Famous journalist features her creative works
By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer
For Achy Obejas, the path was clear from the start: Journalism would pay the bills until her art — deeply evocative stories that speak to a different sort of truth — could stand on its own.
But Obejas' gift for writing, her tenacity as a reporter and her unique perspective as a Cuban immigrant ensured that her career as a journalist — including 10 years as an arts and culture reporter for the Chicago Tribune — would be much more than time served at a day job.
Obejas, now a distinguished visiting writer at the University of Hawai'i's English department, has covered everything from the Gianni Versace murder to the AIDS pandemic, the Pope's 1998 visit to Cuba to the arrival of al-Qaida prisoners at Guantanamo in 2002. She was part of a Tribune team that won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for explanatory journalism for a package on problems with air travel. Her individual recognitions include the Studs Terkel Journalism Prize and the Peter Lisagor Award for political reporting.
"I use my little Pulitzer as a door stop," Obejas says, laughing. "Really."
Obejas, who was born in Havana in 1956 and came to the U.S. by boat six years later, has walked a parallel path to literary success.
Her poetry and short stories are widely published and anthologized, and she was awarded an NEA grant for poetry in 1986. She followed up her 1994 short-story collection "We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?" with the critically acclaimed novel "Memory Mambo," for which she received a Lambda Award for lesbian fiction. Her next novel, "Days of Awe," also won a Lambda award in 2002.
Obejas' creative work will be featured tomorrow at a free reading at the University of Hawai'i (see box). Obejas will read an excerpt from "Days of Awe" — an examination of tensions between public and private identities in a Jewish community in Cuba — as well as a new short story, "Tower of the Antilles," which she will perform with two of her UH students.
While Obejas says journalism and creative writing can be mutually informative, doing both at the same time is a challenge. She says her creative work has been allowed to flourish particularly because she has taken on fewer assignments as a journalist.
"I love the urgency and the rush of a deadline — it's so much fun," Obejas says. "I've driven back from assignments already writing the story in my head because I wouldn't have time once I got to the office. Deadlines can be very short and you are always aware of that gigantic steel curtain coming down on you.
"The mentality is extremely different than literary writing," she says.
Yet, while the literary writer may not have to work tight deadlines with "many ugly editors staring at you," Obejas says that with more time comes more responsibility.
"When you are working on a deadline, sometimes there are holes and sometimes it's possible to sidestep the complex and difficult stuff," she says. "You can't do that in literature. It's your responsibility to the story to stay in that uncomfortable place for as long as it takes."
Obejas says she has found that uncomfortable space a good deal more welcoming since she's been in Hawai'i. Despite her gentle reservations about local interpretations of Latin American food ("a little different") and what she's seen of the O'ahu mambo scene ("I'm not sure what they were doing"), Obejas says she's been inspired by Hawai'i history, myth and artistic expression.
"Being here has been driving me creatively," she says. "It's been great for me."
Reach Michael Tsai at email@example.com.