Miami, literary Shangri-la? A mecca for the bookish? It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. But for more than 20 years, autumn has brought a kind of inverse solar eclipse, sending some of us scurrying from the beaches, out of the malls, off the interstate, and into the comforting, ancient arms of the written word, as read by some of its greatest practitioners.
True, compared to the hundreds of esteemed writers who take stages around Miami Dade College for Miami Book Fair International every year, mere handfuls are actually attached to Miami in any way; for every Edna Buchanan and Mirta Ojito, you've got a Tom Wolfe, a Joan Didion, a Margaret Atwood, a Terry McMillan, and a Mike Wallace (to go back just a few years). This year, the eminent firepower includes Nikki Giovanni, while the, um, big guns are the unavoidable Rosie O'Donnell, Caroline Kennedy, and lame-duck first-daughter Jenna Bush.
But the real story of the 2007 fair is that, within the larger Rosie-Jenna galaxy, Miami has produced one vibrant solar system. Although the fair has some justifiably international pretensions, New Times believes this is South Florida, after all. So we tracked down some authors who, in various ways, have connections to this place, all of whom draw on personal experience. Oh, and they just happen to be some of our favorite writers too.
Edwidge Danticat's memoir Brother I'm Dying is a breathtaking account of love, loss, and Haiti. "What I really wanted to write was a rant," she tells New Times. "But I also wanted to write something that was artful."
Danticat, who lives in Little Haiti, came to the States at age 10 to be reunited with her parents, who had left her with her aunt and uncle in Haiti while they worked to support the family in New York. As she describes her childhood in the book, she thrived in school, earned a topnotch education, and became a critically acclaimed writer. The story could end there with a modern-day happy ending to a quintessential immigrant story. But life isn't that simple.
In 2004, Danticat became pregnant; her father became chronically ill and died of pulmonary disease. At the same time, her 81-year-old uncle dramatically escaped from Haiti amid violence and chaos — only to die in a Miami hospital after being unlawfully held by the Department of Homeland Security at the Krome Detention Center.
Danticat had never before considered writing a memoir, but after everything that happened, she wanted to honor her relatives by telling their story.
The result is a book that captures her admiration for the two men who raised her and a heartbreaking portrait of the hardscrabble life of Haitians, both in the United States and back home. "Entire Haitian families came to my readings," says Danticat, who also penned the Haiti-based fictional books Krik?Krak! and The Dew Breaker. "I think the book struck a chord with an entire generation of people."
Donald Antrim's discursive memoir The Afterlife is alternatively scathing, oblique, and deadpan. In writing about the life and death of his alcoholic mother, Antrim also crafted a tale that crackles with imagery of a bygone Florida, from the west coast, where the author was born, to Miami, where he lived during his high school years.
"To me, at the time, [Miami] seemed like... the future, like an endless, centerless city. There was no intact city at that point," Antrim says in an interview. "Everything seemed like it was 2 years old. Basically, it seemed like millions of people in cars just going around."
Antrim lived in a "Bauhaus house" in Kendall and attended Glades Elementary, Cutler Ridge Junior High, and Palmetto Senior High. He writes in The Afterlife: "School in Miami was an erotic ordeal, because the girls came dressed for the beach. Sometimes when the bell rang, I was forced by my erection to stay at my desk for a minute or two before staggering off... I carried books in front of my dick."
His interest in literature was forged in Florida through his father, one of the first English professors at the fledgling Florida International University, "when it was in trailers on runways at the old Tamiami Airport," he says.
Antrim's mother, Louanne, headed a fashion design program at Miami-Dade Community College throughout the 1980s. In the '90s, while she was running a small boutique in a strip mall near Brickell Avenue, her condominium was "ripped apart," Antrim writes, "effectively dismantled" by Hurricane Andrew.
The Afterlife is "the story of my mother and me, my mother in me." She died of lung cancer in North Carolina in 2000, just a year after her own mother's death. "I couldn't imagine life without my mother," Antrim writes. "And it was true as well that only without her would I feel able to live."
Evelyn McDonnell, tattooed feminist and author of Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids, & Rock 'n' Roll, used to express her sentiments toward motherhood with a soft spot for dead-baby jokes. Now the former Herald pop-culture critic can't seem to decide on the first line of her book's preface: "The day I started writing this book was my son's first day at preschool. Or should I write, 'My son's first day at preschool was the day I started writing this book'?
"It's a false dichotomy, that you can't have both," says the former music editor for SF Weekly and current editorial director for Moli.com. "I didn't know how to fit a baby on the hip of the image I had created, but now I do."
Her memoir chronicles her trajectory from the Midwest (where she was a tomboy who "would have taken a bullet" for Michael Jackson) to the punked-out bohemian whirlwind of the East Village to the Upper Peninsula, where, while "drowning worms," she stumbled upon a husband and two stepdaughters before landing in Miami with a son.
While McDonnell chats with New Times, 4-year-old Cole is Scotch-taping her office door closed so no one can bother his mom while she works. The author, who still refuses to shave her armpits, has some strong opinions about women. For instance, Miami's own Jacki-O: "She's rapped about a lot of the same things Rick Ross later rapped about. But I think people wrote her off unfairly because she's a woman and wrote a song about nookie. So that's all people can associate her with. Once a woman sexualizes herself, there's not so many who can go back."
And what of Miami women in general? "I'm really appalled sometimes dealing with the whole princess thing," she says. "I feel the most uncomfortable, the most conspicuous, in that environment." Then there are the kinds of women who turned out for her most recent reading at Books & Books.
"They seem like the kind of moms that are women like me. We lived the life, and now we're in the next chapter of it. We're all still doing interesting things. Just because you have a baby screaming around doesn't mean you can't have a guitar screaming as well."
For poet Adrian Castro, fish are emblematic of the waves of migration that have navigated history to our shores. "Fish are witnesses that see everything," he muses in Wise Fish: Tales in 6/8 Time. "Even when dead, they never close their eyes."
The Miami-based artist of Cuban and Dominican descent is also a practicing Ifa priest. His poems fluidly mix Spanish, English, and Yoruban phrases in a rhythmic patois in which the cross-fertilization of cultures, myth, and rituals bound like the beat of ancestral drums.
"Most of the migration that occurred in the Caribbean and the Americas has come through the ocean," he says. "My father came here in a cargo boat from Regla in 1954. Camarioca, Mariel, los balseros, think of all those people that have risked dangerous trips across water here. For me, the fish has become the wise witness to all their journeys."
Castro's poems thrum with the pulse of the city, describing how "mulattos, mestizos, black and white — everyone here fuses their voices together, regardless how separated, into a distinct sound," he observes.
The pungent smells of cafecitos and tabacos waft enticingly from "Fishing at the Crossroads," a poem that conjures the seamier side of Calle Ocho during its hooker and rent-by-the-hour hot-sheet-motel days. Of Little Havana's historic main artery, Castro recites these verses: "If we begin anywhere, it would be east to west, on Calle Ocho putas parade with perennial confidence, open for late lunch."
Reflecting on his source of inspiration, Castro says, chuckling, "I always found it ironic how all those hos would be hanging around in broad daylight in front of that old cemetery on SW 32nd Avenue" before clicking off.