Desire, Memory, and Poetry as a Form of Prayer

Achy Obejas’ “Boomerang/Bumerán” relishes the unique autobiography of poetry

A basket of lemons, several cut open, in a wicker basket on a green table
Photo by Merve Sehirli Nasir on Unsplash

I dropped from my mother’s mouth with an axe, a net of lemons to which I was allergic, a limp, and a pair of Ray-Bans that fit awkwardly on my nose,” says the speaker of “Waiting in Line with Hemingway,” from Achy Obejas’s recent bilingual collection of poems, Boomerang/Bumerán.

The humor here is mixed with a heavy dose of pathos, a reminder of how the sense-defying circumstances sometimes dealt us can often generate feelings of helplessness, making us believe we have little or no say in our own lives. And yet, Obejas reminds us that we do have at least some freedom of choice, as when, in the opening poem, “Boomerang, After Aime Cesaire,” the speaker declares: “I and I alone choose to be born on this island, to this family, on this day.” This singular sensibility, almost defiant in its insistence on the possibility of creating one’s own reality, is evident throughout this collection, perhaps nowhere more so than in the poet’s choice to embrace a nearly gender-free language in Spanish, a notoriously difficult task, and in so doing, begin to reimagine gendered ways of thinking and being in the world. 

Obejas’s identity as a Cuban-American, queer, Jewish woman looms large in these poems, which explore love and desire, questions of memory—both personal and collective—, the possibilities and pitfalls of gender, and the subversive power of poetry as a kind of prayer. Obejas and I spoke over Zoom in February, from our respective homes in Northern and Southern California, and later communicated via email. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows:

Shoshana Olidort: How did you come up with the title for your book, Boomerang/Bumerán

Achy Obejas: The book is about this sort of constant return. I always feel like there’s this very cyclical, very circular returning that is always happening in my life in one way or another. I have the same friends from a million years ago in part because I’m constantly returning to those friends, for solace, and also for joy. In 1963, when I was 6, we left Havana in the middle of the night. There were 44 of us on a 28 foot boat. Midway through we’d run into a storm and ran out of fuel and were mercifully picked up by an American oil tanker that then detoured to drop us off. Because the world is very, very small, many, many, many years later, after I moved to California, I met the daughter of the captain of that ship and we became friends. It was a real circular sort of return.

SO: In the introduction you write about how you try to avoid grammatical gender in these poems, which is particularly challenging in Spanish, and you describe the poems as being “mostly gender-free.” I’m wondering if this is in part motivated by a desire to return to some primordial world or a way of thinking that precedes gender.

AO: It’s possible, but for me questions of gender and gendered language came later in life. Part of that is because the conversation has really bubbled up in recent times, part of it may be because I’m so comfortable as a woman that a lot of the questioning of gender has been more theoretical or social, rather than personal. I know I came to these issues very much through language, specifically through translation, not just trying to find and construct terms but also wondering why languages are built the way they are. How did we get here? How do we move to the next and better place?

While this shift de-gendered humans, it left the rest of language completely gendered.

I remember when my students first started asking about preferred pronouns, one of the things that struck me was the very quick adaptation of the “-x” for Latinx in academia but not in the Latino community. The Latino community actually seemed to very actively reject it. You can’t pronounce the x in Spanish, it’s completely impossible to say this term. I remember trying to engage with the white administrators at Mills college, which was my last academic appointment, about why this decision had been made when in fact none of the Latino faculty or staff had ever been consulted. I realized it was a very convenient way for white people to signal virtue and inclusivity, but it had little to do with us. I started noticing that in Latin America the preferred ending seemed to be the “-e” which made so much sense because it’s the space between the feminized “-a” and the masculinized “-o” that signal gender in Spanish. But while this shift de-gendered humans, it left the rest of language completely gendered so that the de-gendered person would be sitting at the feminine table drinking their masculine coffee. 

I think the radical part of my book lies not in the use of the “-e” but in the use of the “-e” throughout the language, so that the language is completely degendered except with certain people. When I allowed gender in it was almost always to address a personal issue, an issue around a person. I gendered Ana Mendieta because I strongly believe Ana was marginalized and suffered as an artist precisely because she was a woman and because she was a woman of color. I think if she’d been a man, especially if she’d been a white man, she would have had a very different trajectory in the art world.

I couldn’t de-gender my mother, not just because she’s my mother but because my mother was very much the product of a misogynistic and sexist society. And I allowed Hemingway to stay gendered for very similar reasons. Here’s a man who’s known for his toxic masculinity. To de-gender him really cleans him up, and I think it’s important to deal with what’s there, to talk about what that means. 

SO: In “The president of Coca-Cola” there are instances when Ana Mendieta is gendered, but there are also quite a few moments where you do use the “-e,” and I’m wondering about that seeming inconsistency?

AO: I think Ana would have loved the whole discussion about gender that’s so mainstream now. And she was impish and sometimes boyish and I was playing with that, imagining her in today’s context. I think that “inconsistency” is very much a part of her rebel spirit. She was a great, great rule breaker.

SO: Can you describe your translation process with this book. Were the poems written originally in Spanish, or in English?

I don’t believe translators are traitors, I believe translators are bridges.

AO: I made a decision not to talk about the original language, and not to talk about which translator worked on what piece with me, I think people get really hung up on what’s the original, what are you really trying to say. And sometimes I don’t think it matters what the original is. I think some translations get there only 90% of the way, they get 90% of the full effect—the words, the sound, the rhythm, the meaning, and I think some translations actually improve the original. Gabriel García Márquez always said that Edith Grossman did a better job on One Hundred Years of Solitude, that she made it a better book.  Grossman understood the work not just in terms of putting words together on the page but in terms of rhythm and sound and meaning and soulfulness. I think the point of origin is beside the point. I don’t believe translators are traitors, I believe translators are bridges. I think translators really make a difference and are actually a part of the possibility of hope in this world. 

SO: Can you talk a bit about the differences between the versions you have in English and Spanish, and specifically poems where you preserve some of the “original” language, as in “Volver,” for example, a poem about a return to Cuba, which was originally written and published in English in Bridges to/from Cuba, and which includes quite a bit of Spanish?

AO: A lot of that poem has borrowed text—lyrics from Carlos Gardel’s tango, from a song by Los Tigres del Norte, poems by José Martí. It made no sense to translate them—they’d lose their spirit (esp Martí), and once that door was open, it stayed that way. To be honest, I rarely make a choice to “insert” anything. My everyday speech is very much Spanish and I’m constantly code-switching. 

SO: How do you see poetry intersecting with questions of identity?

AO: I think poetry is the form that’s closest to my heart. It’s the first kind of writing that I did. It’s the first place where I felt like English became my language and something that I could manipulate in an artistic fashion, that I could shape and form. It’s also been the one that I’ve least sought to publicize or commercialize. Part of that was because it was always pretty personal. A lot of stuff about identity, a lot of stuff about assimilation. When I was younger of course I didn’t understand it that way, I understood it as me feeling heartbroken about this or that and not fitting in and not understanding why I didn’t fit in. 

The thing about poetry is that even if you take on a persona in a poem it’s ultimately autobiographical in a way that prose isn’t. You can actually write prose in the voice of a character that has nothing to do with you. Poetry is much more directly autobiographical and I think it’s read as autobiographical. It also intersects with liturgical texts in ways that are profoundly about identity, because the god we pray to is always a very personal god no matter how we approach our worship. 

SO: Speaking of god, and prayer, “Kol Nidrei” is probably my favorite poem in the book. In it, you reimagine this core Jewish liturgical text, the opening prayer of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, which, incidentally, has always struck me as very dry and legalistic—it’s a formula for nullifying vows that is said to have originated with the forced conversion of Jews in Spain in the early Middle Ages, as a way of reckoning with their apostasy. And you reimagine it in this way that’s so incredibly powerful and also empowering. Instead of “With the consent of the Almighty … with the consent of this congregation,” you open the poem: “With the consent of no one, we pray among the dykes, the miscreants, the homeless, the enraged …” What inspired you about this prayer, why did you choose to rewrite Kol Nidrei in particular?

AO: Kol Nidrei made sense to me once I understood my own family history, not just the part about being Sephardic and not just about being anusim (forced converts), but my particular family, I learned after I wrote Days of Awe, had actually collaborated with the inquisition in order to save themselves. This was tremendously shameful and shattering. Kol Nidrei is the prayer right before the big day, it’s about apostasy and survival against all costs. I think the biggest apostates of all are women. Women are constantly taking on vows and promises to comfort, reassure, take care of, deal with others—vows and promises that are not true to them or their dreams, vows and promises that compromise their integrity and their own ambitions. I think this has always happened, and so that prayer, for me, can be very much about freeing ourselves from the restraints we take on when we feel duty bound, when we think it’s what we should do. My first encounters with Kol Nidrei were through Sephardic high holiday services, and so the ghost of the Inquisition was always present—Kol Nidrei struck me as a way for all those Jews who pretended to be something else in order to survive to come back, to proclaim their Jewishness, and to forgive themselves, to be grateful for having lived.

SO: I wanted to end with your deeply moving poem about the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting, which is written in a form that directly invokes the Amidah, a central Jewish prayer. Can you tell me about your thought process around the writing of this poem?

AO: I think that particular terrorist act and the assault on the Sikh temple in Wisconsin and the massacre that Dylan Roof enacted on those nine people at the Baptist church, all those events strike a very similar cord for me. Obviously I related more to the Tree of Life because they’re closer to my people if you want to call it that. I think people forget that hatred against Jews is one of the earliest of the hatreds. But also, I find these events so beyond my scope, I try to imagine what it would be like to be there. 

Is it possible to be in this space of godliness and know that you’re being murdered?

When I think of Tree of Life, I think: What is the hatred that fuels the impulse to do something like that that? And if you’re there and you’re vulnerable and you’re praying and you’re in this space where you think you’re safe and you’re blessed, do you even recognize it as it’s happening? Is it possible to be in this space of godliness and know that you’re being murdered? These are experiences that seem unfathomable. Especially when I heard they were older people, it felt like these people survived everything just to get to this point, they were with their god, they were exposed, they were skinless, and this is how they went. 

SO: Is poetry for you, then, a form of prayer?

AO: Yes, poetry is prayer, I go to poetry for a similar feeling that I get with prayer. My own prayer practice is so iconoclastic and not religious in the conventional sense. I read poems every day. Poetry serves as a sort of morning prayer, it does sort of create a space of wonder and a space of calm, especially during hard times. I enter my day with language very much in the forefront of my mind and the possibility of communication, which is important to me. I want to communicate, to connect, to touch and be touched. 

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