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By Jane Martin
Gay Cuban author Eduardo Santiago’s “Tomorrow they will Kiss” follows the lives of Cuban diaspora in Union City, New Jersey in the early 1960s, as Fidel Castro’s revolution was unfolding on the island. Santiago has had shorter works appear in the Los Angeles Times as well as gay publications such as Blithe House Quarterly and The Advocate, but this is his debut novel.
Like any good gay man, Santiago’s focus is on strong, intriguing women. In “Tomorrow they will Kiss” he tells the story from the perspectives of Graciela, Caridad, and Imperio.
Back in Cuba, in a small town far away from cosmopolitan Havana, the women went to school together, attended each others’ weddings, cultivated jealousies and loyalties, witnessed their own scandals and tragedies, and watched Castro dismantle their culture, to the point where finally, one by one, each made an escape to the United States. The trio’s reemergence in Union City fosters a microcosm of Cuban life that is often at odds with the larger culture in which it exists. Santiago beautifully captures the awkwardness of Cuban pre-revolution sensibility in Vietnam-era America, and, by extension, the difficulty of any immigrant group’s transfer of cultural self from home to foreign land.
The three ride each day with other immigrant Cuban women to a doll factory, where they attach doll legs and arms to doll torsos; the coveted blonde blue-eyed heads are handled further down the assembly line by the higher-paid American women. The various groups – African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Americans – stick to their own. Only Graciela, ever the iconoclast, ever the individual, both back home and here, moves beyond the confines of expectation and convention. Not surprisingly, the story really is hers. Even the chapters written from Caridad and Imperio’s perspectives focus on Graciela’s antics.
And that is my biggest grievance with the book: it is not clear to me how the story benefits from being told in three perspectives. Caridad’s and Imperio’s voices are interchangeable. Santiago relies on each character’s signature expression to bring uniqueness to her perspective: for Caridad it is “Imaginate!” and for Imperio, “Por Dios!” Both characters are united in their distrust and jealousy of Graciela, and in their difficulty fitting into American culture.
The efficacy of a chapter devoted to a certain voice is its ability to reveal information that we could not otherwise know but through this character. Yet this is not the case here. Both Caridad’s and Imperio’s chapters perform the identical task of revealing a bit more about Graciela, information that would have been as effectively delivered from one perspective or the other; the duplication of the job clips any budding sting or panache in either perspective. By the end, the alternating voices feel like mere repetition. It’s a confusing approach, giving the misleading sense that we need separate voices to get where we’re going. Since Graciela’s chapters are also devoted to forwarding her own story, limiting the work to her voice might have been the way to go.
Another issue with the novel is the theme of the telenovela, an element that is posited to be quite important in the piece, but that never quite adds up. The telenovelas, the soap operas the women watch regularly and discuss on the way to work, are at times positioned to be the unifying factor among the divided group, and at other times, presented as artifacts from their homeland, sources of longing and identification (though it is never clear whether the telenovelas are broadcast from Cuba). These soap operas remain on the fringe of the narrative, and the sporadic mention of them does not provide depth to the story, certainly not anything more interesting than Graciela’s story. You get the feeling that the author wanted the telenovela to be the glue holding the piece together, but that the fabric and textures of the real story ended up covering all but a few glimpses of the inconsequential framework.
Despite its flaws, “Tomorrow they will Kiss” is a powerful story that illustrates individuality and personal strength in a complex, magnetic, and exquisitely human character. Graciela shows us that even if your cultural heritage is as odds with your current circumstances, you can emerge integral and redefined, a better version of yourself.