Little Book with Big Ambitions: Rita Indiana’s “Tentacle”

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A review by Ellen Jones for The Los Angeles Review of Books.

ACHY OBEJAS has chosen Tentacle as the English title for Dominican writer and musician Rita Indiana’s latest novel, originally published in Spanish as La mucama de Omicunlé. The new title is apt: sufficiently sinister for a book that imagines an age of hyper-capitalism and environmental collapse, evoking the insidious spread of control and disease. Tentacle reaches back and forward through the ages, harnessing the fluidity of time, gender, and the natural world to reflect on colonial history and imagine a deeply disturbing future.

Tentacle is set in the Caribbean, but not the Caribbean of tranquil waters and white sand beaches so sought-after by Western holiday-makers. This is a Caribbean in which the sea has turned to chocolate-colored sludge, devoid of all life forms. Readers learn that three successive ecological disasters have finished off “practically every living thing under the sea.” One of these catastrophes was a biological weapons spill caused by an earthquake off the island’s coastline. The contamination is spreading from the Caribbean Sea to the Atlantic.

It’s hard to say exactly when the novel is set. The narrative follows Acilde, the young “mucama” of the original title, between the years 2027 and 2037, but there are numerous other temporal tentacles reaching back as far as 1606, when buccaneers were landing on the coasts of Hispaniola. Acilde leaves life as a sex worker when one of her clients gets her a job as a maid for Omicunlé, an old woman who is religious advisor to the president of the Dominican Republic and is devoted to the Yoruba goddess of the ocean, Yemayá. Omicunlé watches carefully over a sacred sea anemone so rare that it could fetch up to $60,000. It’s this anemone that sets off the chain of events driving the novel’s plot. Uncomfortable in her own body, Acilde is desperate to get her hands on some Rainbowbrite, a prohibitively expensive drug that promises a complete sex change without surgery. With the help of the anemone she is first able to take on the body of a man and then fulfil a prophecy, which allows her to travel back in time and save the Caribbean Sea.

Because Acilde’s present is an age of “acid rains and epidemics in which prison [i]s preferable to the outside.” It is an age of unbearable heat and of La Llorona, with its two years of rain. La Llorona — the weeping woman — is the name given to La Malinche, Hernan Cortés’s Nahua interpreter and mistress, often reviled for her key role in facilitating the Spanish conquest. By calling this extreme weather event “La Llorona,” environmental crisis is associated with the demise of indigenous peoples after the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century, as well as by implication with more recent neo-imperial activity in the region.

Indiana presents us with a future in which the official religion blends African deities with Catholic saints, and advanced technology coexists with black magic. A future even bloodier than “Joaquín Balaguer’s twelve bloody years in power.” Race relations certainly don’t seem to have moved on since the late ’70s. Indiana, who has been a fierce critic of anti-Haitian legislation in the Dominican Republic, imagines a dark future counterpart to the genocide carried out under Balaguer’s equally bloody predecessor, Trujillo: immigrant collection bulldozers roaming the city massacring “illegals” — Haitian refugees — on the spot. Omicunlé even has her own personal security system to do the dirty work for her:

Bringing her thumb and index finger together, Acilde positions her eye and activates the security camera that faces the street, where she sees one of the many Haitians who’ve crossed the border, fleeing from the quarantine declared on the other half of the island.

Recognizing the virus in the black man, the security mechanism in the tower releases a lethal gas and simultaneously informs the neighbors.

This passage from the novel’s first page, with its literalizing of the narrative of infection used to describe refugees, resonates especially strongly in the English-speaking world today by imagining a lethal escalation of immigration policies like Trump’s “zero tolerance” and the British Conservative Party’s “hostile environment.” It also cannot help but invite comparisons with the work of another contemporary writer of Dominican heritage, Junot Díaz. From the get-go Tentacle is clearly in conversation with Díaz’s work, especially a short story he published in The New Yorker in 2012. Like Tentacle, “Monstro” is set in post-apocalyptic Santo Domingo, and recounts, in its opening paragraphs, a racialized virus carried by Haitians trying to cross the border into the Dominican Republic:

At first, Negroes thought it funny. A disease that could make a Haitian blacker? It was the joke of the year. Everybody in our sector accusing everybody else of having it. You couldn’t display a blemish or catch some sun on the street without the jokes starting. Someone would point to a spot on your arm and say, Diablo, haitiano, que te pasó? La Negrura they called it. The Darkness.

Like Indiana, Díaz recounts life following an environmental disaster that has left coral reefs “adios on the ocean floor.” Except in his story, the virus affecting Haitians turns out to be a zombie epidemic that leads the United States to drop a powerful, untested weapon on Hispaniola, causing an earthquake and a communications dead zone with a 600-mile radius. Both writers imagine a future in which climate change has entrenched existing inequalities and prejudices to such a degree that certain people are no longer recognized as human. Indiana’s achievement is to bring queer as well as racialized bodies center stage, allowing her characters to obtain power through supernatural forces linked to indigenous and afro-Caribbean belief systems.

Like Díaz’s writing, Tentacle is critical of a particularly pernicious masculinity. The novel’s most developed spokesperson for outdated ideas about gender is Argenis, whose connection to Acilde’s story becomes clear only as the novel develops. We meet Argenis in 2001, and he ticks all the boxes for machismo, racism, and homophobia. He is a middle-aged artist addicted to cocaine who is given a leg-up when a generous philanthropist offers to be his patron. This stereotyped Dominican man has a lot in common with Yunior, the fictional alter-ego who voices Díaz’s novel and many of his short stories. Argenis is exaggeratedly macho, objectifying women, even fantasizing about beating and violating them — a front, it is clear, for insecurity about his own masculinity.

But in Tentacle, even by the year 2027, ideas about masculinity and femininity don’t seem to have evolved. This is the year we first meet Acilde, who, in the body of a young girl, is still giving blowjobs to businessmen behind bushes in the local park. By page four, she (and I use “she” deliberately as Obejas switches to “he” only when Acilde’s body transforms into that of a man) has been anally raped by a man who then offers to find her employment, which she accepts. Acilde is as unfazed by these events as she is by the extermination of Haitian refugees, perhaps desensitized to sexual abuse since her own grandparents arranged for a man to rape her as a child in order to purge her of her “masculine tendencies.”

But unlike Díaz’s Yunior, Indiana’s characters are able to escape these rigid understandings of gender and sexuality. The anemone gives both Acilde and Argenis the ability to travel in time by occupying another person’s body, which they experience as a kind of involuntary daydreaming. This queer movement through time, and queer occupation of more than one body, eventually eases Argenis into admitting queer desire.

It makes sense that Achy Obejas is Indiana’s translator. Obejas is a Cuban-American journalist, translator, fiction writer, and poet, who lives in California. She writes predominantly in English but her publications circulate in the Spanish-language market too — some of the short stories in Aguas y otros cuentos, a collection published in Cuba, have been self-translated from English, while others were written in Spanish. Her English poetry evokes spoken Caribbean Spanish and draws on African-American Vernacular English and Afro-Caribbean cultural forms in ways that engage with the racial and ethnic heterogeneity of the US Caribbean diaspora. As Tentacle and her Spanish translations of Díaz’s books show, she has the enviable ability to translate both into and out of Spanish with equal energy and creativity.

I haven’t managed to get my hands on a copy of La mucama de Omicunlé, but reviews describe its Spanish prose as profoundly Caribbean, drawing heavily on local varieties. Obejas’s English version certainly captures some of that vernacular feel, mobilizing US slang as well as Spanish syntax and vocabulary, reminding readers that while this is a story with a global vision, it has a Caribbean setting. The English in Tentacle is dynamic and colorful, peppered with Spanish, Yoruba, and occasionally French. Characters call one another mija and pendejo and madrina, while loan translations create unusual forms like “seaquake” (probably from “maremoto”) that remind readers of the story’s Spanish-language origins.

Tentacle is a little book with big ambitions. It tells a wild story that takes on environmental disaster, contemporary art, queer politics, religious syncretism, race relations, and the legacy of empire, all the while showcasing speculative fiction’s capacity for sharp socio-political commentary. But like many time-travel narratives, its plot is convoluted and complicated, and requires frequent leaps of imagination. For all its big ideas, it sometimes struggles to stay coherent. It may have been better to lessen the speed, just for a moment, and give readers a chance to catch up.

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