#51: Carlos Eire 2008
Falsehoods Dissolve, May 2, 2022
In Rewrite Radio Episode #51, National Book Award winner Carlos Eire muses on the ethics of false memory, the power of images, and the story of thousands of children who, like him, were airlifted from Castro's Cuba, without their parents, in the early 1960's.
- St. Augustine: The Confessions Book X
- Carlos Eire: Waiting for Snow in Havana
Jennifer Holberg: Today's Rewrite Radio features National Book Award winner Carlos Eire. In this speech from Festival of 2008, Eire muses on the ethics of false memory, the power of images, and the stories of thousands of children who, like him, were airlifted from Cuba, without their parents, in the early 1960's.
I’m Jennifer Holberg, and along with Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
Carlos Eire is the T. Lawrason Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University where he studies late medieval and early modern Europe. His memoir of the Cuban Revolution, Waiting for Snow in Havana, won the U.S. National Book Award for Nonfiction and has been translated into many languages. He is also the author of War Against the Idols, From Madrid to Purgatory, A Very Brief History of Eternity, and Reformations: Early Modern Europe 1450-1700, for which he received the R.R. Hawkins Award for best book and the American Publishers Awards for Professional & Scholarly Excellence of 2017.
From the 2008 Festival of Faith & Writing, here is Carlos Eire.
Thank you all for being here. I mean, it's a great honor and privilege to be here, and address all of you. A little more background for those of you that perhaps have not read the book before I get going on memory and history. A little background on the 14,000 children who came here by themselves because it's that fact that not only the fact that 14,000 children came on their own, but that their parents were willing to send them not knowing whether or not we'd ever be reunited again.
Of course, everyone hoped that it would be a brief separation, but I don't know of any parent involved who didn't have at least the thought in their mind: I may never see my children again. Why would any parent do that? Most of the parents feared their children were already being taken away from them by the so-called Cuban Revolution.
I get asked this a lot: why would any parent do that? Well, the fact was that the law had changed in Cuba in 1961. And, the state officially was the ultimate guardian of every child, not the parents. And many children were already being sent on revolutionary errands; the younger ones to work in the countryside; the high school age kids to do other errands in the countryside; and the college age students being sent to universities in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
In Cuba, there were tens of thousands of recent Spanish immigrants who remembered that in 1930s, in Spain, during the civil war, thousands of Spanish children had been sent to the Soviet Union and had never returned. So that was fresh on everyone's memory. It's a strange thing, a parent being willing to do this. It's not at all strange that a child would say, "Great, fine, send me."
But no, not every child said, "Great, send me." Many of us came with mixed feelings, kinds that children have. But I give you this background, so that you will understand what I'm about to say that I'm trained as a historian and of all things on John Calvin.
And, and, you know, just consumed with this unnatural passion for the reformation and especially the reformation in Geneva of all places. Once a colleague at Virginia asked me, "Uh, how did you ever get into such a subject?" As if, you know, no one, but a Calvinist could be interested or something, but the man failed to realize is that, you know, he was a WASP from Maine, but he did African religions.
So we all get...but anyway, trained as a historian--somehow I managed to tap into a part of my brain that I didn't know was there. I mean, I knew my memory was there. What I didn't know was there's another part of my brain that could deal with the memories in a very different. From the way in which the historian had been dealing with the past.
This book Waiting for Snow in Havana, came out of anger and desperation. And was occasioned by many things. It's like a complex chemical formula that you just drop. One thing, one little tiny drop, and that catalyst will make it explode as happened to me in high school.
The drop that fell into the mix was the case of Elián Gonzalez, with whom most of you were probably all too familiar because you couldn't escape it. It didn't matter what, what media you picked up; there was the story up front. And boy that was found floating off the coast of Florida, his mother, and everyone else on the raft had drowned.
He was given to his relatives in Miami, but then the Cuban government wants him back to be with his father, and the Cuban government begins to make the claim: every child deserves to be with his parents. So you can imagine, um, it's not just my jaw that dropped. It was my soul that dropped, and I became immensely disturbed by the sheer hypocrisy of this.
Because another part of the story of the airlift kids is that in October of 1962, the Missile Crisis, the door was slammed shut on everyone in Cuba. Which meant that the parents of over 10,000 of the 14,000 children were trapped in Cuba and the Cuban government would not allow them to leave. And actually harassed them.
My mother tried for three years. She was constantly harassed. At one point, she's even attacked by a mob simply for waiting for a visa outside the Swiss Embassy. The very same government that kept parents apart from the children. The very same government that prevented my father from ever leaving. It prevented me from ever seeing my father and actually prevented me from attending his funeral. I was now saying this boy needs to be with his father.
I had no objections to him being with his father, but the sheer hypocrisy and the fact that the American news media was ignoring all of this drove me insane. So the historian writes letters to all the major newspapers and magazines saying, "Perhaps you should do a story on the airlift." I didn't get a single response, not one acknowledgement. That's when I found out how prestigious my Yale stationery really is and my high sounding title.
Not a response. I got, I got angrier and more depressed. And then I thought maybe humor is the way to do this. So I wrote an eight-page essay in which I proved that Monica Lewinsky was an agent of Fidel Castro. [laughter]
You can imagine the evidence.
No responses to that either, not a one.
I re-read it; it's pretty good.
So the next thing that came to mind was you know man, I've got to tell the story of a child who goes through this. But I decided, pure impulse. It's not going to be the story of what happens to the child once he gets to the United States. It's going to be a story of what comes just before and how that child gets there.
I wrote this as a novel. I began writing it as a novel. My sole intention was to publish it as fiction. I wrote the first chapter and realized I don't have to make anything up. I don't have to use my imagination to invent someone. I'll just tell my story and pass it off as fiction. Who will know the difference?
And that's what I did. I wrote a novel. That's why the book reads the way it does. I wrote it as a novel with myself as the main character, as the narrator. And well, in the editing process, my editor kept asking, "Could this happen to people in Cuba? Did things like this happen?" And, you know, having gone to Catholic school up through fifth grade and having a profound fear of hell, I couldn't lie when she asked me, "Well, how much of this book is your life?"
I had to say, "All of it." And then she informed me that it could not be published as fiction. We can't do that. It's not right. And then she gave me a thousand arguments from the ethical to the practical and as much against my will, I had already cashed the advance and paid off my MasterCard debt. So I couldn't say I'll take it elsewhere.
I was stuck. I begged for a pen name. They would not allow me a phony name, a nom de plume, or even a nom de guerre. I asked for it to be a Senor X, or Mr X. And they said, "Well, you can't do publicity that way." I said, "Well, I'll do publicity with that bag over my head." No, that won't work. Sorry.
Then I begged, "Please let me take out all of these items." And I had a long list, all the truly bad and embarrassing. Please. If, if people are gonna know this is my life, I don't want that in there. My editor, Rachel Klayman, God bless her; she somehow managed to convince me that the book would have a greater effect if all of this bad stuff was in it. It would make it more real. And she was absolutely right.
So here's item number one: I tapped into my memory and was spared the temptation of making myself look better because I was writing a novel. And I swear to you not for a minute, did it cross my mind that this thing I was writing would be published as a memoir.
I really did pass it off as a novel, you know, they purchased a novel. It came as a great shock to me then. So I was spared with temptations that have caused other memoirists to run into trouble, including, um, you know, one of Oprah's crown princes.
But here's what happened. The way the book was written on April 28th, 2000, classes were over. I sat down and wrote the first chapter. I showed it to my wife the next morning. And she said, "This is really good. Keep going. Don't do what you do as an academic. Don't rewrite. Don't polish. Just keep moving forward. And don't worry about changing a word."
So every night that summer of 2000, I would begin writing about 10:00 p.m. And write till 2, 3, 4 a.m, sometimes till sun up. Go teach summer term in the morning, chair the department in the afternoon, come home, read to my children what I had written the night before, and then begin writing again. And I did that every night. At the end of four months I was done.
And when I go visit high schools and sometimes colleges, the teachers and professors get very angry that I revealed to the students I had no outline. I did no rewriting whatsoever. What I sold was my first draft.
And, the book is about twenty-five percent thinner. What was it that we took out? We killed the professor. We killed the historian because every time I relied on images, I had a nice metaphor, I would then have three or four paragraphs explaining what it meant.
And my editor and I got into a very nice rhythm, you know, show don't tell, show don't tell. And, I loved the killing that professor and strangling him, my alter ego and just relying on images. That's the part of my brain I had tapped into that I did not know was there.
And up until that moment in my life, my wife was in religion and literature, so she has a lot of nice literature at home and poetry and stuff, and so. I had never understood poetry. And I'd always had these, amusing conversations with my wife, and I'd say, "What is his poetry? What the hell is going on here? You know, if you want to say something, just say it, you know, don't think you see images and stuff."
In writing this book, I finally understood poetry. And it opened up to me. And actually something that's missing from the book that was in the original manuscript were epigrams for every chapter. The permissions would cost too much, so we had to take them out. But at the end, when I would finish writing a chapter, I would go through my wife's poetry books and find the perfect poem was the perfect epigram to insert because it finally made sense. The images. I was guided by images in writing this book. Once the door opened and the images flooded me, I couldn't stop. As a historian, I had to put them into some kind of chronological order. But other than that, no outline, no conception of where I was going to go next, simply what image I would get these vivid images. And then every chapter is constructed around an image or two or three, that part of my brain, I hadn't used. The images speak for themselves and they speak, I think, more eloquently than any linear logic.
Why? Because their memories of a past that, well, no one's past can be reclaimed. No one can go back to the past, but it was a past that was lost suddenly and violently. And it was a sudden and violent rupture that although it did have a happy ending, also involved a lot of pain. And involved a lot of injustice.
And here's where we circle back to what made me write the book: injustice. What happened to my family. What happened to thousands of other families. And it's not just the airlift kids. There isn't a single Cuban family, I bet, that hasn't been broken in one way or another. Something not known by most Americans or by most of the world for a long time in Cuba. If a family applied for exit permit or a visa, the father would be sent to a work camp sometimes for two, three years at some indeterminate time to pay off his debt to the revolution. So the families were split up intentionally. I know hundreds of other Cubans my age, whose fathers were sent to work camps and the family was split up and they didn't see their father for two or three years, or as in my case, they never saw their father again because their father died in the work camp.
So it's not just the airlift kids. It's the injustice of a system that if you don't agree with the government, you're not a full human being. In Cuba, if you do not agree with the government, you're not a Cuban. You're scum. You're a worm--escoria--scum.
And it doesn't matter. This is the dehumanizing that takes place in a totalitarian regime. So what happens, I'm here in the United States, and I'm in a business where a great number of people, perhaps the majority of the people I encounter in my business think that the Cuban Revolution is a wonderful thing.
It's done marvelous things for the Cuban people. I get it all the time. I'm sure there are some of you in this room who think that way. Because there's always, at least 10-20% of my audience is people who think the Cuban Revolution has been a wonderful thing. But what I wanted to expose in my novel, because it was novel, was the history, the facts, simply.
As a historian, I've always known that there's nothing that gets you to the past more directly than a first-person account. Nothing better. It's the most direct window to the past. And in my work as a historian, I've used many first-person accounts and have actually fallen on my knees, by my desk, and thanked the person for leaving me this account.
For instance, one of them is a nun Sister Jeanne de Jussie who lived in Geneva and was chased out by the Reformation. Wonderful account. First-person account of what happened from her perspective. Someone who loses and is exiled, but I would always say to these people as I thank them, I'm sorry, I can't promise you a hundred percent. I cannot trust you. This is what every historian is told; you can't press the first-person account entirely because people will always have their own perspective, point of view. And not only that, they want to make themselves look good, they will exaggerate certain things. Perhaps make it up and leave out important things that embarrass them greatly.
Well, that was the temptation I was spared by the trick I played on myself of writing a novel. So the truth came spewing out in images, but it was just visual images. This is the strange part about tapping your memory. The past is inside all of us. This is to me, one of the great mysteries of the universe. St. Augustine was obsessed with time too--Book 10 of The Confessions, read it. Augustine, I think, had he hit the nail on the head 16 centuries ago. They tried to describe in terms that humans could understand that how does one explain the Trinity.
To what aspect of human existence does the Father relate the memory because the Father has always been, the Father is, there is no past or future, there's just everlasting infinite now. That's what our memories are. It's our little chunk of eternal. Augustine said "Time does not really exist. Time is sort of an illusion. The present is an illusion. All we are," he said, "is our past." You say the word, now, it doesn't matter what language you say it in. By the time you get to the last letter in the word, now is over. It's already the past, and the future is not here yet.
So all we are, and this is what the Augustine's insight is: all we are is the past, everyone in this room. Imagine if everyone in this room went out this afternoon began writing about their past. What a wonderful, wonderful record this would be because memory somehow this mystery, and I know that, you know, neuro scientists, neuro biologists are getting close to where, where things are stored in the brain. Very interesting experiments with individuals who were born into a bilingual or multilingual families and learned more than one language at once who suffered brain injuries. As their brain healed, the words would come in pairs. In other words, the meaning of the word was stored in exactly the same physical location in the brain as it came back. So, you know, window-fenêtre, if it was somebody who was bilingual in French, they would get that word back in both languages, simultaneously.
Same thing for these images that we have, because what we have in our heads is mostly images, isn't it? But this is what surprised me. We have other sensory memories. Smells, sounds, the way things feel--all of these came back to me. I think what happened to me is I somehow, without knowing how I did it, went into some kind of self hypnosis. Because as I wrote this book, I relived my childhood. I was there, but I was there as a middle-aged man. What a wonderful thing to be able to relive it as a middle-aged man and kind of understand where things led. Thought it was this presence of the past, being in the past that guided the writing. What I had first and foremost in my mind was dwelling on the details because God is in the details. Don't give a sermon, don't give a speech, simply tell what happened.
And, here's what I find once the book is published. Can memory be trusted 100%? Of course not. Even though I was spared the temptation of making myself look better, I got several things wrong. I got several facts wrong.
But does that matter? I'll give you a few examples. Facts I got wrong. Second chapter, I describe a shootout that my family was caught in. We feared for our lives. We had to jump out of the car and into a stranger's house to escape the bullets. Well, my mother gets to chapter two. Years later, my mom never learned English, and she had someone who would come in and translate for her on the fly, orally. She got about halfway through the book and then she passed away. But chapter two, and by the way, she never said, you know, this is a really good book.
Instead. She said things like, you know, for chapter two, "You don't mention the dog."
She say, "You know, Porky. We had just gotten him two weeks earlier. He was in the backseat, barking his head off, jumping up and down, and he was a Fox Terrier and very nervous."
"I'm sorry, I don't remember the dog at all. Not at all."
My mom has to add, "You know, I was just as worried about him as I was about you."
Perfect mom kind of comment. You know, the whole family needs to be saved. I don't remember the dog. Does that make my book bad history? In one respect, yes. I suppose if what you seek from history is kind of a photographic replication of the past, the dog is missing from the picture, but does it matter?
I don't think so, but it shows you that, you know, memory is kind of fallible. Another example, more serious. Towards the end of the book, I relate how shortly before my brother and I left, our father took us to this park that had just opened in Havana, very nice park and in a wooded area, it's more like a nature preserve than a park.
And I say in the book that, you know, the Revolution had built this park, and it was a good thing. And it was the first thing I had seen the Revolution do that was good. Well, in my first talk in Miami, of course it would have to be Miami. There's a man in the audience with very large photographs. He stands up and says, "What you say in that chapter is totally wrong. I'm one of the landscape architects who worked on this park. And here's what I have to tell: you that park was not built by the Revolution. About 80% of that park was built under the previous regime. And then the revolution stopped construction on it and would not allow us architects to leave the country, but wouldn't give us any funds to finish the park."
Finally, they did. So he was very upset that I had credited the Revolution with this park when in fact it was not, well, maybe 20% of it was their doing. And the photos he had, the man was not a historian. The photos he had were of children playing in the park, as if that could prove that the park was begun in 1956.
My response to him, "I'm sorry. I missed that fact, but you missed the most important thing in that chapter is not the park itself, but the fact that we found a woman with the largest butt in the world and shot her with our pea shooters." That's the important bit of history there.
So yeah, it's bad history. My book is bad history. I credit the wrong regime for this park, but think about it. What else? What does this reveal? It reveals the power of lies, not just propaganda, but the way in which we can all very easily believe lies.
It's a very good record, actually, of the power of lying and especially of lying by governments, especially when it's passed on by news media, we can all be duped. Very easily.
Number three and even more serious flaw in this book. At the end, when I leave, final chapter, is the farewell at the airport. And I say very clearly not one of my friends came to say goodbye. If you read the book, maybe you remember that. Not one friend that came to say goodbye. Well, guess what happened?
I get an email in 2004 from somebody who works for UNESCO in Paris. And I don't recognize the name immediately. Miguel 'Salez' [spelling unknown]. It's Miguelito who lived half a block from me and was my best friend for that last year. And I don't mention him by name in the book. I say I made some really nice friends that last year, but I didn't want to get attached to them.
And that's the truth I say that. I did not want to get attached because I knew I was leaving. So Miguel works for the UN in Paris, and as divine providence would have it, I was on my way to a conference in Paris, just two months from that email. So we met in Paris after 40 some odd years.
One of the most surreal things that has ever happened to me. Meeting this boy who looks younger than me, even though he's old, we're the same age. On the Boulevard Saint Germain. And first thing he asked me is, "Do you remember me being at the airport to say goodbye to you?" And I had to admit shamefacedly, "No, I'm sorry. No, I don't. But I do remember that time we had a fight, and I hit you on the side of the head, and you hit your head on the telephone pole." And then he said, "Well, thanks for reminding me. I don't remember that."
So see, that shows you how memory is different. Here's where it gets a little more shocking. Miguel says to me, "Well, it's very strange. You should not remember me being there because that's the day that changed my life. And that was my first step towards prison."
Miguel would end up spending eight years in prison, six of them totally naked because this happens with political prisoners in Cuba that some of them refuse to wear the uniform because it's the same uniform used for common criminals. And this is what Miguel did. Now you can get away with that in Cuba. But not really, it gets cold at night, in the winter time.
Anyway, Miguel at the age of 18 said the wrong thing to the wrong person, and the next thing he knew that he was in prison. He told me "It was seeing your family separated that made me think for the very first time because I hadn't given any thought that maybe this Revolution is not so good. Why should this be happening?"
Up to that point, he'd had no, it had an...impact...the most awful verb now used in the English language: impacted.
It had no impact on him up to that point. He began to think. And the next thing you know, well, he's major blunder on my part. Bad history. But, is it? Again, if you think about it, what can we learn from this memory mistake or memory lapse? You know, it's the trauma of a child leaving his family. What kind of child focus on?
I didn't see him there. He described everything perfectly. So I have to believe him that he was there. And actually he solved a couple of mysteries for me about who drove whom.
No memory whatsoever. It's not there. That image is not there. I have to imagine it. Is that bad history? Yeah, I guess so. But even more important, on another level, on a whole other level, what happens when someone's memory is contrary to what is publicly stated or debated? We'll go to the very top. And again, I'm not making a comparison between Cuba and the Holocaust. How does it feel for a Holocaust survivor to read or hear Holocaust deniers?
How does it feel for anyone who has suffered any kind of great injustice to hear that that was no injustice at all, but rather a wonderful thing. How does it feel to someone who has lived through history who hears that history denied?
I'll give you one example. I was giving a talk of all places, my alma mater Loyola University, Chicago, right across the lake. Sort of the antithesis of Calvin College. Calvin, Loyola. But I have given thought to writing a book, comparing Calvin and Loyola, because I think actually they were very similar. We're both very interested in producing the same kind of human being. They disagreed about some things.
But I'm at this dinner, and there's a member of the English faculty sitting next to me and conversation of course, turns to Cuba. I was there not to talk about Cuba, but about people who levitate. So, but Cuba, Cuba, Cuba, Cuba came up, and I make a simple observation. How ironic and how awful it was that on the very same day that Augusta Pinochet was arrested in Spain for human rights filed; Fidel Castro was also in Spain and was being treated royally as a great person.
And then I added, of course, you know, everyone knows that Fidel Castro is responsible for killing tens of thousands, more people, and torturing hundreds of thousands, more people than Pinochet. And the man sitting next to me jumped out of his chair and called me a liar: "That is not true. You're wrong."
This is where memory comes in. Those who have memories to make public about things that are misperceived need to make them public. My colleague at Yale, Miroslav Volf, has recently argued that evil can triumph repeatedly when the truth is not known. Evil triumphs, when an injustice is, evil keeps being manifest when that injustice is repeatedly denied.
And that's basically what Eli Wiesel has to say too about the Holocaust. You know, thinking big, nothing gets bigger than that. It doesn't matter of fact, you know, speaking of the Holocaust, here's the problem that all of us face in the early 21st century. Is that cretins such as Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin set the bar so high for atrocities that other atrocities seem small by comparison.
So Cambodia, Uganda, Darfur--well, it's not the Holocaust. And that's a problem that all of us who come from places where great injustices have been committed face. That we're often measured up against that horror. In a way not that we need to lessen our focus on the Holocaust, but we need to somehow collectively agree, and tell the world that there's no such thing as a high or a low bar when it comes to atrocities. You know, there's a certain level, certain things that are just not right.
Funny thing--I write this novel about memory and history, and I put a lot of religion into it. And hardly anyone ever talks to me about the religion in the book, which surprised me. It's just not there. I even had one person ask me to talk about, you know, the two things you're not supposed to talk about. Actually the three things. I've had readers say, wait, "There's no sex in that book." I've had readers say, "There's no politics in that book." And I've had readers say, "There's no religion in that book." But I don't know what book they read. [laughter]
I was concerned with transcending Cuba in this book. I was more concerned with the human condition. Here's what I stumbled upon without realizing by taking a child's voice and being a child narrator, I reached a level of universality. Nothing human beings on earth share more intensely than childhood, despite all of our cultural differences. Take yourself back to childhood, no matter where you were born, what culture you grew up in, right? You'll start discussing your childhood with someone from a completely different culture. The way that children understand and approach the world has a certain sameness to it.
And that's what I, believe me, I did not plan this out. It just happened. I was telling a child's story, but stumbled onto the fact that a child narrator reaches at a universal level. So I could make observations about life on earth in general, and about what might also be around us, beyond the material world and perhaps in that non-existent future, that will someday be now.
But many readers miss that except for one reader, which goes to show you, and basically the world we live in. The book that was published here in the United States. The book that received the National Book Award was sent over to the United Kingdom for consideration by Scribner's UK. I was done. The book was written as the book. Everyone that's read. Well, I get back my manuscript from London, torn to shreds.
The editor has not only changed all my verbs, nouns, and adjectives, but cut the book to pieces; it's reduced by about 50%. And then I have strict instructions from him that if this book is ever going to be published in the United Kingdom, I need to take out every single reference to religion and politics. Because as he put it, "We British like to think for ourselves, we don't like anyone telling us what to think." And he said, "You have to especially get rid of your muscular Christianity, which the British will not appreciate." I wrote back to him, said, "You know, your description of British people doesn't match any British person I know. Not one."
But here's a man with enormous prejudices who was trying to silence me. Well, I don't, I don't know what kind of book he wanted a travel log; I'm not sure. But he was quite adamant in insisting on this, but fortunately, or unfortunately, Simon & Schuster here prevailed on Scribner UK, and they published the book as it is, but zero publicity. Zero book reviews. And a very insulting cover, which they said, I hoped I would like. It was a semi naked boy in his underwear. Their image of Cuba, or the editor's image of Cuba. And right above the child, a giant poster of Che Guevara.
All of you are interested in writing, so I'll close with this. You know, there is that part of your brain where the images, I'm not even sure where left sidem, right side, it doesn't matter. That part of your brain where you can just let go and let the images do the talking for you. And they do.
And I'm an idiot. I admit it because one of the subjects I study is iconoclasm--the destruction of the destruction of sacred images. I've been working with images, my entire professional life. And only in writing this book that I realized that the power of images really is. They get to us at levels that other part of the brain never, ever can go, and they get us at a much, much deeper level.
And it's the same thing with memory to a psychotic psychiatrist. And one of my audiences came up afterwards and unfortunately she didn't give me her cards. And I don't know who she was an expert on memory, who said her theory is we have different layers of memory at the core, at the deepest level. She says memories we have of injustices committed against us. That nothing shapes our personality more deeply, and we don't remember anything more vividly than injustices. And I have to say, I'm no psychiatrist. I don't know what research she has done. I'm not speaking as an expert in that field, but that rings true to me. It really does.
Her argument was that all of us have a moral compass of sorts. We know when we've been wronged. We know it. Now, put this in a court of law, and the jury might not decide that you were wrong. But you know when you've been wronged, and you remember it that way. Well, that's what's behind this book.
What do I do next as a historian and as a writer? Now I have three completely different lives.
I'm here as an author. I'm also a historian of late medieval and early modern Europe. I've also become a professional Cuban. And I have three completely different lives. What does the author and historian do next? Well, I'm working on two very serious scholarly books. One of them is a survey history of the Reformation, which will be very good. But I have to admit to myself, you know, it's for use in class;
it's not fun reading. I'm also working on a book on miracles that defy all laws of nature. And I focused on one in particular levitation because you may not know this, but 16th and 17th century was the peak period for flying in Europe. People were flying all over the place. So for Catholics, it was really good people who flew, the saints, and also really bad people, the witches. For Protestants, it was only the witches. But both Catholics and Protestants actually believed that people flew. And actually we have, you know, accounts of people testifying, "I saw so-and-so fly." Magical realism? No history. How do I deal with that?
I'd like to write another book, like Waiting for Snow in Havana. I'd like to write fiction. It's so much fun to write without footnotes. My scholarly books take me 10 years a piece. This book took me four months. And, you know, from my scholarly books, I never have an audience this large and I never get thank-you letters. I've received thousands of thank-you letters from all over the world, but the ones that amazed me the most are the thank you letters from Cubans. And almost all of them say, "Thank you for telling my story." they don't say thank you for telling your story or our story. They say, thank you for telling my story. So the historian actually ended up writing his best history book by tapping into his memory. And how weird is that.
But now that leaves me at a strange crossroads and I'll end with this. At that conference in Paris, I gave my paper on a subject I'm sure all of you would run out and get that article--on The Translation of Devotional Texts in the 15th and 16th Century. For which, by the way, I just received my first thank-you last week.
But we're sitting at dinner in Paris, one of these restaurants with more waiters than customers, really nice. The European Union is paying for the dinner. Wonderful. Well, somebody with very bad manners mentioned at the table that I had won the National Book Award in the United States. And the conversation stopped.
That's a killer. No one at the table knew this. And they all look at me, very puzzled and say, "For what?" And I described the book and a colleague of mine looks at me with a very, very painful look on his face, like, "Oh," he actually went, "Oh, you know what that means, don't you? You'll be remembered for that book, not for your work as a historian." And I said, "I can live with that."
Then the French historian who was our host put it all into perspective for me as only a French historian can--with an amount of clarity to what he had to say and an amount of cruelty that were astounding. He said, and this is a real fast snap after the previous remarks: "Well, you said you certainly won't win the prize for the paper you gave us today."
And, that's where my trifecta--author, Cuban, historian--stands, you know. Anything I do now, I have that to live up to.
Heidi Groenboom: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.