Book Review: How to Leave Hialeah by Jennine Capo Crucet

An Open Letter from Marisella Veiga to Jennine Capo Crucet

Dear Jennine,

Initially, because you are a Cuban American woman fiction writer, I was interested in reading your first short story collection, How to Leave Hialeah. Then, your having won the 2009 John Simmons Award for Short Fiction and were the first Latina to win it—these facts were also a draw. When I learned the University of Iowa Press published the collection, I called for a review copy.

I am a Cubana fiction writer too. You were born in Hialeah in 1981. I was born in Havana in 1957 and arrived in Miami at age 3. Much of my childhood was spent in Minnesota, so I know something about learning to be a Cuban by living in the North.

I returned to Miami in 1968. As your book reveals, contrast helps people define themselves. I suspected your work would move me, and I was right. It has not stopped resonating. Your short stories bear witness to the many dynamics present among our exiled people. The characters you depict are on target.

Your last story, from which the collection’s title is taken, has countless examples. “You need more vitamin D than these Viking people, you have no choice,” you write, a tiny illustration of a myriad of differences.

Your well-crafted and written short stories are insightful, a powerful witness to the many dynamics present among our exiled people and within themselves. Your observations about the characters you’ve depicted are on target. I wonder how you, at such a young age, found the courage to depict so many hard truths in your stories?

Let me direct the next few lines to potential readers:  Jennine’s last story, from which the collection’s title is taken, has countless examples. “You need more vitamin D than these Viking people, you have no choice,” she writes as a tiny example of the myriad of differences.

In “The Next Move,” a male first person narrator relates events two years before his wife Nilda, had died. He refused to go back to Cuba, but details her trip there to visit her sisters. His comments on the Tai Chi class he and Nilda took together are hilarious. The decision to enroll in the class was motivated by one of his wife’s sisters in Cuba. The narrator questions the wisdom of someone who hasn’t eaten a steak in years.

The narrator interacts with his daughter and grandchildren, “animal children” he calls them once. These children don’t speak Spanish as well as they should. They are clueless about what Cuba was or is. As assimilation continues, the inter-generational and cultural rifts grow. And so does lack of time and lack of appreciation for our elders’ stories.

The narrator reveals frustration with both, speaking for so many of our people:  “I stood up from the bed and said, ‘Can’t I just tell a goddamn story!’”

This collection of 11 short stories accomplishes so much. It is a fiction that tells the truth of the lives of your characters, many of whom sprouted in the working class city of Hialeah, a place often sneered at by fellow exiles.

For readers who want to know about what is happening in our South Florida exile community, this book is important. For a closer look at what happens to immigrants and refugees as they begin to assimilate into the U.S. mainstream, it is crucial.

Maybe the book will educate a few people, in particular those who insist on seeing Greater Miami as a glamorous place—(read sexy), all those beautiful Latinos. After their South Florida jaunt, they can return home to their newspapers and televisions where they learn about us from a distance and complain about our ways.

Your book made me conscious of so many conflicts and pains and attitudes and traits that I’d rather ignore. I can easily do this, since I live in St. Augustine, way north of our Mecca. On the other hand, because I needed the confirmation and affirmation, I read on. I have emerged shaken, both sorrowful and joyous. Thank you for writing these stories.

How to Leave Hialeah by Jennine Capo Crucet (University of Iowa Press, paperback, $16.00, 184 pages.)

Marisella Veiga was born in Havana, Cuba, and went into exile with her family in 1960.  She was raised both in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Miami, Florida.  She received a B.A. in English from Macalester College and a Master’s in Fine Arts in Poetry from Bowling Green State University.  Her writing has appeared in numerous magazines, newspapers and literary anthologies. Veiga has won The Pushcart Prize XX, Best of the Small Presses, Special Mention in Fiction, the Canute A. Brodhurst Prize for Best Short Story in The Caribbean Writer.  She was also given the Evelyn LaPierre Award for Journalism in Alexandria, Virginia.  She is a nationally syndicated columnist with Hispanic Link News Service.  Recently, Veiga released a spoken word recording with Eclipse Recording Studios that has collected a few. The CD is  Square Watermelons:  Ten Essays on Living with Two Cultures. 

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