Fiction Review: Papi by Rita Indiana

Rita Indiana—also known as La Montra, the monster, in her role as the lead singer of Rita Indiana y los Misterios—is a music composer and producer and rising star of contemporary Caribbean literature.

Media coverage of author, model, and musician Rita Indiana often remarks upon her distinct physical appearance. By all means, look her up. But more importantly, give her a listen. Named one of the world’s most influential Latinx by El País, Indiana introduced a rapidfire blend of pop and mambo, new wave, merengue, and electronica to Caribbean airwaves, together with her band, Los Misterios. In 2010, NPR singled out the group’s “El Juidero” for a Top 10 list of Latin Alternative albums. Then, at the peak of her success, Indiana abruptly abandoned the music scene to focus on writing full-time.

Perhaps this was to be expected: Indiana plays no musical instruments, and she has described her songwriting process as one in which she hums a tune or taps out a rhythm, and the band fleshes out the sound. Indiana then builds lyrics around repetition, and these improvisational qualities carry into her fiction. To date, her work includes the novels La mucama de Omicunlé (2015), Nombres y animales (2014), and Papi (2005). Indiana’s debut novel is the first to receive English translation, at the hands of the industrious, incomparable Achy Obejas.

Papi embraces the familiar trope of a child who is simultaneously enamored by and deathly afraid of her father. The novel follows the unnamed narrator’s adventures –both real and imagined– as she grows up and the veneer of Papi’s outsize character fades. But it’s a typical story told in totally atypical way.

Indiana crafts a disjointed, hallucinatory dreamscape, a delirious cartoon that’s populated with elaborate lists of stylish items: Papi’s collection of colorful jackets, his champagne Mercedes, a wine-dark Cadillac, his cadre of girlfriends, grandmothers, secretaries, caretakers. It’s never clear where Papi’s behavior ends and where his daughter’s imagination exaggerates. Papi has airports named after him. He is Santa Claus, Tony Montana, Jesus Christ. He’s a millionaire mogul, reckless Mafioso, misogynist, mansplainer, saint.

When Papi disappears for a seemingly interminable span of time, it transforms into a rescue mission, complete with helicopters and commandos. Indiana inserts tiny gems of heartrending reality: “I try to imagine where exactly ’just around the corner’ Papi might be, and where this corner could be, and what it must take to get around it.” It’s enough to counterbalance the otherwise insane tangents the narrator’s nonstop storytelling pursues.

As the novel accumulates a slow coherence, Indiana depicts the father as a complicated man with a big heart and a hard exterior, echoing Justin Torres’ devastating depiction of Paps in We the Animals: “I walk slowly to the living room and spy Papi dancing, moving his little butt while wearing a red apron that says #1 Pimp, with Cuco Valoy’s LP in one hand and a tray of waffles or mangú with fried cheese in the other.” Likewise, Papi resembles the work of another writer of the Caribbean diaspora, Rey Andújar, in its graphic turns and unexpected imagery. One gruesome scene involves a botched swan dive and CPR through a plastic straw. The resulting bubbles of gore made at least one squeamish reader postpone his dinner plans.

These unsettling scenes and quick shifts in register pop up and resolve so quickly, it can be difficult to gauge the terrain of the novel in total. The narrative uncertainty, a refusal of fixity and even footing, enacts the precarious nature of the narrator’s reality. It’s the novel’s most salient feature, a stylistic coup for Indiana. It’s also the most frustrating. At times, reading Papi feels like a roll through the tumble cycle of a sweaty child’s fever dream. Probably intentionally, it’s still difficult to weigh anchor amid the tumult. But whatever hang-ups this difficulty may present, the book allays with its slim spine and unique vision. It’s also the first third of Indiana’s “Trilogía de las Niñas Locas,” which means either she has written two more books to echo and mirror Papi, or she has designs to further the adventures of the unnamed narrator. In either case, Indiana’s is a singularly inventive new voice in Caribbean literature, and here’s looking forward to parts 2 and 3, as well.

Papi by Rita Indiana translated by Achy Obejas (The University of Chicago Press, 2016)

Reviewer: Diego Báez grew up in Bloomington, Illinois, and graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University - Newark. An inaugural fellow at CantoMundo in 2010, his poems, fiction, and reviews have appeared most recently at Ostrich, The Acentos Review, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. He lives in Chicago and teaches at the City Colleges.

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