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Interview

Love in Exile

Despite being a seductive book, don’t mistake Reclaiming Paris for chick lit.

Fabiola Santiago: Siempre en Paris

Q.

What’s the source of the title?

A.

It’s a reference to the 1940s and 50s, when Havana was known as “the Paris of the Caribbean” because the city thrived on a backdrop of grand architecture, cultural events, and elegant fashions. Writers, artists, and other intellectuals from the United States and Europe — icons such as Ernest Hemingway, Walker Evans, André Breton — gathered with their Cuban counterparts at outdoor cafés, quaint watering holes, and art exhibits, and the city thrived with the energy of modernism. But one has to finish reading the novel to fully grasp the layers of meaning of the title because the Paris reference is also a metaphor for the universal search for Utopian love.

Q.

Can you describe the historical and political background against which Marisol’s life is set?

A.

I borrowed the chronology of my life because I was born into history in 1959, three months after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution. Our lives were basically held hostage to that historic event and then [to] life in Miami after exile, [leaving on a] Freedom Flight in 1969. Cubans in Miami were impacted by those historical events in a very personal way, and that’s why my character has a place in that history, just as I did covering it for The Miami Herald. I wanted my Marisol to also have that history, so I could explain it to readers from a different perspective. That’s why she’s a volunteer during the [1980] Mariel Boatlift, helping place refugees in that period of turmoil. At the same time, there are her travels, because I wanted to show how our Latin American community in Miami is very well traveled. It also has tidbits of Miami politics. The greatest compliment is when people say this novel is so real that it must be autobiographical, because that says I created a believable fictional world.

Q.

What kind of research did creating this level of authenticity require?

A.

The first paragraph about the Miami River came from when I first heard about the Spanish influence in Florida — and all that happened before the American version of history — from a professor when I was a student at the University of Florida. I went back to my college notes and books on Florida’s history. I spent a lot of time asking questions and carrying around my legal pad. But I also did fun research. Once I decided there was a club in this story, I spent many, many nights at a beautiful little club in Miami that was small, dark, and crowded with nostalgic Cubans, just as I described in the novel. I surrounded myself with books about Cuba and Havana. Luckily, many subjects I had already written about as a reporter. When I actually sat down to write, however, I had this emptiness. As a reporter, I’m used to writing with notes and research materials, and here I was faced with a blank screen.

Q.

There’s a perfume motif that adds a certain cohesiveness to the novel. Where did this idea originate?

A.

When I left Cuba, the military men came and said it was my family’s turn to leave, that they were boarding up the house and we needed to grab what we were going to take and go. I brought three things with me, and one of them was a small little bottle of perfume given to me by my very best friend right when we were about to leave and were saying goodbye to everyone. It was a beautifully sculpted wooden bottle, and it said “Cuba” on it and had a beach scene. I’ve had that little bottle of perfume on my nightstand forever. My friend stayed in Cuba, and we reunited only three years ago. That little bottle inspired the perfume motif because it tapped into all those complicated and mixed feelings that I always had about leaving Cuba. I’m always thinking about “what if?” and those are the areas I was able to explore in this novel. What if my grandmother had been the one who left Cuba with me? What if my father hadn’t surrendered his business peacefully?

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