When I read memoir the writerly side of my brain often wonders how the author selected the moments he or she presents in their narrative. We do not live knowing how one event will be influenced by another or which moment will shape our future. We understand that we live these events daily, but we do not record them as significant until another comes along to force a connection. And it is as children that we are most unencumbered by thoughts of significance or purpose. We live because we are alive.
How do we sift through life and make sense of all the threads? Where do they attach and when do they fray? What makes them meaningful to us? What compels us to share them with others?
I have not ventured to write a memoir so I only have suspicions on which to build my wonderings. I suspect the answers are linked to an author’s ability to take a dramatic event in their life and infuse it with perspective rooted in ordinary details. A strange disease, abrupt death, sudden upheaval, or unique encounter is the catalyst that pulls the stories together.
Likewise, the unique perspective or event is what draws readers to the memoir, but our connection with the common elements are what build our empathy and capacity for understanding (childhood, imagination versus reality, friendship, family, slightly odd family, school, right and wrong, etc.).
Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana is a rare memoir. It mingles desperation and hope, it teems with courage, it has moments of being laugh-out-loud funny, and the writing is incisive but breathtaking.
Eire captures better than anyone what it is to be alive as a child. His life in Cuba before Castro’s revolution is a series of adventures involving car surfing, blowing up lizards, fire ants, getting bit by a chimp on the butt, a massive fruit-throwing battle among friends in his neighborhood, and dodging the glares of Maria Theresa, Eye Jesus, and Candlestick Lady. Exploring Havana through his eyes weaves family, friendships, and faith with an increasingly volatile political climate.
This integration of the “big F’s” with childhood memory seems to be risky venture. These combinations can give way to an unraveling of the big F’s when adult perspective attempts to impose understanding on the innocence and honesty of childhood. But Eire accomplishes a remarkable telling of his youth while challenging and honoring the components that shaped his trajectory.
In the end, Eire is one of 14,000 Cuban children airlifted to Florida by desperate parents who assume they will reunite with their children in a few months. He includes snippets of reflection from his time in the States, but this book celebrates his life in Cuba. He is Cuban.
Not all of the situations that Eire’s includes are significant alone, but when they are inserted in his overarching narrative as a way to demonstrate privilege, risk, fear, belief, pride, identity, or hypocrisy then they crystallize as important parts of his story. Through these we not only imagine what his life was and is, but we begin to consider what the stories from our lives reveal about who we have been, who we are, and who we will become.