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by Carlos J. Queirós, September 2009
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.
How would you describe Siempre París?
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.
What sparked the idea for this novel?
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.
What’s the source of the title?
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.
Can you describe the historical and political background against which Marisol’s life is set?
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  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.
What kind of research did creating this level of authenticity require?
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.
There’s a perfume motif that adds a certain cohesiveness to the novel. Where did this idea originate?
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?
Is there something healing about this process?
In Miami that wound is constantly open, and so I don’t think of it as healing as much as a coming to terms with. I think through writing the book I did come to terms with my own exile, and I accepted that I am a Miamian, a world traveler, a citizen of the world. I had to go through the journey of all that writing and go into all those places that are painful to me and my characters. In a way you can call that healing, but our story is never-ending. We are still separated. I have family in Cuba I haven’t seen since I was ten, and I just turned 50. The problem is this is a 50-year dictatorship that continues to exist, and there are times when you become full of hope. Which is, by the way, why I wanted to write about 1989. I wanted to write about when the Berlin Wall fell and there was sense of hope that Cuba was also going to become a democratic nation. I was also involved in the coverage of those events, and to me they are just extraordinary.
As you’ve read your work throughout the country, has there been a difference in how various generations respond to it?
The younger readers all say, “This explains my parents’ generation to me,” that they can see their mother and grandmother in it. I’ve received some really touching e-mails from young people who wanted to see themselves and their culture reflected in the book. Marisol is 45 when the novel begins, and you don’t find many characters in [today’s] literature that are that old. I wrote about this character because I wanted to deal with that stretch of history from 1959 to 2005.
Being bilingual, did you ever consider translating the novel from English to Spanish yourself?
I considered it for about 15 minutes. I thought, “Well, I know both languages, so I can just do the Spanish myself.” When I started, however, I wanted to rewrite the whole book and I couldn’t remain faithful to my own work. In Spanish, I think in a different way. Spanish is the language of my soul, and English is the language in which I communicate; it’s my practical language and the language I work at. The spirit that guides me is Spanish, but the actual technique is English. It’s a very interesting relationship that I just discovered. For example, I like to write poetry in Spanish and prose in English. With the Spanish edition, this book now has a whole other life. Now is when Cubans are really reading my book; the English version was read by Cuban Americans.
Now that it’s been translated, is there anyone in your family who couldn’t read it before but can read it now?
Oh, yes. I was so scared because I knew my most severe critic had not read the book in English, and that is my mother. I thought, “When she reads all that stuff about my grandmother, she’s going to kill me.” I didn’t even want to tell her that the book was coming out in Spanish. I waited until I absolutely had to and decided I’d go ahead and face the firing squad. But much to my surprise and absolute joy, she called me one Saturday and said she’d made my favorite dish and I had to [come over and] eat it right then and there. When I arrived, she said she had stayed up until 2 a.m., read my entire novel, and couldn’t put it down. And I said, “Here comes the stomachache.” But instead, she said, “Wow, ¡qué novela! ¡Está picante!” Her only objection was to a bad word on page 23, and she quickly blamed the translator. So I got away with it. She’s very frail and sick, but she called up her beautician and asked her to come over because she had to get ready for her daughter’s book launch. She was the belle of the ball.
What are you working on now?
My next book is a children’s book about a ten-year-old girl whose family sets out to sea in a raft in 1994, and it’s based on a true story that I covered in Guantanamo. It’s titled Flight Under the Stars.
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