Cuban-Americans grapple with the beauty, boundaries and nuances of their cultural heritage in this irregular, multifaceted new collection from Rodríguez Milanés (Literature and Writing/Univ. of Central Florida; Marielitos, Balseros and Other Exiles, 2009, etc.).
These characters' lives all intersect with Cuba—whether they have immigrated to it, been exiled from it, never known it, or lived and died within its shores. And, given current events, there may be no better time in recent memory for this chorus of voices to resound. Here, tradition collides with modern ideals on and off the island, and all of them implore all of the others to listen to what they have to say. In the opening story, “Niñas de Casa,” girls are undone by the men around them, and one young woman develops a ferocious resolution to do right by their memories. (The theme of men and women being haunted by machismo’s innocuous and terrifying iterations appears throughout.) An aging mother laments her grown children’s choices and longs to give homes—and second chances—to kids who have been stranded at the U.S.–Mexico border (“Poor and Unhappy”). A gay man tries to explain to his sister that his niece’s boyfriend might be gay as well (“Who Knows Best”). A teenager leaves Florida to visit her summer fling in the frozen New Jersey winter (“Big Difference”). A tough-talking girl invites her Haitian boyfriend to Thanksgiving dinner with her family, with heartbreaking results (“The Law of Progress”). The characters are in turn trapped beneath the details of their identities—Cuban, American, male, female, straight, queer, old-fashioned, forward-thinking, religious or not—and uplifted by them. The stories that don't work fall flat and seem uncertain of their own purpose. The stories that do work, however, are high-wire balancing acts, a blend of sorrow, wit and loveliness, and the kind of real that catches in a reader’s throat.
Uneven at times, but when it sparks, it catches fire.