Caribbean Spotlight: A Dual Reading

MAYRA MONTERO
& BARBARA FISCHKIN

October 14, 1997 (Tuesday) at 8:00 p.m.
Recital Hall, Performing Arts Center
University at Albany, Uptown Campus

MAYRA MONTERO, Cuban-born novelist, is widely celebrated in Europe and Latin America. Her first book to be translated into English, In the Palm of Darkness (1971), tells the story of an American biologist and his native Haitian guide as they search for an endangered amphibian, the blood frog, in the war-torn highlands of Haiti.

The quest for an elusive amphibian in the mountains of violence-torn Haiti brings together an unlikely pair of hunters--American herpetologist Victor Grigg and his Haitian guide Thierry Adrien--whose individual stories unfold and intertwine in a mesmerizing tale of love, sex, and fraternal rivalry; of the propagation and extinction of species in the natural world; and of the mysterious forces of nature that govern the fate of all living creatures.

No one can explain the catastrophic disappearance of various species of amphibians all over the world, including the "blood frog" (grenouille du sang) pursued with heartbreaking single-mindedness by Victor andthierry from the bloody Mont des Enfants Perdus--littered with corpses, the work of Haitian macoutes (thugs)--to the remote Casetouches. Significanty, Thierry's father was also a hunter, but his quarry was another species of fauna, wandering packs of the living dead (zombies). The rich and tragic tale of Thierry's family, his life and loves, and his curious destiny, informs the obsessive search of the two men from different cultures. Thierry's story opens a window onto another way of understanding the world, an AfroCaribbean perspective at odds with the reason and logic of western science represented by victor.

Cuban-born Mayra Montero weaves a darkly suggestive tapestry of Haitian lore and character in a novel of the Caribbean that will intrigue and unsettle. For Thierry, Frou-Frou, Julien, Papa Crapaud, Ganesha, Yoyotte, Cameroon, Emile Boukaka, and the others belong to the mythical, magical world of Haitian spirituality, where the living and the dead intermingle and where murder, cruelty, and terror inform the natural as well as the human order.

In the Palm of Darkness is a compelling tale that reads something like a murder mystery. But it also reveals a highly sophisticated and refined literary voice. One of the Caribbean's most exciting writers, Mayra Montero has been compared to Alejo Carpentier, Graham Greene, and Julio Cortázar.

Mayra Montero was born in Havana in 1952 and presently lives in Puerto Rico. She has published four novels and a short story collection. In the Palm of Darkness is her first work of fiction to be translated into English.

Edith Grossman, who has translated the poetry and prose of major contemporary Latin American writers including Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Alvaro Mutis, is the author of The Antipoetry of Nicanor Parra.

". . .truly original novel. . .studded with surprises. . .A refreshingly sophisticated treat."
- Kirkus Reviews

BARBARA FISCHKIN is a journalist whose first book, Muddy Cup: A Dominican Family Comes of Age in a New America (1997) grew out of a series of articles she wrote of Newsday about four generations of an immigrant family and its struggles to adapt to life in New York City. The original Newsday series earned the Livingston Award for International Reporting in the 1986.
"Muddy Cup is arguably the most humane rendition of the Dominican experience I have read in the United States thus far...Barbara Fischkin strikes that magical balance between objective observation and sensitivity."
- Silvio Torres-Saillant, Dominican Studies Institute, City College of New York

More immigrants arrived in the United States during the 1980s than in any other decade since the turn of the century. In place of the Irish, Italian, and eastern Europeans who landed at Ellis Island, however, this new wave came, often by airplane, from Asia and the Americas. The largest group to arrive in New York was from a small Caribbean country, the Dominican Republic. By 1986, one out of seven Dominicans lived in the United States-mostly in New York, but also in large numbers in New Jersey, Florida, and Massachusetts--and a new term was coined: Dominicanyorker.

Muddy Cup is the human face behind those numbers, the real-life, evocative story of the Almonte family. This is the epochal tale of their struggles and triumphs as well as the troubled past and present of the land where Columbus founded the New World's first settlement, a history that propelled the Almontes and so many others to leave their home. Awardwinning journalist Barbara Fischkin documents five decades in the lives of the Almontes as they move from the farming village of Camú to the streets of Nueva Llork. This textured tale of the modern immigrant begins with Javier Almonte, who was born in a palm hut and, as a schoolboy, pledged his allegiance to the dictator Rafael Trujillo--the man who was courted by a fickle government in Washington, D.C., and then overthrown with its help. It ends with javier's son Mauricio, an American graduate student whose heroes are Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg. We also meet Roselia, Javier's wife, who has to make a wrenching choice to leave her children for the good of the family; Elizabeth, the determined eldest child, who embraces her new life; and Cristian, the youngest daughter, who ultimately returns to her homeland as a child bride.

In Muddy Cup, Barbara Fischkin illuminates the frustration of getting an American visa and the disorienting effects of unfamiliar customs, habits, and a strange tongue. With skill and é1an, she weaves the “common threads in our disparate backgrounds" into the tapestry that is the story of immigration and modern America. Ultimately, the Almontes' story is a rich testimonial to our nation of immigrants.

A native of New York City and the daughter of an eastern European Jewish immigrant, Barbara Fischkin has written for a variety of publications, including The New Yorker, Newsday, and The New York Times. Her yearlong series on the Almonte family for Newsday won the 1986 Livingston Award for International Reporting. She is married to the journalist Jim Mulvaney. They have two sons.

Cosponsored by Fuereza Latina, University at Albany

Writers Online Article on Mayra Montero
Writers Online Article on Barbara Fischkin