Odette Casamayor-Cisneros talks with Megan Howell about her short story “Patriotic Sex” from her collection Una casa en los Catskills. Erin Goodman’s English translation of the story is available in NER 42.1.
Megan Howell: In “Patriotic Sex,” an Afro-Cuban woman reflects on her tumultuous relationship with Humbercito, a white Cuban American. Her allusions to slave barracks, sexual violence, and intergenerational trauma are more reminiscent of James Baldwin’s “Going to Meet the Man” or Gayle Jones’s Corregidora than, say, the euphemistic depictions of interracial sex in shows like Always a Witch and Escrava Isaura. At the same time, she’s not a complete victim; she has agency, going out of her way to seek out Humbertico.
I’m wondering how you were able to make the protagonist free-willed while also showing that a violent, terrible history is influencing her actions. How do you write about the intersections between sexual liberation and anti-Blackness in a meaningful way that doesn’t feel fetishistic?
Odette Casamayor-Cisneros: The answer is in the flesh. The flesh does not lie.
I am always suspicious of grandiloquence, of all attempts to explain a phenomenon, a feeling, especially our emotions, with only words. I know, it seems paradoxical, since, as a writer and a scholar, words are my tools. And, perhaps, this extreme familiarity with words is what prevents me from trusting them.
Aware of the impossibility of words—and the discourses woven with them—to properly express our experience, I seek to convey the unspeakable, which silently lies in the flesh. That’s why I called these “stories written from the flesh and for the flesh.” That was the leading thread when I was writing the stories included in my first book, Una casa en los Catskills [A House in the Catskills], in which the Spanish version of “Patriotic Sex” was first published, in San Juan (Puerto Rico) and Havana (Cuba).
Everything I have been writing since the publication of this book continues to explore the Black experience, particularly the Black female experience in the Americas.
Thus, under the title “Con tinta negra” [With Black Ink], goes one of my current projects, a biweekly column I write for OnCuba News, in which I gather my intimate reactions—trying to keep the writing as close to the flesh as possible—through my daily experiences. There, I teach, I walk, I love, I read, I hate, I suffer, I cry, I laugh, I am attacked and loved and misunderstood and forgotten as a human being with black flesh, which, everywhere in the Americas, means that my experience today is linked to the enslavement of my ancestors and subsequent anti-Black racism.
When I am teaching, I have to use facts, dates, well-constructed arguments. In my stories, I find the freedom to allow my flesh to talk. And I believe this is what keeps the stories from falling into that fetishism you are talking about.
MH: In many ways, your story is one of contrasts. It juxtaposes New York with Cuba; Cuban Americans with cubiches; black with white; violence with pleasure; Soviet boarding schools with a commodified, Americanized replica of a Cuban ghetto; femininity with machismo, etc. The protagonist reflects on these conflicts without explicitly saying which ones are preferable. Do you think she’s resigned? Or is she still searching for what she wants?
OCC: She is not resigned. She is not searching either. She just goes beyond the excluding polarities, the juxtapositions.
The protagonist of “Patriotic Sex” is not in the either/or dichotomy, discarded, for instance, by the Black feminist conceptual artist Lorraine O’Grady. Instead, and like O’Grady, my character follows the infinite possibilities offered in the “both/and” logic, which actually gives title to her latest show, at the Brooklyn Museum. (Don’t dare to miss it if you are around, it’s exquisite.)
Why should she express her preference between concepts, institutions, and ways of thinking that, ultimately, have not been conceived to make her thrive but, rather, to systemically exclude her, as a Black Latina of Cuban origins? She does not fit in any of these structures: she is constantly shifting between them, ungraspable and slippery like a snake, maybe a little bit venomous as well. And she likes that. She prefers to be a monster rather than feel victimized.
MH: The protagonist describes herself as being “not a political animal” even though her thoughts and mere existence are deeply political. Do you think she’s wrong? Or does being political require actively participating in political revolutions and reading up on geopolitics?
OCC: Everything is political, even the unspoken expression of the flesh. But I believe there is a way of being political that doesn’t involve getting immersed in a simplistic scheme, in which everyone repeats, without thinking, the same ideas, taken from social media, dictated by obscure gurus and old politicians. This is the political plot she is trying to avoid: the superficial repetition of slogans and old mantras that unfortunately shape the leading conversations about Cuba today, in which there are, again, only two mutually exclusive sides. Two ways of being Cuban and thinking about Cuba, in favor or against the island’s regime, in favor or against the US embargo, without the possibility of introducing nuances. Each of them determined to win over the other, without concessions. Withdrawing herself from this never-ending game becomes her way of adopting another political stance—a nonconventional one, in which possibilities multiply and a real conversation would be possible. But Humbertico/Andy is too embedded in these binaries, and the conversation is precluded by a Fidel Castro–like speech that convinces our protagonist to seek pleasure, listening to her lover’s naked flesh, rather than his Manichean monologue.
MH: Rather than forming her political opinions after telling readers so much about herself, the protagonist leaves both Andy and the entire narrative for Starbucks. Do you think her passivity is sustainable for a Black woman living in America? Is the story’s ending a coda? Or a small break in her life before the next racial upheaval?
OCC: I don’t think she is passive. Passive would be to fall into Humbertico/Andy’s narrative. Instead, she acts. She knows what she wants, which is to have good sex. She gets it, avoids supporting his monologue or confronting him, and then she leaves. All that matters is her satisfaction, and this is an extremely radical position for a Black woman in the Americas. Our bodies have, since enslavement, been used, objectified, raped, discarded, exterminated. The protagonist takes agency and ownership over her body and her desire. She is her own master, and her actions do not satisfy the expectations of her white lover or most readers. Just her own.
MH: There’s been a recent resurgence of interest in socialism, especially among young Americans online. I’ve noticed that many of them do a poor job of reckoning with race when discussing a subject as nuanced as Third World socialism. On the one hand are neoliberals who continue to demonize countries like Cuba for eliminating very exploitative, corrupt, extractive economic systems that benefited only an elite (i.e., white) few. And on the other are leftists who believe that socialism is postracial. As someone who writes extensively on the myth of Cuba’s postraciality, do you believe that this new wave of socialist thinkers is less or more open to Black voices?
OCC: This is subject to their position in regards to racialization here in the United States. There is a lot of arrogance in both ranks; imperial views prevail among all of them. Again, we have these two poles that present themselves as radically divergent, although they might not be so different after all. If leftists and neoliberals allowed themselves to listen to voices coming from other contexts, particularly the voices from the Global South, the systemically silenced voices, maybe they would be able to more effectively tackle the problems they supposedly want to address. Concerning their openness to Black voices, it would require them to reflect on the White privilege that most have enjoyed and continue to enjoy. Only if they are genuinely acquiescent to doing that, and to reckoning with the fact that this is not so much a Black problem as a problem created and globally reproduced by the Eurocentric hegemony, a real talk on racialization might be possible.
Odette Casamayor-Cisneros is a Cuban-born writer, scholar, and Associate Professor of Latin American Cultural Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The author of the short story collection Una Casa en Los Catskills [A House in the Catskills], published by La Secta de los Perros in 2011, she has also published a book of literary essays Utopía, distopía e ingravidez: Reconfiguraciones cosmológicas en la narrativa post-soviética cubana [Utopia, Dystopia and Ethical Weightlessness: Cosmological Reconfigurations in post-Soviet Cuban Fiction] from Vervuert Verlagsgesellschaft in 2013. Focusing on the Afro-Latinx experience, she is currently completing several fiction and nonfiction book projects.
Megan Howell is a fiction reader for NER and a DC-based freelance writer. After graduating from Vassar College, she earned her MFA in fiction from the University of Maryland in College Park, winning both the Jack Salamanca Thesis Award and the Kwiatek Fellowship. Her work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Nashville Review and The Establishment among other publications.