The Achy Obejas Interview

Today I chat with a prolific writer, award-winning journalist and one of Chicago's brightest literary stars. She is the author of the new book Ruins, as well as Memory Mambo, Days of Awe, This is What Happened in Our Other Life and We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? She also edited the crime anthology Havana Noir and is currently the Sor Juana Visiting Writer at DePaul University in Chicago.

When was the last time you were in Cuba?
I was last in Cuba in December 2007. I'll be there again in June.

What vision do you find most Americans have about Cuba (say, Havana specifically) and how close to the truth is it?
In my opinion, most Americans have a romantic view of Cuba -- either it's a tropical paradise or a socialist paradise. In truth, it's neither. It's a third world country that tried a very bold social experiment which failed. It's poor but its people are crazy well educated, which adds to their frustrations. Most Americans see us warm and uncommonly friendly, and some of that's true -- but mostly because Americans don't want to believe they're being hustled.

What were the hardest parts of translating "The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao"?
It was a huge challenge in a myriad ways but definitely the most exciting translating job imaginable.

How did you get that gig? Had you done much translating before?
I was asked by Random House to submit a sample that was presented, with several others, to Junot, who made his decision after blind sampling.

I'd translated for the many years when I first moved to Chicago, mostly oral interpreting, in courts and hospitals and the like. I'd also translated for the Chicago Tribune and for private clients. And, of course, I translated Havana Noir.

What brought you to Chicago in 1979?
I was in love with a girl who lived in Chicago.

What do you get out of living and working in Chicago that you don't think you would get living in another city?
It's a beautiful, livable city, very accessible. It has all the advantages, esp culturally, of the big cities, while retaining a real sense of community.

Where are your favorite places to read and work in Chicago?

My house, Harper Library on the U of C campus.

What have you read and enjoyed lately?
Trinidad Noir.

Had you had much experience with crime writing prior to editing Havana Noir?

Just one story for Chicago Noir, but I'd always been a reader of noirs.

In general are the stories, in tone or theme, very different from those in the American Noirs?
Yes, they're a bit more fantastic -- I assume you're asking me about Havana Noir and Cuban noir in general -- because Cuban life's a bit more absurd. But, also, American noirs are, by nature, set around the idea of a loner against society, and Cuban noirs -- because Cuba is socialist -- sometimes flip that dynamic.

Of all the different genres you write in, (including journalism) which comes the easiest to you?
Fiction. Total freedom.

How do you know when you have an idea for a novel vs. for a short story?
I don't until I'm into it.

When you're putting together a book of poems, how do you decide which to include?
I've only done one, and I was lucky enough to be working with Lawrence Schimel, who's a genius about that sort of thing. In general, I feel that book owes its success to him. He's an amazing editor. (And an amazing friend too.)

What is your process of writing a book? Do you have a schedule?
When I'm in it, I write every day. Every single Day.

What does being the Visiting Writer at a university entail?
Teaching a couple of classes, giving public readings, meeting w students, and having a public profile that reflects positively on the university.

When you teach writing, what do you think is the most valuable lesson you can impart on your students?
To tell the truth.

How does it feel to be the 229th person interviewed for