First Draft

Her name is Ivonne Lamazares. You've probably never heard of her. Cuban immigrant, good student, dedicated teacher, devoted wife and mother. Oh, and something else. She just might be the world's next big thing in literary fiction.

As a writer of fiction, Lamazares has a very faint track record. She has published only two pieces, both short stories. The first ran in the obscure Blue Mesa Review, put out by the University of New Mexico, in 1993. The second ran in the summer 1996 issue of Michigan Quarterly Review and became the genesis of her novel. That story is included in an upcoming anthology of South Florida writers called Having a Wonderful Time.

Three years ago she was awarded a $5000 Florida Arts Council grant, and a few hard-core habitues of local highbrow haunts may have heard her read in her only two public outings, once in the Monday night Butterfly Lightning series at Tobacco Road, and once at a Miami-Dade Community College women's history celebration.

Still, there is already a buzz about Ivonne Lamazares. In August she was featured in a New York Times article about writers' conferences, which was accompanied by a photo of Lamazares chatting over drinks with Russell Banks, a best-selling author (Continental Drift) and professor at Princeton University who was so taken with her work that he offered to mentor her.

"What I saw was an intimacy, almost a physical intimacy with language," says Banks. "I think you can spot that in a writer before anything else. That's the part you can't teach. She has a voice."

Banks met Lamazares in 1994 during her first visit to the Sewanee Writers' Conference, a literary summer camp for wannabe novelists and poets held annually at Tennessee's University of the South. There in a leafy retreat on the Cumberland Plateau, hopefuls who have submitted samples of their work to win admission pay up to $1200 for ten days of classroom critiques, lectures, and socializing with a pride of literary lions.

Lamazares's submission that year was a short story with which she had struggled for months. Working on it gave her insomnia, she says, and it has since been abandoned. But when Banks read those few pages, he immediately recognized that Lamazares had a tale to tell, a tale way too big to be shoehorned into the short-story form. And he also saw she had a gift.

"Very rare," says Banks of Lamazares's talent. "I teach one semester a year at Princeton, and you almost never see it there -- maybe once every two or three years. And students, being younger, usually don't have stories to tell. Ivonne does; that was clear too."

As a talent scout, Banks has a pretty good resume. Another writer born on the island, Cristina Garcia, is a former student of his, and Banks left his marks in the margins of an early draft of her Dreaming in Cuban. In workshops he has also helped godfather breakout novels by Pinckney Benedict (Dogs of God), Rick Moody (The Ice Storm), Mona Simpson (Anywhere but Here) and Susan Minot (Stealing Beauty).

"I'd put her right in that group," says Banks. "When I saw them, all had beginning, tentative, exploratory works. But they all had the same unteachable gifts she has."

Also impressed by what she saw at Sewanee was Mary Morris, a novelist (House Arrest) and professor of fiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College. "I saw a voice that seemed to me absolutely clear and sure of itself in a way that transcended almost any student manuscript I've ever read," says Morris. "There was a clarity of language, a compassion for her characters that was so unusual. What has happened to Ivonne -- getting an agent, getting a manuscript sold -- is rare. She is perhaps a new voice in Latina American literature."

All of this attention has turned up the pressure on a woman who has yet to complete her first book, which she is writing in a language, English, that she didn't even begin to speak until she was fourteen and new to America. "Now," said the New York Times article, "unlike most of her fellow students, Ms. Lamazares's dream has come true."

Well, sort of.
True, Lamazares agrees, much of what has happened recently does seem like a dream. "I still can't explain this," she says. Returning home from Sewanee after that heady summer before last, she recalls, "I was still so nervous that I couldn't even concentrate on teaching. I had to write a synopsis of what else was going to happen in the novel. And we -- Steve helped me -- we did. But I was so anxious about it. This is just something I never expected. It's like being in a car that's out of control, going somewhere you never expected to go. It's disconcerting."

Gail Hochman, Lamazares's agent, says her client has been swept up "in a fairy tale, really. Books are not selling, publishers are cutting back on writers and advances, so in the context of a terrible market, she's having a nice, smooth ride.

"Of course," Hochman adds, "the book is not finished."

In its latest draft, Lamazares's novel begins like this: "One day Mama said life was about to start and ran off to the mountains as a volunteer guerrillera. No one knew exactly where she had gone till she came back pregnant on a burro."

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