Yale professor Carlos Eire's second memoir, "Learning To Die in Miami" (Simon & Schuster Free Press, $26), picks up where he left off in his 2003 National Book Award-winning "Waiting for Snow in Havana." He's now a Cuban refugee stateside, in a place right out of Dickens, but at a southern latitude. Shuttled through foster homes rife with colorful and dangerous characters, Eire struggles to adapt to his new culture as he wills his old self to "die." The bounty his parents envisioned for him when they shipped him off to Florida in the 1962 Operation Pedro Pan airlift remained elusive. But in leaving his family's embrace and Fidel Castro's iron fist at age 11, Eire grew up in a hurry.
The book crystallizes the immigrant experience with the spot-on details of one personal journey. Eire, now a 59-year-old father of three who lives in Guilford, teaches history and religious studies at the university. As his recollections in "Learning To Die" career between rapture and torment, you sense that from the moment he landed in the United States, Eire was looking at his youth in exile with a memoirist's eye.
Q: What sparked you to revisit your childhood again?
A: For years, people have been asking me to continue the story. Then I got the inspiration in the summer of 2009, traveling through Eastern Europe, where I felt like a very confused exile. Being in Eastern Europe and seeing they've been free from totalitarianism for 20 years now, while my native land has yet to be free, made me feel very strange. So somehow the inspiration came that summer when I got back. I started writing, and the next thing I knew, I was done.
Q: You moved to Connecticut in 1996, after a previous stint at Yale as a grad student in the 1970s. How would you characterize the immigrant experience here as an established adult?
A: I already had three children, and I think just the fact that I had children made me think about my own childhood and my experience as an immigrant. It's also part of the aging process. As you get middle-aged, you reflect more on who you are. I've never felt too much like an immigrant or exile in Connecticut. I felt much more so when I lived in Virginia. I lived there for 15 years, and I never felt at home. Here in Connecticut, people are friendlier. I know that goes against the stereotype of the New England yankee unfriendliness. But people here in this area are much friendlier than central Virginia.
Q: What makes your outsider's odyssey unique?
A: I came without my parents. That's rare, that children are separated from parents the way we were. And that a government would actually block the parents from leaving. For any Cuban who came in the early '60s, it was for political reasons, not economic reasons. Most of us who came would have never left to have a better life somewhere else. After '63, things got so bad that the political and the economical became the same. The place is set up so everyone has the bare minimum, just a step up from starvation.
Q: How can readers born here relate to your book?
A: At the top of the list, I'd like people to be able to recognize in the story someone who has to change. That in many ways everyone is an exile. Everyone is an immigrant. As you get older, you become a different person. You have to adjust. So even if you're in the same place, it's really a story about growth.
Q: You're not shy in the book about criticizing John F. Kennedy, a figure still revered by many. That might not win you many fans.
A: I know, especially in this area, people have a very positive image of JFK. In this book, however, I have come to terms with the fact that, thanks to him, Cuba remained a mess. He betrayed the Cuban people. And I dare you to find a Cuban who thinks fondly of JFK. And I expect people will be upset. But at this point, you know what? I don't care. I want to point out that he did some things that were really stupid. As a historian, I have to point that out all the time.
Q: You tread lightly on your first marriage. Did you face legal or personal considerations?
A: Both of them. I had a two-hour conversation with attorneys for Simon and Schuster. They're very careful about names you use and how much you say. But personally, the less I say, the better. And I say basically nothing about the person and don't even mention her name. I didn't take anything out after talking to the attorney. That's the way I wrote it.
Q: Will the book come as a revelation to family, friends and colleagues?
A: Probably [laughs]. About my colleagues, I doubt very much that many will pick it up and read it. But if they do, yeah, they'll be surprised. For one thing, no one in the U.S. was well informed about the airlift, about what the children were going through.
Q: What do you think of Americans who visit Cuba for vacation?
A: I think it's immoral. I think that of anyone who goes to a place like Cuba or North Korea to enjoy themselves. I think it's immoral to enjoy yourself at the expense of people who are pretty much working like slaves in a slave plantation.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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