Cuban Author Achy Obejas Returns to Miami Book Fair

Call Achy Obejas anything but a jack of all trades: the accomplished author, journalist, and translator claims the only thing she peddles are words. "I always think it's really funny when people say 'the multitalented Achy Obejas,' because actually I have very limited talents," she says, a statement that's unequivocally untrue. With three critically acclaimed novels under her belt, countless literary awards including a Pulitzer Prize, and a reputation as one of the country's finest literary translators, Achy Obejas is certainly one of the most prolific writers to emerge in the 20th Century.

Her latest endeavor, a novel she claims is "insanely about Cuba," is taking her an unusually long time — probably because Obejas has been busy working on a new short-story collection, a taste of which fans will enjoy during her reading at this year's Miami Book Fair; and a new MFA in Translation program at Mills College in California, a program Obejas put together and designed herself while in residency at Mills over the past three years. "My wife would tell you that if I wasn't doing all this other stuff, I'd probably be done by now," she notes.

Obejas' new translation program is even more remarkable considering the author never received a formal education in literary translation herself. "When I was writing Ruins, I wanted to use [Nicolás] Guillén's Tengo, but every English translation I found sucked," she said. "So I decided to do it myself. I needed permission from the family, and I showed them what I had done, and they asked me if I would update the Guillén canon." What started out as a hobby eventually became a specialty for Obejas. After translating the acclaimed short-story collection Havana Noir to Spanish, Obejas was approached by Random House to translate Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, an effort that earned her a finalist nod for Spain's Esther Benítez Translation Prize.

The author encourages her students to approach storytelling like architects, examining first the structure and critical elements of the story in order to build on their original content. "I'm very practical about these things," she says. "I want my students to understand how to put a story together and understand the elements of a story and think in those terms. That may come from journalism and the sort of systems that come from being in journalism."

But Obejas spends a lot of time talking herself out of using any journalistic tricks when it comes to her own creative writing, which she says requires a very different "wiring of the brain" since you're embarking on a project that will take years to finish. "With journalism, there's not a lot of time for reflection, but with a novel you have to hold a lot in your head and not put it down," she says. "You have to be able to reconsider and recast and get rid of all those tricks to write around your roadblocks that you learned in journalism."

For her fourth novel, Obejas is forcing herself to wallow in its issues, taking her time to fix "what she knows is wrong" with a dystopian tale about getting what you want and finding that it wasn't what you thought it would be. "Usnavy [from Ruins] came really easily, Days of Awe is probably my favorite novel, and Memory Mambo was my first attempt at a novel, so it was the thrill of something new. But this novel has been a real bear." 

Achy Obejas at the Miami Book Fair
Sunday, November 22, at noon in Room 8303. Visit miamibookfair.com.

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