Carlos Eire: A Writer’s ‘Insanity’

The backstory of a National Book Award reveals the mindset of the writer, and such a deep sense of purpose that “insanity” became a key to success.

When Carlos Eire spent a day recently with students at Fairfield U’s MFA Creative Writing program, he traced his transformation from writer of academic works (he teaches European history at Yale) into a memoirist whose books, Waiting for Snow in Havana, and Learning to Die in Miami, have attracted large audiences.

The source of the change: He had tried, in 2000, to offer a sense of perspective to the media when the Elian Gonzalez case brought Eire’s native Cuba back into the daily news. Elian, 6 years old at the time, had been one of 14 passengers on a boat from Cuba to Florida. Eleven of the escapees drowned, including his mother. The boy was rescued and brought to live with relatives in Miami while his father, still in Cuba, insisted he return home. The Cuban government, arguing the importance of keeping family together, joined in the custody battle.

Meanwhile, Eire fumed. The media, he felt, was being played, lacking perspective on Castro’s real stance toward families. Eire knew firsthand — at 11, having to say goodbye to his parents and to fly to Miami, toward an adolescence that would be spent in foster homes. His story stood for those of thousands of other families separated, many permanently (Eire never saw his father again), by inhumane restrictions.

So Eire wrote letters to the The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other prestigious publications making the point that Castro’s stance was fraudulent. When nobody printed his letters, he became angry. And, in his view, “insane.” For 90 straight days he sat down to write his own story. It was fueled by a sense of a writer’s duty: to illuminate, to persuade, to make a case for justice.

He sold what would eventually be titled Waiting for Snow in Havana as a novel. But when the publisher asked how much of it was true, he responded, “All of it.” The only things he had changed were names, including his own. Hearing this,  Simon & Schuster informed Eire that it had to be released as a memoir, not a novel, and the correct names would have to be restored. Eire objected — he had written the story without fear of causing any specific insult or harm. But then good writing requires truth, without regard to a sense of consequence.

During his talk to Fairfield writing students, Eire also pointed to the need for good luck. Waiting for Snow in Havana was originally scheduled to be published in 2002. But the aftermath of 9/11 delayed such books. And when it finally emerged in 2003, a friend carried it directly to a woman who that year was a member of the committee that selected the National Book Award winners. “It was like 12 Angry Men,” Eire recalled. “She wouldn’t let the people out of the room until they agreed that my book should win.”

Eire’s great sense of purpose is reflected in the Preambulo. In part:

“Memory is the most potent truth. Show me history untouched by memories and you show me lies. Show me lies not based on memories and you show me the worst lies of all.”

 

 

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9 Responses to Carlos Eire: A Writer’s ‘Insanity’

  1. Jonathan says:

    Lary, I think this is a compelling glimpse into Carlos Eire’s disposition. I am curious about the last quote. What does he mean by “truth?” Is truth objective reality? Does that exist? Memory, to me, is what we take away from an experience and the only “truth” it has is an internal one.

    • larybloom says:

      Jonathan — the question you raise is a good one. “Truth,” of course, is elusive. But what Carlos was saying is there is no chance at truth without memory and testimony. He understands that his testimony is flawed. I didn’t include his commentary on that in the piece. He says in the book that no one came to the Havana airport to see him off on that awful day when he had to leave his family behind. But when he went to a professional conference in Europe a few years ago, he met a colleague there who mentioned that he, indeed, had come to say goodbye, and that this led to a chain of events that made him an enemy of the state, and a prisoner. Carlos has no memory of his friend coming.

  2. Catherine Barna says:

    Sorry Jonathan. You missed it. Carlos’ truth is closer to reality than the Cuban government’s, yet people refuse to listen to it. The Cuban government seems to have no memory of the children (14,000) it sent without families, to the U.S.

  3. Bessy Reyna says:

    The Cuban government DID NOT send the children. It was the parents and the Catholic church AFRAID of communism the ones responsible for Peter Pan (Pedro Pan) airlift to USA. I admire Carlos for his courage and his writing but let’s look at how this program happened and not dump the blame on the Government. Read about that program to find out who did what to whom

  4. Erin says:

    I really wish I could have stayed on island to listen to his presentation. Great post, Lary.

  5. Mary-Ann Tirone Smith says:

    Carlos Eire’s father chose not to see his son again. Perhaps this extraordinary writer’s fury is misplaced.

  6. Now a professor of history and religious studies at Yale, Eire tells Terry Gross how a religious book his parents gave him just before he left Cuba made a lasting impression on him. The book, Imitation of Christ, was written by a 15th-century monk and is about accepting suffering and letting go of the idea that one has control over his or her life.

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