Poet, UM creative writing professor, and former Miami New Times theater critic Mia Leonin grew up believing her father was dead, and after years of listening to her mother's disparate stories regarding his identity - -internist, ophthalmologist, Filipino, foreign islander -- she finally learned the truth shortly after her 16th birthday. Her father was a Cuban exile, a psychiatrist sent to Louisville to get his American medical certification, and he wasn't dead. He simply wanted nothing to do with Leonin.
In the hands of a lesser writer, Leonin's search-for-identity memoir could be irksome: a slight story about a white girl trying on Cuban culture like an awkwardly fitting Halloween costume. Instead, her journey to Miami, Bogotá, Havana, and back is a riveting and heartbreaking page-turner. Particularly striking is the scene in which Leonin and her father's wife Zoraida (most names in the book have been changed) simultaneously discover that the author's conception occurred during an affair. As if providing theatrical commentary, a telenovela buzzes in the background while the two women attempt to grapple with the revelation.
In 1999, 11 years after Leonin's first meeting with her father, she began making various trips to Havana via Bogotá. The sojourns described in Havana and Other Missing Fathers are marked by sensual exploits involving men, food, and dance: all attempts at finding her way out of what the author describes as the state of being "an exile of an exile." Happily, Leonin uses the Cuba sections to present a nuanced as well as fresh look at the Communist-controlled island. Leonin's habaneros watch homegrown art films, attend lectures, and visit underground house parties. They also deal with deprivation by illegally boarding tourists, riding heavy Chinese bicycles, and hiding meat from starving neighbors.
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The hand of the poet is evident throughout. Note Leonin's description of her experience at the house party: "The wall sweats, and I imagine I am inside a lung." A delirium caused by a stomach virus near the end of the author's stay is "a dream... of the very dress I am wearing... I dream of executions, and the dress stretches and expands like a fibrous membrane. It holds bullets, splintered shins, crushed anklebones, calcified corneas." With such lyrical passages, the author skillfully weaves a Cuba that is both heaven and hell to all who reside there.
I am also thoroughly convinced Leonin is a nascent character-driven novelist, owing to how expertly she weaves a complex portrait of her mother into the story. Norma is initially characterized as a cold and insensitive woman who'd rather play along with the TV contestants on Wheel of Fortune than listen to her daughter's problems, but by the end, we've learned much more about her own particular motives, culminating in a final emotional discovery significant enough to make me want to read Havana and Other Missing Fathers again. Before passing it onto my friends, of course.
-- Yaddyra Peralta
Havana and Other Missing Fathers by Mia Leonin. University of Arizona Press. $16.95. 176 pp.