Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Quinceañera

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A Quinceañera is the Latina version of a Sweet Sixteen party, except done up bigger, louder, and fluffier. There are many takes on the quinceañera experience, depending on the specific Latin-American country you call yours.

For Cubans, especially those living in Miami, the quinceañera is often a big party in a banquet hall, with fifteen couples doing an elaborately choreographed dance, capped off by dinner and a loud, DJ-led party. Most Cubans eschew the traditional Mass preceding the party, which is a core element for other Latin-American quinceañeras, nor do they perform the traditional "first high heels" thing, wherein a parent presents the honored girl with her first pair of grown-lady shoes.

In exchange, most Cuban girls, even the ones who don't have a party, take formal portraits. These are similar to engagement photos, though the dresses are bigger, badder, and sparklier than most bridal gowns. The quinceañera often takes her portraits at beautiful Miami locales--the Biltmore, Vizcaya, the Spanish Monastery, Parrot Jungle.

Yes. Parrot Jungle.

Or, at least, the Parrot Jungle that was. Parrot Jungle is no longer in the same place as it was in the 90s when I was a teenager. Old Parrot Jungle is mainly a splash park for little kids now.

But in the 90s, it was the scene of this:


The hair was huge. The dress was huge-er. The eyebrows? Also huge. Fifteen year old me, though, felt like a princess. And even though I didn't have a big party (instead, I took a few friends ice-skating), I was definitely a quinceañera.

Cubans say that at 15 a woman is at her most beautiful. This is a creepy saying, for sure, and one I disagree with plenty. Still, it suggests the importance of the age in our culture.

So, color me not surprised when Penny, who is eight years old, asked if she could have a quinceañera. Here. In Alabama. "We'll see," I told her. Can you imagine 28 Alabama kids dancing salsa and merengue in front of their horrified/delighted parents?

That decision is still seven years away, thank goodness. In the meantime, if you find yourself interested in quinceañera culture, check out one of my favorites, Julia Alvarez's Once Upon a Quinceañera.


It's a work of nonfiction where Alvarez attends several quinceañera parties from across a couple of Latin American cultures, and examines them as a way of viewing Latino/a culture in the moment. It's riveting and sweet, and there is this AMAZING section in the end where she invites Latina "madrinas," well-known authors themselves, to give advice to young women.

If you can't tell, I'm a big fan of Julia Alvarez, who was recently awarded a National Medal of Arts.

And a big happy birthday to all the girls celebrating their quinces in 2014. Go on with your bad selves, ladies.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A Falling Star in Auburn & Miami

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It's been a busy couple of weeks, which have included not only the start of the school year, but Auburn and Miami launches of my new book, A Falling Star.

I had a wonderful time at a Cuban-themed launch here in Auburn. Drove all the way to Atlanta to get Cuban sandwiches and pastelitos for the party. As they say here in the South, I was loved on plenty at this event, and I am grateful to this community more than I can say.

I'd post a picture, except I had a fever of 103 degrees just before reading, and I look like a bowl of death in each of the photos I've seen. I will spare you all. But it says something about what a great time I had. Sick and all, I was so happy. Instead, have some pictures of some of the terrific folks who came out:

Angie, James and Savannah! Students/alums/writers/extraordinary humans.

Megan Forrester, Chris Green, and author Ash Parsons got chummy

My colleague, Emily Friedman, talking with writer Lauri Anderson. Someone needs to caption this one.

As for Miami...

It was an honor and a pleasure to read from A Falling Star this past Friday at Books & Books in Coral Gables. Of course, many of my friends and family were present and accounted for, as were some new faces, and faces I've only come to know via the internet and social media, and who now I've hugged in person.

Here's the livestream of the event for those who couldn't make it. I'm afraid to watch it myself. I know I almost started to cry right at the beginning when I began to talk about feeling at home in Miami, and I'm sort of tearing up now, I miss it so.

Voila! And thanks to Books & Books for being such wonderful hosts and live-streamerers;)


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Heart and Soul of Literary Miami, or an Ode to Books & Books

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I adore bookstores. I can get happily lost in them for hours, and leave with a lighter wallet and a heavy shopping bag. While I love living here in Auburn, Alabama, one of the things I miss the most is having an independent bookstore in town. There isn't one for miles and miles. And miles. It's Books-a-Million or bust, and trust me, they get A LOT of my money.

The very best independent bookstores are a boon to their communities. They can draw readings with big names and small, host reading groups and workshops, and are staffed by avid readers who know exactly which are the compelling new books for the season, support the excellent indie presses, and play host to all those wonderful authors on tour year round.  They attend bookseller events, meet authors, and hustle to support their stores, the literary world, and their communities. They are heroes to the arts, truly.

For that reason, every time I visit Miami I make sure to squeeze in a trip to my favorite bookstore on the planet--Books & Books.

Run my Mitchell Kaplan and Cristina Nosti, Books & Books is the literary heart and soul of Miami.

Stop by at any given time and you'll see some of Miami's best writers perusing the shelves, or eating at the café. MFA students from the University of Miami and Florida International University can often be found there talking about craft and books and their classes. Children run in and out of their gorgeous children's section, and locals stop by for a drink at the bar in the evenings (yes. It's a bookstore with a bar. You see why I love this place so? It's so very cool).

I gave my first reading ever at Books & Books back in 2005, when I was newly pregnant and newly published. It was a wonderful, exhilarating time, and you can read about it here.

I've seen some of the greats at Books & Books--Cristina Garcia, Edwidge Danticat--listened to plenty of newbies, too. Mitchell and Cristina welcome them all, which isn't something all top-notch bookstore do. There are many stores (names I won't share, but grr...GRRR) who won't book a writer until he or she has a National Book Award, or a Pulitzer, or has shared a couch with Oprah. Typically, these stores like to hire people with British accents to man the register. There are more of these kinds of stores than you'd imagine. Books & Books, delightfully, is both welcoming AND impressive.

I mean, LOOK AT IT:







Stunning, inside and out.

And I get to go back this Friday, September 5th, at 8 p.m. for a reading from A Falling Star. I'm so very appreciative to Mitchell and Cristina for the opportunity to come back (and I hope I can do it again for THE DISTANT MARVELS next year!).

For those of you in South Florida, please come! I'll try to be entertaining. For those of you out of town, they're going to live stream the event (I know. Shut up. I love this place so hard). You can find that on their website.

And if you can't do either, perhaps you'll be inspired to visit your local indie. Buy a book or two, chat up the people who work there, tweet or post about your favorite indie bookstore, and, to use a Southern expression, love on them a little.

Mañana, Miami-bound!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Chocolate Challenge!

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When author Alina Garcia-LaPuerta tagged me on the Chocolate Challenge, I felt I could not resist! First of all, Alina's new book, La Belle Creole, is a biography of the Condesa Merlin, a Cuban-born Parisian superstar. I've always wanted to learn more about this woman, and Alina has gone and written a book that I can't wait to read. Check out the book trailer here:



The Chocolate Challenge asks authors to name three books that remind them of three different kinds of chocolate--Dark, Milk & White. And because I LOVE chocolate. And I LOVE books. And Alina is obviously amazing, I could not say no!

So, here are my selections!

I'm usually reading three books at once, and so I thought it might be easiest to try to categorize those three, and give you a sense of what's on my nightstand at this very moment.

Let's start with Dark Chocolate. Rich, intense, a little foreboding, dark chocolate requires a prepared palate--you need to be ready for the bitter sweetness.  I'm currently reading Amor Towles' Rules of Civility. The novel, set in 1930s New York City, tells the story of Katey Kontent, the daughter of Russian immigrants, and the year that changed her life forever.


 Katey is a brilliant mind, is sharp-tongued and observant, and her observations are spiked with both wide-eyed sweetness and a wise outlook that protects her. She sees the world as it is--in terms both dark and hopeful. As a character, she's that perfect blend I think of when I think of dark chocolate.


Ah, milk chocolate. My favorite. Sweet, smooth, comforting. When you unwrap a little Hershey's Kiss, you know you won't be let down. Part of the joy is that absolute knowledge that you are about to have a wonderful experience even before the first bite. I don't always feel that way about books when I start reading them. I'm tentative, hopeful that the author won't let me down, but skeptical. Not so with Marie Manilla's beautiful novel, The Patron Saint of Ugly. 

It only took me about three pages to know, deep down, that this book was going to make me happy. The "saint" in the title is the young Garnet, an Italian-American woman living in West Virginia, with a fascinating past, port wine stains in the shape of the world's countries all over her body, and the supposed cause of multiple miracles. Garnet is funny. I mean, hysterically funny. It's a page-turner, too, and really, everything I wanted in a late summer read.

White chocolate. Ok. White chocolate is sort of the worst. It's not even chocolate. HOWEVER, the book I'm placing under this category is marvelous. It's the amazing Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes, about the colonization of Hawaii. I figure this one is the only nonfiction book on my list, and white chocolate is not really chocolate, so, I'm pairing these two odd ducks together.


I love Sarah Vowell. I LOVE HER. Acerbic, glib, erudite, brilliant. Her nonfiction can be described as a blend between history and social observation. In this book, she takes on a historical place and time that have always interested me--the Polynesian triangle and the exploration of the Pacific. I'm a total dork for it all, and I'm learning a lot from Vowell's book.

There you have it! Chocolate Challenge complete. And now the best part is I get to tag a marvelous writer for the next round.

Angela Jackson-Brown is a novelist and professor. Her newest book, Drinking from a Bitter Cup, is a coming of age story set in the Deep South of the 1970s and 80s.



Angela will also be appearing at the Auburn Writers Conference this fall, and I can't wait to meet her! Make sure to look for her version of the Chocolate Challenge in the coming days.




Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Stan Lee Moment

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The first time I heard the name Stan Lee, I was probably eighteen or nineteen. I was, most likely, standing in the center of a comic book shop with my then-boyfriend (who is my now-husband). Probably, the name came up in revered, whispered tones. This was before Marvel movies, when most people thought Spiderman and Ironman and The Avengers were the stuff of fanboy dreams and Kevin Smith movies.

So, when Stan Lee appeared in X-Men (2000) as a hot dog vendor, I recognized him at once, and felt a little thrill. There he is! Gotcha, Stan Lee. Now his appearances are a running element in all the Marvel flicks, similar to Hitchcock appearing in small cameos in his movies.

I love this kind of stuff. I love secrets that aren't secrets. I love Easter Eggs on DVD's. I love cheat codes in video games. I love the idea of hidden doors and surprises in attics and that one little glimpse of Rapunzel we get in the movie, Frozen.

You know, Anna and Elsa's parents died on the way to Flynn and Punzie's wedding. Their ship was overturned in a storm caused when Ursula fought Triton over Ariel's soul, or whatnot. By the way, up in Olympus, Hercules watched all that go down. Triton is his uncle. D'uh.


All of that interconnectedness, something that comic books do so well, is what I call the Stan Lee Moment, and I live for this kind of thing.

Of course, Faulkner had his Yoknapatawpha County, Márquez his Macondo, Lewis Nordan is Arrow Catcher, MS. The idea that an author can have his characters play in the same sandbox across many projects is not new.

As for me, without really meaning to at first, I played with this notion of connected characters in my books, and now I think it's a thing.

In Love and Ghost Letters, the protagonist, Josefina, is raised by a nursemaid named Regla. Keep her in mind. Also in that novel, when Josefina first arrives in El Cotorro, she witnesses a woman in the market selling parakeets. She wraps the parakeets in a towel in order to "break" them, so that they become tame and playful with humans.

In my new book, A Falling Star, Magda Elena works in a petshop, and her opening scene is one in which she describes how one tames a parakeet to the man who will become her husband. She learned the trick from an aunt, who lives in El Cotorro.

Meanwhile, in THE DISTANT MARVELS, which will be coming out with Europa Editions in 2015, we catch a glimpse of an infant Regla (from my first book), and we learn that she started life as the child of a slave, and was very soon motherless herself.

Finally, also in THE DISTANT MARVELS, one of the characters describes a portrait on the wall of very young Spanish Infantas, which are slowly winding their way into my work-in-progress.

And now you know where I've hidden all my Easter Eggs. I think el generalissimo, Stan Lee, would be proud;)

A friend asked what I would name my imaginary sandbox, and I don't think I have a ready answer. Yoknapatawpha, Macondo, and Arrow Catcher are pretty damn good. Stan Lee just calls it his "universe," which is just too cool. My place may be nameless, even to me, but I live half my life when I'm writing, it seems. If I ever catch a glimpse of the sign on the border, the one that says Welcome to __________, I'll let you all know.

P.S. By the by, TOMORROW NIGHT is my Auburn, Alabama book launch reading and party for A Falling Star. The wonderful folks at the Draughon Center for the Arts and Humanities, and my great press, Carolina Wren Press, are making it possible. There will be Cuban food and music, rum and Cokes (Cuba libres!), and a brief book talk. Books will be available to purchase, too.

Come down to the pachanga, Alabama friends!


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

No Hay Mal Que Dure Cien Años, (Ni Cuerpo Que Lo Resista)

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No hay mal que dure cien años, (ni cuerpo que lo resista), is a Spanish adage that, roughly translated, says that there is no evil that lasts a hundred years, nor a body that can withstand it. That's the literal translation. Figuratively, it means, "This, too, shall pass," and it's invoked in times of crisis and in any number of salsa songs.

It's come to mind a number of times this week as I've watched events in Ferguson, Missouri, unfold. The gist of it: an unarmed, Black teenager, Michael Brown, was shot several times by a Ferguson police officer, who has not been held accountable as of this moment. Demonstrations, mostly peaceful, some violent, triggered an overwhelmingly militaristic police response. And so here we are.

I don't think I have anything useful to add to the growing and important conversation, except to say that I think what we're seeing in Ferguson is the result of more than a hundred years of evil in the form of racial oppression, and a body public that feels as if it can no longer withstand it.

Mike Brown is only the most recent name in a long list, including Trayvon Martin, including Arthur McDuffie, whose death in 1980 sparked the infamous Miami Riots. I remember crying at night, waiting for my mom to come home, and imagining that a rock thrown off an overpass had smashed her windshield. I saw my mother's death in my head a million times that week. I was five years old, and safe as houses compared to the kids in Liberty City where the protests were happening.

One of my favorite authors, Edwidge Danticat, posted this old picture of herself:

The names on her poster are long dead, but the photograph makes the point clear. What is happening in Ferguson is not new.

So, what to do? There are some logical things that can be done in police departments nationwide--

  • cameras on all police vehicles,  
  • outside reviews of any deaths that happen to people in custody, as is now the law in Wisconsin, 
  • police outreach efforts everywhere, but especially in places where communities feel justifiably fearful of police, 
  • identifying the officers that have a record of outreach and humanitarian work in the communities they defend and promote those men and women to leadership positions, 
  • discrimination training for all police on an annual basis,
  • and the demilitarization of police departments (seriously, leave the tanks to the National Guard).

Those are just my inexpert thoughts, really. There are people smarter than me who will have better solutions.

Long time Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts' thoughts on the matter are worth reading, though the headline is misleading.