I WAS NEVER THE FIRST LADY
By Wendy Guerra
Translated by Achy Obejas
In Wendy Guerra’s writing, Cuba is a character, a cosmic force, the loneliest place, the only place. Her third novel, “I Was Never the First Lady,” stitches together threads of island and identity until they become one and the same. “I can’t live without these places,” she writes. “All this is me.”
First published in Spanish in 2008, and newly translated into English by Guerra’s faithful translator Achy Obejas, “I Was Never the First Lady” tells the story of Nadia Guerra, an artist in Havana in the early 21st century, as she endeavors to find the mother who abandoned both her and Cuba decades before. As in Guerra’s previous novels, “Everyone Leaves” and “Revolution Sunday,” the similarities between author and protagonist are impossible to ignore: They are both artists in Havana, they share a last name.
If these signs suggest autofiction, Guerra’s collagelike style firmly bucks any genre. She integrates poems, song lyrics, radio scripts, letters, narrative within narrative, diary entries and notes, all coming together to form a whole. The book exists in four parts, the crux of which is Nadia’s quest to find her mother. “Someone witnessed her being out of her mind,” she says of her mother, capturing the book’s undercurrent of hearsay as information. “But so much time has passed since then, we assume she must be dead.” Still, using the money and visa from artist grants, Nadia follows the mystery of her mother’s chosen disappearance, traveling to Europe and piecing together a contradictory map of clues from the older woman’s vast network of old lovers and friends.
By the time Nadia finds her in Russia, her mother is little more than a shadow of the woman the protagonist remembers. “She’s left her body,” Nadia writes to her childhood friend and occasional lover, Diego. “She’s incoherent, delirious. Her mind is hidden in darkness, submerged, and I can’t find it. … I know she’s not the same woman we lost sight of when we were 10.” Nadia’s mother is a clear metaphor for Cuba itself, decaying within the borders of an old ally and filled with memories of revolution.