When Miami Book Fair International launched its first street fair in the early 1980s, the city’s writing community was elbowing its way onto the national literary scene. Back then, Miami authors were known mainly for their mystery and crime novels, though their collective works were more complex than media coverage would have one believe.
Now, 32 years later, with the annual eight-day ode to the written word well under way, much of Miami’s talent — young, experimental and diverse — is on display, proof that the area’s literary landscape is evolving and expanding to reflect a region maturing into a global center of art and commerce. Both local authors as well as those who live elsewhere but write about Miami believe the city is, as M. Evelina Galang, director of the University of Miami’s Creative Writing Program, puts it, on “the cusp of something big.”
Miami, dubbed “Paradise Lost” by Time magazine in 1981, is now establishing itself as a mecca for writing and a source of inspiration for writers, a place that has nurtured the talents of Jennine Capó Crucet, Fabienne Josaphat, Chantel Acevedo, M.J. Fievre, Patricia Engel, Vanessa Garcia, Hector Duarte, Karen Russell, Ana Menendez, Alex Segura, Jaquira Diaz and Susanna Daniel — to name just a few of the young prose writers living in or influenced by this city. The burgeoning literary scene owes much to a happy confluence of events that occurred when many of these writers were children.
The 1980s was a turning point.
“The 1980s was a turning point,” said Lynne Barrett, a writer and editor who arrived here in 1987 to teach at Florida International University, two years after colleague Les Standiford began directing its creative writing program. “A lot of things came together to create what is now a literary scene where there is much more visibility of all genres.”
Established writers say three institutions were instrumental in creating today’s environment: the iconic indie bookstore Books & Books, the book fair, and the growing reputation of writing programs at UM and FIU. All trace their lineage to a time when Miami was better known for its cocaine cowboys, race riots and flood of refugees from Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua.
Mitchell Kaplan, founder of Books & Books, “gave oxygen to the community,” says Chantel Acevedo, whose latest book is the historical novel The Distant Marvels. “He helped make it happen, and then the book fair gave it all visibility.”
Acevedo had been away from Miami for 15 years, until she returned to teach at UM earlier this year. She was amazed — and pleased — by the changes that had occurred in that time period.
“The sense of possibility for Miami writers exists so much more than it used to,” she said. “And there’s even more a sense of community among the writers that I didn’t feel when I lived here [before] and was working on my MFA.”
Proof of that growth came recently when Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA/Voices), the only multi-genre writing workshop in the United States for writers of color, partnered with UM to bring its core program to the university’s Coral Gables campus.
Yet, even as Miami’s literary scene grows in numbers and complexity, its members wrestle with questions of identity. Who is a Miami writer? Do you have to write about the city to be part of the cadre, or is living here credential enough? Is there such a thing as a Miami book? What qualifies as a Miami voice?
Crucet, whose first novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, has garnered critical acclaim, doesn’t live here but considers herself a Miami writer. In fact, Miami — specifically Hialeah — is a central character in her fiction. But setting a story in Miami doesn’t necessarily qualify you as a Miami writer, she’s quick to point out.
“It’s more than setting,” she says. “It’s something about the voice, something about the syntax. There’s a particular sound on the page, like an energy to the sentence structure. I would never be able to purge it from my writing, even if I wanted to.”
Cuban-American Vanessa Garcia, a journalist and essayist whose first novel, White Light, was published earlier this year, is inclusive in her definition of what makes an author a Miami writer.
“It’s people who live and write here, but also I think it’s anyone who adopts this city in some way, whose voice has a certain sensibility,” she said.
Young adult author Christina Diaz Gonzalez also provides a broad definition: “A Miami writer is someone who understands our community whether they live here or not.”
In other words, it isn’t so much setting as an awareness, a susceptibility, that allows a writer to be included in this flourishing literary scene.
One of the best known Miami-based writers is the Haiti-born Edwidge Danticat, who admits that the role of geography in her work is a complicated one. Most of her books take place outside of Miami, though her most recent one, the young adult novel Untwine, is set locally — perhaps a sign that after a dozen years of living here, “I guess I’m sinking in. It’s natural for where you live to influence you.”
One thing is certain: the new crop of Miami writers is representative of the community at large. Many are immigrants or children of immigrants, and their stories reflect those experiences.
“There’s been an opening up,” FIU’s Barrett explains of the multi-layered narratives coming out of Miami. “One person telling a story one way prompts another one to tell a story in a whole other way. We’ve become a place where it’s possible to say anything. We have a certain tolerance that not everyone is going to be like us.”
We have the liberty of writing about the [immigrant] experience instead of surviving it.
Garcia believes her generation is free to tell the stories that others couldn’t or wouldn’t.
“We have the liberty of writing about the [immigrant] experience instead of surviving it,” she said.
While defining a Miami writer can be a complicated — and heated — debate, so is the attempt to characterize the quintessential Miami book, if there is such a thing. Setting is important, of course, but not a deal-breaker. Fabienne Josaphat’s forthcoming novel in English, Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow, takes place in Haiti, but she considers it a book heavily influenced by her adopted hometown.
“Miami is so close to Haiti in so many ways and we have such a vibrant Haitian community here that it’s almost like I’ve never left Haiti,” she says.
UM’s Galang redirects the debate by challenging the notion that one singular narrative could possibly tell the story of a kaleidoscopic city.
“I think it would be impossible to have a definitive Miami book because there are so many different Miamis,” she says. “Each story shows the different faces of the same city.”
If you go
What: Miami Book Fair panels featuring Miami authors.
Where: Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami.
When: Chantel Acevedo, M. Evelina Galang and Ana Menendez, 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Bldg. 7, Room 7106; Jennine Capó Crucet, 4 p.m. Saturday, Bldg. 8, Room 8202; Christina Diaz Gonzalez, 11:45 a.m. Friday, Wembly Worthsmith Storytorium in Children’s Alley; Hector Duarte, Fabienne Josephat and M.J. Fievre, 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Bldg. 8, Room 8303; Vanessa Garcia, 11 a.m. Sunday, Bldg. 8, Room 8203; Alex Segura, 4 p.m. Sunday, Bldg. 8, MAGIC screening room.
Cost: Free on Friday, panels free on Saturday-Sunday with fair admission of $8 ($5 for teens 13-18 and seniors over 62, free for children).