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Monday, July 22

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Airbags

Source attribution error. That's the psychological term for having a memory that isn't really yours. It's probably happened to you when your friends or family have told and retold a story so many times that its details become engrained in your mind and, in Memory Mambo, it's exactly what Juani Casas is obsessed with. Having left Cuba and come to Chicago as a young child, Juani has little memory of her homeland save for the stories that are as much as part of her as they are a part of history. Filled with aunts, uncles and exuberant cousins, Juani's challenge is to discern the difference between the facts and the fictions of her family.

"I often wonder just how distinct my memories are," Juani ponders during her days spent running the family laundromat, "... sometimes other lives lived right alongside mine interrupt, barge in on my senses, and I no longer know if I really lived through an experience or just heard about it so many times, or so convincingly, that I believed it for myself -- became the lens through which it was captured, retold and shaped." Family legend dictates that Juani's father invented duct tape, going so far as to have had the entire formula written out but missing out on his fortune when the singular piece of paper on which the recipe was recorded was lost right before they boarded the boat for America. A grandmother denied her husband's dead body when asked to identify it at the coroner's because he had died in the arms of his mistress; from that point on it was believed that he was exiled from Cuba and living in Miami. An uncle, making his fame with his morose art, cites himself as the source of blame for the Cuban revolution when he startled Fidel Castro while driving in his motorcade, leading to a shoot-out with Cuban soldiers. They're the stories the Casas family is built on, but for Juani the lies and mistaken memories cloud both who she is and who she believes she should be.

Looming over the search for the truth is Juani's own struggle to deal with the abusive end of her relationship with Gina, a Puerto Rican independentista. While the two create their own destructive end, Juani's family is led to believe that a politically aimed act of violence gave Juani her bruises and convinced her that Gina is too dangerous a companion. It's a lie that Juani is both hesitant to encourage or dispel, at one moment itching to yell out the truth and at the next finding the lie spilling easily from her lips. Juani's father is especially eager to believe the fabrication because, as unguarded as Juani's lesbianism is, he will never truly have to believe it if it's never confirmed outright. Juani too must deal with the reasons for her family's exile from Cuba and contend with Gina's politically-minded friends that she's a gusana -- a worm that abandoned the revolution. What Juani knows is at odds with what others believe about her and her personal memory is on the verge of a war with family history that no one side can possibly win.

"What I want to know is what really happened," Juani states. It's a desire so strong that it threatens to create a rift between Juani and her family until she learns that written down, supposedly historical and factual information doesn't always match one's memories either. Throughout Juani learns which truths must be known and which must remain clouded for the sake of those involved, herself included. Figuring out the real truths from the familial truths and going to the original sources proves to be harder than Juani anticipates, but it's her only chance of figuring out who she really is.

Also born in Cuba, author Achy Obejas immigrated to the U.S. when she was six years old, leaving little of her homeland to her own memory. In addition to winning the Studs Terkel Award for Journalism, Memory Mambo won the Lambda Literary Award and has received critical commentary for its dealings with racism, sexuality and memory. Obejas is currently a writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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