Fall #ReadUCP Book Club: Read an Excerpt from the novel “Papi”
Fellow readers, we are excited to share that our Fall #ReadUCP Twitter Book Club pick is Papi, a novel by Rita Indiana and translated by Achy Obejas.
Drawing on her memories of a childhood split between Santo Domingo and visits with her father amid the luxuries of the United States, Indiana mixes satire with a child’s imagination, horror with science fiction, in a swirling tale of a daughter’s love, the lure of crime and machismo, and the violence of the adult world. Expertly translated into English for the first time, Papi is furious, musical, and full of wit—a passionate, overwhelming, and very human explosion of artistic virtuosity.
Papi is like Jason, the guy from Friday the 13th. Or like Freddy Krueger. But more like Jason than Freddy Krueger. He shows up when you least expect him. Sometimes when I hear that scary music, I get really happy cuz I know he might be coming this way. That scary music is sometimes just Mami telling me Papi called and said he’s picking me up to take me to the beach or shopping. I pretend I don’t care, like I’m sure he’s not coming cuz you don’t get told ahead of time if you’re about to get your head slashed by a machete; that’s why those dummies go straight up to the bushes or the closet, where there’s a mysterious light spilling out, and say, Helen? Or better yet: David? Even though everybody knows it’s not Helen or David behind the bushes but Papi, raising his aluminum softball bat or an ax or a pick.
Papi’s there, around any corner. But you can’t sit down and wait for him cuz that’s a longer and more painful death. It’s better to make other plans, to just stay in your PJs and watch cartoons from six in the morning until midnight, or even go out for a stroll, which is a game Mami made up for herself called if-Papi-wants-you-he- can-come-find-you. But Jason knows better than that and he disappears for months and even years, until I forget he exists, and then the scary music turns into Papi himself honking his car horn, and I go down the stairs four at a time so he can make mincemeat out of me just as soon as possible.
But what makes Papi most like Jason isn’t that he shows up when you least expect him but that he always comes back. Even when they kill him off. When Papi left for the United States the first time with some Cuban woman who didn’t want him sending anybody money, my abuela Cilí said, He’s dead to me. And when Papi told Mami he was gonna get married again but not to her, she said, As far as I’m concerned, you’re dead. And I think one time, when Papi stood me up, I called him on the phone and told him, I hope you die. I imagine there are so many other people who wanted him dead, like Jason, that it wouldn’t take a detective to figure out that when it was our turn with the knife, we stuck it in not just once but a bunch of times (and since there were so many of us, and it was so dark, who was gonna count?). Anyway, nobody ever goes to jail for killing Jason.
That’s why when they told me he was coming back, I’d already stopped waiting for him a long time ago and had imagined his return a million times: the clothes Papi would wear, how he’d step off the plane sniffing at the salty air, kneeling to kiss the ground.
And then, I’d already pictured this too: how he wears Nike running shoes and a two-thousand-dollar suit, and while the immigration official asks if he’s just visiting, Papi gets in a runner’s position—his hands on the ground, one leg straight back and the other bent beneath him—and when the stamp falls on his passport, he goes off like a gunshot, running and running and his mind runs too, from Las Américas International Airport to La Feria, to the front of the Lotería Nacional building, to his mother’s house, just like he’d promised Gregorio Hernández (the witch doctor), if only he’d grant him his wish to be rich, and now he’s back and all that money he’s been saving has come back with him.
We’ve been saving up for him, too; we’ve been waiting for you, Papi.
I’m waiting for you on the balcony at your mother’s house, at Cilí’s. I’m waiting for you with clenched fists and my mouth up against the balcony’s cold railing, imagining how you’re gonna leap from the car to the balcony (which is on the third floor) and how you’re gonna hoist me up and say I’m so much bigger now you can hardly carry me, but of course, you’re always gonna be able to carry me and so you lift me up and squeeze me and kiss my forehead, and I bury my head in your neck so I can smell your cologne from “over there,” to see if you’ve changed colognes, just to see.
Everybody already knows you’re back, that you’re coming back, that you’re coming home in triumph, a big shot with more gold chains and more cars than the devil himself. Everybody already knows. They’re already imagining how you’re coming back to them, to every single one of them, and how each one has been waiting for you, fantasizing about it, and telling the whole house, anyone who calls on the phone, the whole neighborhood: He’s back.
They dream you fill your suitcase with gifts for them, that you work only for them, live only for them; in their dreams you owe them everything. They imagine your reunion. You, in your silver suit, your jet-black shoes, running from the airport or—even better!—paying for a plane to fly you from the airport to their houses, first of all, to knock on their doors and shower them with green bills that taste like confectioners’ sugar.
The day comes and all of them, each and every one, awaken, drench themselves with a bucket of water, and take a good look at themselves. Today is the day, the day when they will know what’s good, the day when you’ll repay them for all they gave you when you were just a street kid—all those matches they let you borrow, the beer dregs they offered you, the ball bearings from the car engine they let you have. A few have a mental list of each thing you owe them, and in their heads they write down what you’re gonna bring them, the thing they think will best repay them. And when the list gets too long (cuz they’ve jotted down even the times they said hello to you), they start to borrow, to go into debt, to squander that fortune they already feel is theirs, that fortune that will inevitably illustrate the perfect trajectory of a radiant shit- storm from your pockets to their faces, their hands, their mouths, all over their chests: your nieces and nephews, cousins, siblings, friends, your siblings’ siblings-in-law, your nearest and dearest, neighbors, classmates, aunts and uncles, godparents, compatriots, the friends of that guy who’s married to the lady whose brother is some dude who graduated from the navy a year after you.
Now they’re organizing, gathering on both sides of the palm-lined avenue cuz they’ve all had the same idea of going to meet you. They’re prepared, with placards in their hands, flags, little signs, banners that say, Güelcon Güelcon! The ones who weren’t so quick now climb the palm trees on Avenida Las Américas and pluck them bare so they can lay the green fronds at your feet; others lay their own bodies down on the asphalt so you can walk over them; still others come with trucks wired with speaker towers blasting José José’s “El Triste” cuz one night when they offered you some picapollo, that song was playing and they think it might be a good way to refresh your memory. Still others come in pickups with tinted windows, loudspeakers on the roof proclaiming slogans and stories about them and you. Others come disguised as members of the Civil Defense so they can shove people around and say, Let’s move along, let’s move along, waving batons and wearing those little orange vests that you can tell are homemade from a mile away. Then the people finally get organized and sign their names in a book some lady is passing around (she also sells peanut brittle) so you can see who came to welcome you and who didn’t. The plane can be seen descending and women start to go into a trance and froth at the mouth while the men, legs trembling post-orgasm, dance “El Perrito” while holding on to the car bumpers.
Then here you are, here you are running over. People have lined up on both sides of the avenue; a rope keeps them away from your body but they stretch their arms so you can high-five them without slowing down. You’ve already doffed that two-thousand-dollar suit and are now wearing a seventeen-hundred-dollar, cobalt-blue jogging ensemble. It’s starting to rain and people pull out umbrellas and plastic to cover themselves. Some lackey is just steps behind you with a piece of cardboard so your head won’t get wet, but you’re sweating so much it looks like you got soaked anyway. Behind you there’s a caravan of cars with sirens, semis, trucks, motorcycles, and scooters, people running and others in wheelchairs and on bikes, keeping you in the spotlight with halogen lights while it rains cuz it’s getting dark.
People begin to make out the caravan of driverless Pontiac Trans Ams, replicas Papi brought back to sell. Dozens of five-thousand-dollar suits brought back for Papi to wear. Thousands of watches, chains, white-gold rings and necklaces that adjust to Papi’s body with a mere thought and that he thinks he’ll wear to the grave. Somebody comes up with a baby in his arms so Papi can baptize him (the priest, the mother, and the altar boy with the baptismal font are running alongside him), and somebody kills a pig in Papi’s name so a woman can catch up to him and bring a fork to Papi’s mouth and he can blow on that roast pork and then, yum, eat it all up without missing a step. And so they slaughter chickens, goats, and guinea fowl all along the way, and running the whole time, Papi takes bites of everything. When a ragged parakeet, who’s also running, sings “Compadre Pedro Juan” so he’ll feel at home, Papi makes like he’s dancing, with a hand on his belly and another in the air, wiggling his butt, all the while picking up the pace.
But before I can touch him, we see him on TV, slapping high fives from the airport to La Feria, trotting along, turning, trotting, sweating, running. Sometimes, and for just a couple of seconds, he walks and puts two fingers to his neck and looks down at his watch. Every two kilometers, two Civil Defense lackeys hand him a pair of blue Nikes, cuz his soles are wearing out, and the anchor on the six o’clock news—with a photo of Papi over his right shoulder—says, Quisqueya’s darling son has returned, and they replay the images they shot just minutes before: Papi baptizing a baby, an old woman sticking a piece of pork in his mouth, Papi smiling and holding his hands together above his head like a winner. The screen also shows the cars and chains and an overwhelmed pregnant woman swooning.
I go out to the balcony to see if he’s here yet, but all I see are the TV station’s vans waiting for him, a line of newscasters on the sidewalk, mics in hand, pointing up here. I wave at them from Cilí’s balcony, and when I go back inside to see if the news can tell us where Papi is, I see myself on the screen, waving from Cilí’s balcony.
Rita Indiana—also known as La Montra, the monster, in her role as the lead singer of Rita Indiana y los Misterios—is a music composer and producer and rising star of contemporary Caribbean literature. Achy Obejas is a Cuban American journalist, writer, and translator. She lives in Oakland, CA, and Chicago.
We invite you to join us throughout September and October to read and discuss Papi. Stay tuned for our virtual book club meeting with translator Achy Obejas in late October.