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Artist Spotlight: Achy Obejas

By Victoria Lin, Contributing Writer

Novelist, poet, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Achy Obejas visited Harvard on Thursday, Feb. 20 to talk about her novel “Days of Awe.” Born in Havana and raised in Indiana, Obejas has written about her Cuban origins and issues of race, gender, sexuality, and economic inequality. The morning after her lecture, Obejas sat down with The Crimson to discuss her life and work.

The Harvard Crimson: Your novels “Days of Awe” and “Memory Mambo” both feature female Cuban-American protagonists—how much of yourself do you see in those characters?

Achy Obejas: I think every writer writes from a place inside themselves. There’s some sort of reflection of them not just in their protagonists but in every character in some way or another. But I’m interested in both Cuba as a real place and as a kind of metaphor for power and for powerlessness, for private and public identity. I think in the U.S. we have this idea of agency, and we think we are masters of our own fate. But there really are circumstances beyond people’s control. Some of them are so-called acts of God, but some of them are very human-made—things like revolutions and political circumstances. Those are defining moments that you don’t necessarily seek, but fate seeks you out.

THC: You identify as lesbian, and you and your wife welcomed a son in late 2011—how has that aspect of your identity influenced your writing?

AO: I think that particular influence is probably waning a little bit, in part because of the normalization of families like ours. When I was in my earlier twenties, the notion of being a lesbian, especially in Indiana, was a very outlaw-ish sort of thing. And it was a very political time—in the ’70s there was a lot of conversation about...the notions of power inherent in patriarchy and masculinity. So it was important, and I think my work was drenched in it. But being queer is not nearly as special now as it used to be. The truth of the matter is that in my day-to-day life—when I walk into the 7-Eleven—my queerness is not an issue. What’s more likely an issue is if they hear me speaking Spanish, or my wife and kid walk in and the clerk tries to decipher our relationship.

THC: Do you feel a responsibility to address those issues in your writing?

AO: I don’t feel the responsibility to address any issue in my writing. I feel a responsibility to respond to whatever muses have lighted on my shoulder. And because of who I am and how I engage with the world, certain issues come up. But I don’t feel a responsibility to uplift anybody or teach anybody or reflect anybody. I think those things might happen, but I don’t sit down with that goal.

THC: Though you’ve published many creative works, you’re also an accomplished journalist. Do you approach the two forms of writing differently, and do you consider yourself more of a creative writer or more of a journalist?

AO: At this point of my life I’m much more of a creative writer than a journalist. At one point I was much more of a journalist than I was a creative writer: I worked for more than a decade for the Chicago Tribune, and I did a lot of alternative journalism before that. Journalism by design is different from creative work; you have to deal with real material. You are really anchored to the actuality of what people said, what actually took place. But that kind of so-called limitation I find really freeing because then you know exactly what the playing field is.

THC: You’ve also taught at various points in your career—is there something particular about teaching writing as opposed to the act of writing itself?

AO: The first few times I taught, it was actually a struggle. I didn’t really know what I was doing. Then I got hired as a writer-in-residence at the University of Chicago, and my students were extraordinary. They were so smart, and they were so creative, and they were so full of ideas and vigor, and they were so incredibly interested. And what ended up happening is that in the process of...teaching, I ended up having to think about things in a variety of ways that I’d never consciously thought about. I always tell people my writing has gotten a million times better since I started teaching, because...I’m constantly stimulated and confronted with ideas and possibilities that I would not come up with on my own. [In a writing group] you give feedback only because you really want feedback on your work. But a classroom is very different. It’s a more generous and open space.

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