I was never the first lady
Wendy Guerra. By
Translated by Achy Obejas
In the writings of Wendy Guerra, Cuba is a character, a cosmic force, the most lonely place, the only place. Her third novel, “I Was Never the First Lady”, weaves the threads of island and identity together until they become one and the same. “I can’t live without these places,” she writes. “It’s all me.”
First published in Spanish in 2008, and translated into English by Guerra’s faithful translator Aichi Obejas, “I Was Never the First Lady” tells the story of Nadia Guerra, an artist in Havana in the early 21st century, as she seeks to find Tries mom who abandoned both her and Cuba decades ago. Like Guerra’s previous novels, “Everybody Leaves” and “Revolution Sunday, “It is impossible to ignore the similarities between the writer and the protagonist: they are both artists in Havana, they share a last name.
If these signs suggest autofiction, then Guerra’s colloquial style strongly influences any genre. She integrates poems, song lyrics, radio scripts, letters, narrative within fiction, diary entries and notes, all together forming a whole. The book exists in four parts, the root of which is Nadia’s quest to find her mother. “Someone saw him going out of his mind,” she says of her mother, capturing the book’s undercurrents as information. “But so much time has passed since then, we believe she must have been dead.” Nevertheless, using funds and a visa from artist Grant, Nadia follows the mystery of her mother’s chosen one’s disappearance, travels to Europe and finds a conflicting array of clues from the old woman’s vast network of old lovers and friends. The map merges together.
By the time Nadia finds him in Russia, his mother is little more than a shadow of the woman the protagonist remembers. “She has left her body,” Nadia writes to her childhood friend and sometimes boyfriend, Diego. “She’s inconsistent, goofy. Her mind is hidden in the dark, sunk, and I can’t find it. … I know she’s not the same woman we lost when we were 10.” Nadia’s mother is a clear metaphor for Cuba, which is decaying within the confines of an old ally and filled with memories of the revolution.