For some, the first few years of life are useless history, dimly lived, scarcely felt, easily forgotten. But for those who, as children, were wrested from one place and thrust into another, memories of a lost past are all -- a wellspring of the imagination, a muse that stalks, makes demands. Ask Nabokov. Ask Conrad. Ask Ernesto Mestre-Reed.

He was born in Guantanamo, in 1964. An early memory, as he describes above, was of a day in 1970 when his uncle was murdered -- an act that effectively catapulted his family from Castro's Cuba. Harassed by authorities, marginalized by society, Mestre's physician father herded his young wife and four sons onto one of the last "freedom flights" out of Havana. The flight landed in Madrid, but within a year the Mestres were in Miami, shunted from their Cuban past, headed to an American future. Ernesto was 8 years old.

He grew up playing baseball, trying to be a regular yanqui, thinking he would become a doctor like his father, but at Tulane he began to read Melville, Faulkner, Shakespeare, skipping his biology classes to delve into "King Lear." He went on to graduate school at New York University, intending to become a teacher, but a stint at the writing workshops in the Manhattan YMCA changed all that. He met Michael Cunningham, who was then at work on The Hours; he studied under Jessica Hagedorn and Stanley Elkin. It prompted him to begin work on his first novel, The Lazarus Rumba, a baroque, sly send-up of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

At 25, he announced that he was gay -- news that was met with horror in his devout Catholic family. They tried to dissuade him, leaving messages on his telephone machine, pleading with him to stop, reconsider, change. But by the time The Lazarus Rumba was published and he was teaching at Sarah Lawrence, he had met Andrew Reed, now his companion of seven years (whose name he added to his own and with whom he is adopting a child). His second novel, just published this spring, is The Second Death of Unica Aveyano. Of course, like life itself, it begins in Guantanamo, ends in South Florida and Manhattan. As the Greeks knew so well, memory is the mother of all art. We remember even as we dream.

-- Marie Arana