Cuban-American writer Vanessa Garcia is a literal tour de force. Everything she touches becomes something bigger than its original implication. I know because meeting her gave me the impetus I needed to sign with the same small press where she published her debut novel. Being around her is like sitting in the eye of a storm of projects, all of which are experiencing their own moments of movement: her immersive experience, Amparo, ran in Miami to great acclaim before moving onto Instagram; her posts about Cuban independence have been lighting up her social media feeds, and her latest project is a picture book (What the Bread Says: Baking with Love, History, and Papan), due out from Cardinal Rule Press in October. Even after signing with Cardinal Rule, Garcia wasn’t done; she convinced her publisher to change paper suppliers in order to avoid doing business with China, which has come under fire for human rights violations.
We asked Vanessa to recommend five must-read books by Caribbean authors.
Dancing in the Dark, Caryl Phillips
Garcia helped Phillips with the research on this biography of vaudevillian Bert Williams, but that’s not the reason she loves it. “[Williams was] a Black vaudevillian who had to wear Blackface, and the layers of [the book] are just intense,” she told me. Phillips’ own identity, she added, adds to the complexity of the work: “I think the first thing you see when you meet him is a British writer,” she said. “Then, two seconds later, after a conversation, you realize like, no, actually, hang on, he’s from Saint Kitts. He’s doing the same layering and layering himself. And then add to that the United States, because that’s where he is now. So he’s born in Saint Kitts, raised in Britain, lives in the U.S., with obviously deep roots still in Saint Kitts and England.” Garcia notes that this layering calls into question, for her, what constitutes a “real” Caribbean narrative and what’s seen as real. “[Writers are] writing the real narrative,” she says, “not what you think is the Latin or Cuban narrative. I’m still getting requests for ‘real’ stories, but the other day, I pitched something, and they were like, ‘no, we want the real story.’ OK, you want me to cross the border and then have a fiesta, eat a taco, and hit a piñata? Obviously, I’m being obnoxious – they don’t want the piñata anymore. They get that part. [But they say] they like the real; they actually don’t.”
Cocina Criolla, Nitza Villapol
Published news stories often call Villapol the Julia Child of Cuban cuisine – and it’s true, she did have her own cooking show, Cocina al Minuto, for decades – but Garcia refers to her as the “Anthony Bourdain of Cuba,” – she even continued her show even after Fidel Castro took power, even after the fall of the Soviet Union, adapting endlessly to suit the ingredients Cubans had to work with.
Cocina Criolla is Villapol’s first book. Her second, named after her show, she adapted time and again, in flow with Cuba’s changing status. “So many of these recipes are the recipes I grew up with,” said Garcia. “I open it, and it’s really Cuban food for me.” Garcia’s copy of the book is the one her mother used.
La Edad de Oro, José Martí
Martí, says Garcia, “was the patriot poet of Cuba. He essentially fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain through writing, through his pen. And he died in actual battle.” The volume of children’s stories is the book form of Marti’s periodical for children, La Edad de Oro, which Marti published in New York during his exile from Cuba. “In Cuban families, this book is passed down through generations,” Garcia told me. “This copy was gifted to my mother – the inscription is to her – and then she passed it to me.” The stories in these works are for children, but Garcia notes that the morals and values presented in the stories are rooted in the real world, as opposed to the fanciful fairy-tale offerings we might first consider when we think of stories for children. And Garcia notes, “there’s no holding back on language,” challenging the reader to pick up on meaning and nuance.
Brother, I’m Dying, Edwidge Danticat
Danticat’s memoir won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for Autobiography and was a finalist for the National Book Award. For Garcia, the book resonates on a craft level: “It’s not exactly a deadpan narrative, but she just tells you the story she’s telling. Some of those things just stated and said are so powerful that you don’t really need the commentary. It’s there in the space.” It also, she said, calls to mind the question of exile versus immigration. “I always think about…nobody wants to leave Cuba. Nobody wants to jump in a raft to risk their lives and possibly never come back and join however many souls are at the bottom of the sea, potentially. I mean, that’s not what people want. Does a country have a chance to be? Why don’t we see that? All those things. They strike home always when I’m reading Danticat.”
A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James
Garcia holds up her copy of her book and waves it at me. “A couple reasons I love this book. First of all, look at it. I mean, it’s ambitious. It’s huge.” The novel, a fictionalized version of the events surrounding singer Bob Marley’s death, won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Garcia also praised its chiaroscuro effect (Marley is referred to as “The Singer” throughout the book). “This chiseling around of a character until you see who he is; it’s like the definition of context, you know, it’s like, why do these figures exist? Because of a moment, because of everything that’s happening at the time.”