By Rita Indiana, Translated by Achy Obejas
Sheffield, South Yorkshire; And Other Stories, 2018, 160 pp., $13.95, paperback
With its with many arms outstretched, Tentacle is a myriad beast; a time-travel trans-narrative set in the Dominican Republic, using Yoruba fused myth-technologies to undo and prevent the ecological collapse of 2037's oceans, its scope is vast. In a suitably tentacular manner, the past and future, historical and fictive, collapse and re-constitution, all vibrantly conspire to illuminate what is subcutaneous to the everyday. In so doing, Tentacle excavates and makes apparent the multiplicity of temporalities, struggles, and entities that compose what technoscience scholar Donna Haraway has termed our "thick present." Navigating this thickness, Tentacle thinks and dances with complexity, to a wild merengue beat.
Queer icon Rita Indiana first rose to fame in her native Dominican Republic (D.R.) as a rock-infused merengue musician. Indiana's punk sensibility saturates her prose, imbuing it with a distinctive musicality and rhythm. The rapid flow of songs such as La Hora de Volve or El Bin del Ping Pong by her band Rita Indiana y los Misterios ("Rita Indiana and the Mysteries"), made their way into Indiana's first novel to be translated into English, PAP1 (2004). A semi-autobiographical novel, PAPI uses a seemingly extemporaneous, lyrical barrage to chart a young girl's disenchantment with, and increasing independence from, her formerly idolized father.
With its skilful amalgamation of science fiction, surrealism, and queer aesthetics, Tentacle--originally published as La mucama de Omicunle (2015)--became the first Spanish language work to win the Grand Prize of the Association of Caribbean Writers in 2017. Her fourth book, Tentacle shows a clear progression in Indiana's mastery of multiple plotlines, with tighter control of a hectic prose, dense with allusion. Indiana's writing is known for its use of local D.R. slang and idioms, so any translation is bound to lose some of these nuances. Nevertheless, translator Achy Obejas has managed to maintain a compelling beat, making for a sophisticated yet compulsively readable novel.
Tentacle begins in 2037 with our main protagonist Acilde Figueroa working as a maid for political power-player Esther Escudero, who, as a Santeria priestess, is also known as Omicunle. Santeria--an Afro-Caribbean syncretic religion which blends Yoruba traditions with Catholic icons--is the spiritual reservoir at the center of the novel. The sea, in particular, becomes the primary locus of power and worship, as emblematized by the sacred and near-extinct anemone which adorns Esther's altar, a creature she is bound to protect.
Acilde conspires to sell Esther's priceless anemone on the black market, in order to afford "Rainbow Brite," an unofficial drug which is reputed to trigger a near-instant sex transition in the imbiber. Finally obtaining Rainbow Brite, and accompanied by various Yoruba rituals, Acilde undergoes this transition. Anemones are the novel's central symbolic touchstone and a spiritual force majeure; hence, during his transition, the touch of the stolen anemone's tentacles initiates Acilde into Santeria, to be renamed; "Omo Olokun: one who knows what lies at the bottom of the sea ... save the sea."
Assigned female at birth (AFAB), Acilde is aware of his status as a transman (rather than a more non-binary trans-masculine identity), from his early years; his gender dysphoria is established at the beginning of the novel, as we are told he has been saving money from sex work in order to afford top surgery. However, there is a puzzling, even problematic, authorial choice when apportioning Acilde's pronouns. At first, Acilde is specifically referred to as she, even though his position as a trans man is equally emphasized throughout. The use of she/her pronouns only switches to he/his after he has taken Rainbow Brite and biologically transitioned to a male-sexed body. Covertly then, this representation of trans-identity seems to insist upon the essentialist assertion that gender and sex are coterminous, a cisnormative assumption which surely needs to be challenged. Despite this incongruous attributing of pronouns, it's clear that Tentacle is meant to be a positive representation of transgender identities, as Aclide is not only the novel's protagonist but also becomes "the chosen one," Omo Olokun, after his biological transition.
Acilde's sex transition crystallizes Indiana's consistent marriage of technical objects (such as Rainbow Brite) with Santeria spirituality, a fusion which I will term the novel's "myth-technologies." Throughout Tentacle, recognizable and speculative technologies, such as pharmaceuticals or time-travel, are powered by spiritual, rather than a purely digital or thermodynamic, forces. Myth thus becomes a fundamental component in technological operations. These myth-technologies are particularly interesting when considering Indiana's reconceptualization of time-travel.
Typically, the time-travel sub-genre is anchored by a time-machine and its genius scientist creator/operator; it is through this machine that time becomes a radical openness primed for exploration--as exemplified by HG Wells's SF ur-text The Time Machine (1895). Time-machines are positioned as the zenith of human achievement, symbolizing mastery over nature, time and reality. In Tentacle, however, Acilde and Argenis--a frustrated artist who, alongside the specter of ecological collapse, is the novel's main antagonist--experience time travel after coming into contact with anemone tentacles: a bodily, rather than mechanical, intervention. This anemone-contact pushes them through time, leading to questions such as whether "I have two bodies or is my mind capable of broadcasting two different channels simultaneously." Here, the absolute agency afforded through the engineering of gentleman scientists is replaced by external forces which displace characters according to its own unknown logic. As such, Tentacle is aligned with more experimental feminist representations of time travel.
Dana Franklin, the protagonist of Octavia Butler's Kindred (1979), is pulled from her contemporary 1970's Los Angeles, back to a slave plantation in antebellum Maryland, whenever her ancestor is mortally threatened. In Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976), central character Consuelo Ramon travels to a future utopia through a trans-temporal form of telepathy. In both of these feminist classics, time travel is affectively and psychically based, rather than contingent on a recognizably technological apparatus. Similarly, in Tentacle time travel functions as a form of possession where the past is layered over contemporary reality. For Tentacle then, time travel is about the loss, rather than reinforcement, of control.
For Argenis two suns dropped below the horizon ... the strange handle that seemed to let the ghosts into his head began to turn and, just like the day before, everything was connected and real ... was this a past incarnation? Was it schizophrenia? Witchcraft?
In Tentacle time travel is a haunting, a balancing of bodies that flicker between increasingly fluid and multiple states. This sense of being possessed by spliced past and contemporary realities shares some alliances with Trinidadian poet Shivanee Ramlochan's collection Everyone Knows I Am a Haunting (2017), in which participants of J'ouvert (the annual carnival celebrated across many Caribbean nations) are compelled to "play all the dead and all the living in you." With Tentacle's temporal vibrancy, time travel turns the living into the playthings of the past, visitors to the lands of the not-so-dead in temporal fluctuations which collapse the easy distinctions of linear time.
So, Acilde is transported from 2037, back to before a storm unleashes the nuclear waste sequestered in local waters. In 2001 he becomes successful restauranteur Giorgio Menicucci, who, with his wife Linda, establishes a contemporary art gallery. The couple hopes this gallery will generate enough revenue to enable them to build an oceanographic lab dedicated to the protection of endangered marine species. Argenis, indigenous to this temporality, is transported back further still, to a company of marooned buccaneers inhabiting Hispaniola in the 17th century. Indiana has cannily selected this temporal site, which elides the Buccaneer history of the D.R. with the Elizabethan travel narratives that inspired Shakespeare's The Tempest (1611).
The Tempest, with its various appropriations and subsequent mutations, seams the Caribbean literary canon and saturates Tentacle. The novel's epigraph is taken from Ariel's song, stating "nothing of him that doth fade/ But doth suffer a sea-change/ into something rich and strange," and hence foregrounds the sea as a crucible rendering bodies amorphous. Indiana does not maintain strict adherence to Shakespeare's characters however, instead favoring a fluid remix. For example, Esther possesses Prospero's political acumen, whilst being informed by the intuition of Caliban's mother Sycorax. Acilde parallels Ariel, as he serves Esther and is given the task of saving the island from nuclear devastation. Many characters share a kinship with Caliban, but this is Caliban as understood through the prism of postcolonial theory.
The anti-colonial Pan-African and Black Internationalist movements of the 1960s and 1970s founded across Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, lead to rereadings of The Tempest, with the play becoming emblematic of, and mobilised against, coloniality. The text has been recuperated through postcolonial readings which legitimize Caliban's claims to ownership of the island. The most influential of these reworkings is Aime Cesaire's 1969 play line Tempete (translated from French as A Tempest), in which Caliban is explicitly a black slave who resists and denounces the subjugations of the white colonizer Prospero. Cesaire thus appropriates The Tempest as a vehicle through which to consider the operations of race and power within colonialism.
In dialogue with these representations of Caliban, Tentacle begins with the subjugation of black bodies, which are killed and removed from future dystopian streets by dispassionate machines, but ends with characters such as Malagueta Walcott. As an empowered black performance artist and the novel's most sympathetic character, Malagueta uses his artistic practice to unpack and challenge the racism he has experienced throughout his life.
I have only begun to trace the many bends in Tentacle, which, as a hybrid of local spiritual traditions and the trajectories of advanced technology, considers how ecological collapse can be collaboratively forestalled. The alliances of science and spirituality are best signposted when Acilde states, "this lab is the alter I'm going to build for Olokun, in which I'll turn Omicumle's Yoruba prayers into an environmental call to action." Tentacle is just such a call to action, a call which centers the agencies of the traditionally marginalized, and prioritizes the needs of non-human entities, as integral to our collective planetary survival.
Reviewed by Rachel Hill
Rachel, Hill is currently an MA candidate in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her interests include science and technology studies, and speculative fiction. She has previously published reviews for platforms including Asymptote journal, Strange Horizons, and Rain Taxi: Review of Books.