Days of Awe

Written by Achy Obejas
Review by James Hawking

Revolutionary Cuba provides the setting for this autobiographical novel. Alejandra San Josè is born the day Fidel Castro enters Havana. Her parents flee the island in 1961, fearing an American invasion, so Alejandra is raised in Chicago. She returns to Cuba in 1987 and again in 1997, and the book moves between these time frames. Even when the narrative takes place in the recent past, various discoveries throw us back to the early 1960’s and times before. The heroine learns that her apparently Catholic family is of Marrano origin, and she explores both her own ancestry and the history of the Jews in Cuba.

The book won a Lambda Award for Lesbian Fiction, but Alejandra’s sexual activity with both men and women is less fully realized than her longings. When she sees a beautiful young habañera on her first return trip, the narrator reacts the way Dante did to Beatrice. Obejas has a fine ear for language, both Spanish and English and the ways to move between them. Street Spanish flirtation and high literary style make their appearance. Alejandra’s father, who considers himself more Spanish than Cuban, translates real-life authors like Mario Vargas Llosa. He inadvertently displays his Sephardic ancestry by using judeo-español words like chinelas (slippers). The characters are unpredictable in their sexual and political trajectory. This is one of the many accomplishments of this highly recommended novel.