Book Fair Bonanza

Miami’s got the literary goods

Miami, literary Shangri-La? A mecca for the bookish? It doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. But for more than 20 years, autumn has brought a kind of inverse solar eclipse, sending some of us scurrying from the beaches, out of the malls, off the interstate, and into the comforting, ancient arms of the written word, as read by some of its greatest practitioners.

True, compared to the hundreds of esteemed writers who take stages around Miami Dade College for Miami Book Fair International every year, mere handfuls are actually attached to Miami in any way; for every Edna Buchanan and Mirta Ojito you've got a Tom Wolfe, a Joan Didion, a Margaret Atwood, a Terry McMillan, and a Mike Wallace (to go back just a few years). This year the eminent firepower includes Nikki Giovanni, while the, um, big guns are the unavoidable Rosie O'Donnell, Caroline Kennedy, and lame-duck first daughter Jenna Bush.

But the real story of the 2007 fair is that, within the larger Rosie-Jenna galaxy, Miami has produced one vibrant solar system. So although the fair has some justifiably international pretensions, New Times believes this is Miami after all. So we tracked down some authors who, in various ways, have connections to this place, all of whom draw on personal experience. Oh, and they just happen to be some of our favorite writers too.

Edwidge Danticat's memoir, Brother I'm Dying, is a breathtaking account of love, loss, and Haiti. "What I really wanted to write was a rant," she tells New Times. "But I also wanted to write something that was artful."

Danticat, who lives in Little Haiti, came to the States at age 12, to be reunited with her parents, who had left her with her aunt and uncle in Haiti while they worked to support the family in New York. As she describes her childhood in the book, she thrived in school, earned a topnotch education, and became a critically acclaimed writer. The story could end there with a modern-day happy ending to a quintessential immigrant story. But life isn't that simple.

In 2004 Danticat became pregnant; her father became chronically ill and died of pulmonary disease. At the same time, her 81-year-old uncle dramatically escaped from Haiti amid violence and chaos — only to die in a Miami hospital after being unlawfully held by the Department of Homeland Security at the Krome Detention Center.

Danticat had never before considered writing a memoir, but after everything that happened, she wanted to honor her relatives by telling their story.

The result is a book that captures her admiration for the two men who raised her and a heartbreaking portrait of the hardscrabble life of Haitians, both in the United States and back home. "Entire Haitian families came to my readings," says Danticat, who also penned the Haiti-based fictional books Krik? Krak! and The Dew Breaker. "I think the book struck a chord with an entire generation of people."

Donald Antrim's discursive memoir, The Afterlife, is alternatively scathing, oblique, and deadpan. In writing about the life and death of his alcoholic mother, Antrim also crafted a tale that crackles with imagery of a bygone Florida, from the west coast, where the author was born, to Miami, where he lived during his high school years.

"To me, at the time [Miami] seemed like ... the future, like an endless, centerless city. There was no intact city at that point," Antrim says in an interview. "Everything seemed like it was two years old. Basically it seemed like millions of people in cars just going around."

Antrim lived in a "Bauhaus house" in Kendall and attended Glades Elementary, Cutler Ridge Junior High, and Palmetto Senior High. He writes in The Afterlife: "School in Miami was an erotic ordeal, because the girls came dressed for the beach. Sometimes when the bell rang, I was forced by my erection to stay at my desk for a minute or two before staggering off.... I carried books in front of my dick."

His interest in literature was forged in Florida through his father, one of the first English professors at the fledgling Florida International University, "when it was in trailers on runways at the old Tamiami Airport," he says.

Antrim's mother, Louanne, headed a fashion design program at Miami-Dade Community College throughout the Eighties. In the Nineties, while she was running a small boutique in a strip mall near Brickell Avenue, her condominium was "ripped apart," Antrim writes, "effectively dismantled" by Hurricane Andrew.

The Afterlife is "the story of my mother and me, my mother in me." She died of lung cancer in North Carolina in 2000, just a year after her own mother's death. "I couldn't imagine life without my mother," Antrim writes. "And it was true as well that only without her would I feel able to live."

Evelyn McDonnell, tattooed feminist and author of Mamarama: A Memoir of Sex, Kids, & Rock 'n' Roll, used to express her sentiments toward motherhood with a soft spot for dead baby jokes. Now the former Herald pop culture critic can't seem to decide on the first line of her book's preface: "The day I started writing this book was my son's first day at preschool. Or should I write, my son's first day at preschool was the day I started writing this book?"

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