Monthly Archives: November 2013

Waiting for Snow in Havana, Confessions of a Cuban Boy

9780743246415book by Carlos Eire

annotation by Miriam González-Poe

“Desire proves itself most eloquently and painfully. Desire is God, and God is desire,” writes Carlos Eire in his memoir about growing up at the onset and during the turbulent times of the Cuban Revolution of the 1960s. Waiting for Snow in Havana, Confessions of a Cuban Boy recounts Mr. Eire’s genteel and privileged beginnings as a child of Cuba’s old aristocracy and continues cataloguing the chaotic halt to a way of life that ended with Fidel Castro’s take over of Batista’s regime in 1959, and, the author’s subsequent and unwilling experience as a child of the Peter Pan Project. Mr. Eire writes with great candor and honesty about his family and the people that peppered his life during these formative years. He spares not one of his characters the proper reckoning, the good and bad they represent to him, yet he finds a way to do it with grace, incredible believability and a conversational style of writing that keeps the reader turning the pages to find out what happens next.

Mr. Eire’s descriptions are at once humorous with the innocence of boyhood, and sad with the recollection of boyhood and innocence lost. Through the use of seamlessly flowing flashbacks he constructs a cohesive whole of a manuscript. Descriptions are stark, visceral, and beautifully visual, sometimes bordering on poetic. Mr. Eire has a special gift for the art of metaphor and hyperbole. In chapter after chapter the reader delights to find that what begins as a seemingly innocuous story about a boyhood recollection is really a collective statement of something of much deeper societal meaning and conflict. For example, in chapter 16, Eire relates his young-child fear of becoming “black” were he to eat dark foods that began after Nilda his African Nanny tells him innocently that if he just eats one more bite he will grow up to be “just like her.” Nilda is trying to encourage little Carlos to eat so that he will grow and become an adult, but he gets scared instead, and the fear that he will lose the privileges of his “white” upbringing and turn African become a vessel for the exposition of racism and prejudice. Carlos refuses for months to eat anything dark. Of the day he faced his fear of “dark foods” he writes, “I closed my eyes and took a bite from the chocolate-covered ice-cream bar thinking that this might be my last moment on Earth as a white boy. I savored the ice-cream in my mouth”…. “I had trouble opening my eyes after that first bite. But when I finally opened them, I immediately looked at my hand. I was white. White, as I’d always been. Whew!”…. “They’d been right after all, those that told me that dark food couldn’t turn you into an African.” He concludes the chapter with a powerful metaphor on the prejudice that every individual suffers when coming to a new country as a disenfranchised immigrant: “What they didn’t know was that it would take only one brief plane ride to turn me from a white boy into a spic. And I’m reminded of it every time I have to fill out a form that lists “Hispanic” as a race distinct from “white” or “Caucasian.” It wasn’t any food that stripped me of my whiteness. No just one forty-minute ride over the turquoise sea. Well let me correct myself. Since I flew out of Cuba at sunset, the water wasn’t turquoise at all. It was starting to turn dark blue, and the farther north we flew the darker the water became. By the time we had reached the lights of Key West, the sea was black. Pitch black.”

With a tongue-in-cheekness that belies the seriousness of the subject matter of which he writes, Mr. Eire anoints his characters with a personality that is meant to describe Who-they-really-are in metaphor. He gives each of his characters a loving pseudonym and refers to them as such throughout the manuscript. His father is Louis the XVI, King of France; his mother is Marie Antoinette the tragic and beautiful queen; his Aunt Lucia is the Woman Without Desires. In this manner, Mr. Eire adds to the description of his characters within their quasi-tragic settings without needing to spend time completing it in writing. By comparing his characters to the well-known gods of history, Mr. Eire allows his readers to do the job of completing the characterization of his own characters for him. His use of strategic metaphor continues as the author paints an even grander picture using historical comparisons by pairing French Revolution to Cuban and the falls of the civilized lives within each. Mr. Eire inserts enough personal details  to make it interesting yet allows his audience to fill in gaps left to the imagination.

Mr. Eire’s use of first person narrative is conversational and easy to follow, as well. He intersperses dialogue and captures the voice of the 10-year-old boyhood on an idyllic Caribbean island with true believability. His recounting of childhood adventure and feelings is universal and easily relatable. He uses Spanish terms and phrases liberally, but he also takes the time to explain and translate each and every one, and their context, which makes the reading of his narrative that much more enjoyable, evocative, understandable, but most importantly, relatable.

As a writer and a memoirist, there are stories that inspire me in life, and there are stories that inspire me to want to write the stories of my life; then there are those that somehow have the ability to do both. I am always drawn in to stories that tell you their tales with  universality of theme despite very personal and specific of topics. This is one of those books. As a writer and a first generation American, I chose this book to read because it was my desire to learn more about my own history.  My parents were part of that lost generation of Cuban-Americans who immigrated to the United States during the “Castrolandia” catastrophe that rendered their beloved old Cuba a thing of the past. And this book does tell it like it is (or was) from a first-hand point of view. But the true beauty of Carlos Eire’s writing is not only in that it tells the personal story so well of an often glossed over time in our modern history, it is also rather, in the manner that he incorporates the events of his personal life into universal themes of the human experience, themes of which we can all relate. He is believable, thus he is trustworthy. As writers, we are all striving for authenticity and believability in our writing, no matter what our subjects are. As writers, it is our ultimate goal to have the audience trust us as storytellers. Mr. Eire’s easy skill in this arena makes his work Waiting for Snow in Havana not just an entertaining informative story but a primer for any writer striving to learn the art of  creative, authentic memoir writing. His prose flows so easily and effortlessly, that the reader has to remember to pay attention to the art of the writing, lest she forgets herself caught up in the adventure of the reading.

Mr. Eire’s incorporation of Spanish terms and their explanations into the English prose also satisfies. This is a technique that is for many bi-lingual authors not an easy thing to fit into an English manuscript effectively and have it understood implicitly. His manipulation of style, rich with metaphors and similes driving subtle points home in both languages, is so brilliant and visceral at times the reader can almost feel her mouth water with the succulence of it! Mr. Eire’s prose is an all in one: learning tool, enjoyable story, and history lesson.

In Waiting for Snow in Havana, Carlos Eire creates a satisfying story that is not just a memoir about exile, but about the universal themes of loss, change, adaptation, living life without closure, and the eternal constant of hope. He accomplishes the task of writing a story laced with the realism of tragedy, the mysticism of hope and the universal desire to understand the flow of life events when explanation for those events has become both incomprehensible and absurd. “Is it possible to have a life without desires?” the author writes in Chapter 18. “I refuse to believe it.” Indeed, it is obvious that this story is Mr. Eire’s desire, and his hope. It is a remembrance and tribute to a way of life now extinct, and the author accomplishes his desire, (as he so stated), “most eloquently and painfully,” and to the satisfaction of his audience.

The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick

9780374528584Book by Vivian Gornick

Annotation by Susan Tuttle

Vivian Gornick, in her work The Situation and the Story: the Art of the Personal Narrative, distills the personal narrative to its essence. The title repeats itself over and over, until it is like a mantra: situation, story, situation, story, situation, story.  This is the central question to which writers always return: Is this the situation or the story?

Gornick starts out with her reaction to a eulogy held for a colleague. She wonders why, although it contained essentially the same information as the ones before it, this particular eulogy moved her and hung in her memory. The eulogy was based on a memory. Starting there, Gornick uses a head-bone-connected-to-the-neck-bone logic and links the relationship between the memory, the story, and the impact on her:

The memory had acted as an organizing principle that determined the structure of her remarks. Structure had imposed order. Order made the sentences more shapely. Shapeliness increased the expressiveness of the language. Expressiveness deepened association. At last, a dramatic buildup occurred…. This buildup is called texture. It was the texture that had stirred me; caused me to feel… the presence of the one doing the remembering… I became aware at last of all that was not being said… This feeling resonated in me. It was the resonance that had lingered on…. (4-5)

She discovered the why it had moved her by dissembling what was said and how it was expressed. In the course of this examination, she also discovers that “Out of the raw material of a writer’s own undisguised being a narrator is fashioned whose existence on the page is integral to the tale being told. This narrator becomes a persona” (6).

And there she has it: the personal narrative becomes interesting and accessible the moment the author moves away from center stage and allows a persona to experience the story behind the situation. This moving away is key because “…without detachment there can be no story” (12). She goes on to clarify: “The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say” (13). And there can be no insight without detachment.

Don’t misunderstand: this is not a how-to book, but rather a private and analytical examination of what the personal narrative is. She looks closely at her own work and how she “… struggled to isolate the story from the situation…” (20). She actually practices what she preaches throughout, demonstrating through her persona – a writer – the effort, insight and courage it takes to explore the personal narrative as a literary form.

In memoir and personal essay writing, the inherent I-centeredness of the piece can pose a challenge if allowed to slip into a “dear diary” style. Gornick defines the nuance between writing as self and writing with a strong persona:  “I had a narrator on the page strong enough to do battle for me…. I had created a persona…. it wasn’t their confessing voices I was responding to, it was their truth-speaking personae” (23, 24).  The idea of having someone speak for the writer on the page is liberating – a simple idea that could free the author of the psychological constraints of writing about personal experiences in the first person. She goes on to explain: “I have created a persona who can find the story riding the tide that I, in my unmediated state, am otherwise going to drown in.” (25).

In an essay, we learn, while the writer uses persona to make a story of a situation without allowing emotions to take over, the persona can also be used to explore a subject other than the self.   Gornick writes, “Whatever the story has been… there’s been a situation to contain it and a truth speaker to interpret it.” (26)   Thus, memoir can, on the strength of its persona, reveal a truth that cannot be seen by the narrator, but is nonetheless revealed to the reader. While at times this makes for an unreliable narrator, if sustained, it can be extremely revealing:

A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom…. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened (91).

Yet, Gornick’s honesty and humility about her own writing experiences persuades us that she will not lie to us (14, 19, 24).

It is this honesty, confidence and inquisitiveness, both as a reader and a writer, that guides The Situation and the Story. Gornick’s advice to the writer is based on her own profound interest and delivered in a supportive and meaningful way. She sums it up best: “…I trained my eyes on the writing…. To read out of one’s own narrow but clarified need, I concluded, was to teach oneself better how to write….” (165).  Thus, by allowing us to come along on her journey, we are enlightened through Gornick’s commentary on and examples of the necessity of a strong persona for the self-as-narrator.