Portrait
by Madeleine Carr

Virgil Suárez'

   As a prelude to mating, canaries and finches make such a racket that visitors to Virgil Suárez’ garage look at him askance. At times, the trilling is enough to wake the dead.
 
    The garage, however, is not the preferred canary mating environment--it serves as an echo chamber and may even alter the male’s mating call somewhat. Suárez reduced its bird population from 300, partly because he realized his hobby was growing into a second job. The FSU author prefers to make his living in the classroom, where it’s ideas he hopes to see take flight and it’s students who find a voice.
     This setting has been his constant adventure since he was hired as an associate professor in the university’s Creative Writing Program in 1993. On a personal level, English is not his native language and he daily accepts the grammatical challenge his native Spanish evokes, using himself as an example in the classroom. Pacing up and down aisles, in front of or behind the class, his teaching style is, well, unusual. It’s a mixture of shock therapy, laughter and discovery, and very often, after one of Suárez’ readings, students sit in stunned silence.
     “It is a matter of getting across the idea that everybody has a point of view that is based on one’s life. You know, it’s a knack that Jerry Stern had,” he says, talking about his late mentor in the English Department.
     Anecdotal readings of his own material are popular, partly because they reveal a passion for words and ancestry, but also because his subjects do not paint a pretty picture, especially in Spared Angola, his latest book, a childhood memoir. “The students give me the opportunity to open up. I tell them about moments in my life in hopes that it helps them do the same.”
     More often than not, Suárez’ childhood memories are very different from those of his students, and he admits to being exposed to horrible things growing up in Cuba. “Not many of these things happened to others,” Suárez says, almost matter-of-factly, although in his next sentence he wonders what his parents would think about his memories if they could read English. He is not at all convinced that he could stand what his dad went through before the family left Cuba for Madrid. The move to Spain spared him a stint in Angola as a Cuban soldier, hence the book’s title.
     In mid-1960s, electrical blackouts in Havana were frequent, he recalls. “My father would go into rages during the blackouts. We had bottles with wicks to light when we had no electricity. He was so mad at what was happening, and in his rage he threw one of the home-made lamps at the wall and there was a fire. It was eerie.” Paradoxically, Suarez says “my childhood was wonderful.”
     Suárez has wasted little time translating his experiences into published works, with four novels (Going Under; Havana Thursdays; Latin Jazz; The Cutter) and a collection of stories Welcome to the Oasis and Other Stories. He also is co-editor of three other books. His latest interest, which he shares with his wife, FSU Spanish teacher Delia M. Poey, and colleague Roberto G. Fernandez, involves the special collections section at FSU’s Strozier Library. They hope to establish a Cuban-American archives section.
     Spared Angola was published earlier this year and is a departure from his earlier writings. Few likable characters appear in this collection of “micro-fictional short shorts”, as he calls the pieces, an association with the “short short stories,” which the late Stern had popularized.
     In mining his rich treasure trove of memories now, he remembers that birds were the only pets most Cuban families had. “Everything else was kept for food. My father bred rabbits which he traded with others for food.” Recurring food shortages was a theme of his early years.
     Tallahassee is where he’s found a kind of peace and tranquillity--when it isn’t canary mating season. “Is that connected to the American dream? When I think about the Cuban community...” his thoughts wander off to his birds.
     “I don’t want to go anywhere. I’m okay right here where I want to raise my two children.