JEFFREY BROWN: This year's winner for nonfiction is Carlos Eire, for his memoir "Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy." Eire was a child during the first years of Castro's revolution. In 1962, at age 11, he and his brother came to the United States as part of what came to be known as the Peter Pan or Pedro Pan airlift.
His mother was allowed to leave Cuba a few years later but Eire never again saw his father. Now 53, Carlos Eire is a professor of history and religion at Yale University. We talked at a Barnes and Noble bookstore in New York City on the morning after the National Book Award ceremony. Carlos Eire, welcome and congratulations.
CARLOS EIRE: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: You're a scholar of religion and history, but here you are telling the story of your own childhood. What compelled you to do that?
CARLOS EIRE: What compelled me to write this book was the desire I had to let a wider public know a firsthand account what it was like to live through the Cuban Revolution as a child. I have for years now been enormously thankful to anyone in the past who wrote a first person account. There is nothing more wonderful for historians to have than a first person account.
JEFFREY BROWN: So it's fascinating. Here you are a historian who looks at stories of the past, other people's stories, and you realize you had your own to tell.
CARLOS EIRE: Right. And I didn't map it out. I didn't outline it. I didn't reason it through. But once I was done, I realized that the connection between memory and history is not only extremely important, but absolutely necessary -- that all of history depends on memory.
JEFFREY BROWN: You were a child of some privilege.
CARLOS EIRE: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: And all of that was slowly and then very quickly lost.
CARLOS EIRE: That's right. Some privilege, meaning about the same as an American middle class family; there are many reviewers who have actually mistaken my account for that of a wealthy child. It wasn't wealth. It was just what in America would be a middle class life. Yes, and it was all lost very, very rapidly, and very violently. And that's what I try to get across.
JEFFREY BROWN: Could you read the opening passages for us?
CARLOS EIRE: Sure, I'd be delighted. "The world changed while I slept and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me. That's how it would always be from that day forward. Of course, that's the way it had been all along. I just didn't know it until that morning. Surprise upon surprise -- some good, some evil -- most somewhere in between, and always without my consent. I was barely eight years old and I had spent hours dreaming of childish things as children do.
My father, who vividly remembered his prior incarnation as King Louis XVI of France, probably dreamt of costume balls, mobs, and guillotines. My mother, who had no memory of having been Marie Antoinette, couldn't share in his dreams.
Maybe she dreamt of hibiscus blossoms and fine silk. Maybe she dreamt of angels, as she always encouraged me to do. (Speaking Spanish ) she would say-- "dream of little angels." The fact that they were little meant that they were too cute to be fallen angels. Devils can never be cute."
JEFFREY BROWN: We can hear the lyricism in your writing and the wonderment of your father imagining himself to have been Louis XVI. Did writing about yourself in your own voice free you somehow from the kind of writing that you usually do?
CARLOS EIRE: Oh, absolutely. I know I used some part of my brain I had never used before, where I was guided by images rather than by linear reasoning. And, of course, there's only one footnote to the entire book, and the footnote is my memory. This was written very, very quickly. I wrote this in four months. And after writing books with literally thousands of footnotes, it was so delightful to just sit down and write and not to have to check anything.
JEFFREY BROWN: You know, in fact, you write as though you're afraid of forgetting or afraid of losing something. What is it that you are afraid of losing?
CARLOS EIRE: I was afraid of losing the details. Although the most surprising thing about writing this book is that there are details that were locked away so deeply and so securely, that I had not consciously remembered many of these things until I sat down to write.
And the way I usually began a chapter is I would have an image and I would try to figure out how can I tell a story about this image? And it was very visual. I would have an image of some event, and then I constructed the entire chapter around an image; something I had never done before.
JEFFREY BROWN: You said at the National Book Award ceremony that there was a sad irony in winning an award for a book that, had you written it in your native land, might have landed you in jail.
CARLOS EIRE: It would have. If I had written this book-- number one, it would never have been published there. This book will not be allowed in Cuba once it's translated into Spanish. When I accepted the award, I was overcome by the thought that I'm standing here accepting an award for writing about the revolution freely.
Yet as I'm standing here accepting this award, there are so many Cubans in prison living in the most inhuman conditions conceivable for simply speaking out -- not just for writing, but just for expressing their thoughts in the wrong way.
JEFFREY BROWN: The book is called "Waiting for Snow in Havana." Carlos Eire, thank you very much for talking to us and congratulations, again.
CARLOS EIRE: Thank you very much.