When we first discussed the idea of using Ybor as the theme of this year’s fiction contest, I worried that it might prove too limiting.
But I wasn’t giving our local writers, or Ybor, enough credit.
The plots were thick with cigar smoke, of course — not surprising given that the romance and rebellion embodied in the cigar factories’ history still loom large in our experience of the district.
But the stories chosen by the judges for the top 10 tapped into the Ybor aura in surprising ways. Some writers vividly conjured the past (“Fifteen Is The Dog,” “The Tabaquero’s Squirrel,” “The War Is Over”) with sympathetic imagination and authentic detail. Others used Ybor as a backdrop for stories of ambition vs. filial duty (“The Prodigal Cigar”); of love lost and dreams deferred (“Finders and Seekers”); or of primal struggle (“Death Roll”). Still others made imaginative leaps into fantasy, film noir and the future (“Euquerio,” “Ybor Noir,” “It Invariably Happens Right Down the Street”), or combined a present-day setting with an alluring touch of Ybor legend (“Cigar City Angel Dust”).
The judges — Jeff Parker, head of the University of Tampa’s MFA in Creative Writing program; Paul Guzzo, journalist, filmmaker and Tampa historian; and myself — read the stories without knowing who wrote them and pooled our choices to choose the top 10. From those 10, judges and readers chose a #1. Cameron McNabb’s “The War Is Over” was a favorite of Paul Guzzo’s. “From a pure emotional storytelling point of view,” said Paul, “I really thought it did a great job of combining history and story.” Jack Kurlychek’s “The Prodigal Cigar” also moved him. “Maybe it is because I am a dad now and my dad is getting older,” he said, “but man… there was some dust in the room.”
Jeff Parker was fond of “Fifteen is The Dog,” by Maggie Hall. “This story endeared the hell out of me. You know it’s real because the exact process the main character goes through in guessing which number to play in some old lotto game is the same arbitrary process one goes through today, only this is set in the political landscape of cigar-era Ybor. We know from page one that he will pick the wrong number, but we ride his ups and downs like a rollercoaster. It ends on that perfect mixture of failure and hope that defines every second of my life.”
I liked the arrestingly matter-of-fact way in which Brian Lott launches us into a future Ybor in “It Invariably Happens…” Tanks in the streets and a new jai-alai palace suggest what changes may lie in store, while drunken pub-crawlers evoke the Ybor that will never change.
And all three of us loved the story that wins our judges’ prize, “The Tabaquero’s Squirrel” by Cully Perlman.
Jeff summed up its appeal:
“Squirrels and cigar factory bosses and lectores and lies and mystery and deception and comeuppance. This is authentic Ybor by a writer who’s done his homework and caught the feel of the history while managing, simultaneously, to harness the energy and verve that defines Ybor today — and for all I know, always has defined Ybor…”
We print Perlman’s story in its entirety here. Full disclosure: We found out only after selecting the story that Perlman is a second-year grad student in the MFA Creative Writing program which Jeff heads at UT. Because the story had no author name attached, Jeff read it without knowing Perlman was the writer; he had never seen the story before, and has never had Perlman in a class.
Read the rest of the Top Ten here. The Readers’ Choice winner will be announced at the Fiction Contest reading at CL Space, located above Spaghetti Warehouse in Ybor Square, 1911 N. 13th St., Tampa, on Sat. Jan. 12 at 7 p.m. Admission is free. Afterwards, your Ybor appetite whetted, you can cruise Seventh Avenue — and maybe see it in a whole new light. (Just watch out for vampires.)