On the Decentralization of Truth and Memory in Achy Obejas’ [Memory Mambo]

Front cover of Achy Obejas' Memory Mambo (1996)

Front cover of Achy Obejas’ Memory Mambo (1996)

Achy Obejas’ Lambda Award-winning novel, Memory Mambo, is a text that simmers and lingers within the mind long after it is read. I initially decided to read this novel because it centers on the life of a Cuban-American lesbian who administrates a laundry service in the Midwest, however, it is a much more complex and rich read when compared to your average LGBTQ novel. True to its name, I would say that this text is ultimately an exploration of the strengths and fallacies of memory, especially when it comes to understanding and interpreting of truth. Even more so, Memory Mambo, at least in my view, is a novel that is first and foremost about decentralization–or in other words, the redistribution of power and control away from a central unit or “command” center. In the case of this novel, decentralization is focused mostly on the self, and it illustrates how the self is unable to account for the totality of memory and the totality of experience.

Similar to Sandra Cisnero’s 1984 novel entitled The House on Mango StreetJuani, the novel’s protagonist, is not only characterized through her own experiences and trials, but she is also characterized through elaborate stories concerning her relatives and her extended family. The novel is difficult to summarize due to its fragmented and chaotic focus. It begins with Juani questioning the nature of memory as she looks back at her childhood in Cuba. As a child, Juani and her parents escaped to the United States on a boat in an effort to leave behind the social and political climate of the island. The narrative segues into an exploration of Juani’s close family members, such as her mother, her father, her siblings, and her cousins. The first chapter focusing exclusively on her father is very revealing in terms of the novel’s aims and themes. He is described as a fabricator of stories. For instance, he claims to be the inventor of duct tape, and he also accuses the CIA of stealing his invention. The father tells this story to every person he encounters, and every time, the father bends the truth to suit his moods and to appease his audiences’ tastes. The father’s tendency to fabricate and alter stories reifies the novel’s aim of highlighting the flexible and malleable nature of truth, in addition to illustrating how truth and memory are dependent on others besides the self.

Although the novel has multiple story arcs, there are two in particular that stand out:

  • The tumultuous relationship between Juani’s cousin, Caridad, and Caridad’s husband, Jimmy. Jimmy is a chauvinistic, sadistic man who abuses Caridad emotionally and physically–doing things such as beating her, preventing her from going out, and going as far as to buy Caridad a washing machine even when her family owns the local laundry-mat. Juani and Jimmy loathe each other, mostly because Jimmy perceives Juani to be the same way he is. Jimmy perceives Juani’s lesbianism to be a threat, and he is constantly trying to sexually harass her, claiming that she is nothing but a victim of penis envy. One of the novel’s highest poinst of tension occurs when Jimmy covers up a violent incident that Juani is involved in, in order to make Juani feel as if she is indebted to him. Because of this “debt,” Jimmy tries to persuade Juani to cover for him after he is caught sexually molesting Rosa, the baby of Juani’s cousin, Pauli.
  • The “main” arc of the novel would be Juani’s unstable relationship with Gina, a Puerto Rican socialist and activist with strong political convictions and views. Gina is approached as a hypocrite by other characters because although she claims to be a feminist and an activist, she is deeply closeted and refuses to show any signs that she’s going to come out: “Gina wasn’t out, didn’t have any plans to come out, and wasn’t in a hurry to even consider it. For Gina, what we had was wonderful, but passing; thrilling, but temporary; an adventure, but only for memory’s sake” (121). Juani finds herself in a position in which she significantly has to change who she is in order to please Gina–she changes everything from her taste in music to her taste in clothing in order to appeal to Gina’s environmentalist and feminist sensibilities. Gina’s closeted sexuality in addition to her radically different political ideologies, lead to the escalation of tension between her and Juani. This tension explodes with a brutally violent fight between the two women, which leads to broken noses and bitten breasts. Their fight is the incident that Jimmy helps to conceal in order to assure that Juani’s family doesn’t get upset with her.

This novel, as can be seen above, is very violent and charged, but the deep and almost philosophical musings that take place in the narrative certainly compensate for the presence of many shocking and disturbing scenes. Seeing as the novel centers immensely on the notions of memory and truth, I was often captivated and intrigued by the difficulties that Juani had when it came to understanding and accepting events and realities in her life. The first chapter of the novel eloquently opens with a questioning of memory as a distinct, individualistic, and unified phenomenon–leading Juani to question whether her memories are constructions based on the stories told by other people. Because of this, the divides between fact and fiction, and lived reality and narrated reality, collapse from the get go. Even more so, Juani seems to approach memory as an entity that is shared amongst many people–memory, in this case, is approached as a decentralized phenomenon:

Sometimes I’m sure that I couldn’t have heard the stories about the memories anymore than lived through them–that both of the experiences are false for me–and yet the memory itself will be so fresh, so fantastic and detailed, that I’ll think maybe my family and I are just too close to each other. Sometimes I wonder if we’re not together too much, day in and day out, working and eating side by side, sleeping in the same rooms, fusing dreams. Sometimes I wonder if we know where we each end and the others begin. (9)

What I find fascinating about this passage is that memory, rather than being approached as a hard drive or a disk, seems to be depicted in a fashion that is more reminiscent of an internet network, in which memory is shared, interconnected, fragmented, and alterable. In Memory Mambo, it is clearly shown that most of the novel’s major tensions and issues surface when truth, like memory, is approached as an individualistic and solitary force, when in reality, most of these problems could be solved if only the truth were shared and decentralized in a similar fashion to memory. This notion is exemplified with Juani’s discussion of her lesbian cousin, Titi, who has tried to escape Cuba, unsuccessfully, several times. Although Titi does have affairs with other women, these affairs must remain private within the insular confines of Cuba. Juani believes that Titi’s desire to escape Cuba is fueled by her longing to express truth beyond the confines of the private. As Juani asserts, all of Titi’s lovers are unable to satisfy her need “to be loved in daylight–to walk down the street arm in arm with her lover without the pretense of a mere friendship, to be utterly and ordinarily in love” (76).

Titi’s issues mirror Juani’s own issues when it comes to her sexuality. Juani admits that she creates a divide between her family life and her sexuality, deliberately maintaining borders and distance in order to assure that her family isn’t disrupted or disturbed by Juani’s non-normativity. Juani walks the balancing line between complete honesty and secrecy–tethering truth to the unstable power of language. What I mean by this is that although Juani’s family knows about her lesbianism, they do not speak about it because it would reify certain details of Juani’s life that would tarnish the family’s so-called normalcy. Juani’s father, in particular, never seeks the truth from his daughter, and he even goes as far as to help Juani conceal the truth about her sexuality when other family members are probing her. His motivations for doing so are quite selfish and heartbreaking: “His motivation isn’t to spare me discomfort but to save himself. Because he’s afraid I won’t lie, it’s vital to him that I not be provoked into the truth. In my family, this is always the most important thing” (80).

It is when Juani is provoked into truth that she realizes how fragmented and decentralized memory truly is. This moment of truth takes place when Gina asks Juani whether she would have left Cuba if she were old enough to make a choice. This question leads Juani to take a close look at her childhood, but this attempt at introspection is thwarted by her inability to recall any real or factual memories during her time at Cuba:

And I realized that I’d left Cuba too young to remember anything but snatches of color an scattered words, like the cutout letters in a ransom note. And what little I could put together had since been forged and painted over by the fervor, malice and nostalgia of others. What did I really know? And who did I believe? Who could I believe? (133)

In due course, Memory Mambo approaches truth and memory as anything but stable and individualistic phenomena. The end of the novel becomes even more suggestive as Juani deliberately tries to deny or recognize the truth of witnessing Rosa being molested by Jimmy. However, her attempt to avoid remembering this instance is ruined when she discovers that her other cousins know the truth about the incident, leaving Juani in a position in which she is unable to lie or conceal the truth. This final incident goes on to exemplify how truth and memory are decentralized agents, and how they exist in networks that cannot be suppressed or contained.

This novel is definitely worth a read. I can’t even begin to list the wide range of emotions that I felt when reading this book, and my mind is currently on overdrive trying to process everything that it is discussed within its pages. The prose is simple to read, but the structure and ideas present in this work are anything but simple.

As always, feel free to add to this conversation in the comments section below!

Work Cited

Obejas, Achy. Memory Mambo. Pittsburgh: Cleis Press, 1996. Print.

For the source of this post’s cover image (neurons), click here.

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