The Sugar Island

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Ivonne Lamazares’s distinguished debut novel is "at once a deeply personal and worldly tale . . . a wonderful amalgamation of culture, politics, and love" (Philadelphia Weekly). With economical prose and a clear-eyed vision, Lamazares evokes lives full of hope but fraught with obstacles in this story of a mother and daughter in 1960s Cuba. The story is told in the brave, tough voice of Tanya, a girl at odds with her mother and with the rapidly changing world around her. In the wake of Castro’s revolution, Tanya's...

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Ivonne Lamazares’s distinguished debut novel is "at once a deeply personal and worldly tale . . . a wonderful amalgamation of culture, politics, and love" (Philadelphia Weekly). With economical prose and a clear-eyed vision, Lamazares evokes lives full of hope but fraught with obstacles in this story of a mother and daughter in 1960s Cuba. The story is told in the brave, tough voice of Tanya, a girl at odds with her mother and with the rapidly changing world around her. In the wake of Castro’s revolution, Tanya's mother—passionate and unreliable—is determined to leave Cuba at all costs and to take her reluctant daughter with her. THE SUGAR ISLAND presents their embattled relationship against the backdrop of a country in conflict with itself, where the old world chafes against the new and where a parent’s desperate grab for freedom has dire consequences for her child.

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Editorial Reviews

Joanne Omang
We can only look forward to more from Lamazares, a fine new literary voice who proves again, even in these days of "reality-based" television, that a vivid imagination is much more powerful than any news story in showing us life at the level of the human heart.
Washington Post
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
HTanya, the teenage protagonist of Havana-born Lamazares's timely and memorable debut, comes of age amid the political and social turbulence of Cuba in the late '60s and early '70s. This spare, lyrical and brilliantly observant novel holds an ironic twist: Tanya has a greater grasp of reality than her mother. Both characters are fascinating, strong-minded individuals: "Mam " is reckless and recalcitrant, but has winning ways and a unique sense of humor, while Tanya is stubborn and practical, even as she admits that she and her mother are "splinters from the same unblessed stick." The familial struggle is exacerbated by the hardships of day-to-day life in Cuba, especially the constant surveillance by neighborhood watchdogs, known as CDR. The novel begins in 1958 when Mam leaves five-year-old Tanya to join Fidel Castro's rebel army in the mountains near their village; she returns a year later, disillusioned and pregnant by a rebel cook. The narrative then skips to 1966, when, in a town across the bay from Havana, Tanya is a bright and sassy 13-year-old schooled in the virtues of communism her half-brother, Emanuel, is seven and a talented musician; and Mam , quixotic as ever, is planning the family's escape to Miami. The plan fails, Mam is sent to prison and the children must live with an elderly distant relative, a nearly blind piano teacher whose Catholic faith helps her to cope with the restrictive regime. But Mam is both uncurably romantic and indomitable; on her release, she continues to dream of escape and forces Tanya to join her attempt to cross "the black water" on a makeshift raft. This is only the halfway point in a story whose suspense builds to a dramatic climax and a bittersweet denouement. In addition to the mother-daughter conflict, the irony of life in Castro's Cuba--depicted here as a land of food shortages and literacy campaigns, a godless society where people attend mass or believe in voodoo and where a young girl like Tanya cannot summon any faith at all--comes across clearly in the hands of this talented new writer. Agent, Gail Hochman. Author tour; rights sold in France, Germany, Italy and Holland. (Sept.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Growing up in poverty with a dysfunctional and irresponsible mother and an artistically gifted younger sibling are not unusual trappings for YA fiction. However, this novel's cultural and political setting gives these themes a whole new slant. Tanya is Cuban, growing up in the first decade of Castro's regime. Her mother waffles between allegiance to the new order and her desire to have life on her own terms: to sleep late, to sleep with whom she pleases, to relinquish her children, and to require their accompaniment to Florida. Tanya is smart and quiet and good at analyzing her own prospects as her mother flits through her changes, and sensitive enough to understand how these changes affect others in their lives, from Tanya's little brother to the elderly blind woman who takes them in when the mother has abandoned them, to Andres, the young man who truly cares for the 15-year-old Tanya as well as for Castro's cause. The writing here is understated and evocative, pulling the reader through scenes of sometimes physical but more often emotional degradation and torment. While political, the strength of this novel outstrips mere literate criticism of the Cuban reality. Lamazares is able to use Cuba and its realities to tell a solid story of emerging psychological independence. Tanya is a strong heroine, one with issues to resolve that girls in any political state can understand. Category: Paperback Fiction. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, Houghton Mifflin, Mariner, 206p., $12.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Francisca Goldsmith; Teen Svcs., Berkeley P.L., Berkeley, CA SOURCE: KLIATT, March 2002 (Vol. 36,No. 2)
Library Journal
Tanya, her mother, and other refugees courageously--or foolishly--set out in a homemade raft, leaving Cuba for a new life in Florida. But this is not the familiar story of today's headlines, nor is it the tale of the horrific voyage itself. Rather, the novel tells of a young girl growing up and coming of age in Cuba in the early 1960s, during the first years of the Cuban Revolution. Unreliable and unpredictable, Tanya's mother lives for her own passions. Outside home, life for Tanya is equally irregular, as she learns to cope in a world rife with broken friendships, distrust, suspicion, and betrayal, all the while retaining her intrinsic sweetness, decency, and sense of self. Lamazares (literature, Miami-Dade Community Coll.) was born in Cuba and moved to Florida as a young teenager, and her short stories have been published widely. This excellent first novel, discovered at the Sewanee Writers Conference, calls to mind the sensitivity and the poetic, compact writings of Cristina Garcia's Dreaming in Cuban (LJ 3/1/92). Highly recommended for all public libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/00.]--Mary Margaret Benson, Linfield Coll. Lib., McMinnville, OR Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-A novel of Cuba in the 1960s. A "slippery heart" is how Tanya thinks of her mother, and her love for the woman is shadowed by distrust. When her daughter was five, Mama ran off to join the revolution, leaving Tanya with her grandmother. Mama reappeared a year later, pregnant and disen-chanted. From then on, she is determined to leave Cuba for a better life; the stronger her determination, the stronger Tanya's opposi-tion becomes. Her first attempt, when the girl is 13, fails. Mama is sent away for "rehabilitation," and Tanya and her brother are sent to live with a distant relative. Tanya meets Paula, a schoolmate who becomes her best friend and confidante, teaching her the facts of life. Tanya's sexual awakening comes later, when she meets a revolutionary officer whom she loves and with whom she lives for a short time. When Mama returns and goes to work in a matchbox factory, life stabilizes for awhile, but the woman is still determined to flee, and eventually succeeds, with Tanya protesting until the last minute, but giving in and leaving with her. The relationship between mother and daughter is the focus of this beautifully written novel, but the background of life during the Communist revolution is equally well developed. The beauty, the culture, the difficulties, the characters-all are vividly portrayed.-Sydney Hausrath, Kings Park Library, Burke, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Megan Harlan
While the story of Cuban refugees risking a 90-mile raft trip to Florida has become a familiar one, Lamazares' bristling debut, set in 1960's Cuba, vividly fuses one such escape attempt with an equally treacherous mother-daughter relationship...There's nothing sugary in this bracing tale about a young woman deciding what she owes her country, her family, and herself.
Entertainment Weekly
Max Winter
Political oppression, financial hardship, immigration and coming-of-age are all topics rife with potential cliches, but Lamazares gives them new life in this seductive and courageous debut.
Time Out New York
Kirkus Reviews
An adolescent girl juggles the personal and the political in a debut that moves from Castro's Cuba to South Florida in the 1960s. Mirella, a flighty woman whose once revolutionary fervor has turned to disgust, has one goal: to escape Cuba. Tanya, her teenaged daughter, finds her mother's judgment (and her motivation) suspect. The most effective part of this largely successful tale focuses on the dance these two antagonists do in order to get what they want. If Tanya's goals are less defined, it's because she's young and uncertain. But she knows two things with certainty: she doesn't want to leave Cuba, and she doesn't trust her mother. In Cuba, compelling oppositions—Santería vs. Catholicism; Communism vs. Capitalism; the Revolution vs. the Reality—animate the cast of characters. Melena, a sympathetic grandmother figure, struggles for control of Tanya and Tanya's younger brother Emanuel, but she's fighting a mother and a system. Paula, the pretty neighbor, confuses glamour with freedom and finds herself at odds with the Revolution. Compañero Andres, a young bureaucrat from an undisclosed "ministry," introduces Tanya to the verities of the Revolution, but the vagaries of the heart. Meanwhile, Mirella, a powerfully drawn figure, exerts her will by appearing will-less. Her scams, though, run her into conflict with Andres and with "Lolo," a corrupt low-level official who practices a voodoo-istic Santería. Something of a plot begins to boil, and an adventure at sea ensues. Lamazares's sharp eye for the tensions on native soil doesn't fare as well in the Miami section, but the story'smomentum carries forward to asatisfying if open end. Familiar turf with a fresh mix. Echoes of Graham Greene's tropical corruption, Ha Jin's absurd predicaments, and Sandra Cisneros's stylized restraint enrich what is essentially a mother/daughter conflict.
From the Publisher
“Ivonne Lamazares’s fresh, clear voice and lyrical vision of Cuba past and present are a welcome addition to the New American Literature that’s developing fast along our borders from Miami to Los Angeles.”—Russell Banks

“Ivonne Lamazares writes of the tug of history, the wrenching of families. In an intimate voice that is distinctly her own, this novel is a kind of cross between Cristina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban and Mona Simpson’s Anywhere but Here. Writing of mothers and daughters in a world torn apart by politics, Ivonne Lamazares offers a dazzling new addition to Cuban-American literature.”—Mary Morris

“Reading this magnificent first novel, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that Holden Caulfield had somehow ended up in revolutionary Cuba, transformed into a most irreverent teenage girl, brazen and stubborn and breathtakingly conTdent and keen-eyed, growing up in a society intent on breaking its own lovesick heart. THE SUGAR ISLAND is contemporary Tction at its best, prizewinning Tction, and Ivonne Lamazares is an unforgettable writer.”—Bob Shacochis

". . . spare, lyrical, and brilliantly observant . . . life in Castro's Cuba . . . comes across clearly in the hands of this talented new writer." Publishers Weekly, Starred

"One of the most original renditions to date by a Cuban-American writer of the contemporary Cuba story." The Miami Herald

"worth reading for its . . . courageous main character, its striking relevance to recent . . . events, and its . . . sketches of Cuban . . . life." The Seattle Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780618154548
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 10/5/2001
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 218
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

IVONNE LAMAZARES was born in Cuba in 1962. Her mother died when she was three, and she was raised by her grandparents in Old Havana. She emigrated to Florida at the age of fourteen and currently lives in South Miami with her husband, the poet Steve Kronen, and her daughter. Lamazares is on the faculty of Miami-Dade Community College, where she received an endowed chair for excellence in teaching literature, and her short stories have appeared in Blue Mesa Review and Michigan Quarterly Review. Lamazares was discovered at the Sewanee Writers' Conference when she had written little more than the beginning of The Sugar Island. Her teachers were so taken with her work that they introduced her to an agent, and soon after, she signed a book contract. About the sudden attention her writing has received, she says, "I still can't explain this. It's like being in a car that's out of control, going somewhere you never expected to go." She resides in South Miami, Florida.

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Read an Excerpt

"Listen to me," Mama commanded..."This country is just a backwater plaintain grove. Now and forever." She wiped her hands on her apron until she left a dark circle. "Tanya, mija, our life is about to start." Mama always wanted to start life just as I wanted to start a new notebook at school, with neat and crisp lines, waiting to be filled in with important dates and bright colors.
She touched my arm and whispered, "Cousin Romy is coming for us. Tomorrow or the next day we could wake up in Cayo Hueso, or Me-a- me." Mama whispered "Me-a-me" the same way Emanuel and I ate ripe bananas—with greedy, sticky pleasure.

Copyright © 2000 by Ivonne Lamazares. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted February 21, 2010

    Was this written for a third grade audience?

    Thoroughly displeased. After reading the description, I thought that this book would utilize plot line to expose the many issues facing Cuba. Rather, I recieved a pretty covered story that narrated a family without the inclusion of Cuban lifestyle. The story is a continuos sob story revolving about a drug abusing mother, and has little to offer in the plot or intrique department. The plot is boring as it involves highly static characters, and makes it a bore to read. Definately do not reccomend. Advice for the author, use some real vocabulary in there! I thought I was reading a Clifford book by the time I made it to chapter two!

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