Images by Rita Gardner.
What’s so great about the Dominican Republic?
For me, the top four “greats” are: the people, the culture, the land, and the climate. That was true when my family settled there in the mid-1900s, and it is true today. All I have to do is step off an airplane and into the heady scent of the Dominican tropics to feel at home again. It may sound cliché, but there is a friendliness and warmth to the people that I’ve rarely experienced elsewhere. The nation is rich in history, dating back to before Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. It has survived colonialism and dictatorships, but has never lost its soul. A stable democracy for decades now, the D.R. has become a major tourist destination.
It is really a feast for the senses. Nature flourishes and turquoise waters lap against crystal sand beaches. Waterfalls cascade down the mountains, and verdant fields stretch for hundreds of kilometers across the island. The island’s bounty includes coconuts, sugarcane, mangos, pineapples, papayas, and bananas, to name just a few of its crops. I’m happiest with my toes in the sand, drinking from a green coconut, and munching on fried platanos (plantains.)
Tell us a bit about the cultural life.
I think music is the thread that unites past and present and is woven into the heart of the country. It is just a part of the fabric of D.R. life.
I grew up dancing to the beat of merengue, which remains the most popular music today. I’m pleased to see that another old form of folk music, bachata, is more popular than ever.
Family gatherings are important and frequent.
I recently attended a birthday there to celebrate a friend’s mother’s 100th birthday. It included everything that I’d describe as typical of the cultural life – great local food, mingling of generations, music, and of course, dancing.
And then there’s baseball – the most popular sport in the country.
Absolutely! The novels How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, and In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. Also: any of her non-fiction works as well – I think I’ve read them all. Books by Junot Diaz: Drown, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and This is How You Lose Her.
Another favorite is The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa, the Peruvian Nobel Prize winner in Literature. His novel is a fictional account of life after the assassination of the dictator Trujillo. Having lived there during and after the dictatorship myself, the book was an eye-opening revelation of the brutality of the dictator’s power and the cost to the country. Thankfully that was a very long time ago!
Who are the best known local writers?
Julia Alvarez, who also has become known internationally for her novels, along with other autobiographical works. I’m grateful she endorsed my memoir, The Coconut Latitudes: Secrets, Storms, and Survival in the Caribbean. Another Dominican writer is the Pulitzer Prize winner Junot Diaz, who has written about young Dominican-Americans who live in the United States and struggle to claim their dual identity.
Is the location an inspiration or distraction for you?
When I’m in the Dominican Republic, I’m absorbing all the time – taking notes, taking pictures, snatching bits of conversations I might use later in my writing. So, it is an inspiration. But I do most of the actual writing after I’m back in the States.
What are you writing?
I recently wrote several essays to two nonfiction collections, The Magic of Memoir, and Wandering in Andalusia. A novel set in the Caribbean is still in the percolating stages.
Sum up life in the Dominican Republic in three words:
Music, family, beaches.
Rita M. Gardner grew up in the Dominican Republic during a repressive dictatorship, and wrote The Coconut Latitudes, an award-winning Gardner’s memoir of that experience.
Gardner is also a contributor to two other recently published nonfiction books: The Magic of Memoir is a collection of stories, tips, and interviews by memoirists to inspire other writers. Wandering in Andalusia: The Soul of Southern Spain, is a tasty travel anthology about the southern region of Spain.
Gardner loves to travel, and still considers the Dominican Republic to be her home. Naturally, her favorite color is Caribbean blue.