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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

En español | Fabiola Santiago — whose debut novel Reclaiming Paris was just translated into Spanish — is vacationing on Sanibel Island, off the coast of southwest Florida, where she and her large family are celebrating her parents’ 54th wedding anniversary. Santiago’s on a weeklong furlough from The Miami Herald where, since 1980, she’s had a fast-paced career covering historically significant events of the Cuban American experience.

Little did she know that her beat would serve as the rich backdrop for her debut novel. Protagonist Marisol, a 45-year-old Cuban exile, poet, and historical archivist, is determined to break with confining traditions and confront complex issues of identity through a series of globetrotting romantic entanglements.

In a conversation often punctuated by a carefree laugh, Santiago talks about the nostalgia of Cuban exiles like herself; why she didn’t translate the novel herself; and her next book, inspired by her work in Guantanamo.

Q. 

How would you describe Siempre París?

A.

It’s a portrait of contemporary Cuban Miami and its historical ties to Cuba, told through the very sensual voice of a woman. It’s an intimate story. Some people want to call it chick lit, but it’s a whole lot more than that because there’s a lot of cultural nuance in what it’s like to be a Cuban in Miami and an exile. Not that the story is gloom and doom, but it reflects the nostalgia that runs through Miami like a wound. Cubans laugh, even in times of trouble and sadness. If you go to a Cuban funeral, everybody’s laughing and telling stories, and I wanted to capture something like that while making it exuberant.

Q.

What sparked the idea for this novel?

A.

It’s really hard for me to pinpoint exactly what did it, but it had something to do with feelings that arose in two key moments in my life. The first moment was when I went to Guantanamo to cover the Cuban refugees being held there in the tent cities during the Clinton administration. It was a very emotionally charged assignment, especially because I had never been back to Cuba since I left when I was ten. As I was walking through the tent city with a military escort and my notebook, I began interviewing refugees, and they kept asking for me to tell their relatives they were okay. I tore pieces from my notebook and handed out extra pens. Remember, these people were incommunicado; their relatives in Miami didn’t know if they were dead or alive. They stuffed my jeans pockets with these notes, and when I got back to Miami I spent the weekend calling all these people — and you can imagine what those conversations were like. Then I took one of the notes from my back pocket, and this man had written a love letter to his wife. When I called her, I wanted to put it in the mail for her, but she asked that I read it to her over the phone. It was at that moment that I thought, “Behind all of Cuban history, every historical moment, there is always a hell of a love story.”

And then the next day, I got up at six with the intention to write about my experience in Guantanamo and, lo and behold, when I woke up out of that trance — because I don’t know what else to call it — I had written my grandmother’s story. My grandmother had exiled her cheating husband not only from her own life but from all of [the Cuban province of] Matanzas to Havana. I made up the dialogue and what happened using the story I had grown up hearing. When I finished, I was scared because I had experienced something very special, but I left it alone and went on with my life as a reporter. The journalism was always sort of making me quash the novelist that had been born, but what I wrote that day in November of 1994 became — with some additions and a lot of rewriting and editing — chapter six in Reclaiming Paris.

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