Memory Mambo (Review)

Book cover for "Memory Mambo" by Achy Obejas.Title: Memory Mambo

Author: Achy Obejas

Narrator: Ruth Oakes

Publication Year: 1996

Pages: 200 (audio length: 8 hours 39 minutes)

Genre: Fiction

Source: Audiobook purchased from

From the cover:

Memory Mambo describes the life of Juani Casas, a 25-year-old Cuban-born American lesbian who manages her family’s laundromat in Chicago while trying to cope with family, work, love, sex, and the weirdness of North American culture.

Achy Obejas’s writing is sharp and mordantly funny. She understands perfectly how the romance of exile – from a homeland as well as from heterosexuality – and the mundane reality of everyday life balance each other. Memory Mambo is ultimately very moving in its depiction of what it means to find a new and finally safe sense of home.

I read this book quite a while back as part of the Literary Others event in October, but didn’t get around to reviewing it until now. (Sorry! There’s still one more of these to come, actually, next week.)

Let’s start with what I loved about this book. I loved the way that Obejas wove Cuban and Cuban-American culture so integrally into this Memory Mambo. I loved the cultural and linguistic references, and I just generally found it extremely satisfying to read a story about a woman from her own perspective, talking about how her life and her choices affect (and are affected by) her culture and family. I found it particularly interesting when she spoke about her sexuality in this context, because I know from my experiences in Hispanic/Caribbean countries that this isn’t exactly something that is generally spoken about.

In this vein, by the way, I think that Oakes did a fantastic job as the narrator. At first I wasn’t sure about her – her voice is a bit raspy and almost a little whiny – but as the narrative progressed, it really seemed to fit. It was lovely to hear the book read in a Cuban accent, as well, because it helped to really bring Juani and the other characters to life.

I didn’t love some of where the narrative went, especially near the end (I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say that there is some seriously heavy shit that goes on). I also didn’t love the suspense about what had happened to cause such a rift between Juani and her ex-girlfriend, or how it ended up being explained in the end. I think that’s my own personal taste, though, and not really a comment on the quality of the writing or a validity of the experiences that are represented. I think that was also part of the point, though: it seemed like Obejas didn’t want Juani to be a completely sympathic character for the reader, and I respect that choice. It makes things more interesting when not every protagonist is as free of blame as they make themselves out to be.

If you’re interested in Cuban(-American) literature, books about queer characters, or just like to read realistic stories about the lives of real people, you might want to give Memory Mambo a try. I’m glad that I came across it as I enjoyed reading it and I feel as though it has broadened my reading experience in so many ways.


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