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What is it about Miami that makes people want to write about it?

Whether you were born here, left and came back, or are a recent transplant, Miami has a toque especial that you don’t find anywhere else in the United States. That makes it an ideal place for those putting pen to paper, and many authors are doing their part to put their finger on what makes this city a wordsmith’s dream.

“There is so much that is impossible to know in a city of such variety, and such unpredictable patterns,” said Chantel Acevedo, author and associate professor of English in the MFA Program of the University of Miami. “As a fiction writer, what is unknown is what drives me to try to discover.” Editor’s note: De Greff is an MFA student at UM.

For many years Miami struggled to be seen as more than just beaches, drugs, and wild parties. That exists, of course, but bit by bit the rest of the world is sitting up and taking notice of everything else — in part thanks to writers intent on creating portraits of a city that are multilingual, multifaceted, and, most importantly, honest.

Tourists may come to Miami to get away, but writers come here to get into the heart of the place.

There’s Little Haiti, with its French and Kreyol library and cafés known for delicious plates of griot. There’s Opa-Locka, whose design was inspired by “1001 Arabian Nights” and is a perfect backdrop for anyone into historical fiction or beautiful architecture. Hop over to Little Havana and get sucked into a world of dominos, cigars, and men on bikes trying to outdo each other’s piropos, i.e. creative catcalling.

Then there’s Homestead, where you can drive by miles of avocado, snap beans, and sweet potato crops, where while you wait in traffic you can buy a paleta or a bag of limes and contemplate the next great American novel, because, let’s face it, Miami is America. It’s imperfect and it’s literally sinking, and yet we hold out hope that something will change in the near future.

Here’s an excerpt from a short story, “Biscayne” by Patricia Engel found in the anthology “15 Views of Miami” edited by Jaquira Díaz:
“It’s all so different now. I often drive past our old place on Biscayne. Our building, that two-story cement cube, a lone decrepit relic in the undertown of towering metal beasts. Our neighbors’ bungalows and buildings were bought, knocked down, and replaced with luxury high-rises. Our landlord, that stubborn bastard, has held out, letting the ground floor shop tenants pay the same old rent. The barber is still there. Tino’s bodega on the corner. The laundromat. […] We’d watch the boulevard from that window, from the Bacardi Building to Out of the Closet.The teenagers selling coke and pills on the corner, ignored by the cops, and occasional tourists, lost after a wrong turn from Bayside and the cruise ships. We watched the summer rain hammer the street below. We boarded its frame with plywood when the hurricanes came.”

The physicality of Miami is one thing that brings writers back to the city again and again. All of the senses seem heightened in an urban city that coexists with a lush and tropical landscape. The colors are turned on high, the bass from Impalas extra loud, and every neighborhood prides itself on its own particular smells, from Jamaican patties and fufu to arepas and pulled pork. Then there is the layer of stickiness that is both the bane and essence of locals, that gives us a reason both to complain and to remind us that we’re alive and breathing.

Of course, what lies below the surface is more than any one writer can pinpoint, which is why it’s exciting to see how each person’s experience shapes their view of the city.

“There are novels are very much ‘of’ Miami,” said Acevedo. “They are multilingual, or they reflect the immigrant experience; or else they are about feeling displaced here, about longing for some other kind of home. That seems to me a very Miami kind of emotional pain, since so many of us here are from some other place.”

Being from another place and coming to Miami to make a new home among strangers can be both exhilarating and lonely. Even for millennials, nostalgia for the old days is a real thing.

Author Jaquira Diaz, born in Puerto Rico and raised in Miami Beach. (Courtesy of Jaquira Diaz)
Author Jaquira Diaz, born in Puerto Rico and raised in Miami Beach. (Courtesy of Jaquira Diaz)

“There’s not much left of my Miami, the Beach as it was when I was growing up,” said writer Jaquira Díaz, who was born in Puerto Rico but raised here in the 1980s and 1990s. “Writing about it, for me, has been a way to recapture what it was. I miss it like you wouldn’t believe. I keep coming back because my family lives in Miami, but also, it’s home.”

Home, for many local writers, is a troubled place but also one to celebrate. It can be daunting. Where do you start? Which neighborhood to focus on? How to tell the truth about a place that may not know what its truth is?

Díaz has some advice for those who want to write about Miami, or for anyone who wants to see it in a more nuanced manner: “Be brave. Be honest. Appreciate the beautiful and the ugly. Get to know the neighborhood you’re writing about, the real people who make up the city. Know its history, its music, its mix of cultures. Talk to people who were there before you.”

“The city is so many things at once,” said Díaz. “It’s a sprawling city that can sometimes feel like a small town; it’s beautiful and ugly and crazy and loud and fast-paced and slow and angry and corrupt and innovative and dynamic and flawed; it’s full of ridiculously smart and creative people, and fucking selfish idiots, and social justice warriors, and everything in between. Sometimes I love it. Sometimes I hate it. Most of the time, it’s both. It’s a writer’s dream. It’s everything.”

By Dana De Greff
A Miami native, Dana De Greff is a freelance journalist and MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Miami. She’s at work on her first novel.