Friday, October 2, 2020

Kerouac in St. Pete: Honoring a Beat Prophet in His Adopted Hometown

"A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown."   Matthew 13:57


Jack Kerouac Alley in San Francisco
There’s a Jack Kerouac Park in Lowell, Mass. where the author was born, a Jack Kerouac Alley in San Francisco where he was launched as a poet and Beat writer, a rue de Jack Kérouac in Quebec City in honor of his French Canadian ancestry, a rue Jack Kerouac in the hamlet of Kerouac in the French region of Brittany which is the source of Jack’s surname and a Jack Kerouac sign in front of the house where he lived in Orlando. There’s even a crater on Mercury named in honor of Jack Kerouac. 

So why is there no monument, no park no street named after Kerouac in St. Petersburg -- not even a plaque at St. Anthony's Hospital where the iconic author died on October 21, 1969?

I was puzzled by this when I arrived here in 1990 to work as book editor at the St. Petersburg Times. Wasn't Kerouac considered an important enough literary figure to honor? Was the town embarrassed that St. Pete had become the end of the road for the troubled actor of On the Road?

When I proposed to include a Kerouac tribute at the first Times Festival of Reading in 1993, I was met with skepticism. My colleagues at the Times questioned Kerouac's literary merit ("You know what Truman Capote says about Kerouac's work: 'That's not writing, that's typing"). Some felt he was a poor role model ("You know, he drank himself to death here") as if suffering from alcoholism exempted him from posterity.

I did manage to include Kerouac panels of biographers, editors and friends who had known Kerouac in St. Petersburg at the first two festivals, but got no support to make Kerouac an ongoing feature at the festival.

Happily, interest in the Beat author has grown since that time. In 2013 Keep St. Pete Lit held its first even, a city-wide reading of On the Road. That same year The Friends of the Jack Kerouac House, Inc. was formed. Interested in turning the house where Jack had lived into a writer's retreat or a museum, the nonprofit group sponsored concerts and bike tours of Kerouac sites to raise money to buy it.

Celebration of Kerouac at the Dalí Museum     

In 2016 the Dalí Museum held a celebration of Kerouac and his local legacy (which included a reading from Desolation Angels where Kerouac describes meeting Salvador Dalí at The Russian Tea Room in New York:  “I looked into his eyes, and he looked into my eyes, we couldn't stand all that sadness”). 

In 2017 Jack finally returned to the Times Festival of Reading: Kristy Andersen, an independent St. Petersburg filmmaker, presented Snowbird, her documentary in progress about Kerouac's years in St. Petersburg. 

And last year The Friends of the Jack Kerouac House launched the first Spirit of Kerouac Festival which included a Literary Roast of Jack Kerouac organized by Wordier Than Thous at the Studio@620 (complete with a Jack Kerouac look-alike contest and an "appearance" of Jack himself). This year's festival, which features events through October, will be held virtually, of course. 

One of the participants I invited to those earlier Kerouac panels at the Times festival was Ron Lowe who told great first-hand stories about Jack's life here. Twenty years younger than Kerouac, Ron was the last in a long series of male buddies Kerouac cultivated for lively conversation -- and rides home (ironically, the author of On the Road never learned to drive). 

Ron had met Jack in 1965 at a local St. Petersburg bar where Ron's band, The Dominoes, was playing. (The band was the first racially mixed band to play in front of an integrated  audience on the beaches here, at the Peppermint Lounge in Madeira Beach). Jack would come to hear the Dominoes and then Ron and his "philosophical talkinig-all-night buddy," his "impromptu 'let's-drive-to-Miami-right-now' buddy" would sit and talk up on the rooftop of the Twilight Lounge on Central Avenue or over breakfast in an all-night diner (yes, once driving the Coupe de Ville all the way to Miami). 

Ron, who sadly died in 2001 before finishing his memoirs about his friendship with Jack, talked to me often about how steamed he was that biographers described his friend in his final years in St. Petersburg as washed up and defeated.

Published in 1966
“Those biographers who assumed that Jack crawled off to St. Petersburg to die didn't have to try to keep up with him,” he said. “Sure, Jack was frustrated (“I live in a monastery with my mother") and, yes, he drank a lot (“Any freshman who'd read his Kerouac knew that”) but, he lived til he  died." 

And continued to write. While living at 5155 10 Avenue N with his mother from 1964 to 1966, Kerouac wrote about sports for the Evening Independent, a sister publication of the St. Petersburg Times, and most likely finished Sartori in Paris, published in 1966, in that house. In 1966 Kerouac returned to Massachusetts, but he came back to St. Petersburg a second time in 1968, buying the house right next door at 5169 10th Avenue N. This time, along with his mother, he brought his new wife, Stella Sampas, the sister of his childhood friend in Lowell. There is some speculation that Kerouac might have written some of Vanity of Duluoz, a semi-autobiographical novel about life between 1935 and 1946, in that second house. His last published work, Vanity of Duluoz appeared in 1968.

And those Kerouac houses?

Unlike the cottage where Kerouac wrote Dharma Bums in Orlando which has been turned into a writer's retreat, neither of the Kerouac houses in St. Petersburg has been given such literary status.

Not that the Friends of the Jack Kerouac House didn't try. John Sampas, Kerouac's brother-in-law, who inherited the dwelling from his sister, made the nonprofit group the home's caretakers. Volunteers went to the house to care for the lawn and to regularly empty the mailbox which routinely was stuffed with fan mail to Jack. "'Dearest Jack,' reads one," reported Ben Montgomery in the Tampa Bay Times. "'Thank you for everything. Your work is why I write, and write to live.' 'Hey Jack, We came by to say hello,' says another. 'Sorry we missed you.'"

To raise funds for house repairs, the group held concerts, led by Pat Barmore and Pete Gallagher, at The Flamingo Sports Bar on 9th Avenue N. The bar, which sports a gigantic photograph of Kerouac on its facade, claims (based on local legend, not actual documentation) that the author hung out there to play pool and drink "a shot and a wash," a whiskey with a plastic cup of beer (served now there as the Jack Kerouac special).

According to Margaret Murray, even the city started to show interest in Jack Kerouac. She singled out Council member Amy Foster as being particularly supportive of the group's efforts. 

Murray organized the bike tours. They grew out of her graduate thesis at Savannah College of Art and Design. "They were tours of Jack Kerouac in St. Petersburg, but also of the history of the city and how it's changed," says Murray, now the associate curator of public programs at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Murray would add and subtract sites to the tours as she continued to research Kerouac's time in St. Pete. Among the popular stops were the Twilight Lounge at 2235 Central Avenue which in Kerouac's time stood next to an International Harvester store selling tractors and the site of the old holding cells at the police station where Jack was arrested for public intoxication after he went on a binge when his sister Caroline died in 1964.

Neither of which did much to bolster Kerouac's artistic bona fides.

Murray, who serves as treasurer for the Kerouac nonprofit admits there always has been that concern that Kerouac wasn't literary enough. "But to be fair, even Jack's friends in New York were embarrassed by how his life ended," she points out. "We all have experienced how an alcoholic can cut off connections and lose their friends' support."

There was one decidedly literary stop on Murray's tour though: Haslam's.

Jack used to stop at the local bookstore to see if his books were on the shelves and complained when they weren't. Ron Lowe was convinced that Kerouac haunted the store after his death.

"For years now there have been strange reports coming out of the Central Avenue bookstore," Lowe wrote in one of the many reviews of books about Jack that he wrote for the St. Petersburg Times. "Seems when the store is open in the morning, there are sometimes books dislodged and laying on the floor. They're always Jack's books."

In 2015 Sampas suddenly changed his terms with the Kerouac group, changing the house's locks and offering to sell the place to them -- for a whopping $500,000. When Sampas died in 2017 without a sale and the house passed on to his son, the battle over the fate of the Jack Kerouac house intensified -- and got more complicated.

In 2019, some members who had originally founded The Friends of the Jack Kerouac House -- including Barmore and Gallagher -- split away to formed a second group, The Jack Kerouac House of St. Petersburg, Inc., to more intensely focus on raising the money needed to meet the Sampas family's asking price. They announced they wanted to turn the house into a writer's retreat.

But, alas, the group was unable to raise enough before the family's June deadline (even at the lowered asking price of $300,000), and at the end of the June the house was sold for $220,000 to Flip Side LLC, a developer, as its name implies, devoted to flipping houses.

The headline about the sale in the Tampa Bay Times -- "House for a beatnik no more" -- must have been particularly galling for Jack Kerouac's ghost. "I'm not a beatnik," Kerouac famously said. "I'm a Catholic." A political conservative, Kerouac loathed the hippie generation he was said to have inspired.

Kerouac: "I'm not a beatnik. I'm a Catholic."

When he named the Beat Generation, he often explained, he meant “beat” as in beatific not beatnik or the beat goes on.

Kerouac was a Catholic but he also embraced Buddhism, especially during his final years. On the first page of, the website of the original Kerouac nonprofit, there is a poignant image of Jack living at the 10th Avenue N abode: "Attempting to reconcile his Buddhist leanings with his overwhelming urge to drink and carouse, he spent many nights to the peaceful backyard, dragging a cot outside to sleep under the stars."

That original Kerouac group, which since the split has expanded its board of direction, now calls itself simply Friends of Jack Kerouac. It has refocused its mission. "For the time being, we are moving away fro an emphasis on property acquisition," explains USFSP professor Thomas Hallock who is the group's vice-president, "and focussing more on Kerouac's literary legacy. Through community discussions and arts and cultural events, we want to spark the creative spirit within us all." Plans include mapping outdoor routes for cultural-literary tourism, readings and critical discussions, as well as outreach to community and allied groups. And continuing the annual Spirit of Jack Kerouac Festival.

Meanwhile, the second Kerouac nonprofit hasn't given up completely on the acquisition of Jack's house and the dream of turning it into a writer's retreat. "We will remain hopeful," Barmore, the president of The Jack Kerouac House of St. Petersburg, Inc. told the Times after the June sale. "Maybe an angel will fall out of the sky."

And maybe one day in St. Petersburg, we'll drive down Avenue Jack Kerouac.

This article originally appeared in Arts Coast Journal, the online magazine of Creative Pinellas.


There is some specul

Monday, August 10, 2020

Reading Nature

Happy summer! Hope everyone is staying safe -- and finding ways to stay creative. A version of the post below first appeared on Arts Coast Journal, the online journal of Creative Pinellas:

On walks through my neighborhood in South St. Petersburg — a daily ritual I have adopted during this time of corona virus lockdown -- I have been looking more intently at neighbors.

No, not the human ones, but the things of nature whose ancestors were here way before any of ours.

Those things with feathers, for example.  Is that an egret, a heron or a pelican? Was that an osprey diving into Tampa Bay? Did I just see a mockingbird attacking a black bird? Is that a woodpecker I hear? 


Or the oaks, pines, magnolia and palm trees which, according to environmental scientists, actually form communities and communicate with each other. What messages are they sending to each other? I wonder as I pass by.

When I’m not outside contemplating nature, I find myself inside reading more and more books about nature. Three recently published ones offer a window onto Florida’s natural world: I Have Been Assigned The Single Bird: A Daughter’s Memoir by Susan Cerulean; Cat Tale: The Wild, Weird Battle to Save the Florida Panther by Craig Pittman and Voices of Booker Creek, a collection of writings inspired by a nature writing class offered by USFSP professor Thomas Hallock. The latter addresses the intersection of race and nature in St. Petersburg, offering stories about a forgotten waterway and the community on its banks that was also left behind. 

Race and nature are also addressed in Remembering Paradise Park: Tourism and Segregation at Silver Springs, which was published by the University Press of Florida in 2015. I got the book from the St. Petersburg Library system (which has begun to distribute books again on a limited basis) when I saw that it was this month's book pick for the St. Petersburg's Museum of Fine Arts Virtual Book Club. 

I guess I'm not the only one who has been preoccupied by natural Florida lately.

I also ordered a copy of Mary Ann Carroll: First Lady of the Highwaymen (also published by the University Press of Florida in 2014) from the library to remind myself that nature is there for all of us to seek some solace in this time of loss and disorientation. Above is one of Carroll's vivid paintings called Royal Poinciana.


By Susan Cerulean

University of Georgia Press, 2020

 “I Have Been Assigned The Single Bird offers a lament for the precious things that have passed, an elegy for the fragile beauty that remains, and a recognition of the inseparable Nature of all living things,” writes nature writer Joe Hutto.  

Its Tallahassee author (shown at left) is a self-described writer, naturalist and earth advocate who has written many books on nature: Tracking Desire: A Journey after Swallow-tailed Kites, UnspOILed: Writers Speak for Florida’s Coast (coedited with Janisse Ray and A. James Wohlpart) and Coming to Pass: Florida’s Coastal Islands in a Gulf of Change. I Have Been Assigned The Single Bird, a memoir, is her most personal to date. It juxtaposes her role as a caretaker for her father who has dementia and her volunteer work protecting wild shorebirds along the Florida coast on a tiny island just south of the Apalachicola bridge.

In her prologue Cerulean writes, "How can we care for this world? I have tried to reconcile my roles as one daughter caring for one father, as one woman attuned at times to only a single wild bird while the planet is burning. How I long to change the world for the better. Offering care to those we love is closely similar to standing up for our Earth. In all cases, we are required to be fierce and full-bodied advocates, in an endless series of small actions, each as important as the next."

Want to meet the author? On August 19 at 6:30 p.m.Cerulean will be talking about her book with USFSP professor Tom Hallock at a Zoom session sponsored by Tombolo Books, a new independent bookstore in St. Petersburg. You can register for Tombolo event through GOOGLE FORM and a Zoom link will be sent to you.  

By Craig Pittman

Hanover Square Press, 2020

Craig Pittman, the author of Oh, Florida!: How America’s Weirdest State Influences the Rest of the Country, tells another weird Florida story in Cat Tale, describing with his trademark mixture of humor and erudition how a motley crew of people sought to save the Florida panther from extinction. 

Among panther’s would-be saviors were a grizzled old Texas trapper, a rich scientist, a retired showman, a biochemist who looked like Santa Claus, two former Detroit bootleggers, a veterinarian who collected panther semen and a biologist known as “Dr. Panther” who nearly derailed the effort with faulty research.

It took Pittman, shown at left holding his new book, more than a decade to finish Cat Tale which was published in January. Why so long? He had compiled much of the research for the book while he worked as an environmental writer for the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times), but he was waiting for a happy ending to the story, he told CBS Miami in February. 

Despite all the bungling and professional rivalries, those seeking to pull the panther -- Florida's official animal -- from the brink of extinction finally largely succeeded. In the 70s, there were about 20 in the state. Today the population of panthers, long thought to be spiritual beings by Native Americans, numbers about 200. In the CBS Miami interview below, Pittman gives us a glimpse of the graceful (and elusive) cat and an update on the fight to preserve its habitats, still threatened by interstate highways.

Edited by Anna Maria Lineberger, Dylan Furness and Kelly Kennedy

University of South Florida, 2020

Voices of Booker Creek, a collection of essays, poems, interviews, news articles and even a play, is also about a fight for survival — for an almost forgotten waterway and the African-American community that has lived along its banks for decades. 


The creek runs through south St. Petersburg for about three miles, from the west side of I-275 to the southern edge of the USF St. Petersburg campus, looking at spots along its route like nothing but a drainage ditch (its nickname, Booger, says it all). 

In the 1920s, the waterway, which flowed through Campbell Park and the Gas Plant neighborhood, however, was thriving — as was the racially segregated communities that formed along its banks. But both equally were neglected. As the city grew, at times developers built right on top of the waterway (and, in the case of construction of Tropicana Field, plowing down African-American houses and churches that stood in its way). Part of the creek actually flows under Central Avenue. It then continues around Tropicana Field, beneath I-175 and through Campbell Park and Roser Park, before ending up in Bayboro Harbor. 

“Booker Creek tells the story of a city that found progress at the expense of nature and a vibrant, tight-knit community,” writes St. Petersburg City Council representative Gina Driscoll in the book’s foreword. Driscoll represents District 6, which includes part of Booker Creek. “Now, after many years of neglect, there is a growing interest in stronger stewardship of the creek to revitalize and celebrate this beautiful, damaged thread."

The voices heralding that “beautiful, damaged thread” in Voices of Booker Creek are refreshingly diverse. Joe, a homeless man, writes a poem. Shadin Haitham, one of eight Gibbs High School students whose work is included, offers a play called Fighting for Larryisha (who is a frog).  A county commissioner (Kenneth Welch), a local historian (Gwendolyn Reese), Bayfront Hospital’s first African-American chief of staff (the late Dr. Paul McRae) and a writing coach (Roy Peter Clark) as well as journalists, graduate students who took Hallock’s nature writing course and other lovers of Booker Creek all provide new perspectives on the waterway.

 On the Voices of Booker Creek YouTube page you can listen to the actual voices of some of the contributors as they read their stories: “Jesus Up the Creek” by local writer Jon Wilson, “Paddling Toward Reparations,” by Professor Hallock, “Ghost Houses” by USFSP professor Julie Buckner Armstrong and “Night” by Luke Bilsborough, a recent graduate of Pinellas County Schools.

 “Voices of Booker Creek is a testament to St. Petersburg’s black communities,” says Anna Maria Lineberger, a professor of composition at St. Leo University, who edited the volume along with Dylan Furness and Kelly Kennedy.  “It serves as one piece of a vast story stretching before and beyond itself. It bears witness to something far greater than what we can contain in one volume.”

By Lu Vickers and Cynthia Wilson-Graham

University Press of Florida, 2015

During the era of Jim Crow in Florida, even nature was segregated.

Then the state’s famed tourist parks were off limits to Blacks — with one exception. Silver Springs, the park known for its glass-bottom boat rides down the Silver River, offered a parallel facility for “colored only” called Park. Operating for 20 years, the segregated counterpart to Silver Springs provided one of only three beaches that were opened to African-Americans in the state at that time. 

In Remembering Paradise Park, Lu Vickers and Cynthia Wilson-Graham chronicle the story of this leisure spot where Black and White families shared the same river but rarely crossed paths. 

Blacks were admitted to Silver Springs in 1967; Paradise Park was officially closed in 1969.


By Gary Monroe

University Press of Florida, 2014 

Of course, the state couldn’t segregate all of nature.


In the 1960s and 1970s Carroll was part of a band of African-Americans painters who traveled in around the state to capture Florida’s natural beauty on canvas and then sold their landscapes door-to-door and by the roadside. Carroll was the only female and her story tended to get lost in all the later paeans to the Highwaymen as the moniker to these painters belie. 

In 2012, however, she finally was recognized by First Lady Michelle Obama for her talents at the FloridaHouse in Washington D.C. and in 2014, the University Press of Florida published a book dedicated to her work. Filled with her vivid landscapes, the story told by Gary Monroe is of a black female artist’s hard-fought journey to provide for her family (she raised seven children) while also making a name for herself in man’s world.

 “Life is not about being a male or a female,” she told Monroe, “It’s about surviving.”  Carroll died last December at the age of 79.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Gloria Muñoz: On Crying in Two Languages

    I have been thinking a lot about my grandmother during these days of COVID, wondering how she would compare this pandemic to the one she experienced — and survived — in 1918. 
     We called her Nana. I never saw her cry, although she comforted me countless times when I broke down. If I was crying over a lost toy, she would say, “Never mind. There are plenty more where that came from.” If I was crying over a boy who me no mind, she would say, “Never mind. Remember, there are a lot of fish in the sea.” 
     Nana could be hard at times. When her sister’s sobbing over the death of her husband went on for too long for her taste, she told her sibling, “Buck up. Life is for the living.” She also reminded her that she didn’t like the man all that much.
     She wasn’t opposed to crying completely though. When my canary Tweetie Pie died (I was 10), we buried the bird together in the backyard. “He was a good bird,” she said in her soft, sing-song Swedish accent.  “I will miss that ting.” She didn’t cry but she didn’t stop my tears. “You will lose dear friends as I did my Papa,” she told me, referring to my grandfather. “But you have to take the hardships as they come.”
     Gloria Muñoz, a poet who teaches creative writing at Eckerd College, also was counseled by a wise abuela. Inspired by her grandmother’s stories about La Llorna, a weeping figure in Latin American folk tales, she wrote a prize-winning essay about the power of crying (she called it our secret superpower). Here’s my interview with her, which I wrote for Arts Coast Journal, the online journal of Creative Pinellas.
   - Margo Hammond, Day 102 of Coronavirus Lockdown

Q. “Canta y No Llores”: Where does that title of your essay come from?
A. It’s part of the lyrics of a really popular song, a Mexican ranchera called “Cielito Lindo” by Mexican author Quirino Mendoza y Cortés, popularized in 1882. Canta y No Llores. Sing and Don’t Cry.
Q. But in your piece you cross out the No. Why? 
A. Because I want the essay to give women permission to cry.

I am talking with Gloria Muñoz by phone about her essay “Canta y No Llores” which won the Lumina Journal’s Multilingual Contest. Lumina is the literary journal of Sarah Lawrence University where Muñoz received her B.A. over a decade ago. The contest, honoring writing that features more than one language, was judged by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, a short story writer and novelist (Fruit of the Drunken Tree) who was born and raised in Colombia.

Muñoz, whose family also came from Colombia, teaches creative writing, the lyric essay, and a literary editing and publishing class at Eckerd College.  When the pandemic hit, she, like professors across the globe, transitioned to giving classes online. I reach her as she is finishing up the last week of school, grading final papers and comforting students, all while caring at home for her new baby, Luna, born less than a year ago.

“Canta y No Llores” (you can read the whole essay here) “skids between poetic, humorous Spanish and English that is straightforward and yet extraordinarily lucid, marking a collision course to what it means to be a strong woman who cries — privately,” Contreras wrote in awarding the Lumina Multilingual prize to Muñoz. “The world of grandmothers, mothers, and daughters is described intensely here, folding us into the question of how women carry pain and what there is to reinvent in the realm of our own private weeping.”

A poet, translator and filmmaker as well as a full-time professor, Muñoz was the subject of Creative Pinellas’ podcast series Arts In hosted by Barbara St. Clair. She’s also a contributor to the Arts Coast Journal.
We talk about her grandmother who died last year and La Llorona, the weeping folk figure who appears in many Latin American cultures. The two intertwine throughout her prize-winning essay.

“La Llorona dates back to before the 16th century,” says Muñoz. “There are different versions of her story. There are many names for her. The story is always morphing. The folktale changes depending on whom you ask. Everyone has a different take on her.  I like that. In the Colombian version she is seen as a bad mother who tries to inflict harm on her kids.”

So a scary story?

“Yes and no,” says Muñoz. “It’s kind of scary but also kind of matter of fact.”
Muñoz was nine years old when her abuela, who “never shied away from sharing haunting anecdotes with her grandchildren,” first told her about the Weeping Woman — “Déjame decirte que siempre andaba por allí, en las calles, sola, de noche, siempre llorando.”

In her grandmother's stories La Llorona was “sometimes an old friend, a nun, a witch, a family member, a woman from her barrio whom she felt sorry for, a veces joven, a veces una vieja. But mostly she was just a sad, sad woman left to cry and wander and cry in circles.”

In her essay, Muñoz compares La Llorona to a “crying sickness passed on like a virus” from woman to woman. “La Llorona was as ubiquitous as air,” she writes. “She could be inhaled and take over your body. She could be sneezed out and inhaled by another passerby… I knew a lot of sad women as a child and I sometimes worried that La Llorona was coming for me next.”

The image of sadness as a virus certainly is a metaphor that reverberates in the time of coronavirus. Except that Muñoz wrote the essay long before the appearance of COVID-19.

“I wrote that essay months and months ago,” says Muñoz. “I was shocked myself when I later read the final copies. But that always happens with writing. The writing itself is looking forward and back in time.”

Like most women of her generation, Muñoz’s grandmother criticized other women for passing on this “sadness” virus, admonishing them for crying. “My abuela was a very strong woman, very direct. She had a tough life,” says Muñoz. Alone in New York with no English, no work experience and no secure housing, Muñoz’s grandmother found a job in a Manhattan clothing factory to single-handedly support her children. She didn’t suffer fools — women needed to be resilient and strong women didn’t cry.

“Women are always subject to a double standard,” says Muñoz with a sigh. “Everything we do is projected on our gender. We are told to be good and pretty and nice. As a new mom I am now very cognizant of the words I use with my daughter. The expectation is that you don’t complain but also are pleasant. You don’t want to make other people upset. But there’s a power to sadness that is unspoken.”

Crying is our secret superpower.

The unspoken power of sadness is not unlike the power of anger and rage, says Muñoz. Something women are beginning to understand — like the anger unleashed among women after the last Presidential election.

“Any time women have power, it’s a threat to men,” Muñoz tells me.  “I learned this early on when I watched the women around me cry in their cars, in the dark, over a stovetop,” she writes in “Canta y No Llores.” Her father told her and her sister to be strong, to be “berracas” in life.

Berraca is the only Spanish word that Muñoz translates in “Canta y No Llores.”

Why didn’t she translate the other Spanish lines in the essay?

“I like going in and out of languages without too much explanation,” she says. “I trust the reader to sit with the writing, to look things up, to understand the meaning in context.”  After all, it’s what Spanish-speaking people (or any non-English speakers) have to do all the time in America, she points out. “People can do it the other way around. I trust the writing. I trust the reader.”

Muñoz herself moves easily between Spanish and English. “I balance the two.”
Spanish is the language she grew up in and it is the bridge she uses to communicate with her family — including family members still in Colombia.

“It is inherently the language that made me different for better or for worse. You love your language, your culture, but you are made fun of and feel like a fish out of water, so you move away from it, but eventually you move back to it,” she remembers. “I am thankful to my parents that they spoke Spanish. Period.”    

That is her abuela in the photograph at left  — a woman in a polka dot shirt, white pants and gold bangles dangling on her wrist, laughing next to a dapper man holding a violin. Her grandmother was in Mexico visiting her best friend who had moved back there and they went to listen to a mariachi band, her favorite music. “My grandmother didn’t speak English,” she says. “She built her world around a Spanish community. Imagine that.”

Is there a difference when a writer chooses one language over another?

“Yes, there is a difference,” says Muñoz. “My subconscious functions in Spanish. I make more metaphoric leaps in that language. Spanish feels very alive to me.” Perhaps it’s the sonic quality of the language, but imagery comes more quickly to her in Spanish. Also, she mostly dreams in Spanish. “I spoke Spanish first and I think you naturally dream in the language you were first taught.”

English, on the other hand, is the language she functions in, in a more practical way. “It’s the mortar of everything,” she says. “I love English. I find it to be a really unique language because ultimately at its roots, as with much in western culture, it is born from a multitude of other places. I find that interesting.”

Muñoz often writes something in one language and then translates it into the other to see what Spanish can do for English. “I do that a lot when I am stuck.”
Has she been more stuck than usual during coronavirus lockdown.
“There are lots of writers who have been in odd head spaces during this time,” says Munoz, presumably including herself.  “We are in the game of observation and during this sad time, you can’t help but deeply feel. It’s tough.”

Less production and more introspection, I guess. The great World War II and Vietnam novels, after all, were all written long after those conflicts ended.

Students have been especially knocked flat by this difficult time, Muñoz tells me. “I really feel bad for the seniors,” she says. “Eckerd is a dream school. I wish I had known about it when I was going to school. It’s a real community. It’s so beautiful as a setting. There’s a beach on campus. There’s a high sense of community and a closeness among everybody — faculty, students, staff members — and when we had to separate, students felt somewhat panicked.

“We are trying to create those bonds again — online. Students are sharing their own personal stories and sharing their work. Classes have created chat threads that they have with each other so they can share photos, funny things they find on the internet. Students adapt no matter what but they miss school terribly.”

To recreate that sense of community at Eckerd, Muñoz’s publishing class, which every year puts together the Eckerd Review, was determined to put out the 2020 version.

Instead of gathering together to hash out its contents and then launching copies of the magazine at a release party, however, they have compiled and published it online. A virtual launch party reading was held last week. A small print run is planned as well.
Has she cried during the coronavirus lockdown?

“Oh, my god, yes. Holy smokes, during this time I have had a lot of feelings. I wear my heart on my sleeve,” she admits. This society, she points out, does not deal with sadness and grief as well as some other countries. “We struggle with it. When we experience a loss, we’re given two weeks off and then you are expected to be back in the game.”

Now, even if we are not directly affected by the coronavirus, we feel empty and sad. “I have a job, my family’s healthy, but the whole world is grieving in various ways,” says Muñoz. ”It’s terrifying how badly our government has handled this. It’s very frightening. I think we are going to be in a mass state of mourning for a very long time.”

In “Canta y No Llores” Muñoz describes personal losses, but it feels like she is addressing all our losses in this time of masks, social distancing and isolation. When she lets La Llorona inside her, we let her inside as well. 

We need her superpower more than ever.