The inspirations for Camille Gomera-Tavarez’s widely praised debut collection High Spirits: Short Stories on Dominican Diaspora (Levine Querido)—her far-flung family and its lore, her interest in the art of bookmaking, her admiration for favorite authors’ work—were always on the edge of her mind; she just didn’t know it until she got to college.
When Gomera-Tavarez left her northern N.J. hometown and began her studies in creative writing and graphic design at the Maryland Institute College of Art, she was following her passions, unsure where a degree in those disciplines might lead. The picture became clearer as she spent more time in the classroom. “I took a Latin American literature class that focused on the ways that the literature related to artworks of the magical realism period,” she says. “And that was amazing. From the first day, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do.’ ”
For her senior thesis, Gomera-Tavarez blended her blossoming writing and design skills into several media projects, including a hand-bound, hand-typeset chapbook of an original fairy tale, and a 76-page volume containing five interconnected short stories about multiple generations of an extended Dominican American family, entitled High Spirits. She offered a small run of the volume for sale but did not consider any other avenues for it.
Just after graduating in 2019 with her BFA, Gomera-Tavarez landed a job at the World Health Organization in Washington, D.C., where she worked on Latin American health initiatives designing various health-related books and posters, including a campaign for Vaccination Week, “which for 2020 turned out to be a little bigger,” she says, in light of the pandemic. By that summer, Gomera-Tavarez had left the WHO and became a freelancer. “I started my own online magazine, which I also designed,” she says. “It’s called Plantin, and it features Black immigrant writers. I just did that with my friends.”
Things took a professional uptick that August when Gomera-Tavarez accepted a position at Authentic Campaigns in Philadelphia, where she now lives. “I design digital ads and marketing campaigns for progressive political candidates and some organizations,” she says. In the same month, she was contacted by Nick Thomas at Levine Querido. “He saw my portfolio online, and they were looking for graphic designers,” she recalls. “It was just a random cold email, but I responded, and he was also interested in my thesis project, which is on my website.” She sent him some stories, and, she notes, “he was like, ‘this is really good,’ and I was like, ‘I know,’ but I didn’t expect anything to come from it.”
To her surprise, Thomas asked if she might want to expand the collection to be published as a YA book. He invited her to be part of designing the volume, as well. “He cradled me through the whole process and sent over a contract,” she says. “I didn’t really have any intentions of being in this realm, but I’m glad that I’m here. I was always looking for something where I could put design and writing together in some way. I didn’t really know what that would look like, but this is definitely something that I feel like I was meant to do.”
Gomera-Tavarez has especially enjoyed the sense of community that has come with entering the publishing world. “Early on I was recruited to be part of the writing collective Las Musas, which is all Latina,” she says. “I run the Instagram. Also, just having the chance, even through Zoom or Twitter, to connect with a community of writers about questions I have has been nice—and for writers I’ve admired, like, knowing who I am, is crazy.”
One of her favorite things about being a newly published author has been sharing the book with her family, whose experiences and memories color each of her tales and to whom High Spirits is dedicated. During a flurry of publication events, she says, “My family coming down, and all of them getting the chance to hold it in their hands, was special. I feel like it’ll be even more impactful when it comes out
in Spanish in the fall, because most of them can’t read it [in English].”
Another high point was Word Up Community Bookshop in the Bronx selecting High Spirits for its teen book club. “They’re giving away free copies of it to local kids and I’m visiting soon,” Gomera-Tavarez says. “They’re in one of the biggest Dominican communities where a lot of my family lives. That was the exact target audience I was looking for, so to find out how quickly they had latched onto it and had been delivering it to the people I wanted to read it was really special.”
These days Gomera-Tavarez is trying to balance her day job with her writing. She is finishing a second book under contract at LQ, due out in fall 2023. “It’s going to be more of a traditional YA novel set in a high school,” she says. “There are a bunch of magical objects and teens navigating them. But while High Spirits focuses on toxic masculinity and gender in that way, this one is more about femininity and sisterhood.”