"I like things that are messy," says Achy Obejas. "The conventional detective story seems to seek out a way of making order in the world, and I'm much more interested in the disorder in the world—living among the disorder and making sense of it on a daily basis."
The 18 stories collected in the anthology Havana Noir—edited by Obejas and published last year by Akashic Books—are nothing if not messy. The Havana reflected in its pages is coldly violent and explosively loving. It's vibrant, brutal, amoral, sordid, romantic, idealistic, pragmatic, and gleefully ambiguous.
Novelist, poet, and longtime Tribune reporter (she won a Pulitzer in 2001 as part of the team behind a series about the nation's air-travel system), Obejas was six in 1963, when she and her parents left Cuba on a boat bound for Miami—a bit of biography snappily summed up in the title of her 1994 short-story collection, We Came All the Way From Cuba So You Could Dress Like This? The novel that followed, Memory Mambo, played with knotty questions of identity and family, its protagonist—like Obejas—a Cuban-born lesbian living in Chicago.
Her first foray into noir came in 2004, when Neal Pollack hit her up to contribute to the Akashic collection he was editing, Chicago Noir—an early entry in what's now a successful franchise for the indie publisher. "I actually went into it kind of snottily," she recalls. "I said, 'Well, what the fuck, it's genre. It's formulaic. Let's try this.' And it was actually unbelievably difficult. It really got me thinking."
Obejas had met Akashic publisher Johnny Temple in 1999 or 2000—she can't quite remember, but it was before the publication of her 2001 novel, Days of Awe—and they'd bonded over a dinner followed by "many, many drinks" at the Green Mill. But they didn't work together directly until 2005, when Obejas—who was living in Honolulu—picked up a copy of Miami Noir and was aghast to find only one Cuban writer in the collection. "You can't walk down the street in Miami without tripping over five Cuban writers in a block!" she says. When she razzed Temple about it, suggesting that he put together a Havana Noir anthology, he suggested in turn that she do the job.
Obejas had never edited an anthology before and took Temple's suggestions "very, very seriously"—to the point that her meticulousness delayed the project by about six months. She solicited 40 submissions though titles in the Noir series typically contain between 15 and 19 stories. "I wanted the book to be about the real Havana," she says. "I didn't want it to be about Havana as Cubaphile propagandists see it and I didn't want it to be the nostalgic—or tyrannical—Havana that's often portrayed in things that come out of Miami. I wanted it to be a book that Cubans who live in Cuba would recognize as [telling] their own stories."
The final contributors list includes internationally acclaimed writers like Leonardo Padura, whose story, "Staring at the Sun," is set in Marianao, a Havana suburb so impoverished that garbage has to be picked up by horse-drawn carriage because driving on the crumbling streets is impossible. But for every Padura there's someone like Yohamna Depestre, a mouthy young hip-hop writer Obejas met at a workshop she was running with Danny Hoch, Maria Irene Fornes, and Junot Diaz. Depestre's curt, chilling "Abikú" may detail cold-blooded murder, but, as Obejas points out, it's really a story about the housing shortage.
About half the contributors live on the island, which presented its own set of challenges. Since, like a lot of Havanans, many of Obejas's writers don't have phones or reliable Internet connections, communicating with them as she edited or translated their work often involved physically tracking them down when she was in town. When she wasn't, one Havana-based contributor, Yoss, served as courier, delivering Obejas's e-mailed edits and questions to the others via zip drive.
Obejas's own contribution, "Zenzizenzic," is less bloody than some of the others—many of which portray startling cruelty—but it's no less horrifying in its casual acceptance of the Havana imperative of self-preservation. "I've always been drawn to the darker aspects... of everything, really, but especially Cuba," she notes. "It's the life I might have had, so the subjunctive part of that is pretty fascinating."
The book's publication has brought some unexpected benefits to Obejas. Temple has enlisted her to translate stories for the forthcoming Mexico City Noir and Barcelona Noir into English, and, in a first, she's translating Junot Diaz's Pulitzer-winning The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao into Spanish. She got the job on the basis of an anonymous audition. ("I loved [Obejas's submission] because it was so much more supple and alive than the other samples," says Diaz. "Then it turned out to be my friend and I was floored.")
Obejas's third novel, Ruins, is due from Akashic in March 2009. Set in Cuba, with a male protagonist, it was in the works long before she embarked on the Havana Noir project. But it now feels like a continuation of the anthology's themes, she says. "It's very dark and dystopian. It's pretty damn noir."v
HAVANA NOIRAchy Obejas, editorAkashic Books, $15.95