Book Bag: ‘Meet Me in Havana’ by Serena Burdick; ‘Never Have I Ever’ by Isabel Yap

Staff Writer
Published: 3/23/2021 3:13:30 PM

 

Find Me in Havana by Serena Burdick (Park Row Books)

 

Greenfield author Serena Burdick’s first two books were historical novels: “Girl in the Afternoon,” a story set in late 19th-century Paris during the era of the Impressionists, and more recently “The Girls With No Names,” a narrative about two teenage girls who end up in a brutal “reform” institution for “wayward young women” in early 20th-century New York City.

In her new book, “Find Me in Havana,” Burdick again unfurls a story set in the past, but this time a more recent period. It’s also a story of real people, based in large part on a meeting the author had 20-odd years ago in Los Angeles when she was working as an actress.

“Find Me in Havana” profiles Estelita Rodriguez, a Cuban-born (1928) singer who came to New York City in her teens in the early 1940s and a few years later found herself with a movie contract. She would go on to perform in many Westerns with Roy Rogers; she also played alongside John Wayne in 1959’s “Rio Bravo” and made movies (and continued singing) into the mid 1960s before her mysterious death in 1966 at age 37.

Burdick tells Estelita’s story and the life of her daughter, Nina, through letters the two exchange. It’s a turbulent tale from start to finish. At the novel’s start, Estelita’s family is thrown into poverty during the Cuban revolution of the 1930s, prompting Estelita and her mother, another important character in the story, to move to the U.S.

Estelita would marry four times, divorcing her first three husbands and falling out with the fourth before her death. Her first, Chu Chu Martinez, was a noted Mexican singer and Nina’s father; in the book, he forbids Estelita from resuming her singing career following Nina’s birth, when the couple are living in Mexico City. Showing her determination to live life on her own terms, Estelita flees with her baby daughter back to the U.S.

Even as she forges a career in the movies, Estelita recognizes the ingrained prejudices of Hollywood, its indifference to whether Spanish-speaking actors are from Cuba, Spain, Peru or elsewhere: “It’s all just Mexico to them…. If Hollywood had its way, all its women would be white and blonde, the more ambiguously blonde the better.”

And Nina, who is 12 years old when she first appears in the story, in 1958, is struggling to find her place in the world, when Estelita’s career leaves less time for a mother-daughter relationship and the father figures in her life keep changing. At one point Chu Chu returns, kidnapping Nina from her school and taking her back to Mexico City, leading a frantic Estelita to track her daughter down and escape with her back to the U.S. across miles of desert — a harrowing journey that Burdick describes with great verve.

Mother and daughter also end up back in Cuba as the 1959 revolution erupts, and their extended family faces a range of threats and violence. Then Nina, at age 20 a troubled young women, is left distraught by her mother’s death. Estelita Rodriguez was found dead in a Hollywood home in March 1966, according to various reports, and as no autopsy was performed, her cause of death remains unknown.

“I need a shell. Hard skin. A barrier against the world of missing you,” says Nina.

Burdick notes that she first learned this story when she met Nina (Rodriguez) Lopez, then in her 50s, in California over 20 years ago; she later did additional interviews with Nina and visited Cuba to learn more about Estelita’s life.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Public Library earlier this year, Burdick said she stuck to the real history of the women, with some changes to the timeline and the addition of some invented characters.

“Find Me in Havana” is a painful story but, with its intimate look at how women battle sexism, misogyny, and violence from men, it’s also a powerful one. As Publisher’s Weekly writes, “Estelita’s sacrifices and determination as a mother and an artist make for a deeply affecting tragedy.”

Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap (Small Beer Press)

 

In her debut collection of short stories, Isabel Yap, a native of the Philippines, has drawn on her heritage and Filipino folktales in fashioning a range of narratives that move between science fiction, horror and fairy tales to look at issues that remain constant no matter what the genre: love, loneliness, loss, laughter and more.

That said, there’s plenty of weirdness and otherworldly stuff in Yap’s collection, published by Small Beer Press in Easthampton. Take “Hurricane Heels (We Go Down Dancing),” which begins innocently enough with five young women in New York city celebrating one of the friends getting hitched.

“We toasted Selena’s impending marriage to the impeccable Robert Myers, and Natalie added that should he ever break her heart, we would break his bones,” Yap writes. “Selena smiled sweetly and replied that she’d break them herself.”

They’re not kidding: It turns out the five met as girls at a summer camp “in a forest where goddesses roamed the earth” and were anointed with special powers to fight the monsters that also roam the earth. They’ve continued to battle foul creatures over the years, even as they’ve tried to live more normal lives, and after their bachelorette party moves to a male strip club, a monster returns.

“Slime splattered everywhere. Debris rained from above. People stampeded…. A globby hand, heading straight for me, orange and vile and about to crush my windpipe — Selena in a blaze of pink, hacking it apart. She had a sickening gash on one leg, probably from the exploded stage.”

The story, told with brassy humor — “I mean, it could have happened on your wedding day” one of the friends says afterward to Selena — is above all an ode to female friendship and a warning about underestimating girl power.

Other stories also look at female companionship. In “A Canticle for Lost Girls,” Catholic schoolgirls call down dark powers on one of their teachers. Another tale, “A Cup of Salt Tears,” features a young woman, Makino, who’s grieving the impending death of her husband, Tetsuya. Then she’s visited by a demon, called a kappa, who saved her from drowning as a child — and who might be able to save Makino’s husband, too.

“Full of magic and mystery, monsters, and miracles, everything a reader could need during these troubling times,” writes one reviewer of the story collection, while another says “[W]here Yap consistently dazzles is her unsentimental, tender, evocative and brutal examination of the life and interiority of young women and girls: the innate monstrousness of growing up in the shoes marked ‘woman.’ ”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




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