Rita Gardner and I met online – we saw each other’s interviews on two of my favorite blogs (Jamoroki and The Displaced Nation ) and found that we had some things in common: we both grew up as expats in Latin America and we are both writers who dabble in photography. Ironically, the man who “introduced” us, James King, lives in Thailand and it turned out that Rita and I live about 30 minutes from each other – so we made a date for lunch and found that we are kindred spirits.
Rita grew up on her family’s coconut farm in the Dominican Republic. Her spell-binding memoir The Coconut Latitudes is about childhood in paradise, a journey into unexpected misery, and a twisted path to redemption and truth. Here is an excerpt to whet your appetite:
Before I am born, my father, for reasons shrouded in mystery, abruptly leaves a successful engineering career in the United States. He buys two hundred and fifty acres of remote beachfront land on Samana Bay in the Dominican Republic. This small, Spanish-speaking nation occupies two-thirds of the island of Hispaniola and is ruled by the dictator Rafael Trujillo. Trade winds blow year-round all the way from the deserts in Africa, combing through palm groves and shaping the trunks into inverted commas. The island is also in the main path of hurricanes that storm through the Atlantic and Caribbean from June through November. In 1946, when I am six weeks old and my sister Berta is four, my father moves us into this instability. Our family lands—with a pile of suitcases, a box of books, and bright Fiesta dinnerware—years before there will be electric power or actual roads to Miches, the closest village. My father hires a crew to plant ten thousand coconut seedlings and names the property Cocoloco Plantation. My father frequently says we are a damn happy family; we’ve arrived in paradise, and are the luckiest people in the world.
Chapter 1: Miches
It’s a sticky summer day when we first bounce over the mountain in a ratty jeep driven by an old man with brown leather skin. The windshield is cracked and dust covers everything. Our suitcases are piled on top, strapped down by frayed ropes. We’re not tied down by anything at all. We heave left and right as the jeep straddles the track that’s barely a road. I’m used to these raggedy roads in the Dominican Republic. In the smelly backseat, Mama wedges in between my sister Berta and me, trying to hold on to us as we lurch up yet another switchback. Berta turns white, leans out the window, and throws up. The vehicle stops and I get sick too. Daddy tries to distract us by showing us a waterfall off in the distance… We pile in again and rumble onward. When we crest the mountain, we stop where the air is cool. There’s nothing left in our stomachs. Daddy climbs a rocky ledge. He waves his arms, motioning us to join him.
The hillsides spill all the way down to the bluest water I’ve ever seen, a bay of shimmering light so bright it makes me blink. Daddy smiles. “See—there’s Miches town.” He gestures toward the inner curve of the bay to a scattering of small buildings crouched along a rocky shoreline with a few streets … I squint at a long snaky river at the edge of town and then, to the right of it, a long sweep of sandy beach that stretches out like a sliver of new moon. The shore is lined with green fringe, and a smaller patch of a light color stands out like a ragged square of carpet. Daddy waves his arm toward the pale green at the far end of the bay.
“There,” he says as tears roll down his face. “That’s Cocoloco Plantation.”
Cinda: It occurs to me that Cocoloco would have served as an apt title as well. Although I love The Coconut Latitudes – it made me want to read more.
Rita: Funny you would mention that – for the longest time (years, in fact), I had chosen “Cocoloco” as a title. My only concern is that is a name of a tropical drink, and I didn’t want that context. One day I just thought of “The Coconut Latitudes.”
“While our tropical surroundings were indeed idyllic, we were in the constant path of hurricanes, under the grip of a brutal dictator, and beset by alcoholism and family tragedy.”
Cinda: Your memoir details a reality far from the envisioned Eden, the terrible cost of keeping secrets, and the transformative power of love and truth. What advice would you give someone about writing a memoir –especially a painful one?
Rita: Don’t think about or worry about others. Pretend no one else exists. Just write for you. Say anything, say it all. Later, you can come back to it objectively; see the plot, the narrative arc and structure. But for the first draft, just sit yourself down, see what comes out, and keep going until you’re out of words. You’ll be surprised at the twists and turns your writing will take. It sometimes directs itself.
Rita M. Gardner was home-schooled as a child, she began writing, reading and painting at an early age. She has published essays, articles, poems, and photographs have appeared in literary journals, travel magazines and newspapers. The Coconut Latitudes was just published this fall and is already being well received. I wrote a review for Goodreads and Amazon because I am so impressed with her writing skills and the honesty in this book. Here is my excerpted review:
A haunting memoir I wanted to read because it is about a girl who had grown up in Latin America like myself. But this is more than an interesting story about an expat; it chronicles a difficult upbringing (a la Mosquito Coast or Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight.)….The young Gardner daughters are isolated not only from the parent’s culture and extended family, but forced to keep secrets from their Dominican friends when one family member disappears. There is no one they can turn to when their alcoholic father keeps them up late at night with angry rantings and irrational demands. Even their mother is unable to protect them or nurture them. This heartbreaking memoir may shock you at times, but the writing is straight-forward and compelling. You will root for her survival and be staggered at what a young girl manages to do.
One of my favorite authors, Julia Alvarez, (who wrote In the Time of Butterfiles) says this about “The Coconut Latitudes”: Another fine writer who moves beyond borders into the wide open spaces of the heart.” And calls Rita an honorary Dominicana.
From Publisher’s Weekly’s select review: “Gardner has written a rich, haunting book that vividly captures her childhood and makes everyday turmoil vital through precise and honest prose.”