A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens began in Nebraska. I remember that I was trying to nap, more from despair than exhaustion, but all I could think was: How did I get here—so far from Miami and in such debt?
I was a third-year PhD student, writing stories and studying abstract theories while my wife worked and did the bulk of looking after our young daughter. Back then, it seemed the only thing I could do well was accumulate debt. I lived under its weight, always bracing for the cliff of graduation. I remember that it was snowing. I got out of bed and, rather than studying or grading, I poured my despair onto the page, and Hugo, my protagonist, was born.
Yet it wasn’t until some years later—while visiting Miami during Christmastime—that I found a way to forge a path forward with Hugo’s narrative. Someone in the debt collection industry told me a story about their job processing payments. While sorting mail and cutting open envelopes, they’d grown fond of a particular debtor who would attach handwritten notes to her payments. The notes were usually to the effect of “I hope you’re well and Merry Christmas.” One day, a check arrived lower than the required amount with a note that read “I’m sorry. This is all I can pay. I am not well.” That was the last check, and rather than discussing profits, the storyteller mourned the debtor’s absence. I was surprised: Could a debt collector and a debtor really be friendly under such terms?
And who was this debtor, quietly paying their debts? I had always thought of debt in a negative category—as a thing appropriated by the wealthy to capitalize on investments and reify institutional control, but I began to wonder, was it possible to imagine a debt liberated from those forces, like what we owe to those that we love? Having identified this tension, I un-shelved my novel and got to work. With the theme of debt, naturally I turned to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as an inspiration, while broadening the scope of the carol by reading it through a postcolonial lens. In fact, I was drawn to the story of the Potosí silver mines recognizing that much of Dickens’s London owed a debt to the violence in Latin America.
At the same time, I wanted to write a story about Miami that decentered the conservative Cuban American enclave. A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens is narrated through a Bolivian American protagonist, a position that allows for this necessary broadening in who tells stories about South Florida. You will find a familiar touristic palette—the passiate, conservative Cuban American enclave, the extravagant display of wealth, the long sandy beaches—but Hugo has a way of puncturing the touristic and exceptional. His Miami is a vast county riddled with traffic and somehow, despite its vastness, closed off. Yet this is not a novel about enclosure; rather, it is about finding a way toward faith and life in a complex multiethnic city like Miami, amid all the tensions.
I’m grateful that you have picked up my novel. Thank you for embarking on this journey with Hugo.
Raul Palma is a second-generation Cuban American born and raised in Miami. His short story collection In This World of Ultraviolet Light won the 2021 Don Belton Prize. His writing has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, The Greensboro Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction at Ithaca College, where he is the associate dean of faculty in Ithaca College’s School of Humanities and Sciences. A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens is his debut novel.