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Achy Obejas' bilingual poetry book Boomerang/Bumeran explores immigration, liberation
By Max Lubbers
2021-10-11

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Achy Obejas is a Cuban-American writer, translator and activist. Boomerang/Bumerán, her newest book, confronts questions of immigration, love and liberation. Like a boomerang, these ideas return throughout the collection, even as its three sections each focus on a major theme.

Every poem features an English and Spanish version, although said versions do not perfectly mirror one another. Regardless of language, Obejas keeps the writing mostly gender-free.

Windy City Times: Tell me about the title, Boomerang/Bumerán.

Achy Obejas: I like the qualities of a boomerang—not just the idea that it goes and comes back, but also that it can be an art object; it can be a very deadly weapon. It can also be a decoy and a toy.

And I like the notion of constant return. It feels like my life.

WCT: Can you talk a little more about that?

AO: I was born in Cuba. I came to the United States when I was six. My parents—especially my dad—was always fixated on return. We had to preserve our Spanish. We had to know our history. We had to know our culture, because we would have to be able to function as Cubans in Cuba.

We never went back in the way that he had imagined. But when I went back in 1985, it was this very romantic, emotional return. The more time I spent in Cuba, the more acclimated I got to its everyday qualities, [and] the less romantic it became.

I had to rethink a lot of things about my family history and about the explanations that were given to me about why we were here, and why we had left, and rethink history in general, and contemplate finding a way toward any kind of truth.

WCT: How do you feel language impacted the meanings of the different poems in the collection?

AO: In the book, we never say what's the original. People sort of presume that the English is the original, but that's actually not always true. Some of these pieces were written in English first. Some of them were written in Spanish first.

I made the choice because I didn't want to have the discussion about authenticity. "The translator's a traitor" is the classic idea, but I actually think translators are none of those things. They're champions. They're bridge-builders. They're seekers who come back with words from new worlds.

The original, to a certain extent, becomes irrelevant.

WCT: I also wanted to talk about the curation of the collection. Why start with a poem centered around the pronoun, "I" or "me," when so much of the collection included poetry that uses "you"?

AO: I think what I was trying to do was say, "Everything that you're going to read after this page comes through this prism of being an island person, being a person who is affected by revolution, is affected by exile, is affected by all of these things that happen on these islands, because of colonization, because of the cold war."

The poem is patterned after a very famous Aime Cesaire piece, and that was the purpose of that. But obviously the "I" is very prominent, and now I'm left to think about that. It may be part of that identity thing—that this is all "me." I'm going to lose sleep over that now.

WCT: The second part of the collection involves a lot of romance, and I noticed that exchange, of speaking to a "you" at some points. What was your experience writing that section?

AO: They're love poems and they're not love poems. They're relationship poems. They're not "happy ever after" poems. They're not "I love you madly" poems.

The disappointments in love are probably the greatest, saddest, most earth-shattering hurts. For me, love has been this constant search. It's sometimes been a very joyful experience and sometimes it's not been. You grow from each of these things. That's the recompense, I suppose, for the pain.

WCT: The beginning talks about your childhood and coming to the United States, and then the middle is about queer romance, and then the ending talks about liberation and solidarity and expands out. I was wondering why you chose that evolution—not to say it goes from personal to political, because those are very intercrossed, but what was the intention going from there to there?

AO:It has a lot to do with my kids. I wanted my children, who are both boys, to understand things that matter to me, and to find the things that matter to them, which might be the same and might not be. I also wanted them to understand that we all have a responsibility to the world and to the community.

The approach is a little bit different, because I, in some ways, am always talking to them.

WCT: You wrote that you tried to keep the writing mostly gender-free, but at times gender was important. I noticed this especially in "Kol Nidrei," but why did it sometimes feel crucial to name gender?

AO: I had the collection curated; it was ready to go. Then I had this idea: What if we tried to go back and sort of make this gender-free?

[With] A couple of the pieces, this wasn't going to happen. One was the Ana Mendieta piece, because Ana Mendieta was murdered because she's a girl. And so to neutralize Ana Mendieta was to kill Ana Mendieta all over again.

And of course in Spanish, the whole thing was a shattering of everything, because Spanish is a binary language. When I read some of these things aloud in Spanish, sometimes they sound like sci-fi Spanish. It changes the sound, and it changes the language and changes how you receive it.

The last piece I wrote was Kol Nidrei, and I inserted that piece at the very last minute. Kol Nidrei refers to the night before Yom Kippur, which is the prayer for apostasy. In this case, it's a prayer for women to forgive themselves, for our apostasy.

WCT: Were there any other moments where you felt like Jewish identity came into it for you?

AO: Yeah, aspects of who you are play with poetry in a very different way than with prose. With prose, you can hide behind other characters. With poetry, even if you take on a persona, it's still you: island girl, Jewish girl, queer girl. Lesbo. All that stuff is in play.

Poetry is so shatteringly personal. It's so naked. I think even memoirs lie more than poetry.


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