(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAR 11, 2009)
The protagonist in Achy Obejas’ novel, Ruins, is a middle-aged Cuban named Usnavy. He works at the local bodega doling out meager portions of rice and occasionally beans and baby formula to area residents. Usnavy is a man of high principle. Committed to the cause of the Revolution, he stays faithful despite the fact that decades later, its promise remains largely unfulfilled. Ironically, for someone who is so devoted to the Communists’ cause, Usnavy is named after the American navy ships—powerful and strong—that make their presence at Guantanamo Bay.
Usnavy lives in a cramped, crumbling apartment with his wife and daughter and they bear the results of his principled life—waiting their turn at everything and never seeking special favors from anyone. After she is forced out of a bus driver’s job, Usnavy’s wife, Lidia, gets licensed as an artisan. But the exercise was pointless. “There was no paper, no ink, no paint, nothing,” Obejas w=rites.
Obejas, who has written about Cuba, its citizens, and the immigrant experience before, does a wonderful job of portraying the tedium of Usnavy’s life. The poverty is so dire that his daughter eats stew where pieces of a blanket substitutes for meat.
The one material object that Usnavy possesses and simply loves is a huge, colorful lamp in his room. It is totally out of place in the squalor and decay but it is his only cherished possession (after his bicycle gets stolen) and he loves it dearly. “In the damp and acrid tenement, the lamp was a vibrant African moon in a room that was by nature spectral. It was delicate and oversized in a place that demanded discretion and toughness—if it swayed, it might shatter against the concrete,” Obejas writes of the old lamp.
Then one day, Usnavy stumbles upon a similarly colorful but smaller lamp—possibly a Tiffany—in the ruins of a building collapse. Knowing that this lamp has some value, even enough to tempt Americans, Usnavy is torn—between selling the lamp and buying himself small luxuries or sticking to high principle at all costs. After a small errand driving around an American at the request of a neighbor, Usnavy is paid with a twenty-dollar bill. His mind now races at what else he can sell—perhaps the Tiffany, perhaps panels of glass from his own bigger lamp—to get at more American dollars. After all it’s probably the only currency that can buy a family a few days’ worth of decent meals.
Ruins essentially shows us a glimpse of this conflict that Usnavy has to grapple with. While Obejas does a good job of portraying Usnavy’s struggles and the atmosphere in ‘90’s Cuba, very often the book is just that: a snapshot of one man’s struggles and daily life. And while interesting though this may be, there is no central, driving plot that effectively binds the book together. In places, Ruins feels more like a documentary than a novel.
Where Ruins does succeed is in showing just how far-reaching the American influence on Cuba is, and how its citizens live in the United States’ shadow all their lives. “After thirty-five years of revolution and scores of imported allied laundry detergent as well as the occasional domestic product—everybody still referred to the powdery stuff as Fab, as if they couldn’t shake the long northern shadow even in matters as simple as that,” Obejas writes.
The measurable distance between the United States and Cuba is just around 90 miles. Obejas’ novel shows how such proximity, between two neighbors who could not be more different, can exert a powerful influence. The United States always beckons and even as the book unfolds, Usnavy observes that increasing numbers of his countrymen give in to the promise of a better life. As one character in Ruins explains, there has always been a line outside the U.S. Consulate in Cuba—there are always Cubans looking for a way out. “The rest,” he says, “is lies, politics and fable.”
- Amazon readers rating: from 1 reviews
(back to top)
Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- We Came All the Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?: Stories (1994)
- Memory Mambo (1996)
- Days of Awe (2001) (Kindle version)
- Ruins (March 2009) (Kindle version)
- This Is What Happened In Our Other Life (November 2007)
- Havana Noir (October 2007)
(back to top)
- Official website for Achy Obejas
- Wikipedia page for Achy Obejas
- Voices page for Achy Obejas
- TransVerse review of We Came All the From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?
- Voices review of Memory Mambo
- The Jewish Reader on Days of Awe
- Chicago Reader on Havana Noir
- BookSlut review of Havana Noir
- LaBloga review of Ruins
- LA Times review of Ruins
(back to top)
About the Author:
Achy Obejas was born in Havana, Cuba in 1956. She came to the US with her parents at the age of six, after the Cuban revolution. She grew up in Michigan City, Indiana and moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1979.
An award-winning journalist, she worked for more than ten years for the Chicago Tribune writing and reporting about arts and culture. Among literally thousands of stories, she helped cover Pope John Paul II's historic 1998 visit to Cuba, the arrival of Al-Queda prisoners in Guantánamo, the Versace murder, and the AIDS epidemic.
She writes regularly about Latin music for the Washington Post and about books for In These Times.
During her career, Achy has received a Pulitzer for a Tribune team investigation, the Studs Terkel Journalism Prize, several Peter Lisagor journalism honors, two Lambda Literary awards, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry, and residencies at Yaddo, Ragdale and the Virginia Center for the Arts, among other honors.
Achy's poetry and fiction have been published in Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, Indiana Review, Story, La Gaceta de Cuba, Habana Elegante, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Best of Helicon Nine, Another Chicago Magazine, Abraxas; Antigonish Review, Bilingual Review, Conditions, Ikon, Interstate, Phoebe/George Mason University Review, Rambunctious Review, Revista Chicano-Riqueña, Sing Heavenly Muse!, Sinister Wisdom, Strong Coffee, Third Woman, and many others.
Currently, she is the Sor Juana Writer in Residence at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. She continues to spend extended time in Havana.