The Tower of the Antilles
By Achy Obejas
Akashic Books, 2017
160 pages, $19.95
Reviewed by Ashley Miller
Achy Obejas precedes her captivating collection, The Tower of the Antilles, with the epigraph “siempre he vivido en Cuba,” or, “I have always lived in Cuba.” The snippet is succinct and stark, but unfolds upon finishing this collection of ten short stories. After swimming through the heavy, often humid atmosphere Obejas creates, readers recognize that the expression should not be taken literally. It doesn’t speak for the bodies of those extricated from Cuba, it speaks for their souls.
Most of the characters in The Tower of the Antilles have physically emigrated, but their minds, their thoughts, their tongues, are tied to Cuba. As Obejas exposes, they never become fully American, but somehow are no longer fully Cuban, either. They inhabit a world of otherness. As one mansplaining author explains to an ex-pat writer visiting her homeland, “we must create a place for poets like you… A Cuban place, of course, yet different.”
Cuba is a long-lost friend who reappears in dreams. It is a force, a giant rotating moon magnet, lodged in the heart of the collection, simultaneously attractive and repulsive, and the people at the center of these stories get caught in conflicting pulls. For those who leave, their souls remain adrift, floating in the wet waterways between Cuba and elsewhere, between home and hostel, friendship and hostility, freedom and captivity. And for those who stay in Cuba, where “the greatest achievement is to leave,” there is often a sense of repulsion, from poverty, from limited resources, from conflict, a pulsing desire to be elsewhere.
This otherness is often coupled with a physical, emotional, or psychological otherness as well, further straining the characters’ identities. Many are queer-identifying, or questioning, physically different or disabled, which exacerbates their drifting souls, setting them further apart from family, society, and expectations. Each layer of otherness molds their identity, shifts their stories, and serves to highlight the ache of that central drift, the strangeness of never quite being at home.
In “Kimberle” the narrator tries to process feelings for a long-time female friend, who pulls her into different sexual situations; Dulce in “The Sound Catalog” copes with hearing loss and losing her lover back to Cuba; “The Maldives” centers on a young woman facing crippling disability from a benign brain tumor she will never be able to afford to treat; and “Supermán” gives us Enrique, naïve, family-less, and endowed with larger-than-life genitalia, all of which fuel his exploitation.
This strain of identity is perfectly introduced by the first line of the intoductory story, “The Collector,” “What is your name?” While this question probes for a more finite morsel of identity, the theme is far-reaching as Obejas’ characters struggle to find purpose, for how to fit in the world, for home. The question so perfectly distills the struggle within the stories of The Tower of the Antilles that Obejas closes with another story that begins with the same exact question, allowing the two stories with their many similarities to serve as anchoring bookends for the undulating collection.
The entire collection embodies a sense of drifting, crashing, fighting tides. In “North/South,” Mari and a handful of her family members get caught in a riptide while frolicking in stormy waters. But she learns “to surrender to the tide, to stay calm, to catch a breath at every opportunity,” and so must these characters. They must learn to swim, to cross the expanse of the heaving tide and, as Mari so poignantly identifies, they must find a way to “recognize the feel of air on [their]skin, to stay alive.”
These conflicts of identity, selfhood, and belonging are braided with lush phrasing and a penchant for details and observations that a harsher critic may deem frivolous. But when it is noted that “the moon simmers… burns, pale yellow flames blistering on the water” or that it “floats over the sea on a bed of softly percolating amber clouds,” or how receding water “breaks into spider threads… the twinkling lace thins to vanish” readers may melt into Obejas’ vision, caught in the tide.
Each story rolls open as a wave and then recedes, ending as abruptly as a wave crashing against the shore, just as another story-wave rushes forward and unfolds. In many instances, like the ex-Cubans of the stories reaching for possibilities, for promise of more, we turn the page, but the next story begins before our mind is ready to let go. In a way, this forces the reader to submerge, to swallow the whole of The Tower of the Antilles in a single gulp, to face the sadness of being adrift and holding our breath as the current takes us under, hoping to break surface and breathe again.