Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Miami is a kind of calvary for Cuban and Cuban diasporic writers. We love it, we hate it, we feel its weight, and we utterly fear it. I woke up last Tuesday at my mom’s house in Kendall to a disconcerting call from one of the managers at Books & Books. “You know, we really like it when somebody introduces local authors,” she said. “Not one of us but, say, a person from the community, a personality.”

I was pre-caffeine but I thought maybe there was a misunderstanding. “But I’m not local,” I said, thinking, first and foremost, that it was going to be tricky to find someone so last minute.

“You’re Cuban!” said the Books & Books person, “Of course you’re local.”

One advantage to the Facebook events program – where I’d posted a notice about the reading -- is that you have both a quick read on who’s coming or not, and a quick way to get a hold of them.

And that’s how I snagged Ricardo Brown to do it. He had made the mistake of commenting on the page, saying he “wouldn’t miss it for the world.” So I sent him a brief note and, somewhat to my surprise, he not only agreed but also asked me to be on his radio show.

Who the heck is Ricardo? Only the best journalist in South Florida. Currently, he hosts El Factor Brown, a nightly news commentary show on WGEN-TV, Channel 8, in Miami.

Ricardo used to work as a foreign correspondent for the Spanish International Network, Univision, Telemundo and CBS Telenoticias. He was also news director for the HBC national newscast on Telemundo and CBS Telenoticias. He has covered major news events in more than 50 countries and has four Emmys on his mantle.

I mean, in Miami you don’t get bigger than Ricardo.

And, er, he’s my cousin.

Well, sort of. He used to be married to my dad’s cousin. But we always liked him so much – and I was so in awe of him – that we just claimed him right out.

And I call him Richard. Always have. Couldn’t begin to explain why, just do.

He was, of course, just delightful on the radio – throwing me total lobs, being so warm and sweet I just wanted to reach across the airwaves and squeeze him. We talked about the genesis of Ruins and I said that it had, in part, been inspired by my neighbors in Cuba, on Tejadillo Street in Old Havana. I added that less than a month ago, one of those neighbors, Jorgito, had made it to the U.S. by crossing the Mexican border. He’d said he was coming that night, and I wanted to dedicate the reading to him.

That evening, my mom and I got to the Books & Books early, a kind of miracle considering Miami traffic and construction (and both of our penchants for running late). “Oh,” said a staffer, “you know nothing starts on time at the beach, right?” There were maybe five people there, of which four were probably related to me.

The first time I’d read at B&B, in Coral Gables, at the old store, was also my debut as a published author in Miami and when I got there, it was pretty much the same scenario: a handful of folks, most of them familiar. I got so sad and felt so miserable I had to leave the store and go for a walk just to regain my composure. When I got back, I was stunned to find a line out the door.

That experience should have kept the tremors at bay but, truth is, the only time I’d ever been scheduled to appear at the Miami Beach store before had been pretty dramatic: it was for Days of Awe, slated for September 12, 2001. Needless to say, we cancelled. As I looked around this time, I worried again … it doesn’t matter how many readings I survive, how many books I publish, it’s still scary – and especially in Miami. Why? Because I’m Cuban and thus I’m local.

By the way, the new B&B space is lovely – it’s just off the mall, a little twisty to find the bookstore itself but not at all difficult. Upfront, B&B has set up a café, not as big as the one in Coral Gables but the same idea. And, of course, the entire staff there is just terrific: knowledgeable, friendly, tireless.

Richard showed up at B&B shortly after my mom and me. Totally casual, with one of his sons in tow (a tall, Irish looking young man – reddish blond hair and moustache – with a very Cuban swagger). I would have much to thank Richard for the next day, since two other local radio programs – tipped off by my appearance on his -- would call for interviews. But for now I was just glad to see him.

It seemed that within minutes of his arrival, the place got packed. The B&B staff set out more chairs and still there were folks standing on either side of the room and along the back. Among those in attendance were Moisés Asís, a wonderful Cuban Jewish writer I worked with on Havana Noir (and who I hope to include in an anthology of Latin American Jewish writers I’m editing with Lawrence Schimel), the spectacular Jordan Levin from The Miami Herald, and Adrian Castro, one of my favorite poets. There were so many relatives of mine there, I stopped counting. The one person nowhere in sight was Jorgito, and my heart sank a little.

Richard’s intro, though, brought it right back up. He was kind about the book but, for me, the most important part was when he talked about my Abuela Lala and my dad, and what original storytellers they were. It was personal, not so much literary, but that was precisely what made it so right, especially there, with so much family present.

Early in any book tour, the reading text is still being adjusted, but as I began I realized I was enunciating quite clearly, going slowly and deliberately at the text in a way I never do. And then I saw my Tía Yolanda was directly in my line of vision, and, to be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a word of English come out of her mouth. I’m not saying she doesn’t speak it – for all I know, she may be tutoring Judy Dench – but I have never had a conversation with her in anything but Spanish. And the absurdity of her being there – strictly to support me – hit me so hard, I almost lost my place.

I was just about at the end of my text, finally relaxing into it a bit, when I heard rustling and saw a flash of movement in my peripheral vision. I glanced over and saw Jorgito, his wife Leticia and their daughter, all breathless. He grinned as big as the whole world.

When I finished, I took questions, as I often like to do, and these veered all over the place, from curiosity about how to travel legally to Cuba to the real identities of the characters in “Ruins” (fiction, folks, fiction). There was a lot of laughter and a very warmly casual atmosphere, which permitted me to back up and do what I had promised: dedicate the reading, albeit after the fact, to Jorgito, who blushed and waved, holding his daughter against him like a human shield.

The next day, I hung out with Richard and one of his producers, Gloria Diliz, in the a.m. and met Alex El Mago, who performed card tricks at the breakfast table. Then Jorgito and Leticia and I grabbed lunch, which turned out to be their intro to sushi – he was a good sport about it but we ended up adding some beef to the plates anyway!


Later I sat in with Ariel Gonzáles at WLRN, the local NPR affiliate. I always enjoy these chats with Ariel because he is supremely well-prepared. He has a calm, unpretentious manner. Even though we talked for more than a half hour, it felt like five minutes – it just turned into a conversation, which is really the best kind of interview.

I’d just gotten into my car and was headed out to hang with friends when I got an email from an old Chicago bud, Tomás Martínez, who’s now in management at Radio Caracol, one of Miami’s pan-Latino stations. He’d heard me on Richard’s show; could I come in and meet with Enrique Cordoba? Sure but Enrique Cordoba? Enrique’s a totally unassuming man, completely belying his status as a giant of Latino radio. When he interviews writers, it usually means Mario Vargas Llosa. So I was more than a bit nervous. We taped close to 40 minutes – and talked hardcore lit – but if you didn’t know that Tomás had just thrown this at him, you wouldn’t have had a clue Enrique hadn’t read the book. I don’t think it gets any smoother than that!

The last interview was Monday morning, which Gloria Diliz arranged, and it was a minor miracle we pulled it off. By then I was already long gone from Miami, nestled in Oakland with M. The time difference meant a 4:45 a.m. wake up call for a 5 a.m. interview – three hours earlier than sunny and beautiful Miami.

Can’t wait to go back.




  1. I love this post!!!! And the blog - a lovely stand in for actual conversation! Mil besos!!!!


  2. achy this made me feel like i didn't miss your reading at all! best to you, emma