Book review: “Memory Mambo” by Achy Obejas

I thoroughly enjoyed “Memory Mambo” when I read it in early 1997, shortly after it was published. Fifteen years later, I savored it even more.

Achy Obejas is a friend, and we were co-workers at the Chicago Tribune when she published this book, her first novel.

That personal connection added something to the pleasure of the book, but there’s no question: Even if I hadn’t known Obejas, I still would have relished reading and re-reading such a funny, dramatic, insightful story.

“Memory Mambo” works on a great many levels simultaneously.

The book gives a glimpse into the Cuban-American culture — its intersection with and friction with other Hispanic heritages, its grappling with the reality of exile, its wrestling with racial identity, its tasty cuisine, its insularity and strong family ties.

The 24-year-old narrator, Juani Casas, is the second of her parents’ three children, but one of a host of sibling-like cousins whose lives intertwine in complex ways, particularly around the family-run laundromat on Milwaukee Avenue in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago.

The Cubans and other Hispanics are relatively new arrivals in the neighborhood, taking the place of Poles, many of whom — but not all — have moved out to the suburbs. Yet, they are old-timers to the affluent yuppies who are spreading into the community.

This shifting of neighborhood demographics is background to much of the action in “Memory Mambo.” The groups, while isolated in their own circles, share the community space, and there is a subtle tension over who’s neighborhood it is. This isolation-in-community is also a metaphor for what goes on in Juani and in her family.

Juani is a lesbian, out of the closet in a quiet way. Obejas, who is gay herself, presents a nuanced look at how Juani navigates life with her family, in her neighborhood and within the lesbian community.

At the heart of the book are two relationships, both of which reach explosive denouements. One is a love affair that Juani has with Gina, a Puerto Rican political activist. The other is a constantly tense give-and-take, part hate, part lust, that Juani has throughout the book with Jimmy, her heterosexual brother-in-law.

“Memory Mambo,” however, isn’t a sociological tract. It’s much more than a description of Cuban-American life, neighborhood change and lesbian life.

Obejas is dealing with universals here. Juani’s star-crossed love for Gina just happens to involve lesbians. The strong yearning to connect, the fear of being vulnerable and the pain of rejection are human experiences. And I dare anyone to read about Juani and Gina and claim not to have parallels in his or her own life.

Juani’s search for herself parallels other such journeys in literature — from Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s “Ulysses” to Antonia Shimerda in “My Antonia” by Willa Cather to Henry Fleming in Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage.”

And in real life.

Part of Juani’s journey involves breaking with her family. Another part centers on the question of her roots in Cuba. And, of course, there’s her longing for love. All of these are aspects to the life trajectory of a young person in any culture.

Obejas, though, goes even deeper into the human experience, wrestling with the questions of truth and memory. What is real? What was real?

The title comes from an exchange that Juani has with her sister Nena near the end of the book in which Nena tells how she gives her new boyfriend Bernie a history of her family:

“Well, I just tell Bernie what’s true for me, and I let him know I have doubts, and that there are varying stories,” Nena said. “For example, if I were gonna tell him about Titi and Patricia, I’d tell him Manolito’s story and then maybe your story and then my story — what I believe — and by the end, there’s a new story — Bernie’s.”

I shook my head. “Very relative,” I said. “It must take forever to tell all the stories.”

“Hey, we’re into communicating, okay?” she said with a chuckle. “It’s sort of like singing ‘Guantanamera’ — everybody gets a chance to make up their own verse.”

“Memory mambo,” I said, one hand in the air, the other on my waist as if I were dancing, “one step forward, two steps back — unnngh!”

Figuring out how to answer such questions is a major part of figuring out how to live life. Obejas does an engrossing job of detailing how Juani faces, avoids and deals with such questions.

Patrick T. Reardon

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