Lissette Mendez, Miami Dade College, Center for Literature and Theatre Director
Ever since Lissette Mendez spent her childhood Saturdays devouring the Nancy Drew series at the Miami Beach Public Library, the director of programs for the Center for Literature and Theatre at Miami Dade College, which produces the Miami Book Fair International, has been hooked on the written word. “I can remember the ominous feeling of the sound of the pirate’s peg leg in Treasure Island and entering the book’s world,” said Mendez, who wishes all kids could experience that same wonderment. “I wait every year for our book fair like other people wait for Christmas."
Despite Miami’s worldwide reputation as a party city, she insists its literary scene is not only alive and well, but thriving too. Mendez points to two strong, local MFA programs—one at the University of Miami, the other at Florida International University—and their graduates (including her) who often stick around. And to Miami Book Fair International, the country’s oldest and largest book fair, which drew 200,000 attendees and 517 authors for its 30th anniversary last year. And to the grassroots newcomers, from Bookleggers, the successful mobile library that launched last year, to the O, Miami Poetry Festival, which aims to expose Miami-Dade’s 2.5 million residents to poetry with the help of airplanes, 750 public buses—and a Ferrari. (Hey, it’s still Miami!)
This summer, teens can attend creative writing workshops at MDC’s Wolfson Campus, while grown-ups can check out Nicholas Garnett, a local author who’s penning a racy memoir and hosting a series of autobiography writing workshops. Called “Confessions,” the sessions promise to encourage the spilling of deep secrets, enabled by copious cocktails. “We’re holding the workshops in a bar for non-classroom types and for groups of friends looking for something different to do,” said Mendez.
But if you just want to do some good old-fashioned reading for yourself, that’s fine too. Mendez knows the feeling. Thanks to an intense schedule this year—she just wrapped up “The Big Read,” a National Endowment for the Arts-backed initiative to inspire people to read for the sheer pleasure of it, and is already working on “The Swamp,” a pop-up reading lounge debuting at this year’s book fair to highlight Florida authors—Mendez has a stack of summer books waiting for her. “We have the greatest spot in the world to dive into a good book,” Mendez said. “The beach!”
Bombarded at the bookstore? Here is literary insider Lissette Mendez’s list of great reads by local authors.
Miami Blues by Charles Willeford: Former Miami resident and MDC teacher Charles Willeford is considered a godfather of Miami noir. His crime novel Miami Blues, which was adapted into a film starring Alec Baldwin, captures the city during its seedy 80s, without cliché, gonzo-style prose.
Havana and Other Missing Fathers by Mia Leonin: Cultural critic and poet Mia Leonin’s Havana and Other Missing Fathers reveals a young woman’s quest to know her absent father while discovering herself in the process. Miami transplants of all backgrounds will appreciate its exquisite imagery and inventive metaphors.
Florida Poems by Campbell McGrath: Anyone who has a love/hate relationship with Florida, and Miami in particular, can relate to Campbell McGrath’s Florida Poems. Touching on every facet from nature to politics, he earns his unofficial title as bard of the Sunshine State.