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"Marked by Genetics and Exile": Narrativizing Transcultural Sexualities in Memory Mambo
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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 6.4 (2000) 577-607

How and to what extent have discursive legacies of colonialism shaped sexuality --not simply object choices and gender identifications but the very formulation of the terms in which we might desire or imagine ourselves as desiring subjects? How, that is, has narrative worked to produce not only (trans)national subjects but the very particulars of their desires? One might read Achy Obejas's 1996 novel Memory Mambo as a prolonged meditation on these questions, as it tracks its heroine -- Cuban American lesbian Juani Casas -- in her attempt to understand both her recent breakup with her lover, Gina, and her family's past. Juani obsessively turns to narration to produce and explain both identities and desires, trying through this discursive maneuver to depoliticize love, desire, and sexuality and casting them as separate from, as an escape from, and even, at points, as an antidote to political conflicts. Memory Mambo, however, undercuts the narrator's attempts at erasure and disavowal, revealing instead how Juani's narrative has been structured by a deeply political sense of exile and its attendant emphasis on memory, loss, and violence. And just as on the formal level the novel hangs on a political frame, on the plot level Obejas insistently represents individual erotic subjectivity as emerging from political categories such as ethnicity, nationality, and race. The novel thus forces the reader -- if not Juani -- to see both subjects and desire, concepts so often fondly held as the most private and autonomous of forces, as publicly and politically determined at every stage, determined in this case by an exilic structure of loss and violence.

The novel's narrative strategy must be read against the backdrop of an ongoing relationship between narrative and colonial conquest in the Americas. As other critics have demonstrated, the project of empire building (or, in its more recent U.S. form, the project of manifest destiny, imperialism, and capitalist expansion) has from its inception entailed the narrative production of both the Americas as object and the Euro-American as conquering subject. One important tool of this narrative production has been the rhetoric of sentiment or romance. Doris Sommer has shown, for instance, how Latin American "foundational fictions sought to overcome political and historical fragmentation through love." Political conflict, in these texts, is frequently allegorized as romantic conflict. In this way, "national ideals are all ostensibly grounded in 'natural' heterosexual love and in the marriages that provided a figure for apparently nonviolent consolidation during internecine conflicts." Similarly, Mary Louise Pratt demonstrates the extent to which European travel writers discussing the Americas adopted sentimental discourse to "cast the political as erotic and to seek to resolve political uncertainties in the sphere of family and reproduction." Significantly, Pratt's work at least implicitly marks this narrativizing project as heterosexual, a marking echoed in Sommer's more explicit description of how "national projects (were) coupled with productive heterosexual desire."

At the same time, of course, these coercive narratives never function simply unilaterally to impose a colonial narrative on a hapless "native" victim. Pratt, for instance, demonstrates that variously positioned subjects deploy sentimental discourse in differing ways. Her discussion of transculturation, the process by which "subordinated or marginal groups select and invent from materials transmitted to them by a dominant or metropolitan culture," is especially useful as a historicizing context for the narrative process under way in Obejas's Cuban American novel. Pratt takes her concept of transculturation from Fernando Ortiz, who produces it, Silvia Spitta points out, as "a specifically Cuban response to North American theories of the melting pot." Ortiz defines transculturation as a multistepped process that entails "acquiring another culture . . . the loss or uprooting of a previous culture . . . [and] the consequent creation of new cultural phenomena." This multifaceted, multidirectional process is central to Cuba: "The real history of Cuba is the history of its intermeshed transculturations." In Obejas's novel this Cuban tradition reappears in a tradition of Cuban American literary production -- and in a lesbian Cuban American narrative, at that. Out of this process of transculturation, Obejas shifts the terms of U.S. lesbian narrative.

As a contemporary product of this discursive...

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