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  • Written by Achy Obejas
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  • Written by Achy Obejas
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Written by Achy ObejasAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Achy Obejas

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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 400 | ISBN: 978-0-307-41494-6
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis


“RICH AND SONOROUS PROSE . . . There’s plenty of reason to hope for the future of a fiction that welcomes writers with such a passionate sense of the past.”
–San Jose Mercury News

On New Year’s Day, 1959, Alejandra San José was born in Havana, entering the world through the heart of revolution. Fearing the turmoil brewing in Cuba, her parents took Ale and fled to the shores of North America–ending up in Chicago amid a close community of Cuban refugees. As an adult, Ale becomes an interpreter, which takes her back to her homeland for the first time. There, she makes her way back through San José history, uncovering new fragments of truth about the relatives who struggled with their own identities so long ago. For the San Josés, ostensibly Catholics, are actually Jews. They are conversos who converted to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition. As Alejandra struggles to confront what it is to be Cuban and American, Catholic and Jewish, she translates her father’s troubling youthful experiences into the healing language of her own heart.

“Lyrically written, Days of Awe reflects the way Cuban Spanish is spoken with poetic rhythm and frankness.”
–Ms.

“An ambitious work . . . A deft talent whose approach to sex, religion, and ethnicity is keenly provocative.”
Miami Herald

“With intelligent, intense writing, Obejas approaches . . . the heady climes of Cuban American stalwarts Oscar Hijuelos and Cristina Garcia.”
Library Journal (starred review)

Excerpt

Well before dawn on Sunday, the fifteenth of April 1961, the day we left Cuba—a dreaded day, an ashen day without a single blush of blue in the skies over Havana—my mother ensconced herself in a back room of our apartment, arranging a series of clear glasses of water under a small effigy of Saint Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes.

“This will help purify us,” she said carrying in the tumblers, filled not with tap water but with the sanitized kind that came in huge blue bottles.

If my mother’s Saint Jude looked a little shiny compared with the other saints on her altar, that’s because he was fairly new to her pantheon. My mother’s prayers usually went to the Virgin of Charity, Cuba’s patron, to whom she’d entrusted my mortal soul if I survived those delicate first hours of transfusions and gunfire.

Even as she lit a white candle to Saint Jude to help us on our journey, which seemed impossible enough, her preferred icon was carefully wrapped in newspapers, plastic sheets, and a double-folded yellow cotton blanket. It was then tucked into a box to which my father had fashioned a handle from thin rope and the inside of a toilet paper roll. Regardless of Saint Jude’s divine jurisdictions and whatever seemingly untenable situations we might encounter, it was the Virgin who was traveling with us, the Virgin who would be settled at the pinnacle of whatever new altar my mother constructed wherever we might wind up.

I’ve always thought of the Virgin of Charity as the perfect mentor for Cuba: Cradling her child in her arms, she floats above a turbulent sea in which a boat with three men is being tossed about. One of the men is black and he is in the center of the boat, kneeling in prayer while the other two, who are white, row furiously and helplessly. (It’s unspoken but understood that it’s the entreaties of the black man, not the labor of the white rowers, that provides their deliverance.)

I’ve always found it poignant, if not tragic, that Cuba, whose people are constantly seeking escape and entrusting their fortunes to the sea in the most rickety of vessels, should have early on foreseen this fate and projected it onto its sacred benefactor. When her feast day rolls around each eighth of September, devotees like my mother dress in bumblebee yellow and wink knowingly at each other in church. Also known as Ochún, this particularly Cuban madonna is the Yoruba goddess of love, patron saint of sweet water. She’s a beauty, the pearl of paradise, a flirtatious but faithful lover to Changó, the capricious god of thunder.

It’s these very elements, I think, that make my mother’s choice of this vision of Mary—la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre—as my patron a perfect guardian: I am a child not just of revolution but also of exile, both of which have so much to do with love and faith.

Even then, on that gloomy gray dawn in 1961, as my father waited for my mother and paced on the third-floor balcony of our home, there were Cubans leaving the island on anything that would float and looking to the skies for signs of salvation. The Cuban Revolution was two years old then, and already defying expectations.

What fueled those who were leaving was less fear of communism, which Fidel had only hinted at at that point, or shortages of any kind, because the U.S. embargo was still a distant concern, but the persistent rumors of invasions and imminent combat that were sweeping Havana. From the countryside came reports that cane fields were being torched, the flames like red waves. What were thought to be American planes constantly buzzed the city. Weeks before, El Encanto—Havana’s most exquisite department store and perhaps its most conspicuous link to the United States—had burned to the ground. Its destruction had traumatized the city no less than the break of diplomatic relations between Cuba and Washington, D.C., back in January. Not an hour went by without the breathless dispatch: “The yanquis are coming, the yanquis are coming.”

Perhaps no one would admit it now, generations later, but until that spring, when Fidel’s police began to sweep out its enemies, real and perceived, and to make chants of “¡Paredón! ¡Paredón!” a part of every Cuban nightmare, few people aside from Fulgencio Batista’s operatives had left Cuba because of political persecution or economic opportunity. Though sugar prices were flat, no one believed they’d stay that way. What was actually propelling people off the island was a sense that things were beginning to look more and more like another one of those bloody skirmishes the United States periodically undertook in Latin America.

We knew, through my mother’s cousin José Carlos, who’d call us surreptitiously from Guatemala City, where he was engaged in a training mission with American military and CIA advisers, that there were Cuban exiles amassing in Nicaragua, waiting to assault the island. José Carlos’s voice was always anxious, almost giddy, on the scratchy line from Central America—surely, had anyone known about the calls, they would have been sufficient grounds to kick him off the invading refugee-composed Brigade 2506.

“Peru is very beautiful, yes, and we’ve met Indians from all the tribes,” he’d say in his own convoluted code in case the lines were tapped, meaning that there were Cubans from all over involved. “Some are a little savage,” he’d add, and my parents would imagine that the men were simply more rugged than José Carlos, a gentle soul who’d been a second-grade teacher in Sagua La Grande before the revolution.

It was only later that they learned that José Carlos, who’d worked arduously for Fidel in the early days of the revolution, was finding among the ranks of the 2506 men who’d served in Batista’s secret police, murderers and torturers who had personally abused him during his short stint in jail just before Fidel triumphed.

“They have no shame about what they may have done in the past,” he wrote in a letter to his wife, Eliana, which she received much later, when a friend who’d also been in the 2506 tracked her down and delivered it for José Carlos, who died without firing a shot, drowned in the warm coastal waters just off Cuba. “Orejón Ramos, the man who slashed my throat in jail, just laughed when he saw me. ‘You? Here? But weren’t you one of Fidel’s best friends?’ he taunted. He pointed me out to everybody: ‘See this guy here, this skinny hero of the 2506? If it weren’t for him and his friends, none of us would be risking our lives here today!’ ”

It was because of José Carlos’s letters and calls just before the invasion of Playa Girón that my parents came to the conclusion that we had to leave Cuba, at least for a while.

The first thing my mother did was sign me up for a foster child program sponsored by the Catholic Church, which would have placed me with an American family in, say, Iowa or Indiana. In her thinking, at least one of us—me, the baby, the important one, the hope for the future—would be passed over, spared whatever was going to happen in Cuba and sent off with the hope of finding a modern pharaoh’s daughter.

It never occurred to my mother that I’d disappear, become an American, perhaps not too outwardly, but in those small imperceptible ways in which people don’t even realize that they’ve made irreversible changes. She never considered that, away from them, I might learn to slouch, that I could feel cocky enough to hurry people along when they tried to tell me a story, or that, in the golden fields of Iowa or Indiana, I might pick up a fear of the dark, a revulsion for the predicaments of faith.

That something happened anyway; that I eventually lost some of my equilibrium, even with the two of them present, didn’t matter. In the end, my mother didn’t have to think about those possibilities—not about the wheat and corn of the American Midwest (with which we would become familiar later, but by our own choice), or about whether they’d lose me for a month or a lifetime.

Certainly my father didn’t want us—and especially me—to be anything but Cuban. “It’s better for you to be Cuban,” he’d say, as if I had a choice then, as if I understood any of it enough to have any input in the matter.

To my father the island was as much the caiman-shaped rock that’s Cuba, with its breathless beaches and poverty, as wherever the three of us might be living. He could manage with an imagined isle, but not without the substance of us. We—my mother and I, the weight of us—were the necessary elements to anchor my father in the physical world. As soon as he heard about my mother’s plan to send me off to the United States without them, he immediately and without discussion canceled my trip.

“We will not be separated,” he said gravely, “never. The act of separation itself is what’s evil.” And he tore the application forms in half very carefully in front of an unnerved priest, who told him in no uncertain terms what a selfish man he was to deny me safe passage to a good Catholic home in the United States.

“This program is run by the church—what could be safer, Señor San José?” the priest implored.

My father just smiled. “Yes, yes,” he said, his hands trembling, “I’m very familiar with your programs. And, no, thank you.”

As my parents explored their options, there was never any question about where we would go. (By the mid-1960s, Cubans would be welcomed with open arms in the United States, enrolled in special welfare programs, eventually even given unique financial aid packages to help us get through college.) We were prized, frisky, and smart, and, perhaps most important, we would surely return to our sunny island once the United States had toppled Fidel. This is what had always happened: Nobody who displeased Uncle Sam stayed in power very long. A few months, maybe a year or two, and then the dictator himself would be in exile somewhere—usually Miami—and we’d be back to our normal lives, our real lives, the lives we were destined for in Cuba.

After the foster parent program fiasco, my mother signed us up—all three of us—to leave Cuba through one of the regular flights to the United States. She took me to a local photographer, who snapped me all giggly for my passport photo, and had us all vaccinated, fingerprinted, and examined by the government authorities who would decide whether we could get a visa. All the while, she saved her pesos—which had had, until just a few months before, an even exchange with the U.S. dollar—for three round-trip tickets on Pan American Airlines: Havana-Miami, Miami-Havana.

At my mother’s insistence, both she and my father began to learn English during this time, practicing by reading to each other every night and inadvertently starting my father off on his life’s work. For textbooks, they used an old English-language Bible, the revised standard version with the more contemporary approach, and compared its verses to the old Bilbao Spanish-language Bible my mother had inherited from her father. My mother would read entire English sentences in a rush, barely flirting with each word, waiting for their purpose to emerge through banter and play.

“For everything there is a season,” she would say, but it was all as cryptic to her as the original Hebrew and Aramaic. All her life, my mother would decipher messages as much from facial expression and posture, tone and attitude, as from any etymological knowledge.

My father, who would go on to become one of the most sought-after literary translators in the United States, would read aloud slowly, savoring each word on his tongue as if it were an essential oil, a delicate spice, or water for the garden.

“. . . and a time for every matter under heaven,” he would breathe, each consonant crisp, each vowel like a musical note through his peony lips.

He’d write down the English words believing each letter contained the formula for happiness and, after he and my mother were through reading for the night, look them up in his gold-leaf Oxford English/Spanish dictionary. After he found the Spanish translations, he’d cross-reference them back into English, discovering synonyms, searching for the new words in prayers of deliverance to see how they stood in context, if he could tell by the company they kept if these were helpful words, if they were friend or foe. He was fascinated by the pursuit of meaning, by corralling significance in a word or phrase from the vast array the universe offered.

As time went by and I began to share some of his curiosities, he would tell me about his frustrations with heaven, how he searched in vain for a Spanish equivalent. “The dictionary said cielo, but that’s sky,” he explained. “I looked up paradise—paraíso—I looked up nirvana, Valhalla, Eden. But still the closest thing was cielo, as if, in Spanish, the enigma of the sky could never be penetrated, as if the stars were just the stars, the moon just the moon.”

Over the years he would compile a catalog of words that refused to convert from one language to the other. Heaven was at the top of his list of stubborn English; in Spanish, it was escampar, which is what happens when it stops raining.

For my father, these were fascinating dialectic conundrums: What was the purpose of any one word? What came first: the concept or the sound? How do words mean?

But for me there was something much more crucial at stake: If it is true that speech reflects the realities of life, that it is, for example, precisely the everyday abundance and diversity of snow that feeds the dozens of Eskimoan terms, or the handful of Taíno words for tobacco, what does it say about us—Cubans, Hispanics—that we can’t even imagine heaven enough to name it?

Most of the time I like to think that our inability to express heaven is simply a measure of our respect for a higher power; that, like certain Orthodox Jews who insist on never pronouncing or writing the word for god, we have a deeper understanding, a profound humility about our role in the cosmos. I hold fast to this notion, always praying that it is not just a fatal lack of imagination.

The rest of the time I remember escampar, with its promise that the rain will cease, and that the skies will once more be clear and full of heavenly light.


From the Hardcover edition.
Achy Obejas|Author Q&A

About Achy Obejas

Achy Obejas - Days of Awe
Like her heroine, Achy Obejas was born in Havana and came to the United States as a young child. She is a cultural writer for the Chicago Tribune. Her articles have appeared in Vogue, The Nation, Ms. Latina, the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Reader, Girlfriend, High Performance, New City, and Chicago Reporter. She is the author of Memory Mambo, a novel, and We Came All the Way from Cuba So You could Dress Like This?, a collection of short stories. She is a frequent speaker at universities and community centers across the country and in Cuba.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Achy Obejas

Ilan Stavans
is the Lewis-Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. This interview was first aired in November 2001, in a somewhat different form, on the program "Conversations with Ilan Stavans," on PBS-WGBH.

ILAN STAVANS: Days of Awe, it strikes me, is about the tension between public and private identities.

ACHY OBEJAS: Indeed. It runs from the fifteenth-century Jewish diaspora during the Spanish Inquisition to contemporary Midwest America. But it's not exactly a linear story. Told from the point of view of Alejandra San Jose, the daughter of Cuban exiles living in Chicago, it's her personal journey through the family's history-- and Cuba's history, too--to reconcile her identity and her soul. So it plays something like memory does: It moves according to her needs rather than a traditional time line.

IS: Memory--individual memory, family memory, national collective memory--plays an essential role in your work. This is in tune, of course, with Jews and Cuban Americans, whose memory is highly charged.

AO: With Jews, of course, memory is fundamental: to remember the essential; and the recovery itself is a mission. With Jews memory is history and moral lesson. But memory is crucial among Cuban exiles, too, even though as a people we don't have a very long history. What makes this community a bit different from other Latinos in the United States--and similar to the biblical Jews--is that the relationship with the homeland is ruptured. This might be changing among Cubans now, since there is a great deal of travel to the island, especially for post-1980s immigrants and those who grew up away from their birthplace and want to see it again. The young generation is tremendously curious. It asks, What is there in Cuba for me? Is it at all like the Cuba of dreams and fantasy I was brought up with?

IS: A promised land, sort of . . .

AO: Exactly. But no place on earth is perfect. If so, Fidel Castro's revolution would not have been possible or necessary.

IS: Isn't that a natural response to exile--the attempt to survive the present by inventing or embellishing the past? Isn't exile the transformation of memory into a homeland?

AO: In a way it is. It also has to do with the need to find a reason for one's own misery--after all, one needs to justify being away, broken, separated from the source. Why here and not there? And why here you're one of many, whereas there you're unique, special, personalized. The biblical Jews had God to explain their condition, but for Cubans, it's more personal. It is common to hear Cuban exiles say "We gave everything up" and "We left our lives behind." While the biblical Jews were moving toward paradise, Cuban exiles often feel that they moved away from it. And so exiles imbue life in the diaspora and on the island with a great deal of meaning-- mostly a certain nostalgic predisposition.

IS: Like a lot of your characters, you left Cuba on a boat at the age of six. Do you remember the departure and arrival? How has the scene played itself out in your memory? Has it changed?

AO: It has a fragmented, impressionistic texture. Obviously I could not imagine, at that tender age, the unfolding drama. So, as a child, it was just an adventure. There were a total of forty-four people in a twenty-eight-foot boat. Seventeen of us were kids. It was late at night. We were told we were going fishing. For me, the sequence of events is episodic. For instance, I remember the inky blackness of the water. I also remember a storm. And I remember that we got sprayed with salt water. Halfway through the trip, we were picked up by an American oil tanker. Our little wooden boat suddenly was at the side of this huge metal ship. It was gigantic. I couldn't see above it, to the sides, under it--it was tremendous. It was like a wall in the ocean and Cuba was on the other side. Rope ladders came down. The little ones like me were handed up to the sailors by our parents. My father pushed me up. I remember a hot, pink arm, completely hairless, and the sailor's smell. The sailor grabbed me and hauled me up--not in a violent fashion but gently. Then he put me down on the floor of the oil tanker. I remember looking up at him and thinking, Might I have landed on Mars?

IS: What happened during the first few years as a little cubanita in the United States--the process of arrival, assimilation, the process of becoming, slowly, through school, through family, una americana?

AO: My family was in Miami for about a year and a half. Then my parents signed up for a program designed to assimilate Cuban professionals into American society. It was in Terra Haute, Indiana. So the family got transported to the Midwest. The landscape changed dramatically. I found myself in fields of corn, surrounded by lots of people who didn't understand us, while we didn't understand them. I spent six to eight months not uttering a word because I was in a classroom where it was forbidden to speak Spanish, and, obvi-ously, I couldn't yet speak English. I was afraid of being made fun of if I spoke en ingles. So I made a decision: I wouldn't speak English until I could do it without an accent.

IS: Was there at any point a mix-up of the two languages--a little of Spanish and a little of English?

AO: At home it was absolutely pure Spanish from the moment you walked in the door. My father was dictatorial. If you started a sentence in Spanish and ended in English, he would back it up and repeat it for you fully en espanol. It was impossible to get an answer from him unless everything was in Spanish.

IS: To a large extent, Days of Awe is a novel about identity, one in which language serves as a key to map out the past. Several of the characters are translators or interpreters: Alejandra, her father, Barbarita. How does the act of translating serve as a metaphor for crossing cultural boundaries?

AO: I think immigrants and, particularly, exiles are always translating, not just language but culture and circumstance. One of the most significant differences, I think, between an immigrant and an exile is that the immigrant, on some level, undertakes the possibility of a new identity with some willingness and transports herself emotionally to a new home. But for the exile, return to the native land--and the true self--is both essential and eventual. Translation for the immigrant is necessary in order to penetrate, integrate and, more often than not, assimilate. For the exile it may be all that as well, but there is, I think, a great desire to preserve. An exile holds on, I think, in ways that require translation to be constant, as much an act of resistance as of survival, because the exile--forbidden to return home--lives for that return, even if only symbolically. Native skills--including language, ritual, the way of tuning one's senses--can't ever be taken for granted or lost. Exiles, I believe, live not just between cultures the way immigrants do, but also between realities: There's the mundane reality of everyday life, and there's the reality that might have been and, hopefully, will be again.

IS: Jewishness is prominent in Days of Awe, which to me appears to be autobiographical fiction. Alejandra San Jose, aka Ale, born on New Year's Day in 1959, comes from Cuba to Chicago and eventually returns. What are the roots of this interest of yours?

AO: Well, the novel isn't autobiographical per se. It borrows from my life, the way I think all fiction borrows from the author, but it's more in the details than in the narrative. What I mean is, for example, the address of the place where Ale was born is actually the address of the house where I first lived. But her relationship to the place is completely different from mine. I have no emotional ties to it; I went once and that was enough. But for her, it's a significant landmark, a place constantly on view. By the end of the book, she's with a potential lover in the very place where she was conceived. As to the notion of return, I think that is pretty fundamentally Jewish.

IS: How did the topic of the anusim--the Jews who survived the Inquisition by pretending to be Catholic--come to you?

AO: Growing up, we lived in a Jewish neighborhood, had Jewish friends, and went to seders. Then a friend told me my surname was Jewish. I asked my father about it and he was surprisingly evasive. Then I did a reading in Boston in 1994, and a bunch of Latin American Jewish women came up to me and asked if I was Jewish, and I said no. But they were pretty insistent, and they turned me on to the story of anusim, or crypto-Jews. I went back to my dad but got more or less the same fog. So I began to explore the situation on my own. And it turned out that my family was, in fact, descended from these people on my father's side, though our particular story is not especially glorious.

I did research in three different countries: United States, Cuba, and Spain. It was like learning a new language, because the iconography of the crypto-Jews is very particular. So it wasn't just about reading, so to speak, but also rereading: Ordinary life is filled with all sorts of clues about the anusim in Cuba and throughout Latin America, but the signs have been corrupted and often coopted, so it's not so easy. The story's sweet and brave and tragic, and I wanted to tell it--to retell it, and to imagine it aloud, and to name it so others can come along and do something else, take it a step further, enrich it.

IS: How does it feel to be called a Latina? Or are you a Cuban only?

AO: I often feel Latina, although my metabolism, I take it, is different from other people's. I live in Chicago, which has substantive, representative numbers of different Latino subgroups, none of which dominates the mix: a gazillion Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, and smaller components, such as the Cuban minority. No matter how segregated the city might be, everybody ends up knowing everybody else. In a Mexican restaurant, the jukebox will have Celia Cruz and Tito Puente. In a Cuban restaurant, the waitress--who is probably Nicaraguan--brings tortilla chips to the table. The collage is inescapable. It means that we are all over each other.

IS: Another essential element in your literature is sexuality.

AO: When it comes to sexuality, I'm not especially interested in assimilation but I am interested in normalization. What I mean is that there are different cultural imperatives for gay, bisexual, transgendered, and other people with alternative sexualities--whatever they might be--and I think it's important that those identities be recognized and celebrated. I think that can be accomplished without shock, without judgment, and certainly without the kinds of legal consequences that make queer people second-class citizens in most of the world. In Days of Awe, I tried to just let everybody be whatever they were going to be, to live and love according to their hearts rather than any particular label.

IS: On this issue, I'm interested in the comparative response to your work from readers in Cuba and the United States.

AO: In Cuba I'm in a privileged position, since I come in as an outsider, a newspaper writer, though I rarely go to Cuba as a journalist. Thus, I have access to people and places that the Cubans themselves, the native Cubans, don't necessarily have. So I'm tolerated in ways that perhaps others are not. But, also, keep in mind that an important number of the canonical authors on the island (Jose Lezama Lima, Virgilio Pinera, Reinaldo Arenas, to name a few) have been homosexual, and have written explicitly about sexuality. However, Cuban literature that is experientially gay doesn't necessarily use the term "gay." Instead, it takes an organic approach to sexuality.

IS: How about the segment of the Cuban American population that sees this as a dangerous subject?

AO: The notion of the Cuban or Latino community as homophobic is curious. I, for one, don't buy it. It occurs because we look at notions of homophobia through an Anglo-Saxon prism. But I think it is easier to be queer in a Latino context than it is to be Latina in an American-queer context. The prejudices of racism are so pervasive, so inherently stronger than the prejudices about sexuality. Gay people are usually born into non-gay families, so the gay-straight divide is being negotiated from the get-go. Everyone has a gay neighbor, a gay brother, a gay teacher, or whatever--it isn't alien, really. Even in small Indiana towns, without a gay community per se, everybody knows a gay choir director or florist or somebody's uncle. But not everybody has a Latino brother or a Latino neighbor. Not every town has a native-speaking Spanish teacher or a Mexican restaurant other than Taco Bell. This interaction remains more alien.

IS: You are on staff at the Chicago Tribune. . . .

AO: Yes, and it gives me a license to talk to and get to know all sorts of people in all walks of life. As a reporter, I'm constantly in contact with folks who wouldn't ordinarily be in my life--from a U.S. senator to the guy who sells live bait out of a bucket on the docks. But writing journalism is very different from literature-- journalism is very immediate, urgent, public; literature is more reflective and personal. I think, though, that both experiences feed and give balance to each other.

IS: Days of Awe is rich, yet its style isn't baroque. . . .

AO: It seems that in the United States, books by Latin American and Latino writers that have the slightest abstraction or surrealism frequently get tagged as "magic realist," whether they fit the bill or not. Cuban fiction isn't really like that, and neither is Days of Awe. This is a story grounded not just in history, but in reality--in a reality that's astounding, but reality nonetheless. Alejo Carpentier, the Cuban author of The Lost Steps and an essayist of much influence in Latin America, called this phenomenon lo real maravilloso-- the marvelously real, or the marvelous reality. The idea, to which I wholeheartedly subscribe, is that reality, real life, is already so awe-inspiring that we don't really need to invent much for it to be truly amazing.

IS: The novel pays homage to Cuban literature, doesn't it? There is a myriad of overt and hidden references to authors and characters.

AO: What I was trying to do was pay tribute to Cuban writers who have been influential or to whom I feel I owe a debt. Most readers will recognize the reference to Celestino, the boy who writes poems on tree trunks, as an allusion to Reinaldo Arenas's Singing from the Well, and Pilar Puentes, a Miami-based performance artist, as a possible grown-up version of the character invented by Cristina Garcia in Dreaming in Cuban. Other characters--they are cameos, really--echo Cuban writers: Farraluque, the well-endowed erotica writer, sprung from Jose Lezama Lima's Paradiso; Rene, the chocolate- smeared cemetery caretaker is a possible twist of fate--a woeful one--for the character Virgilio Pinera created in Rene's Flesh; Teresa Rodriguez, Alejandra's Cuban interpreter friend, is a nod to Guillermo Cabrera Infante, author of Three Trapped Tigers. There are also brief mentions of poets: Eliseo Diego, Nicolas Guillen, Dulce Maria Loynaz, and Gaston Baquero. For me, these writers are the cream of the Cuban crop. The idea was to have a kind of discourse with the canon. The only significant writer left out, I think, is Carpentier--but that's because he's rather overwhelming, and I may need more time and another vehicle for him.

Praise

Praise

“A NOVEL THAT MANAGES TO BE BOTH SHARP-WITTED
AND ELEGIAC, BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN AND
FULL OF SURPRISES THROUGHOUT.”
–JOAN SILBER
Author of In My Other Life

“Obejas relates the compelling and disquieting history of Judaism and anti-Semitism in Cuba amidst evocative musings on exile, oppression, inheritance, the unexpected consequences of actions both weak and heroic, and the unruliness of desire and love.”
Booklist (starred review)

“Achy Obejas trains her poet’s eye and her journalist’s zeal on the ambiguities of exile, the disappointments of passionate love, and the fascinating 500-year story of Cuba’s hidden Jews. We won’t get anything as pat as a happy ending for our heroine, Alejandra, born with the Revolution, but the reader is guaranteed a magnificent journey.”
–RAY SUAREZ
The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
Author of The Old Neighborhood
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Days of Awe deals with the tensions between public and private identities. What, specifically, are some of the characters' conflicts between their public and private lives--especially in the cases of Alejandra, Enrique, Nena, Ytzak, Sima, Barbarita, Olinsky, Moises, Orlando, Leni, and Celina?

2. Each of the San Joses--Ale, Enrique, and Nena--have their own way of worshipping. How would you describe these ways? How do these characters find balance? What is the role of faith in the story?

3. Much of the story also deals with exile. Many of the characters-- Alejandra and her family, Olinsky and Ytzak--flee in order to change and, sometimes, save their lives. But others--Sima, Moises, Orlando, and especially Deborah--choose to stay where they are, almost in defiance. What does exile mean to the different characters?

4. What is the role of memory in Days of Awe? How does individual memory mesh with collective memory? What happens when memory is confronted by contradictory or conflicting facts?

5. The anusim--the descendants of Jews who survived the Inquisition by pretending to be Catholic--have a mostly hidden history. How does this play out in the story? What is the role or impact of history?


6. Many of the characters are also confronted with the challenge of assimilation and the emergence of multiple identities. Is Alejandra Cuban or American or both? How does Judaism play into her identity? How does Enrique balance being both Cuban and Jewish? How does that compare with Moises or Olinsky? What about Barbaita's affinity for her Chinese lover's culture and language?

7. Alejandra says: "What Leni and I really shared was a certain shame about belonging to oppressed minorities that had their own paradoxical privileges in the world." What does she mean?

8. Language and its mysteries is an integral part of the novel, and several of the characters are either translators or interpreters of some kind. How does the act of translating or interpreting serve as a metaphor for crossing cultural boundaries?

9. When Celina first appears, she's so bored with Alejandra's conversation and so insolent that she leaves the room. But by the story's end, she has established an eerie intimacy with Alejandra. How did this happen? What changed?

10. In the end, both Ale and Enrique return to Cuba, one way or the other. But Nena, Ale's mother, does not. Why not? Why is return possible for some but not for others in the story?


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