Natalia Sylvester’s debut novel, Chasing the Sun, was published in 2014 to critical acclaim (including by me). It’s the compelling story, set in Lima, Peru in the early 90s, of a political kidnapping of a businessman’s wife and its effects on their marriage and family. Her second book, Everyone Knows You Go Home (2018), is the story of a Mexican-American family in a Texas border town.
Here, Sylvester looks back to her days studying literature at the University of Miami and the impact one book had on her education and life.
I first read it in ninth grade English. Just the first few pages, just a taste. My teacher had printed out an excerpt of Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban for us to study. The first line read:
“Celia del Pino, equipped with binoculars and wearing her best housedress and drop pearl earrings, sits in her wicker swing guarding the north coast of Cuba.”
I’ll admit I didn’t think much of it then. I remembered Celia’s red lipstick, the way she darkens the mole on her face with eyeliner. I was struck by the juxtaposition of this woman, equally concerned with her makeup and her country’s security.
At fourteen, I had no idea that in six years, reading this book—this time in its entirety—would change the course of my life.
Ask any writer when they started writing, and when they decided to become a writer, and you’ll likely get two different stories. We start, nearly always, with a love of words and reading. In my case, the first things I penned were poems, then journal entries on a daily basis, just my recollections and reflections on the day’s events. In my teens I wrote too much angsty poetry to count, and when I got to college I was known to proclaim—with a very whispery, free-spirit air about me—that all I wanted was to write poetry. I loved novels, I loved stories, but I considered myself a poet.
So when I started my Creative Writing major at the University of Miami and one of the required “intro” classes was Fiction, I didn’t think much of it. I thought it’d be fun, that it’d help round out my poems. Around this same time, I noticed that Cristina Garcia would be teaching a workshop at our local community college. On a whim, and because I remembered the red lipstick and darkened mole from ninth grade, I decided to register.
I should probably finish reading her book before I take her class, I thought.
What a difference time makes. From the very beginning, I was entranced by this multi-generational story about the Cuban Revolution, portrayed through four women—mothers, daughters, sisters, grandmothers—who are all deeply connected through memory and their ties to Cuba, but separated by time, space, and life. At a sentence level, Garcia’s writing reads like poetry, with unexpected leaps of language that give the narrative a magical feel. But step back and she creates a world that juxtaposes the lost paradise of Cuba with the nostalgia-filled island that still lives in the hearts of those in exile.
I can still picture the moment I turned the last page of Dreaming in Cuban. I was sitting in my bedroom, in my parents’ house, on an oversized couch for one that I’d placed in the corner of the room: my reading nook. Though I’d read the last lines, I couldn’t close the book. I wanted to stay in Garcia’s world a little longer. I wanted to keep spending time with the characters, and even the next day, and the next after that, I found myself missing them, hung over from Garcia’s intoxicating language and imagery.
I went to my Fiction class at UM and told my professor that I’d be switching my track from poetry to fiction. She was thrilled, and when she asked why, I said, “I just finished reading a book that I didn’t want to end. I didn’t want to let go of the characters and the world. I want to do that someday.”
She high-fived me. And off I went, dreaming in fiction.
This essay was originally posted on July 7, 2014.