House Guest with Chantel Acevedo: Growing up Cuban, or How to Make a Writer

In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors and cover artists, as well as editors from peer presses and magazines, to tell us what they’re working on, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.

Chantel Acevedo’s story “Strange and Lovely,” a Notable story in this year’s Best American Short Stories, appears in Ecotone 17.


There are certain personal characteristics that seem essential for writers to cultivate—Persistence, A Sense of the Dramatic, and A Tough Skin. I’ve always thought that a Cuban-American childhood is the perfect crucible in which to practice these traits.

1) Persistence: As any published writer will tell you, talent is only part of what it takes to be a writer. A kind of doggedness has to accompany the task. After all, writing a novel or a collection of poems is a marathon, not a sprint. We Cuban Americans who grew up in the 70s and 80s understood this in a different way. We practiced persistence at an early age, especially since we often lived with abuela and abuelo, mami and papi, and all of them were stricter than Sister Maria Francisca at the Catholic School down the street. To get what we wanted, we Cuban-American kids had to be persistent enough to wear down the adults in our lives. Want to shave past your knees sometime before your fifteenth birthday? Better if you start asking permission on the eve of your thirteenth birthday. It will take them at least two years to cave. And if you’ve ever found yourself waiting for a literary agent to respond, or a literary magazine to publish your poem, you know what that waiting can feel like.

2) A Sense of the Dramatic: Stories are built around conflict. Conflict is what people mean when they say “Raise the stakes” in the stories we write. Cuban-American kids understand drama. We were fed on a sense of the dramatic. I vividly recall riding my bike back and forth down a stretch of sidewalk no longer than fifty feet, up and down, up and down, under the gaze of my abuela who watched me from the porch. If I went farther, she argued, someone would probably SNATCH ME. There was the perpetual fear of snatching, of lightning strikes, of sharks and sand bars with which to contend. The drama even followed us inside our very homes, where the nightly sh-sh-sh of the pressure cooker working its magic on black beans was a warning to every child in the house to stay out of the kitchen. That sucker could explode. Drama was everywhere, and for a burgeoning writer, that perpetual feeling of impending spectacle is a turbo boost to the imagination.

3) A Tough Skin: Every writer deals with rejection. And I don’t mean “at some point.” I mean all the time. Even the very best writers in the world know the sting of not making the shortlist of a big award, or making the shortlist and losing to one of the other very best writers in the world. Growing a tortoise shell in place of skin is a wise idea for a writer, and Cuban-American kids learn this early. Brutal honesty is everywhere, and nowhere more pronounced than at the seamstress’s house. She will invariably assess your waist, your breasts, your arms, as somehow too big, too small, too dangly, and then, she will say how she was “Just like you,” when she was your age. This will happen whether you are trying on a quinceañera dress or a First Communion suit. Cuban-American kids know there is to do but vividly imagine a dramatic ailment (see #2) befalling said seamstress.

But seriously, growing up Cuban American, particularly in Miami, was a blessing to my nascent writer brain. People in Miami will often recount the wild things that happened in their day, and the listeners will say, “That’s such a Miami story.” Because Miami is the sort of place where interesting stories are happening everywhere, like a perpetual-motion machine of narrative.

When I sit down to write, I often dip into that well of childhood memories, and what I pull up surprises me all the time—here is a memory of my grandmother buying vegetables from a viandero, who honked his horn up and down the street so that the matrons of each house would come out and buy their daily malanga; there is a memory of Hurricane Andrew, ripping across South Florida, tearing through Miami Metro Zoo, and the months of recovery, of wild things set loose all over the city; here is my cousin on her fifteen birthday, on the eve of Hurricane Andrew’s arrival, releasing fifteen pink balloons into the stormy skies, saying, “Andrew, leave us alone”; there is my neighbor’s son, who held his family hostage in their home at gunpoint one sunny afternoon; here is my grandfather, talking to my neighbor after his son was taken away, letting the man cry on his shoulder in the twilight; there is the place where I fell into a fire ant hill; here is an empty bottle of mercurochrome, with which I used to dye Barbie’s blond hair pink.

They call Miami the Magic City for good reason. Where there are stories, there is magic. And this place is thick with both. What a lucky kid I was to have grown up in it.

Chantel Acevedo has received many awards for her fiction, including the Latino International Book Award and an Alabama State Council on the Arts Literature Fellowship. She is the author of several novels, including Love and Ghost Letters, A Falling Star, and The Distant Marvels. She is an Associate Professor in the MFA program at the University of Miami.