When the Reporter is Part of the Story: Mirta Ojito's Memoir of Cuban Exodus
In 1998, Mirta Ojito returned to Cuba for the first time since she and her family fled their native island 18 years earlier in the Mariel boatlift that brought 125,000 of her countrymen to U.S. shores during a five-month period.
She traveled there to report a series of stories for her newspaper, The New York Times, including a poignant first-person account of visiting her childhood home. Her reports won a Distinguished Writing Award for foreign reporting from the American Society of Newspaper Editors and appear in "Best Newspaper Writing 1999."
In a new book, Ojito returns home once again. "Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus" combines years of painstaking research and reporting and a painfully honest personal account to investigate the individual and instutitional causes behind this historic event and its impact.
At the Times' Miami bureau, Ojito was part of the team of reporters who won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for the series, "How Race is Lived in America." Ojito has been a visiting faculty member at Poynter and speaker at the National Writers Workshops.
In an e-mail interview, Ojito reflected on the lessons learned from writing her first book.
Chip Scanlan: Why did you write Finding Mañana: A Memoir of a Cuban Exodus?
Mirta Ojito: Mainly, because I wanted to report my own immigration story. After years of reporting other people's wrenching tales of leaving home, I became curious about the forces and the people that had somehow conspired to make the boalift happen, which, of course, changed my life and the lives of more than 125,000 people, along with the history of Cuba and of South Florida.
What surprised you about the reporting and writing of your book?
So many things. Here's one: I discovered that The New York Times announced to the world that the Cuban government was sending criminals and mentally "retarded" people in the boatlift in a front-page story that ran on May 11, 1980, the day that, by coincidence, I arrived from Cuba. But there's more: the boat that sparked this story was my boat, the Valley Chief, the vessel in which I was supposed to leave Cuba before we actually boarded the Mañana. Aside from the coincidence of my boat being the one saddled with the historic responsibility of bringing criminals to America, this is what I took from this incredible turn of events: that every story has at least two sides to it and that no matter how careful and balanced and objective you are, there is always a side of the story that is beyond reach. Aboard the Valley Chief, my family and I and dozens of people like us were the part of the story The New York Times reporter unintentionally and unknowingly missed. As I reported my own book, I kept asking myself this question: What am I not seeing? What's missing from this picture? I hope not too much.
How did doing a book differ from your work as a newspaper reporter?
It was a liberating experience. I felt freer, not constricted by deadlines, editors, or space. It was wonderful, actually. I had a larger canvas, but the work, essentially, was the same.
What did you learn about your craft from the reporting and writing?
"I think my work is more feeling than thought, more heart than craft, more intuition than purpose. I just write, not really thinking much at all about the process. I don't mean to make it sound painless, because it is sometimes difficult, but it is also, in many ways, just writing." Mirta OjitoThis book began with a very basic, reporting question: Who was the captain of the boat that brought me from Cuba, the captain of the Mañana? I said to myself, I need to find this man to thank him for what he did for us. All I knew was that the captain was a Vietnam veteran, that he was missing an arm and that his boat was named Mañana. Armed with that, I set out to find him. It took me about five and a half months (from Jan. to June 2002). I learned, or rather, I put into practice lessons that I had already learned: never give up (trite, but oh, so true); there is always a way even when everyone says there isn't (a good night's sleep helps to think of new questions to ask, new paths to follow); go back to the same sources (they may remember a previously forgotten detail if asked in a different way); keep every note, and piece of paper and hastily written down phone number (I was very organized throughout the process, color-coded files and all).
About the writing itself, I put into practice my favorite writing quote, from E.L. Doctorow: "The writing generates the writing."
What was the book's greatest challenge?
The greatest challenge was to make the transitions between memoir and reportage seem seamless.
How did you overcome it?
By paying attention to the possible points of contacts between the personal narrative and the historical forces that shaped it. I kept the voice of the child/adolescent completely separate from the voice of the reporter. In the reported chapters, I explain the genesis of certain events; in the memoir chapters, I react to them, not really understanding -- as I didn't -- that we were all making history at the time.
What do you need to learn next about your craft?
I need to write more.
In the acknowledgments, you cite Samuel G. Freedman's book-writing seminar at Columbia University "as surely a life-altering event for me and all his other disciples?" What happens in it and how does it alter writers' lives?
You had to be there, but, at the risk of adding to Sam's legend, let me just say that for the first three or four classes you feel that you know nothing about journalism and writing. It's like being an Army recruit. He strips you of anything AND EVERYTHING you thought you knew and begins building you up again, one story at a time, one terrific editing job at a time. Sam is never content with a sentence that is less than exact, less than perfect. To answer this question I went back to a book our class (2001) put together as a gift for Sam at the end of the semester. In it, we included some of his favorite sayings. Here's one: "You know what my answer to fatigue is? More coffee." By the fifth or sixth eight-hour class (it's a one day a week seminar) you think maybe you are getting his point, and then he tells you things like, "You have to get out the hammer and do violence to it!" (your words, your essays, your stories). But by the end of the class, if you've learned anything at all, he allows you to brag. "It ain't bragging," he says, "if you can really do it."
How do you think reporting and writing this book will affect your work in the future?
I think I get now, much more than I ever did, the enormous responsibility of writing the so-called first draft of history. I've relied so much on the reporting that went on before I even I arrived in this country, that I'd hate to think any of it was wrong or misguided. I actually have found some mistakes, but, as far as I can tell, a lot of the journalism that I've used for my book was excellent, most of it checks with my own life experience and firsthand research more than two decades later.