A Look at Indie Authors and Their Publishers
By Lanie Tankard, Indie Book Reviews Editor
Brooklyn, New York: Akashic Books, July 4, 2017 (160 pp, $19.95 hardcover), ISBN 9781617755392, also available as e-book. Cover art and design are by Jeremy John Parker, with cover image by Sebastien Wiertz.
Author: Achy Obejas
Native Cuban Achy Obejas is Distinguished Visiting Writer in the graduate English program at Mills College in Oakland, California. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing with a focus on fiction from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina.
She is author of the novels Days of Awe and Memory Mambo (both of which won Lambda Literary Awards in Lesbian Fiction for 2002 and 1997) as well as Ruins, plus the collection We Came All the Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? containing short stories, memoir vignettes, and essays. Obejas has also written a book of poetry called This Is What Happened In Our Other Life and edited a short-story anthology titled Havana Noir. Her translation into Spanish of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz was a finalist for Spain’s Esther Benítez Translation Prize, and her translation into English of Papi by Rita Indiana was named one of seventy-five notable translations in 2016 by World Literature Today.
Obejas has received an NEA Fellowship in Poetry and a Ford Fellowship in Literature, along with residencies at Yaddo, Ragdale, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has been Sor Juana Visiting Writer at DePaul University in Chicago, Springer Writer-in-Residence at the University of Chicago, Distinguished Writer in Residence at the University of Hawaii, and Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow at Transylvania University. Obejas was a Cintas Foundation 2000-01 Fellow in Creative Writing.
As a journalist, she has written for a variety of publications: Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, Chicago Reader, Windy City Times, Advocate, High Performance, Nation, Village Voice, In These Times, Out, Vanity Fair, Playboy, and Washington Post. Her journalism honors include a 1996 Studs Terkel Award, in addition to a 2001 Pulitzer Prize as a Chicago Tribune team member investigating air travel problems.
Obejas was born in 1956 in Havana. Following the Cuban revolution, she left the island at age six with her parents in 1962. In a 2001 conversation with Ilan Stavans, Obejas described crossing “inky” water in a small boat with forty-four people—seventeen of them children told they were going fishing at night. They were picked up halfway by an American oil tanker after a storm. She and her parents lived in Miami before moving to Indiana, where she grew up. Her family now includes her wife, Megan Bayles (a lecturer in American Studies at UC Davis), and their son, Ilan Bayles Obejas.
Publisher: Akashic Books
This small press, based in Brooklyn, publishes “urban literary fiction and political nonfiction by authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers.”
Johnny Temple, publisher and editor-in-chief, founded Akashic in 1997. He earned a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University. His literary honors include the 2013 Ellery Queen Award, 2010 Jay and Deen Kogan Award for Excellence in Noir Literature, and 2005 Miriam Bass Award for Creativity in Independent Publishing from the American Association of Publishers. He teaches publishing courses at Wilkes and Wesleyan Universities, and chairs the Brooklyn Literary Council. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Publishers Weekly, AlterNet, Poets & Writers, and BookForum. Temple plays bass guitar in the band Girls Against Boys and formerly played in the band Soulside.
Editorial Director Ibrahim Ahmad teaches in the writing and publishing master’s degree programs at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania. Publishers Weekly selected him as a 2015 Star Watch Finalist. Ahmad and Temple cofounded Brooklyn Wordsmiths.
Managing Editor Johanna Ingalls worked in the music industry after she graduated from Barnard College, but has been with Akashic Books for over ten years now.
Production Manager and Associate Editor Aaron Petrovich has also been at Akashic for more than a decade. He develops e-books for the publisher, and is author of The Session: A Novella in Dialogue in addition to short theater works that have been performed around New York City.
Akashic’s publicity and social media director, Susannah Lawrence, graduated from New York University. She has held several internships, including HarperCollins Publishers, and has been a copyeditor at Washington Square News at NYU.
Seasonal internships for course credit in editorial and publicity are offered year-round at Akashic. Although print submissions are currently closed, flash fiction web submissions are being accepted for four different series (instructions on website).
I have two homelands: Cuba and the night.
Or are they one and the same? No sooner
does his majesty, the sun, retire than Cuba, with long veils,
and a carnation in hand, silent,
like a sad widow, appears before me.”
–José Martí (translated by Ilan Stavans)
Cuba is not a small island. It’s almost as large as Pennsylvania, with more than eleven million people living there. To those who stayed after the revolution, it means one thing; to those who left—well, it means quite another. And then there are those who wish they’d left and those who wish they could return. The significance of that landmass gets complicated.
Achy Obejas, however, wades right through the currents of the Florida Straits to explore those contradictions in her forthcoming book, The Tower of the Antilles. Half of the ten short stories are new, while the others were previously published elsewhere. She captures the island’s paradox with a fitting epigram attributed to both Heberto Padilla and Lourdes Casal: “I have always lived in Cuba.” The significance of that benign line deepens after considering its history. Padilla penned it first, in a poem published in Fuera del juego, or Out of the Game (his divisive 1968 collection that provoked both Fidel Castro and world intellectuals for different reasons). Casal echoed it thirteen years later in her poem (published posthumously in the 1981 book Palabras juntan revolucíon, or Words Gather Revolution).
The Obejas stories cleverly play off an additional Casal line: “…even when I thought I resided very far….” They explore the difficulties Cubans face in defining their identity.
In her opening tale, “The Collector,” Obejas introduces a man who amasses homemade boats and debris that floats ashore—an “orange nylon float,” “a metal water bottle,” an “upside-down tennis shoe skimming the surface.” He combines them into crafts, planning to build a tower to showcase their stories.
We meet a cat named “Brian Eno” in another story, wherein two Cuban women sharing an Indiana apartment become lovers. Sexuality is a strong theme in several pieces.
The narratives range from four to twenty-six pages, blending legend with reality—liberally dusted with metaphor. The shortest prose piece considers exile: “…where we come from the greatest achievement is to leave.” Obejas can turn a phrase in such a way that stops a reader mid-sentence to deliberate it, such as “my useless Cuban passport.”
Another tale examines a sensory playlist of island sounds remembered by a character named Dulce in Chicago. Dulce illustrates “auditory memory” in ESL classes: “I hear fine in Spanish.” She reinvents herself as a Paul Mitchell beautician while noting contrasts between exiles and immigrants (a cogent viewpoint Obejas discussed with Ilan Stavans in 2001).
Obejas makes use of liquids: a riptide, hot showers, humidity, amniotic fluid, the ocean. She pours them over ideas, such as cola representing “the black waters of imperialism.” She weaves in the Cuban biosphere with María la Gorda, looks at phosphorescence in the Maldives. Creating for some characters “a Cuba unknown to me,” she highlights a wide figurative ocean of different experiences. She captures “what cannot be talked about” with “Secret lessons to undo the official teachings at school.” In a 2015 interview with Natalie Diaz for PEN America, Obejas described “how totalitarianism depends on our adaptation….”
Each story floats as a separate inner tube yet is lashed to the others. They bob in toto like a small boat—almost as if the book itself were a life raft. The man in the first tale and the woman in the last (apparently in a Cuban prison) tenderly bookend the slim volume, each reaching out beseechingly across the pages toward one another as both struggle to answer the same question: “What’s your name?” The two stories stretch back to prehistory with such eloquent minimalism they become epics in a mere handful of pages. If the book is opened flat, the lovely front cover image of a boat made out of folded newspaper replicates itself on the back cover as if on two shores, with the book’s spine eerily resembling the Florida Straits. It’s a wonder Cuba hasn’t sunk by now, all the tears that have been shed in those waters over the decades.
Cuba has been called “The Pearl of the Antilles” for its beauty. Obejas riffs on that nickname in her book title, The Tower of the Antilles. Her ending story bears the same name. One envisions a looming pylon. Certainly many turrets have been raised on various Caribbean islands over the centuries, but one tower in particular stands out in the Greater Antilles, where we find Cuba. Nestled there in the Valley of the Sugar Mills (Valle de los Ingenios, a UNESCO World Heritage site) is the Manaca Iznaga Tower near the town of Trinidad. A seven-level watchtower 147 feet tall, it was erected several centuries ago and was at one point the tallest tower in Cuba. The Manaca Iznaga edifice offered a vast view across the one-hundred-square-mile valley, allowing monitoring of thirty thousand slaves working on plantations and over fifty sugar mills—thus discouraging runaways. Obejas harnessed historical connotations when she selected her title. The tower imagery even makes one think of the crow’s nest in boats bringing slaves to Cuba from Africa.
Obejas was forty years old when her first novel, Memory Mambo, came out. She explored memories there through her twenty-four-year-old protagonist named Juani Casas, who escaped from Cuba to the United States.
Now, at the age of sixty-one, Obejas has had over two decades to ponder her birthplace, returning for visits in the intervening years. Scenes in The Tower of the Antilles appear as impressionistic watercolors, more muted than the ones in Memory Mambo yet by no means less potent. Her simplicity of style has evolved into a lyric quality packing a nuanced punch. She doesn’t tell what’s happening so much as outlines just enough so readers can fill in the blanks. Obejas presents heartbreaking dramas in the most elegant language.
The book held profound meaning for me, having seen a few inner tubes tied together at the Key West Naval Base in 1971—and been astounded when I heard how many people had clung to that makeshift Cuban raft. I’ve peeked at gorgeous underwater scenery in the Florida Straits while snorkeling John Pennekamp Coral Reef from Key Largo. And last year, I explored the length of Cuba from Camagüey to Havana with a University of Texas group two weeks before President Barack Obama’s visit. Standing there at the Manaca Iznaga Tower, I could barely comprehend someone keeping watch over thousands of slaves toiling in the surrounding sugarcane fields while the tropical sun beat down.
Obejas strung ten story islands together in The Tower of the Antilles to create an archipelago, persuasively articulating the contrast between power and the lack of it—her tales fluently translating the Cuban search for identity. José Martí once wrote: “A grain of poetry suffices to season a century.” Achy Obejas spiced it up a notch.
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