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The Politics of Waiting: Transnational Identity and Exile in Achy Obejas’ Ruins

La politique de l’attente : identité transnationale et exil dans Ruins d’Achy Obejas
Kevin Concannon


Dans son discours prononcé devant l’American Studies Association, Shelley Fisher Fishkin s’interroge : « Que signifie être ‘inclus’ ou ‘exclus’ de la nation ? ». Cette question reflète un tournant transnational au sein des Etudes Américaines, alors qu’une attention accrue portant sur les différents types de mouvement et les évolutions de la notion de citoyenneté ont conduit à une confusion quant à la définition de l’appartenance nationale. De cela, émerge une tension au sein de cette dimension transnationale alors que des tentatives visant à ré-imaginer la fluidité de l’appartenance politique sont mises à mal dans une rhétorique nationale élaborée pour encourager un sentiment de division. C’est cette tension qui sous-tend l’œuvre de l’écrivain cubain Achy Obejas dont les récents romans insistent sur le défi de « commémorer » Cuba aux États-Unis. Dans le roman intitulé Ruins, Achy Obejas complexifie les nuances du mot nation en le plaçant dans un contexte plus général, en tentant d’historiciser l’expérience des expatriés cubains sur le sol américain dans le cadre de la diaspora juive. En construisant cette histoire alternative, Obejas évoque les liens entre les expatriés et Cuba, non pas en termes d’envois de fonds ou de débat public, mais plutôt dans le cadre plus large de la diaspora, de la séparation et de l’oubli, et ce faisant, définit l’identité cubaine à travers le prisme transnational de la différence et du déni historiques.

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1In her 2004 Presidential Address to the American Studies Association, Shelley Fisher Fishkin asks, “What does it mean to be ‘included’ in or ‘excluded’ from the nation?” (23) The question reflects the transnational turn occurring within American Studies, as increased attention to patterns of movement, changing notions of citizenship and the border has led to a sense of indeterminacy over how national belonging or difference is defined. At the same time, questions of inclusion and exclusion remain determinate parts of nationalist rhetoric – as Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 emphasizes as well as past debates on the Dream Act in the United States Congress. A tension emerges within the transnational turn as a result, as attempts to re-imagine political and cultural identity in terms of boundary crossing or mixture are challenged by efforts at nation-building rooted in the construction of separation or difference. The transnational turn away from the nation as a critical category of analysis in American Studies also carries with it a (re)turn to the nation itself, as increased transition across national boundaries carries with it increased attention to national boundaries themselves.

2Recent works by Paul Gilroy and Brent Hayes Edwards provide a way around this by deemphasizing the nation as a critical category and by focusing instead on alternate forms of community formation. In The Black Atlantic (1993) and The Practice of Diaspora (2003), respectively, Gilroy and Edwards rely upon racial constructions of identity to develop historical linkages between individuals and communities that cannot be defined solely by national borders or by a national ideology. In other words, by reorienting race within a larger context – the Atlantic, for instance – Gilroy is able to develop different constructions of identity shaded not in terms of national citizenship, but in historical terms of movement, connection, and destination. In many ways, this effort to bypass the nation as a means of ‘doing’ American Studies reflects recent discussions of post-nationalist scholars, who like John Carlos Rowe and others argue seek to move “away from uncritical nationalist perspectives and toward what has been variously called critical internationalism, transnationalism, or globality.” (Curiel et al., 7) By shifting away from the nation as an analytical category, American Studies scholars attempt to counter a history of American scholarship that supports early nation-building – and hence imperial notions of Manifest Destiny, for instance – by recognizing the United States’ position both in the hemisphere and the globe.

3Though this critical genealogy might make the shift to the transnational appear a reactionary one, as a breaking free of the past, others argue that the speeded up experience of movement and time in the modern period lends itself to this approach beyond the nation. The increase in immigration within the Western hemisphere, and specifically from Latin America into the United States, in fact, has popularized the analysis of the transnational practices of border crossers. The immigrant experience, and especially the experience of immigrants forced to flee their home, however, continues to underscore the power of the modern nation-state as an integral part of the transnational experience. One should probably not be surprised that the critical category of the transnational has itself such an ambiguous place, that its borders are not sure, and that attempts to position, as Fishkin tries to do, the transnational at the center of American Studies, does little to de-center the nation. The wish to foreground one over the other, or the attempt to replace one means of analysis with another, struggles to explain the exilic experiences of those who desire a national identity that no longer exists, or of those whose transnational experience is not of their own choosing. This essay takes as its starting point this uneasy relationship between the nation and the transnational by exploring Fishkin’s question from another perspective: what does it mean to be included and excluded within the nation? This seeming paradox becomes an important starting point for exploring the work of Cuban American author Achy Obejas’ work Ruins (2009), and specifically her construction of the Cuban exile experience.

4While some might perceive the Cuban exile as similar to other Latin American migrants, who are either waiting to return home or building a life for themselves in their new land, José Quiroga argues that many exiles from Cuba feel a part of the island and yet are not, because they are waiting to return to a Cuba that may never arrive. In other words, the Cuban exile is not waiting to return home, but instead waiting for their home to return (23). Their exile is defined as much by geography as by time, by the historical unfolding of events, emphasizing a stasis at the heart of the movement associated with traditional understandings of exile. In other words, one can be an exile within Cuba itself, caught within a revolution that may never achieve its goals and by a ‘home’ that may never arrive. Paralleling Kristeva´s argument that “the foreigner lives within us [and that] he is the hidden face of our identity,” the Cuban foreigner is part of modern-day Cuban identity, questioning how seemingly determinate terms such as inside and outside, belonging and difference, citizen and foreigner are to be understood (Quiroga, 1). As Quiroga states,

Living outside of the island does not necessarily privilege exilic memory. To pursue this point further: there are Cuban exiles in Havana, living in very real houses and apartments, and moving here and there in order to make a living. (23, original italics)

  • 1 I am thinking specifically here of the tragic case of Calvert Casey, a Cuban writer, whose su (...)

5This experience leads one to wonder whether exile is to be understood in terms of the individual leaving the nation or in the more abstract terms of the nation leaving the individual. The question becomes even more complex when one realizes, in the case of Cuba, that this disappearance of the nation also carries with it another paradox: the inescapable presence of the nation, of harsh prison sentences, a lack of individual freedoms, and fear, a fear of the nation that for some, unfortunately, stretches beyond the boundaries of the island.1 In this way, the exile-on-the-island remains in many ways between nations, caught within an unorthodox transnational experience between memories of a past, pre-Castro, nation and a present nation that has yet to be fully realized.

  • 2 Edward Said argues, “Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one (...)

6This contrapuntal experience is based as much on time as geography and challenges classic examinations of exilic consciousness as caught between home and beyond.2 For the modern-day Cuban, who remains an exile on the island, time poses the hope for change even as history has marked a series of failures, and this sense of temporal betweenness becomes understood as representing a form of displacement, a defamiliarization of one’s homeland. Cuban exiles remain metaphorically homeless in their native land, strangers to its practices and plans, and as a result are challenged by the desire to return to a nation that remains, but, at the same time, no longer exists. This sense of alienation focuses attention on the temporal distance one is from home, an exilic experience that challenges national identity by understanding movement as both a temporal and spatial construct.

  • 3 Susan Gilman’s essay in Hemispheric American Studies discusses the importance of examining “i (...)

7The repetition Antonio Benítez-Rojo attributes to the Caribbean is underscored in these terms, since one might argue this exile experience on the island finds its repetitive counterpart in the Cuban American community. The repetition, of course, as Benítez-Rojo argues, is not without obvious differences, as a linkage between these communities rooted in exile and displacement at the same time does not mean the communities are politically, culturally or socially isomorphic. This possibility of community based in large part on disjunction, emphasizes the formation of hemispheric or transnational identity in ways that attend to issues of incomparability rather than similarity.3 In other words, rather than focusing on notions of crossing (transactional changes) as defining the transnational, the Cuban/Cuban American communities could be seen as linked by their mutual experience of exile, differentially defined. Understood in this way, Cuban American exiles remain in an imagined sense part of an island community, drawn together as much through a shared experience of waiting (“next year in Havana”) as by a disjunction rooted in different understandings of what they are waiting to see happen: the fall from power of the Castro family? the continued growth of socialism? By conceiving of the passage of time in political terms, of the act of waiting as a political act, the Cuban/Cuban American exile critiques a national identity that refuses to accept outsiders (Socialismo O Muerte).

8This imagined sense of dis/connection emphasizes the alternate means of structuring community and belonging beyond the nation. A hemispheric understanding of community based upon temporal and spatial disjunction works to challenge nation formations that are often rooted in the similarities of a common language, religion or ethos. As David Luis-Brown argues, hemispheric discourses can be sensitive to developing inter-national connections between marginalized communities, as he shows in his analysis of the connections between three seemingly distinct movements of the 1920s: the Harlem Renaissance, Cuban negrismo and Mexican indigenismo. Because these movements have been previously conceived in “distinct ethnic and national categories” (148), Luis-Brown argues that important linkages relating to questions of oppression and denationalization have been missed. By placing these categories of identity within a larger hemispheric field, he complicates questions of belonging, recognizing within notions of dissimilarity, political and historical points of comparison. I would argue that in much of Achy Obejas’ work she complicates the ‘categorical’ difference between the United States and Cuba by reconceiving their dissimilar relationship in hemispheric and transnational terms. The complication of this difference serves as a metaphor in the text for challenging other notions of individual or community marginalization within the nation, specifically difference founded on religious belief and sexual orientation.

  • 4 According to Susan Eckstein, “The Special Period, a euphemism for a siege economy, invo (...)
  • 5 To be male and named for a ship continues this gender confusion as it relates to movement. Mo (...)

9This hemispheric linkage is developed within her most recent novel, Ruins. Set in 1994 during the height of the balseros, when many Cubans fled the island on homemade rafts to escape the shortages on the island, the novel focuses on the Special Period in Times of Peace following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.4 The struggles to find sufficient food or fuel during this decade led to occasional street riots in Havana which in at least one case required the presence of Castro to dissolve. Unlike Obejas’ two previous novels which focused on female Cuban American protagonists planning to return to Cuba, in Memory Mambo (1996), or actually returning, in Days of Awe (2001), Ruins focuses on the experiences of a male Cubano, who never leaves the island. The gender shift challenges traditional images of male travel and female domesticity that is emphasized by the protagonist’s unusual name, Usnavy. Named by his mother for the power represented by the American battleships stationed in Guantánamo Bay, his name at once mocks the number of hardly seaworthy boats Cubans built to escape the island during this period, even as it marks him as “El Yanqui” to his friends.5 He struggles to overcome this contradiction by working hard for the revolution as the novel opens, only to slowly become disillusioned with Castro as he discovers the power of American dollars.

  • 6 Even though his discovery threatens this history of the Middle Passage and unsettles his revo (...)

10Usnavy’s gradual turn away from the revolution is rooted also in the discovery of his Jewish heritage. He had previously traced his history through the stories heard of his Jamaican father, reading his past back through the Middle Passage and the arrival of African slaves in the Caribbean, informing his present-day role as a revolutionary against the past capitalistic system of slavery.6 His discovery questions this grounding and exemplifies the text’s larger interest in complicating individual and object identity. This is emphasized by the novel’s central motif: the large ceiling lamp Usnavy inherits from his mother. The designs on the lamp again draw him back to Africa, but he later learns that it is actually a Tiffany that was possibly designed to hang in the Presidential Palace before the Revolution. As Usnavy discovers, however, the lamp is a Tiffany in name only. It was more than likely designed by Cuban Jews as part of a larger project to mass produce fake Tiffany lamps to drive down their cost as revenge for Tiffany not paying for work done. The passing down of this one item from mother to son symbolizes a Jewish provenance, and hence that the lamp is a forgery. The negotiation of his connection to Judaism through the prism of inauthenticity means that Usnavy’s experience foregrounds a larger history of inauthenticity that surrounded Cuban Jews pretending to convert to Christianity as a means of settling in the New World. These so-called crypto-Jews speak of an early Cuban history tied to the Spanish Inquisition and to the repression of individual and community beliefs. The result for many early Jews in Cuba was the gradual erosion of their beliefs and the lack of awareness from generation to generation of their family’s ethnic history. This secretive lineage becomes an important metaphor in Obejas’ work. It emphasizes the ideological construction of identity by focusing on the centrality of the exile position as a means of understanding how national identity or acceptance is to be understood.

11By presenting Usnavy as a supporter of the revolution and at the same time of Jewish descent, the novel explores this contradictory role of the outsider or the exile in the nation, of what it means to be positioned in crypto-national terms. Usnavy’s name, given to him by his mother, emphasizes this contradictory position, as not only a sign of American involvement in Cuban life, but also of his own sense of distance from the nation. To see Usnavy’s repressed heritage as a means of conceiving of the Cuban/Cuban American exile experience means to look east and not to the west, to understand what it means to be a gusano in the United States by understanding historically what the Jewish Cuban population had to give up to leave Europe and to conceive of the development of Cuba in terms of the Jewish diaspora. Through Usnavy’s experience, the flight from Cuba to the United States becomes understood as part of a larger diasporic movement that historicizes Latina/o movement within a larger global context. The result is a hemispheric vision that cannot understand the Americas without also looking beyond itself, recognizing the importance of framing one’s discussion in terms of what is similar (geographically or culturally, for instance), but also in what is dissimilar. Usnavy’s family lineage underscores this contradictory approach by balancing what it means to live in Cuba with the desire to maintain a signifier of his exiled difference through his possession of the fraudulent Tiffany lamp. Usnavy straddles this line being a Cuban who supports the revolution while at the same time being pushed beyond the nation through his “Yanqui” heritage and his secret Jewish lineage.

  • 7 They were known as conversos, nuevos cristianos, or as crypto-Jews. They were also called by (...)

12The early Jewish migrants to Cuba were given a number of names that expressed either their status as recent converts to Christianity or the recognition of their continued – albeit highly discreet – expression of their Jewish faith.7 The Jewish presence in Cuba dates back to the journeys of Columbus, since, as Robert Levine points out, his voyage was supported by nuevos cristianos in Spain and his interpreter was considered a converso since he knew both Hebrew and Aramaic (9). The history is critical here, as Spanish colonization in the New World becomes directly linked to the disapproval and repression of difference at home, foreshadowing the future destruction of Cuba’s ‘different’ native population. Even as Cuba became an endpoint for many Jews in these early years who were either converted or who fled the Spanish Inquisition, others continued on into northern Mexico, living in the present-day United States Southwest. They were not alone in the New World as Jews populated both the Caribbean islands as well as the coast of South America, specifically Dutch Brazil.

  • 8 Because of the transitory nature of the Jewish Cuban communities in the early 20th century, i (...)

13This early vision of Cuba as both an endpoint for Jewish immigrants as well as a staging ground for movement into the United States continued well into the 20th century. In Yiddish, Cuba was known as Akhsanie Kuba or Hotel Cuba, as a result of a lenient immigration policy that created a cosmopolitan Cuba by the 1950s, and a loophole in American immigration law that allowed immigrants to migrate to the United States after staying for a year in a Latin American country.8 According to Ruth Behar, “Cuba was a substitute America. The real America, the one to which they aspired, was on the other side of the ocean, ninety miles away.” (6) The early emphasis here on transit as defining Cuba’s role in the Americas is significant, historicizing present-day concerns over Cuban exiles’ connection to their native land. But it also emphasizes a temporal construction of Cuba’s relation to the United States, positioning Cuba in terms of a migratory narrative that sees the island more as a temporary stopping point, as a “hotel”. This narrative emphasizes the impact of American myths of success, as they do not only draw people into the United States, but re-draw other nations in transitory terms, as only stops along the journey.

  • 9 The St. Louis was one of three ships that set sail from Hamburg on 13 May 1939, carrying Germ (...)

14This situation changed dramatically with the passage of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1924, which set quotas on the number of immigrants from Europe who would be accepted in the United States. As a consequence, Jewish migrants coming to Cuba either immigrated illegally into the United States or married an American citizen. The rest were required “to make their America in Cuba.” (Levine, 33) The Jewish population rose as a consequence both of this change in legislation and a Cuban open door immigration policy, numbering approximately 16,500 by 1939 (ibid., 308). Jews arriving in Cuba experienced varying levels of acceptance, finding roadblocks to achieving Cuban citizenship (until the 1920s) and struggling with laws put in place during the Depression to limit the number of non-Cuban workers employed at individual companies. At the same time, many Jewish merchants were successful in creating their own companies and did not experience the anti-Semitism or violence that was directed at them in their home countries. This changed with the growing influence of Nazism in 1930s-1940s Cuba, coming to a head with the infamous decision in 1939 to prevent the SS St. Louis, which had departed from Germany, from docking in Cuba. The majority of passengers – totaling over 900 – were Jews escaping Germany who were forced to return to Europe when the Cuban government revoked their landing permits.9

  • 10 The terms identify Jews according to a presumed national identity: polacos (Poles) and turcos (...)

15The national anti-Semitism represented by the political decisions of the Cuban government in regards to the St Louis incident was minimized in the post-war boom experienced by Cuba of the 1950s. This said, the Jewish population struggled to assimilate, a result in part, according to Levine, from a desire to remain separate, but also from a wish from some in the Cuban upper-class to ban Jews from expensive resorts and country clubs and from lower-class Cubans labeling Jews as either polacos or turcos.10 Jews remained a part of Cuba, but seemingly not a powerful part of the nation, rarely holding public office and constantly conceived as outsiders. The revolution did little to change this perception, as Jews struggled to understand the Communist leanings of Castro sympathizers. The situation was made even more complex by the policy of atheism practiced by the Communist party. It probably should come as no surprise to learn that many of the early Jewish supporters of Castro’s revolution, who were given political positions as recompense, considered themselves non-Jewish Jews. The image of the crypto-Jew remained a powerful figure in Cuban history, bookending the nationalist rhetoric of colonial Spain and modern-day Cuba.

16Many of the others who disagreed with Castro’s policies fled the island by the early 1960s with the majority ending up in the United States. By 1965, there were fewer than 2,500 Jews living in Cuba, a number that continued to dwindle up until the Special Period in Times of Peace in the 1990s, when there were fewer than 1,000 (Levine, 308). Many of these individuals had married non-Jewish spouses and in some cases were no longer practicing their religion, even though the national policy of atheism had been rescinded in 1992. Ruth Behar shows that “[f]amilies that had a Jewish heritage were dispersed throughout Havana and the provinces” during the last decade of the 20th century even as the means of cultural separation, such as separate Jewish schools, had ceased to exist (23).

  • 11 Corrales’ The Chosen Island: Jews in Cuba presents 36 interviews with present-day Cuban Jews (...)
  • 12 This refers specifically to the policy in 1960s Cuba to stamp the passports of Jews leaving C (...)

17The history of Cuban Jews in part is a history of transit. Seen as a movement away from Europe or away from Cuba, it is an experience rooted in notions of survival, secrecy, and also success. Defined in this manner, the Cuban Jewish experience can be seen as a means of figuring the sense of loss felt by other Cubans who discover that to maintain their sense of Cubanismo meant to leave their island home or to construct it within a larger veil of secrecy. At the same time, the Cuban Jewish experience is also one of arrival in Cuba as Behar’s and Maritza Corrales’ anthropological work on the island attests.11 While this sense of movement toward the island does not in any way constitute a wave, but in many cases is seen in terms of individual or familiar visits, it emphasizes that, for some, questions of home and belonging cannot be easily answered.12 This sense of migration from the United States into Cuba also has its historical precedent as so-called American Jews migrated into Cuba following the Spanish-American War predominately to participate in Cuban recovery through investment (Levine, 5). This sense of movement means to understand the position of Cuban exile in terms of departure from the island as well as presence, emphasizing the contradiction Behar expresses about her trips to Cuba: “I kept thinking I was running away from home in order to run toward home.” (3)

  • 13 Derrida states in his foreword to Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok´s The Wolf Man´s Magic Word(...)

18The experience in between emphasizes life on the hyphen for the Cuban Jew, and, as Gustavo Pérez Firmat argues, it also defines life for Cuban Americans. As is made clear in Ruins, this hyphenated sense of identity reflects not only those who have left the island, but also defines Cuban identity itself, a crypto-transnational identity that reflects the island’s negotiated place between exile and home. To Jacques Derrida, the crypt exists in contradictory terms as both present to the public as well as hidden, and it is this double meaning that underscores not only the experience of the Cuban Jew, but also of the modern-day Cuban who lives in exile either on or off the island.13 To Obejas, Cuban national identity is to be understood in these terms, either temporally as a waiting for a future change or spatially in terms of the world beyond, as individuals in the novel are either seen as actively (albeit secretively) preparing to depart or are linked through remittances to family members or friends who have already left. The crypto-Jew informs Cuban identity in this text, emphasizing not just a sense of individual departure and exile, but hemispheric involvement, where the call to Cuban Jews “to make their America in Cuba” becomes all too prescient.

  • 14 The United States held only two other two bases in the Caribbean during the World War years: (...)

19When first introduced, though, Usnavy seems to disrupt this image, since he does his best to support the revolution to the point of not selling his lamp, his prized possession, which as his friend Obdulio notes might bring him 1,000 dollars and allow him the possibility of starting his own business (47). Even so, much of Usnavy’s life is defined by the United States, as his apartment is described as “no bigger than one of those bloated American cars”; his daughter keeps a picture of Michael Jackson on the wall; and one of his favorite authors is Chester Himes (14-15). These connections are underscored by his childhood experiences living in Caimanera, near the American military base at Guantánamo Bay, and in a house that was named The Brooklyn (18-19). Born in 1940, and as he notes “shortly before Pearl Harbor” (18), Usnavy’s life is one that is structured by a hemispheric context as well as by an imperialism that recognizes the butterfly effect the Pacific theater in WW II has on Cuban identity. As was previously noted, Usnavy’s name is a result of his mother admiring “the powerful U.S. ships, their sides emblazoned with the military trademark,” (17) and her wish “to project onto him their sense of possibility and optimism” that challenges the despair Cuban Jews experienced only a year previous to Usnavy’s birth with the SS St. Louis (18). His naming reflects the growing build-up of American naval forces in Guantánamo as a means of protecting both the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, as well as continued U.S. involvement in Cuban affairs as represented by their leasing of Guantánamo Bay and the future embargo of Cuba.14 This imperial context complicates his nationalist leanings and it foregrounds the text’s attention to the ways in which the transnational creates a sense of Cuban identity as unresolved. Usnavy is in a sense on the island and yet beyond it. It is an image that challenges contemporary notions of an isolated Cuba, cut off from the world, as Usnavy comes to represent his mother’s sense of possibility and optimism in terms of a larger hemispheric presence.

20Though Usnavy is born into this more cosmopolitan context, he spends much of his life resisting these connections, bristling at friends who call him “El Yanqui” and unknowingly repressing his Jewish ancestry. His focus instead is on Africa through the leonine-like figures on his lamp and his father’s Jamaican history, which he reads in terms of the Black Atlantic rather than of the Jewish diaspora. This divided self is underscored by the many references in the text to the appearance of doubles in his life. His male friend Reynaldo, for instance, reappears one day as the female Reina, and he finds to his horror that his wife has begun to repurpose blanket strips as meat for sandwiches. Also, one day while participating in a domino game he finds he has a hand mostly of doubles, which he realizes too late to call for a new game. To underscore the linkage to his own doubled sense of self he connects the dominoes to his lamp’s cat-like nature, as he believes the tiles “stared up at him, as beautiful and ineffable as feline eyes.” (32) Since they limit his play and lead to him losing, he is nicknamed a salao (unlucky) by his friends, and the name sticks with him throughout the novel. The term emphasizes Usnavy’s sense of estrangement from others, of his difference, and develops the sense that his Cuban revolutionary identity is linked paradoxically to his own sense of foreignness. His friend Obdulio emphasizes this by connecting Usnavy’s unluckiness to his remaining in Cuba: “Anything’s better than here! You don’t have to be a salao forever.” (39) To no longer be a salao means to leave Cuba, a commentary on how unlucky it is to be in Cuba during this time, as well as a reminder that Usnavy’s bad luck is defined by his refusal to consider exile, a thought so uncommon as to emphasize Usnavy’s foreignness to others.

  • 15 See Esther Whitfield’s Cuban Currency for a developed discussion of the role played by Americ (...)

21This foreignness is underscored in the text by the nearly slapstick events Usnavy has to experience to confirm his daughter’s Cuban citizenship. After Nena loses her identity card, Usnavy is sent from government office to government office hearing the similar refrain that they have “no record at all of her.” (23). His own copy of her birth certificate has been ruined and when he goes to the hospital to search their records he finds a hole in the page where Nena’s name and number would have been (151). It is only by bribing a clerk with dollars that Usnavy is able to have a new identity number established for his daughter. By paying with American currency to create his daughter’s Cuban identity, Usnavy’s experience highlights how national belonging has become defined in terms of the Freudian uncanny, as a rendering of the familiar in unfamiliar terms.15 To Usnavy, Nena is a Cuban citizen and has always been one, but now there is no proof. His search symbolizes his own sense of separation from Cuban society, because if his daughter now is an outsider, how is he to understand himself? Nena has been rendered as “unfamiliar” to the nation by the simple act of a burn hole in a government document, underscoring her exiled position as present yet without an authentic sense of presence.

22To Freud, the uncanny (unheimlich) is defined as “nothing else than a hidden, familiar thing that has undergone repression and then returned from it.” (15) This repression can be understood in psychoanalytic terms as a repression of the castration complex, but it can also be understood in aesthetic terms, as an “intellectual uncertainty” that is generated from aesthetic objects: the uncertainty that is generated, for instance, in a text from a character coming back from the dead. These examples of uncertainty are tied, as Homi K. Bhabha argues, to a sense of liminality, since they focus on navigating a temporal in-betweenness, as it were. Usnavy’s pride in his Cuban citizenship, for instance, is underscored by his refusal to flee, even as his American and Jewish background highlights his sense of historical difference. This sense of unheimlich is understood, as Freud argues, as “unhomeliness”, the sense that he is without a home, an exile on the island, caught between the United States and Cuba even as he has never left (4). This sense of unheimlich develops for Freud through the linking of two different temporal events, the castration complex and the present-day experience, emphasizing a temporal rather than solely spatial understanding of the unfamiliar. Bhabha adapts this discussion of repression to the development of national narratives, emphasizing that their homogeneity is belied by the heterogeneous experience of the uncanny. The presence of the uncanny, in other words, helps to suggest the political structuring of these narratives and the ways in which race, gender and sexuality are mediated. Bhabha writes:

Such an apprehension of the ‘double and split’ time of national representation, as I am proposing, leads us to question the homogenous and horizontal view associated with the nation’s imagined community. (144)

23Ruins underlines this politicization of the uncanny through the doubled figure of Usnavy as both foreigner and citizen. Through Usnavy, Obejas highlights the problematic Cuban revolutionary narrative that hinges its new society on the repression of dissent or difference, by highlighting a Cuban history that constructed Cuban Jews as foreigners. This sense of repetition or doubleness is figured through Usnavy’s inheritance of his mother’s lamp as it becomes both a sign of his nationalist pride and his historical sense of otherness as a Jew. Early in the text, he connects his inheritance directly to his support of Castro, claiming that he accepted the lamp “like a reward for exemplary revolutionary work.” (19) The lamp holds this significance for Usnavy throughout much of the text, as he is unwilling to sell it, emphasizing his and his family’s need to sacrifice as a means of maintaining a bond with other members of the community. His very fascination with the lamp, however, also becomes a sign of his interest in the surface rather than depth; he is not interested in the light the lamp emits but only by its glass panels. His focus, in other words, is on how the light is distorted by the panels, a sign of his own self-distortion, as this light is connected throughout the text to images of difference, to the lights of the Florida Keys and to religion.

24This significance of the lamp as both a means of distortion and a source of personal understanding is evident through Usnavy’s many conversations with the aptly named Virgilio, a glass worker. Through these discussions, it becomes clear that the lack of knowledge Usnavy has concerning the manufacturer of his lamp mirrors his lack of awareness concerning his true heritage. Both are linked in Virgilio’s mind, as he identifies the lamp as a Tiffany, and after questioning Usnavy about his ownership of the lamp, about his last name and whether his mother went to church, identifies him as Jewish. To Usnavy this other history comes as a shock. He thinks “He was Jamaican – Jamaican, descendant of Africans and Englishmen, not Turks and Poles.” (173) His identification of Cuban Jews as coming from Eastern Europe highlights the common euphemisms by Cubans for Jews as polacos and turcos, and his own acceptance of Jews as foreigners in the Cuban national imaginary. “Me, a Jew?” he says to himself at one point (174, original italics), emphasizing the sense of his familiar self suddenly being rendered unfamiliar.

25Virgilio helps to confirm his Jewish heritage by revealing to Usnavy the roles played by Cuban Jews in the manufacturing of Tiffany lamps. Usnavy is told that Virgilio’s grandfather worked for Tiffany and actually designed the lamps but did not receive any credit. As a result, his grandfather, along with other Cuban Jews including Virgilio, flooded the market with phony Tiffany’s. The story raises questions concerning the authenticity of Usnavy’s lamp, but, more importantly, by complicating what the Tiffany name defines, Virgilio is questioning how identity is to be determined in the text. By developing Usnavy’s identity through the act of forging, Virgilio recreates the history of the crypto-Jew, emphasizing the play of authenticity and inauthenticity that defined the experience of the Cuban Jew in the 20th century. By unsettling how this identity is to be defined, Virgilio complicates what it means to be Cuban. The authentic can only be proven by reference to the inauthentic, a problematic that encourages one to question how the difference between citizen and foreigner can be maintained.

26This paradoxical construction of identity is emphasized by the location of Virgilio’s studio outside of the one-time American Embassy, now the American Interests Section, where Cubans line up each day in the hope of getting a visa. As Virgilio remarks to Usnavy, “there hasn’t been a day since 1951 – that’s when I first moved here – without a line out there.” (144) The transnational context of the former embassy becomes a means of redefining the Cuban experience of waiting in line for limited supplies. At once considered a sign of support for the revolution, waiting now becomes understood as the means to an end of leaving the island. Overseen from Virgilio’s window, the departure also symbolically re-enacts the historical migration of Jews from Cuba in the early 20th century, who were also waiting for their number to come up, and by doing so underscores a sense of perceived inauthenticity as a repressed part of Cuban national identity. Usnavy’s discovery of his lineage becomes understood as a marker of this larger uncertainty over a homogenous construction of revolutionary identity. Much as Homi Bhabha sees the Freudian uncanny in temporal terms, as a juxtaposition of two different temporalities, it becomes understood in this text as a form of waiting, an emergence that is connected to a repressed sense of a hemispheric or transnational identity.

27The novel’s pessimistic title underscores that this sense of waiting in Cuba continues. It carries an important double meaning as it highlights the physical breakdown of Cuban buildings as well a respect for the past, its preservation being a means to understand the present. In the concluding pages of the novel, Usnavy navigates these two different definitions as he trolls for buildings that have fallen in on themselves in the hope of discovering another priceless, historic lamp. The novel struggles with this question of memory and the fragility of defining a past that is threatened by destruction and oversight. If Cuba is falling apart at the seams, what are the “ruins” it will leave behind? In other words, what is it that defines Cuba, if staying is only to be understood in terms of departure? It is a question of stability that has haunted Usnavy as he notices, early in the novel, that his neighborhood is inhabited by strangers, that seemingly everyone he has known has left the island (21). This sense of loss not only speaks to the experiences in the Special Period but to the personal experiences of Usnavy, both in terms of the loss of knowledge about his father but also his lack of awareness of his family’s Jewish lineage. Unfortunately, in his search for a lamp to sell he has participated in the very repression of the past that his family has, hoping that in the misery and despair of broken down buildings there can also be found a profit. In other words, for Usnavy there is no reason to focus on the change posed by history, when one can discover value in its temporal passing. It is this myopic view that threatens a Cuban revolutionary philosophy that depends on success as always being in the future. As one of Usnavy’s friends tellingly states, “All this sacrificing for tomorrow […] and tomorrow never comes.” (27)

28The text challenges this approach by foregrounding the struggles and change created in the past. These ruins of the past are brought to the fore in this text, and, by doing so, Obejas is able to question a nationalism that is focused inward and on the future, not recognizing the larger historical and global context of Cuban identity. By re-focusing attention onto the past, Obejas explores not what Cuba will possibly become, but what it has been. In doing so, the “new” Cuba is discovered in what had previously been overlooked, outlawed, or marginalized, emphasizing for Usnavy not only the significance of Judaism, but also the larger hemispheric context emphasized by a history of immigration. The making new, therefore, results not from a sense of isolation or difference, as symbolized by the embargo, but from an understanding of a more fluid sense of connection, where identity is built upon an edifice of inauthenticity or the dissimilar. Belonging in the nation is not be defined along a purity scale, therefore, but becomes understood in terms of “falseness” or in terms of the very circulation of capital that created a market for “false” Tiffanys. Usnavy’s recovery of his repressed past emphasizes how the seemingly authentic is always meshed with the inauthentic, emphasizing the role of the exile in Cuban society.

29To respond to Fishkin’s question then, the exile is understood along the liminal line defining the included and the excluded within the nation. But this sense of liminality is not to be understood only in spatial terms, but in temporal terms as well, as a marker of individual and national repression that seeks to mediate difference through constructing, as Homi Bhabha argues, homogeneous national narratives. As such, the exilic figure exists in terms of a crypto-identity at the heart of the nation, remaining hidden within public view, present and yet absent. It is this uncertainty that challenges Fishkin’s attempt to center the transnational, since through Ruins, movement across borders can also be defined in terms of stasis and time, highlighting the repression of the transnational within the nation. The sense of waiting that defines life in Cuba can be seen as a politics of stasis in this way, as it symbolizes a larger awareness of the repression of the uncanny within national narratives. The act of waiting itself becomes a marker of the heterogeneity that remains the unheimlich part of the nation, a temporality that poses the challenge of belonging.

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ANDERSON Benedict, Imagined Communities, London: Verso Books, 2006.

BEHAR Ruth, An Island Called Home: Returning to Jewish Cuba, New Brunswick (NJ): Rutgers UP, 2007.

BENÍTEZ-ROJO Antonio, The Repeating Island: The Caribbean and the Postmodern Perspective, trans. James Maraniss, Durham (NC): Duke UP, 1992.

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1 I am thinking specifically here of the tragic case of Calvert Casey, a Cuban writer, whose suicide in Italy may have been the result of his fear that Cuban spies were following him. See Ilan Stavans’ introduction to Calvert Casey: The Collected Stories.

2 Edward Said argues, “Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that – to borrow a phrase from music – is contrapuntal.” (186)

3 Susan Gilman’s essay in Hemispheric American Studies discusses the importance of examining “incomparability” within (and against) a transnational or hemispheric framework. (335)

4 According to Susan Eckstein, “The Special Period, a euphemism for a siege economy, involved sacrifices and reforms ‘to save the revolution,’” including sacrifices over electricity usage, transportation and food. (607)

5 To be male and named for a ship continues this gender confusion as it relates to movement. Most ships are represented by the female pronoun “she” or “her” in English, highlighting how Usnavy’s stasis is in part a question of how he identifies himself.

6 Even though his discovery threatens this history of the Middle Passage and unsettles his revolutionary position, Usnavy is told of the large number of Jamaican Jews who can trace their history to Spain. For more information about the Jewish population on Jamaica, see Marilyn Devante’s The Island of One People.

7 They were known as conversos, nuevos cristianos, or as crypto-Jews. They were also called by the more overtly critical term of marranos which Achy Obejas defines as: “Literally, pig. Pejorative term for crypto-Jews from the time of the Inquisition to the present. Until contemporary times and the popular acceptance of anuism [forcibly converted Jews], it was often the only available descriptive for persons who were publicly Catholic and privately Jewish,” (Days of Awe, 364). The following discussion of the history of the Cuban Jewish population is based upon Behar, Levine and Levinson.

8 Because of the transitory nature of the Jewish Cuban communities in the early 20th century, it is difficult to know with much certainty the number who actually were making their home in Cuba in the early decades of the century. Not only was the lure of the United States powerful, but many Jews remaining in Cuba married out of their religion or did not continue practicing their faith. Levine estimates the “permanent” population from 1921-24 to be approximately 5,000, even though over 40,000 Jews migrated into Cuba during this period only to leave for the United States after a year. (Levine, 307)

9 The St. Louis was one of three ships that set sail from Hamburg on 13 May 1939, carrying German refugees to Cuba. They were allowed to leave as part of a propaganda effort initiated by Joseph Goebbels to show the world that Jews could not find a home anywhere in the world. After being turned away from Cuba and being refused entry into the United States, Belgium, Holland, France and England each accepted a number of the refugees. Tragically, of the 907 passengers who returned, 667 were ultimately killed in German concentration camps. (See Levine, 102-149.

10 The terms identify Jews according to a presumed national identity: polacos (Poles) and turcos (Turks). According to Levine, neither of the terms are “explicitly pejorative, but both names were rooted in the acknowledgement that the Jews were different, foreigners in a society that did not value cultural pluralism.” (217)

11 Corrales’ The Chosen Island: Jews in Cuba presents 36 interviews with present-day Cuban Jews who either moved to or were born in Cuba.

12 This refers specifically to the policy in 1960s Cuba to stamp the passports of Jews leaving Cuba for Israel with the term Repatriated while refugees to the U.S. and to other countries were stamped salida definitive, meaning either “definitive departure” or the more telling “no return.” (Behar, 12)

13 Derrida states in his foreword to Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok´s The Wolf Man´s Magic Word, “What is a crypt? No crypt presents itself. The grounds […] are so disposed as to disguise and to hide: something, always a body in some way. But also to disguise the act of hiding and to hide the disguise: the crypt hides as it holds.” (xiv)

14 The United States held only two other two bases in the Caribbean during the World War years: a base at the Panama Canal and a small base at Kingston, St. Thomas. See Building the Navy’s Bases in World War II: History of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and the Civil Engineer Corps: 1940-1946.

15 See Esther Whitfield’s Cuban Currency for a developed discussion of the role played by American currency in Cuban fiction during the Special Period.

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Kevin Concannon, « The Politics of Waiting: Transnational Identity and Exile in Achy Obejas’ Ruins », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. XI – n° 2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 30 juin 2013, consulté le 24 juin 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.5307

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Kevin Concannon

Kevin Concannon is Assistant Professor of English at Texas A&M University--Corpus Christi, USA. He is the co-editor of Imagined Transnationalism: Latino/a Literature, Culture, and Identity and is currently working on a manuscript exploring representations of time and exile in U.S.-Latino/a literature. He is also co-editing a collection of essays on Postnationalism. His areas of specialty include Border Studies, Latino and Latina Studies, and 20th-Century U.S. Ethnic Literatures.

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