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.”