January 2008

Aysha Somasundaram


Havana Noir edited by Achy Obejas

“To most outsiders, Havana is a tropical wreckage of sin, sex, and noise, a parallel world familiar but exotic -- and embargoed enough to serve as a release valve for whatever impulse has been repressed or denied.” -- Achy Obejas in "Introduction: A Feral Heart"

Havana Noir is an anthology of short stories -- grim, bleak, escapist, violent, sexually charged -- set in the collection’s namesake city. The compiled stories are organized into four parts -- I: Sleepless in Havana, II: Escape to Nowhere, III: Sudden Rage, IV: Drowning in Silence. Beside the title of each of the short stories is the name of the neighborhood in which the protagonists live, breathe, screw, die, kill and dream -- Chinatown, Centro Habana, Alamar, Malecón…

Interestingly, Havana Noir is part of a series of award winning anthologies set in various cities -- including Brooklyn, London, Chicago and New Orleans. Delhi Noir and Istanbul Noir are soon to follow. It would appear that compiling the anthology was a labor of love for its editor, Obejas; not only does the collection feature one of her stories, but a handful of them are translated from the original Spanish into English by her. The task Obejas undertakes is a difficult one because even as the stories are intended to reveal the darker criminal underbelly of Cuban life and thought, she is determined to dodge stereotypes and to offer breadth of perspectives and story telling. In part, Obejas is able to accomplish this simply by featuring an expansive array of writers who are, in her words:”…young and old, established and emerging, male and female, on and off the island, of clear and dubious sexualities, black and white, and -- because it’s Cuba -- everything in between.  

The redemptive moments in the collection are negligible, fleeting but many of the stories are riveting in their portrayal of grief, rage, apathy and hopelessness. Michel Encinosa Fú’s “What for, This Burden,” opens with a particularly violent suicide and, as the narrative continues this act pales next to the brutality and amorality of the living. The story sickens and haunts me. The contours of Miguel Mejides “Nowhere Man,” the first of the collected stories, most closely echoes the archetypical narrative of the outsider and country bumpkin (in this instance, cross-eyed) who finds sanctuary in the city. Mejides’s writing veers somehow from gritty to magical realist. 

Mylene Fernández Pintado’s “The Scene” and Carolina Garcia-Aguilera’s “The Dinner” are perhaps the most delicately nuanced of the stories -- bleached of the criminality and violence bubbling in others. The narrator of “The Scene” is nursing her dying mother in a crumbling, stately building marked for demolition and emptied of neighbors. Garcia-Aguilera’s “The Dinner” follows the highly anticipated decades-old, annual celebratory dinner of a group of boyhood friends in the Special Period.

To a relative neophyte to Cuban culture, Havana Noir might be a somewhat jarring, ambivalent introduction. Nonetheless, the collection of stories offer powerful, if deliberately stilted, insight into both the Cuban culture and psyche. Havana emerges as a ruthless, beautiful, searing, mystical city -- alternately repellant and seductive. 

Havana Noir edited by Achy Obejas
Akashic Books
ISBN: 978-1-933354-38-5
355 pages