Cuba, for Better or Worse

By Lynn Harris,
author of the satirical novel "Miss Media" and co-creator of the Web site BreakupGirl.net
Wednesday, June 29, 2005

JUBANA!

The Awkwardly True and Dazzling Adventures of a Jewish Cubana Goddess

By Gigi Anders

Rayo. 298 pp. $23.95

DIRTY BLONDE AND HALF-CUBAN

By Lisa Wixon

Rayo. 246 pp. $23.95

For so many today, cultural identity hinges on a hyphen. ("I met this great Ecuadorean-Swedish guy online," you might say. "We're going out for Chinese-Lebanese.") In this climate, it's no surprise that writers, perhaps especially Memoirist-Americans, would be tuning in to their multi-culti muses. What links two current authors in particular -- or at least their protagonists -- is the word "Cuban" on one side of the punctuation. In her autobiography, Jewish-Cuban journalist Gigi Anders elides her hyphenate into an exclamation: "Jubana! The Awkwardly True and Dazzling Adventures of a Jewish Cubana Goddess." And in her first novel, "Dirty Blonde and Half Cuban," Lisa Wixon tells the story of a Havana-born American who, upon returning to her birthplace, discovers that finding her father will require her to become more intimately Cuban than she'd imagined. Curiously, it's the work of fiction, not the memoir, that creates a compelling portrait of a woman coming to embrace her inner hybrid.

In "Jubana!," nearly 3-year-old Gigi -- riding her red trike right out onto the tarmac -- flees Castro-controlled Cuba with her parents in November 1960, never to return. Mami and Papi, medical professionals, find work at a mental hospital in Washington, D.C., which does not offer the carefree tropical lifestyle to which Gigi has become accustomed: no palms, no sea breezes, no bottles filled with guava nectar. Fancying herself the lost duchess Anastasia, only with parents, Gigi laments, "Everything we knew and loved -- our riches, our whole old world, the lovely cushioned and cosseted way of life -- had been wrenched from us by disgusting, illiterate revolutionary brutes." Yet she soldiers on, learning English, surviving prep school and attempting to find a groom (the one wedding detail her mother -- who tried to teach her to say "taffeta" when she was a baby -- has not orchestrated already).

Hold on. Prep school? To be sure, packing only what you can carry in the company of gunmen, not movers, is true drama, true suffering, no matter how firmly you eventually land on your feet. Still, once Gigi's family gets its bearings -- and it doesn't take long -- her story becomes unremarkable. And that is where, for a book to succeed, good storytelling must come in.

Here it does not. Saying that Anders's writing lacks charm and depth is, regrettably, like saying that Castro's regime lacks capitalism. Potentially juicy events are reduced to flat paraphrase and flip asides, while the boring stuff -- Gigi's obsessions with makeup, moisturizers and Tab -- is belabored. A creepy affair with her algebra tutor, a one-sided epistolary fling with Woody Allen, a bloodless broken engagement with Mr. Not Right Now: These are "Dazzling Adventures"? Whatever they are, they're devoid of graceful description, vivid reflection -- or, for that matter, any particular connection to being "Jubana." While Anders does offer a brief history of Havana's Jews, any actual exploration of Jewish-Cuban identity pretty much begins and ends with an argument over Gigi's wedding menu: gefilte fish and shrimp in mojito? (Mami's response: "Are joo KREHSEE?") Amendment: Would that it did end there. Mami is also anti-summer camp. "We are poor refugees because Castro made us dat an' he stole everytheengh johs like Heetlehr. I never knew my gran' parents because Heetlehr took dem and he keel-ed dem," she says, noting that Hitler transported the Jews in trains. "Wheech ees so seemeelahr to a BUS. Wheech ees how dey sen' de leetle keedees to go to de cahm !" (Mami may well redeem herself elsewhere. The reader, forced by this relentless Ricky Ricardo drag to skip most of her dialogue, may never know.)

If Gigi grows or has an insight, it's only when she summarizes the observations of her various therapists (whom, bizarrely, she names in full, down to the middle initial). There's no arc here, in form or content. Structureless and sophomoric, "Jubana!" is also riddled with infelicities ("Awkwardly True?") that would have Strunk mixing White a good strong mojito. Just as it's "only" 90 miles from Cuba to the United States, skillful writing -- and editing -- is "all" that lies between an interesting background and a good book.

"Dirty Blonde and Half Cuban" has the arguably unfair advantage of taking place in Cuba and containing quite a bit of sex. Having left Havana at the age of 1, Alysia returns in response to her mother's deathbed revelation: The preppy diplomat I married is not your father; a Cuban named Jose Antonio is. "Promise me you'll find him," she says. The woman in Havana who authorizes Alysia's year-long visa explains that she can't leave without written permission -- requested one year in advance. " Eso es Cuba ," shrugs the official. That's Cuba. What else is Cuba? "Well-dressed men on rickety Chinese bicycles. Tattered laundry hanging from the balconies of mansions of former opulence. A dignified old woman, whose jewelry no longer held its stones, hawking black-market cheese," writes Wixon (who herself went to Cuba "for a week" and stayed a year).

Her cash supply for the year stolen practically before she's unpacked, Alysia soon discovers that Cuba is also the land of the sexual gray market called jineterismo , wherein professional women (and men) -- such as Alysia's new friend Camila, who makes $32 a month as a surgeon -- supplement their incomes with stipends from sex-tourist boyfriends. Soon enough, under Camila's tutelage, Alysia is learning to salsa in stilettos. "Prostitutes accept pay for one night," she is told. " Jineteras use their education and skills to weave fantasies of love." Melodrama aside, Wixon does bring out the wisps of true dignity in Cubans' desperation. Still, her writing can be uneven, with moments of both suspense and contrivance, metaphors both striking and mixed. For all the racy action throughout, the book's ending seems, well, endless. Her characters lean toward stock: the saucy-yet-motherly madam, the conniving rival-fatale, the smoldering suitor, the cold stepfather -- and yes, the warm-and-fuzzy Real Dad. (That's not a spoiler; there are plenty of twists.) But Alysia herself is far less static, swaying between revulsion and resolve, starting to love her birthplace just as much as she hates what it takes to live there. And that, arguably, is when she truly becomes Cuban.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company