In her collection of short stories Grieving for Guava (The University Press of Kentucky, 2020), Cecilia M. Fernandez captures the grief, longing, and hope of Cuban immigrants and diaspora in 10 poignant vignettes. These stories, though different in length, style, and perspective, are connected by lingering yearning and loss. The title Grieving for Guava hints at the evocative imagery that highlights the vivid, small details that the characters long for—that sweet scent of guava in their homes.
Home. The word, though often unspoken, permeates these stories, which span the divide between two countries, offering glimpses into the lives of those who are leaving, have left, or are returning to Cuba. The nostalgia-tinged prose of each narrative allows readers to experience the sense of both community and isolation felt by immigrants old and young and in between.
In her foreword, Fernandez speaks about capturing the stories of the past before it is “utterly lost.” Although fictional stories, the truth of each family’s struggle comes through; so much so that one feels as if they are reading real-life accounts of various lives. Fernandez’s love—for her family, for these first waves of Cuban people coming to America, for these lives—is evident in her thoughtful, earnest prose and detailed characterization.
Grieving for Guava opens with the story of the three Marusas in “Marusa’s Beach.” Both memories and yearning span their generations, where Cuban immigrants find community with each other amidst their own dashed hopes, struggles, and dreams. Multiple families are broken—both during and after the move to Cuba—and many are separated by distance, time, or beliefs. The story ends with a sense of irrevocable change, grief, and regret that carries through the rest of the stories.
The next stories, “Mad Magi” and “The Last Girl,” surprised me. They move from the powerful first story’s thoughtful, reflective grief into an ever-present sense of restlessness and dissatisfaction. These stories detail the stagnancy and confusion of trying to adapt to lives different than what one may have hoped for and expected. As the book moves forward, so do the characters, and watching them realize that what has changed is not only their circumstances but also themselves is striking.
“Summer of My Father’s Gun” focuses on another young girl trying desperately to regain stability, safety, and belonging. She lives in a neighborhood of many Cubans, and Fernandez briefly but effectively tells stories within this story, detailing the backgrounds of each family in the community. Though the story is from one person’s perspective, it showcases an experience shared by many. I felt the communion of shared past and present similarities, and the division that even those can cause.
“Button Box” shows the trailing sense of loss and confusion upheavals leave behind. The story gives us our first real-time glimpse within the book at Cuba, which has changed significantly since Castro’s takeover. Details and plot unfold to reveal the loss felt by both those who left and those left behind, along with the solace of memories and loved ones as we watch someone visit the island and reunite with family. The character’s hope kept me hooked. Seeing her revisit previously familiar places and people reminded me of my own trips to my mother’s home country where I grew up—that fear that everything will have changed, combined with the knowledge that some things inevitably have already, is one I imagine is familiar to many immigrant families.
“Where Do You Go, My Lovely?” veers back to younger diaspora, this time painting the differences between generations of immigrants. Whereas the Marusas are connected by their longing for home, Susana and her parents and grandparents grapple with their contrasting backgrounds and goals. Fernandez shows how the struggles and stories of first-generation immigrants sometimes get lost down the road, harkening back to the foreword’s statement that the past must be written before it is lost. Susana’s story itself seemed symbolic of this, a way to preserve the past while moving forward.
In two former lovers’ dual perspectives, “Flags and Rafts” crosses back and forth between the port of Cojímar and the shores of Miami. One left for America near the beginning of Castro’s takeover, while the other stayed, yet both hoped for a better future. The story is a tribute to the hopes maintained and thwarted over time, uniting Cuban people on and off the island even while separating them, and the endurance of hope sustained through love. :Flags and Rafts” delves into old loves, while “Rocking Chair Love” explores the discovery of new love after loss, painting a picture of renewal found even through grief.
“Dime-Store Date” reveals the trickling effect of an older generation’s struggles and trauma. Amid the disappointment and isolation of a broken family is a younger teenager driven by the same desire for love and belonging and wounded by its loss. The glimpse into young Mari’s world traces a day that Mari will not remember but that I and other readers certainly will. With subtle heartbreak and narrative, Fernandez implores readers not to forget.
The stories come full circle with “Here in Havana.” Decades after the events of “Marusa’s Beach,” Iraidita continues to hold close her memories of the day, her longing for home, and her hope for a better life. As we make the journey with her back to Havana, seeing Cuba and the world change through her eyes, we learn what it means to rediscover home.
Overall, the collection is full of gripping, moving vignettes that tugged at my heartstrings. I felt deeply invested in many of the characters, feeling as if I were hoping, grieving, and wondering with them. Fernandez painted a vivid picture of that unsettling restlessness that comes with the yearning for something we can’t have; in the characters’ case, it’s their old lives. Whenever I’ve missed the smell of Taiwanese pork chop or the sweetness of aiyu, what I’ve really missed is home. This collection took me through every step of that vivid nostalgia. In Grieving for Guava, all the details—the smells of local guava, the sounds of family members in casual conversation, the sights of the ocean from a Cuban coast—captured the pervasiveness of the constant longing that stays forever, and the comfort of all that’s left.
Stephi Cham holds a BM in Music Therapy with a Minor in Psychology from Southern Methodist University. She is currently working toward her MA in Publishing at Rosemont College, where she manages the publishing program’s communications as a graduate assistant. She is a freelance editor and the author of the Great Asian-American series published by Capstone Press, and her work has appeared in Strange Horizons.