“High Spirits” (Levine Querido 2022) by extraordinary debut author, Camille Gomera-Tavarez, is a collection of eleven interconnecting stories about the m Dominican diaspora. Four generations of the Beléns family are represented, some living in the tiny village of Hidalpa, some in San Juan and some in Washington Heights, a neighborhood in New York City.
Gabriel’s story opens the book and is perhaps my favorite of the collection, or maybe this new voice was at its most eye-opening to me. Gabriel has “carefully constructed” a persona to present to his family. “He’d pieced it together with the caring, gentle hands of the piñata sculptor…Each slice of wet newspaper a little bit of the truth, hardening into a fragile shell over time.” His parents had sent him from the island to “the land of burgers and pizza at age twenty” to go to college. The sight of cooked beans transports us from Washington Heights to his Dominican Republic childhood.
The hand drawn family tree shows that Cristobal is the patriarch and it’s his “colmado” or grocery store in the Dominican. His American granddaughter, Cristabel, spends summers in the village seeing it through American eyes. She realizes that the sodas in the DR are so much better because they are made with “real cane sugar from the fields.”
In “Skipping Stones,” contemporary American teen Ana summers every year in DR with her cousin Zahaira. They model the contrast of two cultures. Only in DR can the girls pick fresh limoncillos from a tree and eat them. But Zahaira cannot obtain a visa to leave the island. Ana sports tattoos and can travel the globe with her U.S. passport. On the beach when approached by a drunken macho creep Ana curses him, but Zahaira, knowing her culture, assuages him by giving him money to go buy a beer. American Ana declares her love for Dominican Zahaira who rebukes her cousin’s advances.
The final story, “High Spirits,” brings all the stories together when the matriarch sits around the holiday table and tells the story of her courtship with the patriarch. “What a fairy tale, that’s what her nieces at the Nochebuena table would say, marveling at the glazed, giddy look in her aged husband’s eyes they would mistake for romance.” The subtleties of the prose uncover deep mysteries of the human condition, as well as secrets of evolving cultures. The story and the book ends, with Gabriel’s wry statement showing his wisdom and sophistication and throws a wrench in the tale.
I’ve loved everything published by this new imprint Levine Querido. And these mostly realistic family stories with just a hint of magical realism by a remarkable writer should not be missed.
Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of the award-winning books: Lift As You Climb; Josephine; Loving vs Virginia; and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue all signed and for sale at Jane Addams bookstore. Her forthcoming books are about women’s suffrage, Martha Graham, and Ella Fitzgerald. talesforallages.com