By Amaris Castillo
Debut author Camille Gomera-Tavarez begins High Spirits with the story of Gabriel, an academic on the brink of possession. As he experiences yet another mysterious pull on his way to work, Gabriel wonders if maybe now he should finally consider therapy. But he knows it's frowned up by his parents back in the Dominican Republic.
Gomera-Tavarez – herself Dominican-American – captures plainly a popular sentiment among older Dominicans: “Gabriel’s parents would probably disown him if it ever got back to the island that he had succumbed to the scam of paying someone to listen to his problems. That was for rich Americans and murderers.”
Gabriel’s father, in his cigar-stained voice, has suggested that it’s a family matter.
“Who could know you better than us?”
This question – whether meant to be rhetorical or not – is one that hangs over High Spirits, a new collection of eleven interconnected stories that center one extended Dominican family across multiple generations.
What is your place in your family?
Who is truly family?
Where is home?
The stories dip readers into the fictional Dominican town of Hidalpa, New Jersey, New York, and San Juan. And, in doing so, Gomera-Tavarez brings us experiences that are richly varied, much like other members of any diaspora might see if we took a moment to look around at the cast of characters that make up our own respective families. High Spirits, out today, is being billed by publisher Levine Querido as YA with a strong adult crossover appeal.
A good portion of the collection’s stories are told through a teen or preteen’s perspective with unflinching clarity. In “Payphone,” for example, 14-year-old Franklyn lists his Dominican parents’ “funny rules” that don’t make sense to him: Drinking is fine. Teen pregnancies are discouraged but could be regarded as gifts from God. Marijuana was sin. In “Colmado,” Gomera-Tavarez writes about Cristabel not being able to shake the American city she’d known for most of her life in exchange for her father’s Dominican town. "Hidalpa was a history she’d inherited, but it was not her own," she writes. It’s a simple but powerful line, and one that I interpreted as a truth embedded in the diaspora identity: No matter where your family hails from, their history will always be layered distinctly than your own.
High Spirits is not afraid to call out aspects of Dominican culture that many deem problematic, such as machismo, the stigma surrounding mental health, colorism, and rising Dominican nationalism. Gomera-Tavarez unapologetically delivers these themes through dynamic dialogue between her characters.
Her prose is also evocative, with the ability to transport readers to scenes. On the domino ritual among elderly uncles and their middle-aged nephews in the town of Hidalpa, the author writes in one story: “The sound of shuffling ivory – echoing especially far on Saturday evenings – rivaled the sound of the old bones that shifted themselves to get there.”
For me, the most enchanting story comes toward the end of the collection. In “Life After the Storm,” we meet Jorge, who has been expelled from his private school after someone ratted him out on his Jordan 8s business hustle. In his absent father’s old coat, Jorge finds a bracelet belonging to his late grandmother. His tío Gabriel, who is visiting, shares how his mother used to say that "her jewelry held memories." Jorge later takes the bracelet to the bathroom with him. And so Gomera-Tavarez begins her character on a fascinating journey dripped in magical realism, in which his body inhabits the bodies of his female ancestors. The author pushes us to ponder on what it would feel like to be in your ancestor's body. She brings us there, in the moment. By the end, I wasn’t sure what really happened and what didn’t, but it was a delightful trip either way.
In High Spirits, Gomera-Tavarez’s weaving of stories about this extended family is ambitious and heartfelt. My only wish is that each story gave me un chin mas – a bit more of the characters, a bit more of story. But the beauty of this book is that, for some of these tales, their ending frees your mind to meander other possibilities.
About the Author:
Camille Gomera-Tavarez is an Afro-Dominican writer, designer, and creative from New Jersey. She has a BFA in Graphic Design & Creative Writing from the Maryland Institute College of Art and is currently based in Philadelphia, PA. High Spirits is her debut.
Amaris Castillo is a journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, and is forthcoming in Quislaona: A Fantasy Anthology. One of her short stories, “The Moon and the Sun,” was longlisted for the 2021 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival.
Amaris lives in Florida with her family. You can follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo and read her stories from the colmado at bodegastories.com.