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On International Women’s Day, highlighting the work of Camille Gomera-Tavarez
Last month, her 2022 debut, "High Spirits," won the 2023 Pura Belpré Young Adult Honor Award from the American Library Association.
The collection was released last year and follows members of the Belén family across generations. The author describes her debut as pulling from the stories of her family. "It started as an exploration of machismo with a dash of magic, inspired by the tradition of lo real maravilloso in the Americas," Gomera-Tavarez writes in the author's note at the end of her book.
Last month, High Spirits won the 2023 Pura Belpré Young Adult Honor Award from the American Library Association.
I became familiar with her work after I emailed her publisher and requested Lorraine Avila's upcoming Y.A. novel, The Making of Yolanda La Bruja, which I will review next month. The publisher sent along High Spirits with a note that said I might be interested in covering it for Bronx Frontlines.
Gomera-Tavarez, a first-generation Dominican, was born in 1997 in Inwood. After her birth, her parents moved to Santo Domingo, where they stayed until 2001. They settled in Clifton, New Jersey, when they returned to the United States. The author attended the Maryland Institute College of Art and studied creative writing and design.
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She is an illustrator and graphic designer, and in July 2020, she launched the online platform Plantin, which features illustrated short stories and poetry by Black voices from around the world. “Plantin is dedicated to becoming an un-gated platform for writers belonging to the Black immigrant experience. From Afro-Latinxs, to Trinidadian-Americans, to British-Nigerians, all children of the African Diaspora are welcome to the kick back. We curate works that speak to the experiences of 1st & 2nd generation Black immigrants and pair them with talented illustrators.”
In the 11 stories of High Spirits, all connected by the same familial tree across generations, Gomera-Tavarez explores the longing and nostalgia for the Dominican Republic and the awkwardness of returning to the D.R.
She describes the difficulties of communicating with our elders; the ways Dominicans communicate without words, with looks or glances or a raise of an eyebrow; the connection between Arabic and Spanish; religion; young girls as caretakers or servants; and the disposability of children.
In "Barbaro," Yoanson is sent to cut his hair by his mother. His brother José takes him to the barber shop, where we are introduced to Tony. These are my favorite scenes throughout the book because we see men discuss liberation and fairy tales and anti-haitianism inside a very heteronormative physical space. We also see a beautiful interaction between Tony and Yoanson. Tony acknowledges that the young boy does not want to cut his hair off, despite what his family says, and he refuses to do something to the child he does not want to be done.
Her descriptive writing takes us through different parts of the Dominican diaspora. Many stories occur in fictional Hidalpa, San Juan, Paterson, and Santo Domingo.
In "Colmado," she writes, "The pale blue paint on the house exterior had deeper cracks than her abuelo's toasted hands, its hue fading faster than his fleeting mind."
Also, from "Colmado": "There were plantains, bananas, ropes of garlic, and onions hanging from the ceiling above, ripe for plucking at the request of a customer."
There is tension when you are healing, past versus present, present versus future. This is exacerbated by the fact that the people who know you most intimately and understand the trauma and pain you carry are the hardest to talk to.
I like how the author describes how insidious anxiety is, how it is passed on from family to family, and how mental health is viewed in our community. From "Cut Day": "The relief of being well into the next week and having today's crisis replaced by another one."
I love reading the work of brilliant, younger Dominican women, authors who aren't afraid to name our trauma, and our history, and not scared to step into the nuances of telling these stories—spaces where you must be both subject and detached observer/historian/journalist.
High Spirits features the types of stories I would want to write if I wrote fiction.
You can view more of Camille Gomera-Tavarez's art and other writing on her website, including "Are Industries Engaged With Racial Equity or is it Just a Phase?" and "Sunken Place Symptoms: A Guide to Pro-Black vs Anti-Black POC."