Miami Memoirs: Revisiting Joan Didion's Miami

“Havana vanities come to dust in Miami. On the August night in 1933 when General Gerardo Machado, then president of Cuba, flew out of Havana into exile, he took with him five revolvers, seven bags of gold, and five friends, still in their pajamas.” -Miami by Joan Didion

Many outsiders have tried— and failed—to capture the essence of Miami. That’s because, beneath the glittery veneer, it’s not an easy place to understand. It’s a city teeming with different languages, nationalities, and ideologies; not to mention political beliefs. Politics in Miami? Que Dios te bendiga with that.

Although Joan Didion’s Miami was published in 1987, much of it still rings true. She took on a challenging project, focusing specifically on the Cuban exile community and the ways in which events such as the Bay of Pigs and the Mariel boatlift shaped the city in the twentieth century.

Didion was born in Sacramento, California and studied English at Berkeley. In 1963, she published her first novel, Run River, but it wasn’t until she began writing for the New York Review of Books that her writing took on a more political edge. In an interview with The Paris Review, she explained to Hilton Als how she became interested in Miami:
“Ever since the Kennedy assassination, I had wanted to do something that took place in that part of the world. I thought it was really interesting that so much of the news in America, especially if you read through the assassination hearings, was coming out of our political relations with the Caribbean and Central and South America. So when we got the little apartment in New York, I thought, Well that’s something useful I can do out of New York: I can fly to Miami.”
Didion had noticed that  names of Cuban and Latin American dissidents appeared in the news stories about the Kennedy assassination hearings in the late '80s; she began to report more and more in Miami. The city's growing pains worried Didion: she saw dangerous connections between the Cuban ex-pat community, the CIA, politicians in Washington, and guerrilla groups in Latin America forming.

With her political writing, Didion was anything but opaque. In the same interview with The Paris Review she said, “If I am sufficiently interested in a political situation to write a piece about it, I generally have a point of view, although I don’t usually recognize it. Something about a situation will bother me, so I will write a piece to find out what it is that bothers me.”

There were many things about Miami that made Didion uneasy: “Guerrilla discounts” for guns; bulletproof windows on homes; the irony of the CIA training and financing Cuban counterrevolutionaries, then labeling them as terrorists. How many Cubans in Miami built respectable careers in their new home, yet grappled with permanent exile, of being double-crossed by people in both countries? To be stateless—to feel homeless—can make one powerfully desperate. And Didion understood that. She probed the Cuban exile community, their ties to guerrilla groups, the often radical ideologies that were influencing both politics and society in Miami. Yet Didion, with her taste for complexity, was no cheerleader for radical exiles, in Miami she paints a community who contaminates as much as they influence. 

It’s jarring to see Didion's depiction of late '80s Miami — how much we  have forgotten, or perhaps never knew in the first place. While Didion doesn’t get everything right, she’s certainly written one of the most critical and comprehensive studies of the city at a volatile time. If you’re interested in making a little more sense of this place, or just want some fascinating history, Miami is more than worth checking out.

New Times will be running "Miami Memoirs," a series about the Magic City's iconic cultural moments, over the next months. Have suggestions? Email [email protected].
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Dana De Greff