History and religious studies professor Carlos Eire won this year’s National Book Award for Non-fiction Wednesday for his memoir “Waiting for Snow in Havana.”
The award, which was presented to Eire at the 54th National Book Awards Ceremony in Manhattan, has previously been awarded to such notable non-fiction writers as Rachel Carson, Lewis Thomas, Tom Wolfe, and Gore Vidal.
Eire said he was compelled to write a memoir for many reasons, but principally because he is an historian.
“If I weren’t an historian, I don’t think I would have written this book,” Eire said. “As an historian, I understand the value of a first-person account. I am enormously grateful when I run into a personal account of history in my work. Nothing can convey history more directly than memory, which is a personal record of the truth.”
Eire is widely regarded as an authority on religious reformations, faith and spiritualism in modern Europe. “Waiting for Snow in Havana” recounts Eire’s experience growing up in a wealthy Havana enclave during the 1950s amidst the demise of former Cuban President Fulgencio Batista and the rise of current President Fidel Castro. In the book, Eire also describes being airlifted along with 14,000 other Cuban children to the United States, and struggling in places such as Minnesota and Chicago.
The memoir is Eire’s first non-scholarly work.
“This is a person whose whole writing career involved scholarly publications, but who found another kind of writer inside himself,” Yale College Dean Richard Brodhead said. “He wrote this book only once his family had gone to bed — kind of as a second life.”
Eire wrote the entire memoir in four months during the summer of 2000. He said he never revised any part of the book.
“[The memoir] became a lot like the stories in the Arabian Nights,” Eire said. “I would write a chapter every night, and the following night I would read it out loud to my children. I wrapped up my children to bed in it, and, well, they wrapped me up too.”
History Department Chairman Jon Butler said Eire’s colleagues are “absolutely ecstatic” for him.
“[‘Waiting for Snow in Havana’] is personal, evocative in the way in which he pieced together his life,” Butler said. “We have such admiration for him as a person and a scholar which goes far beyond our discipline. He’s written the types of books that most of us don’t write, and he’s got more recognition than most historians get for their works.”
Brodhead said the book is something the Yale community can be “very proud of.”
“It’s a marvelous book … written in a very compelling style,” he said.
Eire’s other books include “From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth-Century Spain” and “War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship From Erasmus to Calvin.”
He said he is currently working on two more books on religious history.
Eire said he is also considering writing more works in the same vein as “Waiting for Snow in Havana,” but he does not have specific plans.
“I’d love to write more books,” he said. “The most ironic thing about writing this book is that I’ve been getting a lot of mail from readers, people thanking me for writing this book. I would say, ‘You don’t need to thank me. This is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done in my life.'”