only about Chicago, Cuba, and about being queer, but you also write about Jewish culture.

AO: That was a more deliberate act. Though we have Jewish heritage, and though we grew up in a neighborhood with Jewish neighbors and went to schools with significant Jewish populations, and even attended a lot of events at Sinai Temple in Michigan City, we didn't grow up Jewish. Writing about Jews took research, took a bit more conscious immersion. And also I didn't trust myself the way I do with, say, queer culture or Cuban things. I checked and re-checked and made a point of having manuscript readers who knew way more than I did.

GS: Please tell me what it's like to move from having your work published by a small, but respected, women's press such as Cleis to a mainstream house such as Ballantine.

AO: They're very different experiences, of course. There are things Cleis can do that Ballantine can't: Like give very close personal attention. I could talk directly to the powers that be. Also, Cleis has a political commitment that more closely parallels mine, so there's an attention to detail beyond which hotel I'm going to stay at during a reading stop. But Ballantine can do things Cleis can't: The advance for Days of Awe was far more generous than anything Cleis could come up with, and I'm at a point in my life where I needed a certain financial security. And Ballantine will make sure that Days had a presence out in the world that Cleis just can't compete with right now. What both houses have in common, though, are very good editors who really care about the work.

GS: Reinaldo Arenas is included in the acknowledgments in your novel Memory Mambo.

AO: I met Reinaldo when he lived in New York and we had a brief but intense friendship. But with so many people suddenly claiming him in some way-;especially those who shunned him while he was alive in both the Cuban exile and gay and lesbian communities—because, frankly, neither were kind to him in his lifetime—I'm disinclined to talk much. Suffice it to say, in my opinion he was one of the great writers of the last century, in any language.

GS: What do you think of the recent mainstream movies, such as Buena Vista, Company Man and Before Night Falls, in which Cuba is presented on film?

AO: I think it's all part of two phenomena: the historic fascination that the U.S. has with Cuba, as if she were the girl that turned down the big football hero as a prom date; and the fact that it's the last standing communist outpost in the world. I mean, I can't count China. Cuba fever winds down eventually, then picks up again, endlessly it seems.

GS: Do you think there is any irony in the fact that Schnabel is also Jewish?

AO: There are parallels between Basquiat, the subject of his first film, and Reinaldo. And Schnabel isn't a stranger to Latin culture: His wife is Latina. Where his being Jewish comes into play, I think, is in appreciating the "other."

GS: Any chance of your work being adapted for the screen?

AO: I'd love it.


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