Love’s Labor: The Story of a Book, Part I

Ten years ago, I handed an essay to my creative writing professor. He read it, ran off to the department chair and lobbied for me to be accepted into the Master of Fine Arts program at FIU. The essay grew into a master’s thesis, and now, at last, it’s a book.


Leaving Little Havana: A Memoir of Miami’s Cuban Ghetto is a 90,000 word epic with the most beautiful book cover ever designed by Kristi Peters and illustrated by the Orlando artist Victor Bokas.

This is what author Virgil Suarez had to say about it:

Every so often along comes a book that seizes you by the collar and arrests you on the spot. From page 1, LEAVING LITTLE HAVANA is a brilliant, voice-driven book that will make your heart skip a few beats. My experience reading this book was similar to the first time I read THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET by Sandra Cisneros when you instantly know you are reading a classic, a story so achingly beautiful and unforgettable you relish every last word as if it were the buzzing of a hummingbird at your lips feeding you honey. This book is about family, about what happens to family in exile, about how people come into a great world of struggle and manage to get by and survive. The author has a great gift for capturing that world-known enclave of Miami we love and call Little Havana. This might be the book that puts in the literary map for good and forever. — Virgil Suárez, author of LATIN JAZZ, THE CUTTER, and 90 MILES: SELECTED AND NEW POEMS.


Leaving Little Havana will be available at a pre-release sale at the Miami International Book Fair from 10 am to 6 pm, Friday, November 22, (free entry) and on Saturday, November 23 and Sunday, November 24 ($8 at the door). Put this on your calendar! But there’s more: the official book launch and reading will be at 7 pm Saturday, December 7 at Books and Books in Coral Gables. Put this on your calendar as well! BYOB???


Now that I see and touch my book, a dream deferred for so many years, I feel as if I’m hurled like a storm of fireworks into an impassive sky, emitting sparks that shake up its aloof countenance, lighting up both illusion and reality. I now know what F. Scott Fitzgerald meant when he said: “life was radiant and time a phantom and their strength eternal.” I wish I could fly into the Jazz Age, dance the Charleston and dive into a pool of champagne.

This is the man who started it all.


Last spring, Dan Wakefield, my creative writing professor, mentor, novelist, memoirist, and television script writer, connected me with a publisher who he thought might like my book. He was right. Matt Peters, publisher of Beating Windward Press, related to the story and offered me a contract.


Then he plowed into the editing process, pushing and pulling my narrative into publishable shape, making it the very best it could be. Most writers resent this process. I don’t. What could be better than joining forces with another creative professional who is just as invested as you are into getting the book into the hands of readers??? So lucky that Matt and I share a vision! Meet him at the Book Fair.

Writing is not the lonely pursuit most people think it is; a collaborative enterprise, writing draws in a variety of people – with a stake in the book’s success – who pour their creative talents into bringing a book to market. More often than not, their input distills the book’s soul.

This is my colleague, MIU professor Dave Bricker.


He writes in his blog: “Good writing is characterized by the same conscious application of order, balance, tension, tone, spirit, relevance, and clarity as good design.” Editing requires the same applications.

During the first round of editing, I transformed every “telling” section into a “showing” section: I constructed scenes, which make a narrative spring alive. I found all the passive constructions and made them active; I eliminated the generic verbs “were,” “was” and “is” and substituted action verbs in their place.

In the second round, Matt shoved chapters into place, creating movement throughout the entire book, providing harmony between its parts. He posed questions that had never occurred to me, so I did more research, adding historical context and facts from my journals to reconstruct important new scenes.

The third round – line editing – offered another chance to polish each word and pushed me to dig into the secret, dark vault that both stores and represses memories, holding them hostage until a trigger releases the ghosts. I faced what I feared most and constructed scenes for those scary sections. I concluded that editing has no end.

The novelist Henry James, author of The Portrait of a Lady and The Bostonians, would agree. He revised his work until the end of his life, publishing several editions of each book with different plot twists, new scenes and details that he added through the years.


Writers struggle with eking out precious minutes of each day to devote to their art and craft. Between editing sessions, I had to teach classes, help out with family emergencies, nurse the flu, buy groceries, and bathe the dog, among other things. Fortunately, at this point in my life, with a college instructor’s semi-flexible schedule and my children grown, I have the luxury of editing three and four days straight, twelve to sixteen hours a day, varnishing the raw product to my heart’s content.


I wrestled with a slow process; when I got up to walk around every so often, I found that each time I did, the best ideas flew into my head so I had to run back to the computer and add a scene or a section. I discovered that editing did not stop as I went about life’s daily tasks. It forced me to step into another plane of existence I never wanted to release. Happiness, as writer Anais Nin says, is “the positive assertion of the will through the consciousness of creation.” Who would ever want to leave that space?


Bedtime was agony. During the pre-dawn hours, most of my “brilliant” ideas demanded attention, ruthlessly compelling me to keep on working even if I had a morning class. Finally, wild-eyed and desperate for sleep, I emailed the final draft to Matt.

Thinking I could now relax, I found out that the work of publishing simply intensifies, as you will see in Part II of this post: after the final editing, promoting and selling the book take center stage and demand a creativity of their own.

I hope you will buy my masterpiece! Leaving Little Havana is available in paperback or e-book in December at,, and your favorite bookseller.

See you at the Book Fair and/or the reading at Books and Books.

Writing transforms every breath and step I take on this earth. Nothing to do but offer thanks.


Prom Night! Do You Remember Yours?


Few of us have punched the dean in the face on our prom night.  In my new story,  the protagonist — a gentle, sensitive girl — does just that.

Read it at the Kindle Store, or download the app to your computer or cell phone:

“Prom” was inspired by many surreal events that occurred at a Catholic high school where I taught once upon a time.  Idealistic and young, with a brand-new master’s degree in hand, I joyfully signed a contract for an opportunity to introduce the masters of British Literature to seniors.  My schedule included a plum assignment: AP English and Composition. That meant teaching the brightest students.

It was a rude awakening the first week when I stood in front of the class and stared into blank faces for five periods a day.

“Nobody wants to read any more,” the department chair explained.

Still enthusiastic, I thought video and audio would turn these complaining seniors away from lethargy and into lit connoisseurs.  I brought in the film Brave Heart to illustrate the medieval period. Then I played tapes of Gulliver’s Travels while they read the text at their desks.  Even with the help of technology, I could barely hold anyone’s attention without threatening demerits.  Disgusted with the state of secondary education – my colleagues reported the same inattention, not only in English but in every subject – I marveled how these students managed to get into college.

Then I remembered my own chaotic high school days. Maybe things haven’t changed much, I conceded.

For the most part, I taught students who believed they were special, beyond adhering to academic – and behavior — standards.

As one student told me, “We are all wealthy, Ms. Fernandez.”

They were accustomed to getting their way, including grades they didn’t deserve.  When I awarded a student a C for mediocre work, the department chair questioned why. She had consistently handed him As for the last two years.  When the daughter of the dean’s assistant earned a D, even more acrimony was heaped upon me by a faculty lounge clique who spent their lunch hours trading gossip about students and teachers. They particularly loved to focus on student pranks.

The school boasted an impressive list while I was there, one with a horrifying consequence:

  • Four boys wearing masks over their heads and carrying video tape recorders tucked under their arms smashed open the door to my portable, and in gang vendetta style, sprayed the room recording shocked and terrified faces as if they were using semiautomatic weapons.
  • Five students wrote, edited, published and distributed an underground newsletter demeaning the principal and degrading the school with language beyond the scope of the dictionary.
  • Two boys dragged my desk out of the portable and into the yard in my absence.
  • At least twenty students spent an evening scrawling obscenities on the walls behind the gym.
  • Tragically, at a football game, a group of cheering students piled on top of one of its classmates, breaking his spine and leaving him in a wheelchair for life.

As with many teens, they cannot see the consequences of their actions.

So it was with the students who set out to fire me.  After months of haggling over grades, disgruntled members of my AP class — and their parents —  demanded a conference with the principal to discuss my teaching style.  At the meeting, heart jumping,  I listened to my accusers: too much work and too complex assignments. Outside, another group of students came to my rescue. They asked the secretary to slip a letter to the principal.

The principal read:  “Dear Sister, The students who are complaining have been bragging they are going to get Ms. Fernandez fired. They don’t want to do anything in class but talk and goof off.  They are very disrespectful.  Most of what they are telling you is simply lies. We don’t want Ms. Fernandez to get fired.”  Ten students signed their names to the letter.

The dean coughed, the principal shuffled papers on her desk, and the parents looked with embarrassment at each other and at their children.

So with the help of student allies, I kept my job. That summer, unable to shake off disillusionment, I submitted my resignation.

Years later, I discovered I had touched at least one student:  one of the seniors cracking jokes in class had been nevertheless awakened to the love of literature, had gone on to get a degree in English, and come back to the school as a teacher himself!

From my perspective today, I see the difficulties a private institution faces. If administrators don’t cater to parents and students, enrollment plummets.  If students don’t enroll, funding dries up. Many parents are important donors, contributing with largesse to the building fund.  And the yearly tuition is nothing to sneeze at.  In business, they say the customer is always right.

“Prom” is part of a story collection entitled Through the Branches of the Guava Tree showcasing the lives of Cuban exiles.

Other stories from the collection:

“Summer of My Father’s Gun”

“The Button Box”





The Button Box: Memories of Fact and Fiction

My second story “The Button Box,” is now in the Kindle Store!

You can read it here:

If you don’t have a Kindle, click on the above link, go to the tab Free Reading Apps, and download a Kindle app for pc, mac, tablet or smartphone.

Here’s the cover!

I based the story on an obsession with a box that symbolized my start in life on an island in the Caribbean Sea. The island exploded in political turmoil, and my parents fled. I held tightly to the early years, listening to my parents’ nostalgic conversations about a lost life. I grew up and continued to mourn for a time and place I had only experienced briefly. I filled in what I didn’t know by looking at photographs and imagining what could have been. The images became memories; they felt real.

“The Button Box” tells the story of a young woman, tormented with dreams and memories of a box she played with at her great-aunt’s house in 1950s Cuba, who travels back to her homeland hoping to bring it to America. But it is not only the box she craves. Her secret desire is to stitch together the safe and comfortable life she abruptly left behind with the challenging life she has forged as a journalist in Miami.

Will she find the box? If she does, what will that mean to her life going forward? Can any immigrant unify two very different parts of herself?

Sigmund Freud proposed that “dreams [are] forms of ‘wish-fulfillment’—attempts by the unconscious to resolve a conflict of some sort, whether recent or from the recesses of the past” and could be used to determine the psyche of the individual. The writer Anais Nin, who I encountered as an undergraduate in Berkeley, drew heavily on the ideas of Freud, publishing seven volumes of a diary inspired by dreams, memories and the techniques of French author Marcel Proust, who, in is his eight volume Remembrance of Things Past, dissects mundane details to create a rich tapestry of experience.

Nin, Freud, and Proust. What joy to read their writing!

All three are embedded in my story of memories, a blend of fact, fiction and dreams. Many times, I find it hard to make a distinction.  I doubt what is real and then conclude the fiction is the fact.

I work shopped the story at the Paris Workshop, and, perhaps because my Cuban background seemed exotic,  fellow participants exclaimed, “Ahhh, like Garcia Marquez.” What my colleagues were expressing was a delight in the magical realism that I had injected into the story.  I ended it with a purely fantastical scene like those of many Latin American writers.

I work shopped it again at Florida International University, and the magical realism was knocked down; so I turned it into a personal essay with minimal bouts of fiction. But it seemed that the story didn’t fit into that category.  I have let “The Button Box” have its way. It is a remembrance of things past, combined with fictional elements to drive plot. And, as I recalled events and sensations, I conjured new ones and put back in the brush strokes of fantasy.

“The Button Box” is part of a short story collection entitled Through the Branches of the Guava Tree that focuses on the lives of Cuban Americans.   You can read my first story “Beyond,” also part of this collection, on the Amazon Kindle store.

Remember, you can download a Free Kindle app to read it on your PC, Mac, tablet or smartphones.

Hope you like it!