May 26, 2005
‘Jubana’ Memoir Rescues Its Author
"Jubana! The Awkwardly True and Dazzling Adventures of a Jewish Cuban Goddess" by Gigi Anders (Rayo/HarperCollins, $23.95).
Three years ago, Gigi Anders found herself down and out in Hackensack, N.J. Her fiancé couldn't go through with their wedding, she had quit a job at a nearby newspaper and her friends lived elsewhere.
"I was alone and without a safety net," she recalls. "Then there was my hair, my weight, etc. Writing was the only noninsecurity I had."
Surviving on cases of TaB and cartons of cigarettes, Anders spent the ensuing years squeezing memoir material out of her childhood, adolescence and Byzantine relationship with her larger-than-life mother. Due out next week, "Jubana! The Awkwardly True and Dazzling Adventures of a Jewish Cuban Goddess" simultaneously reads like a classic coming-of-age tale, Jewish history lesson and stand-up comedy routine. Born in Havana, the now 47-year-old Anders left Cuba and an upper-middle-class life of wealth and privilege before her third birthday. After a brief period in Miami, her family settled in Washington, D.C., where her doctor father and social worker mother tried to rebuild their lives. Though Anders' tribulations and the legacy of Fidel Castro's regime certainly loom large in the story, the highly glamorous and opinionated "Mami Dearest" frequently steals the show.
"She's my best material," admits Anders about her mother. "If I had a boring mom, I'd having nothing to write about."
For Rene Alegria, publisher of the HarperCollins' Rayo imprint that focuses on books by and about Hispanics, Anders' memoir "was unlike anything I ever read. I hadn't really seen this type of Hispanic Jewish story before," he said. "Then there's the fact that Gigi is just incredibly funny and she really brought her story to life in a way that's universal."
On the telephone, Anders speaks exactly like the book she's written. Candid, passionate and prone to interspersing the conversation with hysterical impersonations of her mother's Cuban-accented English, Anders also emphasized that she "fiercely loves" her parents, now in their 70s.
"I wanted very badly for no one in my family to feel ambushed," she says. "I didn't write the book for axe-grinding and score-settling. I would call my mother every Sunday and we would talk about what I was writing. She never once said, 'Don't write that.'"
For Anders, the biggest challenge lay in depicting key tragic events while maintaining the wildly humorous tone.
"I didn't know whether or not go there," she says of the traumatic sexual awakening she experienced at 14. "I didn't want to hurt my parents or have people feel sorry for me. But this was my life and that experience changed me forever."
Anders claims that the term "Jubana," meaning "Cuban Jewess," "has been floating around for awhile" in her family. To be her family's style of Cuban and Jewish, she says, means there's no conflict between lighting Chanukah candles and enjoying roasted pork loin afterward.
"But the Jubana thing also means you're a minority, minority, minority -- that no matter what, you're an outsider," she said. "Sure I'm white, but not like how other people are white."
Growing up in Washington, D.C., Anders attended elementary school where she identified with the African American kids.
"I would go to their birthday parties and try to get their parents to adopt me," she recalls.
Later, when her parents moved to a different D.C.-area neighborhood and could afford private school, Anders attended Sidwell Friends, an elite prep academy. There, she "faced rich, white kids who weren't Jewish and who seemed to be happy all the time. It seemed like they could just say, 'I think I'll go to Harvard' and it would just happen, while I was at home killing myself," she said.
At Beaver College, a private school in Pennsylvania now called Arcadia University, Anders had more contact with Jewish kids, but once again, could not relate.
"They were equally as rich as the Sidwell kids, but these girls wanted to get married immediately," she says. "I had always associated the Jewish side of myself with education and achievement."
Anders says her "Hispanic side" had more to do with "choosing the right red lipstick and having anxiety about becoming a writer. I got very nervous about being competent and relatives would tell me to dumb myself down or I wouldn't get a man," she said. "I had this conflict of beauty vs. brains, this long-term conditioning of if you're a girl and you're not married then it's a double whammy for your Hispanic family."
Upon graduating from college, Anders briefly worked as a waitress before responding to a job listing from the circulation department of the Washington Post. After a year on the job, she managed to get transferred to an editorial department and eventually became a special correspondent. She also began writing for a variety of other publications, including Glamour, Allure, Latina and The American Journalism Review.
Recently, Anders gave an in-house reading for her publishers and experienced "the best moment of my life. It was the first time that I didn't feel like an outsider. People were listening to me read and they were laughing but I felt they understood," she said. "It's so strange. The things in life that made me feel terrible about myself led to this moment where I thought, 'This is who I was meant to be.'"