Hit Picks of Miami Lit

The rules were simple. An array of Miami's leading literati were asked to compile a list of their favorite writing this city has inspired -- either from its homegrown talent or from intrigued out-of-towners. As the results came in, there was the expected acclaim for deserving trailblazers like Reinaldo Arenas and Charles Willeford; latter-day standard-bearers like John Dufresne, Carl Hiaasen, and Ana Menéndez; and even props for a few full-on yanquis like Russell Banks and Peter Matthiessen, whose long-distance visions of Florida seem to have struck a chord.

But a more disquieting trend emerged regarding some of Miami's newer talent. Forget what you were told in school: Crime does pay, or at least writing about it does. In contrast, literary fiction, as our hard-boiled brethren would sneer, is a sucker's bet. Short-story writer Laura Valeri and poet Richard Blanco (both MFA grads from Florida International University) have produced award-winning books that are suffused with Miamiana -- yet both had to leave South Florida to continue working in the world of arts and letters.

"You can get $20,000 for a literary novel or you can get a $200,000 advance for a crime novel," observes FIU creative writing professor Campbell McGrath. And while McGrath's own poetry landed him a MacArthur Foundation $280,000 "genius" grant, he doesn't recommend that other aspiring poets rely on such rewards. Novelist and fellow FIU academic John Dufresne agrees with McGrath. "We literary people need a day job," he says. As for Blanco and Valeri's departure for chillier climes: "You have to go where the jobs are."

Of course, a reverse snobbery can come into play as well, one that deems crime fiction as literature's backwoods cousin. Thanks to her gritty Lupe Solano detective series (don't be fooled by Lupe's Manolo Blahniks and Chanel purse -- she's packing a 9mm Beretta), South Beach's Carolina Garcia-Aguilera isn't exactly hurting for cash these days. She received a personal letter of thanks from her local Cadillac dealership after her daughter picked up her new Escalade; they'd never before sold a $52,000 SUV to a sixteen-year-old. And with her 2002 foray into romantic novels, One Hot Summer, in its fifth printing ("I had to figure out how to write scenes where two people were in bed together and both were still breathing"), Hollywood has been sending over some appreciative feelers as well.

Yet while Garcia-Aguilera has seen her work translated into Finnish, German, Japanese, Thai, and Czech ("I've got a fan club in Prague that sends me the minutes from their monthly meetings"), it wasn't until the release of her seventh book that a Spanish-language publisher was willing to take the plunge, despite the obvious selling points of a Cuban-American mystery franchise set in Miami.

"Some of the editors wouldn't even take a meeting," recalls Marla Norman, sales director of the Miami-based Grupo Planeta, the eventual Spanish imprint for Garcia-Aguilera's mysteries. "In Spain and Latin America the editors want books that are more depressing. They don't understand what pure entertainment is. They felt [Garcia-Aguilera's] books were beneath them."

For a combination of both those categories (call it depressing entertainment!) foreign editors could turn to Miami's nonfiction classics, where truth is still stranger than any fiction. Up For Grabs, John Rothchild's bitterly funny history of this area's founding hustlers, con men, and real estate speculators, is -- unfortunately -- as relevant to today's condo-clogged skyline as it was when first published in 1985. Joan Didion's 1987 Miami, with its murky tales of el exilio intrigue brushing up against the White House, also remains disturbingly familiar.

In fact, sixteen years on, Didion's rogues gallery still haunts the headlines: Ex-mayors Maurice Ferré and Xavier Suarez continue to circle city hall, anti-Castristas Guillermo Novo and Luis Posada are a bit grayer but once again on trial for allegedly toting around a suitcase full of plastic explosives in an assassination plot, and even Elliott Abrams -- convicted of deceiving Congress during the Iran-contra hearings -- has been presidentially pardoned and is back in the West Wing as the National Security Council senior director for Middle Eastern affairs. So, as Rothchild himself mused in his Up For Grabs closing, if this city is so corrupt, so gaudy, so shameless, so felonious, and so downright silly, what reason could any writer have to stay here? "It's got sunshine, close proximity to the airport, and Cuban coffee. And if you take the view that in 1000 years nobody will care about the problems, Miami is the greatest show on earth." In the meantime we have plenty to read.

Edwidge Danticat

Author of Krik? Krak! and Breath, Eyes, Memory

1. In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd by Ana Menéndez

This was my first exposure to Little Havana's Domino Park before I came to Miami. A beautiful collection of stories about Cuban Americans, and all of us really.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brett Sokol
Contact: Brett Sokol