📖 🇩🇴 #58: A Dominican sci-fi thriller
Rita Indiana on environmental disaster
Welcome to Bookmarked, a weekly newsletter following my journey as I read one book from every country. If you like the sound of my project, I’d love it if you shared Bookmarked with a friend.
Rita Indiana’s Tentacle is a bold, ambitious, trippy dystopian sci-fi thriller which tackles a whole host of big themes—gender, poverty, ecological disaster, race, colonialism—in just 132 pages. Moving between an apocalyptic near future, the recent past, and distant history, it follows a young maid called Acilde as she travels back in time in an attempt to avert the destruction of the natural world and save humanity from collapse.
In the world of Tentacle, years of abuse by Western tourists have turned the Caribbean Sea into a brown sludge which is devoid of life. The people of the Caribbean live in the aftermath of an ecological disaster. They have personal security systems built into their eyeballs. Climate refugees from Haiti are systematically killed by robots.
Bringing her thumb and index finger together, Acilde positions her eye and activates the security camera that faces the street, where she sees one of the many Haitians who’ve crossed the border, fleeing from the quarantine declared on the other half of the island.
Recognising the virus in the black man, the security mechanism in the tower releases a lethal gas and simultaneously informs the neighbours, who will now avoid the building’s entrance until the automatic collectors patrolling the streets and avenues pick up the body and disintegrate it.
When we meet Acilde, she is working as a maid for Omicunlé, a religious adviser to the tyrannical president and a devotee of Yemayá, the Yoruba goddess of the ocean. Acilde, who was previously a sex worker, is saving up for a non-surgical gender reassignment injection called Rainbowbrite. When Acilde learns that Omicunlé is in possession of a rare sea anemone, she hatches a plan to steal and sell it in order to fund her treatment. Upon successfully occupying the body of a man, Acilde finds herself in the middle of a prophecy: she is tasked with travelling back in time to prevent Venezuela’s chemical weapons being stored in the Dominican Republic.
Acilde’s chapters make up one of three threads in this book. In the second, we meet a homophobic and misogynistic artist called Argenis who becomes linked to Acilde when he swims into the ocean and touches an anemone. As with Acilde, touching the anemone gives Argenis the ability to occupy another body and move through time, which eventually leads him to acknowledge his own queer desire. The third follows a group of seventeenth century pirates.
I’m not sure what to think of this book, which sets out to do so much. Indiana does a fantastic job of exploring a world in which capitalism, colonialism, and environmental destruction have made life unbearable for all but the elite and she’s especially interesting on the topic of Dominican-Haitian relations. Tentacle is thought-provoking and vibey and if you like apocalyptic dystopias and climate fiction, it’s well worth your time. There is some really smart thinking throughout the book, but ultimately it was a bit too inscrutable for me.
Tentacle by Rita Indiana, translated by Achy Obejas (And Other Stories, 2018 / Editorial Periférica, 2015)
More books by Dominican authors:
In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
Saturnalia by Rey Andújar, tr. Kolin Jordan
Erzulie’s Skirt by Ana-Maurine Lara
Papi by Rita Indiana, tr. Achy Obejas
Song of the Water Saints by Nelly Rosario
What have you read recently?
If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or you’d like to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I’m always happy to venture further afield for a good recommendation.
You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.
Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thank you to Laura Kaposi for her recommendations for this issue. If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!