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Raul Palma on his debut novel 'A Haunting in Hialeah Gardens'


When Raul Palma's novel "A Haunting In Hialeah Gardens" opens, Hugo Contreras feels his life has shrunk. He lives in a small, bare cell of a Miami apartment after his beloved wife, Meli, has died. He cringes under medical debt, with only enough discretionary income to indulge in a single cafecito each week. One day, he gets another call from a debt collector, Alexi Ramirez, and is about to hang up when he learns he needs his help. Hugo is a babalawo. He spiritually cleanses haunted houses. And if he can banish spirits from Alexi's house, the collector will banish Hugo's debt. Raul Palma, born and raised in Miami, is now on the fiction faculty at Ithaca College, and he told us earlier this week the idea for the book came when he was in graduate school in Nebraska, overwhelmed by student debt.

RAUL PALMA: It was actually - it was winter. And I remember I'd just driven home from campus, and the streets were slick, really icy, and got home, cold, tired. And I had a lot of work to do but began to wonder, how did I get here - right? - having spent so many years in Miami? And there was a degree when I began the project of just fondly remembering that warmth and this idea of being so far from home.

SIMON: There is one problem in particular Hugo has with being a babalawo, which is he doesn't really believe in it, does he?

PALMA: Yeah. That's right. He's somebody who has lost faith, has lost belief, someone who, you know, has a rich past history. And there's certainly trauma in his past. And just based on situations that have happened in his life, he feels almost betrayed by any sense of belief or the possibility of belief...

SIMON: Yeah.

PALMA: ...So definitely a skeptic.

SIMON: He doesn't believe in spirits, but he seems to have a very touching belief that Meli's spirit is still with him, doesn't he?

PALMA: That's right, a haunting feeling.

SIMON: So it's hard during the holiday times of the year.

PALMA: Yeah, for Hugo in particular. Hugo and Meli, his late wife, would really kind of celebrate the holidays. And he's still - in his closet keeps some of the decorations that they had picked out together...

SIMON: Yeah.

PALMA: ...At various pharmacy stores. So, yeah, it's a particularly sensitive time for Hugo.

SIMON: And what are the personal debts that - I don't want to see - say that weigh on him because in many ways they enrich his life too, don't they?

PALMA: It's interesting because when I started working on this novel, just to kind of reflect on my own debts for a moment, I often thought of debt in a really negative way, and there was a degree to which I overlooked the capacity to owe someone or the debts that we have to one another, some of the amazing things that could bring together. So for Hugo, you know, he certainly has personal debts to loved ones, to his past, to his memories. But an interesting thing happens when he's living in Miami. His life is kind of flattened to a degree. I kind of describe it that every available space for Hugo is occupied by something, and he doesn't feel how he can move from one space to another. And in many ways, it's because he feels that something else will be asked of him.

SIMON: Yeah. He feels a debt to his godmother, his madrina, doesn't he?

PALMA: Absolutely.

SIMON: Help us understand what he feels to his godmother, his madrina, and his brother Victor.

PALMA: As a child, you know, he grows up in Bolivia, in a mining town, literally, on the mountain of Potosi. He's raised by his madrina, a woman who looks after him and works for the mining collective. Ultimately, when an opportunity is afforded for him to immigrate north to the United States, he ends up leaving her and in many ways forgets some of those memories with her. So there's a sense in which part of these debts for Hugo are being excavated throughout the course of the novel.

SIMON: You suggest in the many characters you sketch out that debt can be a weight in our lives and our hearts, but also a kind of inspiration, a spur.

PALMA: You know, I have a 10-year-old daughter, and I joke sometimes that if I were keeping tally on everything that she would owe me when she's an adult - right? - the list would be insurmountable and that the beauty there is that in our relationship we don't do that. We're not keeping a tab. You know, we really lean into just the beauty of what it is to know that you owe somebody something profound that really can't be repaid. And for Hugo, you know, he's certainly crushed by his debts at the start of the novel. Some of those debts that really fall into this negative - I try to position them in a way where Hugo also tries to find the beauty in what it is to have a bond with someone founded on that kind of foundation of debt.

SIMON: I found myself thinking through the course of your novel that, you know, I - we think of haunting as something, well, haunting, to be avoided. But by the end of your novel, I was thinking, I don't know, maybe we should welcome it.

PALMA: Yeah, it's such an interesting thought. You know, a city like Miami - I remember growing up in Miami. It wasn't immediately clear to me just how complex the city's own history, its politics are. Perhaps there were things hiding in plain sight that were just invisible to me. And what the haunting allows for is that these things that are invisible or hidden in plain sight begin to exert pressure, and they begin to ask, why don't you look at me, right? Why don't you pay attention to me, right? There's something hidden here, and there's something worth looking at a lot more closely.

SIMON: Raul Palma's novel "A Haunting In Hialeah Gardens." Thank you so much for being with us.

PALMA: Yeah, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.