Like most novelists, I need sustained time for working on a project, both for the writing and the research. The Fellowship has allowed me this necessary time. With the NEA's support, I've worked on my new novel, Some Realms I Owned, which takes place during what's been called the "special period" in Cuba - the time immediately after the Berlin Wall fell and Soviet subsidies to the island dried up. I have conducted research and written the opening chapters. In addition, the financial support of the Fellowship has given me the opportunity to write and revise two other shorter pieces - one accepted for future publication in a Latino literature anthology, the other a newly finished short story. However, more than the money and the time that money buys, the NEA fellowship reminds me that I have the strength to outstare the empty page.
From the novel The Sugar Island
One day Mamá said life was about to start and ran off to the mountains to become a rebel guerrillera. No one knew exactly where she had gone until she came back pregnant a year later on a burro.
My dog, Fyor, and I stayed with Abuelita Carmen - my mother's mother - in her thatched bohio. From her porch I searched the green hills for Mamá, Fyor barking beside me. At night we'd fall asleep against a wooden post and wake each morning on a cot in Abuelita Carmen's kitchen.
Mamá came back on a late afternoon in March, just before my sixth birthday. Someone on a burro trotted up the stone path and I knew it was Mamá. I hid in the guava groves, shaking and covered with good bumps. My belly hurt. I squatted, pants down, and little worms rushed out of me in a hot foam. I watch them crawl in my stool. They had been eating me inside while Mamá was gone.
I stayed in the groves till sundown. By then the neighbors were sipping café on Abuelita's porch. Mamá had bathed and her hair dripped down the back of her house dress. I tripped over the porch steps but she caught me, lifted me high, my face against her throat, her words vibrating against my cheek.
She had stories to tell: El Che was a "beautiful man," Raul Castro a "uniformed rodent," his brother Fidel a "Marxist Leninist Opportunist." The fighting was moving west, Mamá said, away from Cáceres and the mountains. The rebels would be in Havana before the year's end. "But," she looked at me, "I'm glad to be back."
Night frogs chittered in the brush as Mamá fell asleep on the rocking chair. Abuelita Carmen told everyone what they came to hear. She said her daughter "got knocked up by a rebel cook so they sent her home on a jackass." The neighbors nodded, some in sympathy. A few grinned. Then they went back to their shacks in the dark.
Sometime that night Mamá slid beside me on the cot. She moved her cold hands over my belly like she'd done at times back in Regla, when we lived by the harbor. But now I lay stiff, scared Mamá might get up and go back to her rocking chair on the porch. Now that she was a guerrillera, maybe she missed sleeping out with the crickets and the tough mountain wind.
The next morning Mamá told me all she would ever say about the rebel cook: "The path of a woman's heart, mija, is made slippery by hunger."
Abuelita Carmen frowned. But I thought about it; the path of Mamá's heart seemed slippery, regardless.