To love Miami is to accept that it is a city in flux.
Jonathan Escoffery, one of its writers, recommends books that help shape the Florida metropolis.
By Jonathan Escoffery
March 15, 2023
Image Credit: Raphaelle Macaron
Miami is a city that’s hard to pin down. Blame the immigrants. Blame the tourists. Blame the tech bros. To love Miami is to accept that it is, and always will be, a city in flux. You blink and the skyline changes. (Blame the developers.) Even as it grows increasingly apparent that Miami will be gobbled up by the sea, a new wave of transplants is ever en route.
Miami residents who were “made in Dade” carry their heritage on their sleeves, and it informs their writing beautifully. But some of the best stories set in Miami begin elsewhere: in Puerto Rico and Cuba, the Deep South and New England. I expect this will continue to be the case. Even now, a Californian couple is conceiving the Miami writer who will begin his novel, “My people escaped Palo Alto.”
What should I read before I pack my bags?
To set the mood, and to prepare for your impending immersion in our majority minority city, read Russell Banks’s “Continental Drift.” Few novelists have attempted to capture Miami’s various cultures — and cultural collisions — with the seriousness and empathy that Banks employs in his sweeping epic. The novel follows a New Englander who moves to Florida and gets involved in human trafficking. Meanwhile, in a parallel narrative, a Haitian woman seeks to start a better life in the United States.
The book is ambitious in its attempts to represent the language and attitudes of Haitians, Jamaicans, Cubans and many other Caribbean peoples, alongside Black and white Americans of various social classes. The beauty of the novel — and perhaps the beauty of Miami — is how it destabilizes our ideas about who is foreign and who belongs.
Next, read “Ordinary Girls” Jaquira Díaz’s astonishing memoir about her tumultuous upbringing. Primarily set in the 1990s, the book draws a precise visual of Miami Beach and its outer reaches from the insider’s perspective. Readers might be tempted to use it as a tour guide, following young Jaqui from South Beach’s lifeguard stations across Ocean Drive toward Lincoln Road’s pedestrian-only promenade. Shop and dine, then climb aboard the express bus downtown and, in no time, you’ll arrive at Bayside Marketplace, where you can board a party boat and drink your life away — like an absolute tourist, or like a teenager who would rather be anywhere than home battling her schizophrenic mother.
Díaz also takes readers where tourists probably won’t want to go: to parks infamous for having hidden dead girls’ bodies; to street corner beatdowns and repeat trips to the Miami Beach precinct; to back alleys and locker rooms and apartment bathrooms where men lurk, always expectantly, always to take, take, take all they can from young women. There’s much trauma in these pages, but also much triumph, including in the fact that this book came to exist. Readers will feel buoyed by the energetic prose, and by the warm depictions of the female friendships that carried Díaz through some of her most difficult moments.
What books help explain the city?
For historical perspective, start with “Black Miami in the Twentieth Century,” by Marvin Dunn. The book delves into the major events that brought the Black American and Bahamian work force to the area shortly before the city became incorporated in 1896, then carries readers through the trials and victories of the next hundred years. If you find yourself wondering why areas such as Miami’s Design District, Wynwood or Coconut Grove abut Black neighborhoods, “Black Miami” can help fill you in. The book includes the influential people who became Miami’s historic figures — the ones whose names still mark our highways — but it centers the community of people who literally carved out Miami’s streets.
For the last several decades, Miami’s largest ethnic group has been of Cuban heritage, and you’ll see the Cuban flag raised in front of businesses and homes far beyond the enclaves of Hialeah and Little Havana. Ana Menéndez’s short story collection “In Cuba I Was a German Shepherd” examines the lives of people in the first waves to flee Fidel Castro’s revolution, and explores their continued anxiety about their relationship with the island.
Gabriela Garcia’s novel, “Of Women and Salt,” portrays multiple generations of Cuban and Cuban American women. Garcia unpacks generational trauma, deftly reflects on the parallel experiences of exiles and immigrants and fully considers what it means for the Cuban community to hold the majority of the population in Miami.
In her short story collection, “How to Leave Hialeah,” Jennine Capó Crucet examines the gains and losses associated with escaping both the Miami area and the expectations of a family and culture steeped in patriarchy. In doing so, she paints Hialeah and other parts of Miami-Dade County with crystal clarity.
For Afro-Caribbean perspectives on the city, Edwidge Danticat takes readers to Little Haiti in “Everything Inside,” and the poet and novelist Geoffrey Philp portrays Miami through the lens of a Jamaican in “Garvey’s Ghost.”
What if I want a celebrity memoir?
Luther Campbell’s “The Book of Luke: My Fight for Truth, Justice, and Liberty City” bridges the personal and the political. Campbell, also known as Uncle Luke, balances the story of his rap career, his fight for artistic freedom and the collective story of Liberty City, a part of Miami that is often vilified, always neglected and rarely considered as the nucleus of the fight against racial terror.
What if I want something gritty and atmospheric?
“Miami Noir,” edited by Les Standiford, offers plenty of content that could be ripped from headlines that employ the words “Florida Man.” In one standout story, an ex-con takes up secret residence in a Miami Beach couple’s crawl space. While they’re at work, he cleans up after them and takes care of their cat. In another story, a married couple buys their dream home, and inherits the alligator that frequents their swimming pool. And in another, an anthropologist uses his research to eliminate his rival for a job at the University of Miami. Standiford’s introduction includes a brief history of the crime fiction that has been set in Miami, going back to the 1930s, in case you want to follow the trail.
What’s a good place to curl up with a book?
If you’re willing to travel some miles off the beaten path, Matheson Hammock Park in Coral Gables offers lush greenery, the shade of many banyan trees and a coral rock picnic pavilion. Near the marina, a tranquil beach opens onto an atoll pool, fed and filtered by Biscayne Bay. Alternate between cooling off in the water and lying beneath an ample supply of a palm fronds.
What’s the best time to visit Miami if you are a book lover?
The Miami Book Fair, held every November on Miami Dade College’s downtown campus, provides access to literary luminaries, local authors and even a celebrity or two, depending on whose tell-all is published in a given year. The weeklong festival draws readers and writers from around the globe.
For poetry lovers, and for people who prefer a protracted cultural experience, the annual O, Miami Poetry Festival takes place throughout the month of April (which happens to be National Poetry Month) and consists of individual events and programs held across the city. The festival’s goal is to see that “every single person in Miami-Dade County encounters a poem during the month of April.”
Where can I learn more about literary Miami while in town?
Your best bet is to make an afternoon of visiting Books & Books, a powerhouse independent bookstore. Start at their flagship location in Coral Gables, housed in a beautiful, historic building. The shop’s cafe offers courtyard dining and a solid lunch and drink menu. Inside, among a rich and varied selection of literary fiction as well as books on art and photography, you’ll typically find a shelf or two dedicated to Miami authors, many of whom teach writing at Florida International University or the University of Miami. And if you’re still not sure what to pick up next, the Books & Books staff are some of the most knowledgeable book lovers you’ll meet.
Jonathan Escoffery’s Miami Reading List
Jonathan Escoffery is the author of the short story collection “If I Survive You,” which was shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize.