A little boy was the catalyst for a story about another little boy.
Carlos Eire was 11 years old when he left Cuba, the country where he was born. As the government fell, he and his brother Tony escaped to the United States, and he began to assimilate in his new home. Eventually, he thought little of his homeland until the furor surrounding Elián Gonzalez erupted.
Elián was the 7-year-old boy embroiled in an international custody dispute after his mother drowned trying to escape Cuba with him. Elián made it to the United States, where relatives here tried to keep him, but he was eventually returned to his father in Cuba.
That’s when Eire wrote his book, Waiting for Snow in Havana, the selection for this year’s Wilton Reads program presented by Wilton Library. A visit by Eire on Wednesday, Nov. 8, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. will cap several weeks of Cuban-themed programs. Registration for his visit is strongly recommended by calling 203-762-6334 or visiting online at wiltonlibrary.org. Copies of his book will be available for signing and purchase.
Winner of the National Book Award, Waiting for Snow in Havana — Confessions of a Cuban Boy, was not meant to be the memoir it turned into.
“I didn’t plan to write this book. It just came to me,” Eire told The Bulletin. “I had no outline and did absolutely no rewriting. I sold the first draft.
“It was totally unplanned and came from a very, very deep place. Maybe two places, my mind and heart — reason and emotion. It tapped some of the deepest places — my brain and heart.”
Eire said he wrote the book as a novel and tried to pass it off as fiction, but his editor figured out there was nothing that was made up.
“It was my life,” he admitted. “If I had consciously been writing a memoir, it would have been very different.”
As it is, the book is not written in chronological order, instead jumping around and weaving together episodes from Eire’s life. As a professor of history and religious studies at Yale, Eire said, that is something he does in his work as a historian.
“I think the present moment can be best understood in that framing, what preceded and what followed.”
In the book he presents his parents Antonio and Maria as Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, characters who had past lives, the irony of which is not lost on young Carlos. If his father had lost his head in 18th Century France, why couldn’t he see where the Cuban Revolution was going?
“The fact I grew up in a household where the past was more important than the present gave me a different perspective on the present, whatever that present is,” he said. “My entire family was obsessed with the past, and it gave me a peculiar perspective of history.”
He became a religious person as a means of surviving the trauma of exile, and that pointed him to pursue an academic career in religious history. “That is what matters most to me,” he said.
When Eire left Cuba, he and Tony went to live with relatives in Chicago. Their mother eventually joined them and he lived there with her for eight years.
“I became thoroughly Americanized,” he said, living where there were few Cubans. That was true of his entire life. The only place in America where there is a substantial population of Cubans is Miami, a place he chooses not to live. Too hot, he said.
As he grew to adulthood and pursued his academic career, Eire thought little of Cuba, except for family members he never saw again.
“I never had a chance to have an adult conversation with my father and wonder what that would have been like,” he said of his parent who never left Cuba.
“Until I approached middle age, I never thought much about Cuba,” he said. “I didn’t follow the news, I was disconnected.” Then, he said, “I got to be middle-aged — and I guess it’s the stuff you repress — the next thing you know I’m caring a lot about this.”
When people would find out he was Cuban, Eire said, “99% of the time I got a little speech about how wonderful the Cuban Revolution was for people … and it just started to get to me.
“Then in 1999, along comes Elián Gonzalez and the news media does not understand what is going on. The Clinton administration does not understand. The Castro regime says the boy needs to be with his father, the regime that would not let me see my father — it was a totally hypocritical thing on the part of the Castro regime. I blew my top, so to speak, and that’s why I wrote the book.”
Going forward to 2016 when President Barack Obama visited Cuba, Eire said, he was very upset by the warming of relations between the two countries.
“I was extremely angry with a capital A. There is a total misunderstanding with what is going on down there. I call it a normalization circus. As soon as it opened, repression was greater,” he said.
Opening Cuba to tourism, he said, will only help the Castro regime because it owns all the hotels. “So all that money goes into the regime’s pockets. … I’m not too hopeful about the future for Cuba.”
Eire said he is “delirious” with the way his life has turned out and is thrilled his book was chosen for Wilton Reads. The book was published in 2003, he said, and “for something from that long ago to still be getting attention as a one-book, one-town thing, I don’t think any author could think of anything more wonderful.”
He did not write the book so people would know about his life — in fact, once he knew it would be published as a memoir, he tried unsuccessfully to remove a few items. Rather, he wrote it to expose what was happening in Cuba.
“I get constant thank-yous from Cubans in exile for telling their story,” he said.
Eire said when he visits Wilton he will talk about why and how he wrote the book and about the connection that exists between memory and the past.
“There really is no present,” he said. “If you say ‘now,’ by the time you get to the w there is no now. All we are is our past, yet all of us are exiles from our past, you can’t go back. How do memories relate to who we are, what connection is there between memory and history and how history gets written?”
“I think you don’t have to live through something like the Cuban Revolution … to puzzle over the meaning of life and the meaning of suffering, because everyone has to figure out what life is and what personally your life has been and how you assess that. That’s the bigger picture.”