Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Best of 2014: Autobiography

One of the many items [old and new] enjoyed by Burbank Public Library staff during 2014, recommended for your consideration:

The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, by Richard Blanco

Richard Blanco has written an often hilarious and frequently moving memoir of growing up in a Cuban exile family in Miami. The timing of this book is fortuitous in view of the recent rapprochement between the United States and Cuba. It will give readers a window into the history and feelings of the Cuban exile community in Miami, a community that has become politically important in Florida over the years as Florida, in turn, has become an important state in Presidential electoral politics.

Richard Blanco is the young gay Cuban poet who was chosen to be the inaugural poet at Barrack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013, an experience he recounts in a previous book, For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey. In that book he tells us a little about his life, but his passage from childhood to adulthood as a Cuban immigrant is not, as in The Prince of Los Cocuyos, the “journey” of the title. In For All of Us, One Today, the “journey” is about how his being chosen as the inaugural poet forced him to confront, in a short and stressful period of time, what he experienced in his life as a long road of uncertain and fractured identity. The task of writing the inaugural poem was an alembic, a soul searching, something that forced a resolution of themes that his work at a poet had explored previously without the sense of arrival and triumph that he at last claimed in the wonderful poem he wrote for his country and delivered at the inauguration.  

His selection and the introspection it initiated led him to finally come to accept himself as an American. The Prince of Los Cocuyos is a very different book, and one that it seems could have been written only after the experience described in For All of Us, One Today. In it, Blanco looks back on his childhood as the son of Cuban exiles, and is able to transcend those early struggles as a child with an uncertain cultural identity. He is able to reclaim his childhood as an American story, one that honors the world his parents had to leave behind even as that world remains a part of him, one that he is able to recognize is an essential part of his identity as an American.

Like the beautiful book jacket, the story in The Prince of Los Cocuyos is colorful, celebratory, and triumphant. One senses that in recollection the pain has been softened by a certain retrospective sympathy and forgiveness, and that Blanco has done this deliberately. He wants us to understand the positive and sustaining elements of his Cuban identity and he wants to write a book of hope. While he mentions the worry in his family about his being gay, particularly the cruelty of his grandmother who often taunted and humiliated him about his “artistic” side, the issue of his cultural identity rather than his sexual orientation is the major theme of The Prince of Los Cocuyos. We are to understand, however, that these two issues of cultural and sexual identity, of cultural identity and of self-acceptance, are not independent of each other.

The Prince of Los Cocuyos is a wonderful book because it is more than just an immigrant’s story, or the story of the American Dream. Blanco’s themes are more fundamental, more existential than that, and this gives them a resonance and power that is universal, one that speaks to not only the experience of the first generation of children born to immigrants in a new country, but to all of us. The Prince of Los Cocuyos reminds us of the critical and sustaining connections that exist between our sense of self and a particular place and culture, a place we feel we come from and a place we call home. Without those historical and cultural connections, whether they are handed to us whole or we come to them through the work of reconciling divergent cultural traditions, it is hard for us to understand what place we may have among others and how we might make a difference in the world. This is, above all, a book about hope and the foundation upon which hope is built. I can’t think of a more invigorating  book to read at the start of a new year!

Chosen by Hubert K., reference librarian

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