Simon & Schuster editors
talk with Fabiola Santiago:
Q: What inspired you to write a first novel in the midst of a successful career as an essayist and journalist?
A: I began writing fiction in the early 1990s as a way of expanding and honing my writing skills, and of exploring the complexities of Miami, its history and its people beyond the confines of non-fiction. The Miami Herald’s esteemed Sunday magazine, Tropic, published my first two short stories, “The Spy” and “Seatmate.” I also wrote children’s stories for my daughters and Highlights for Children published “Citizen Carmen,” the tale of a Cuban girl struggling to learn English. But my journalism career was so high-charged and motherhood so all-consuming that I couldn’t devote serious and consistent time to fiction. Still, I wrote on weekends, on vacation, whenever I ended up with hours of leisure, and everywhere I went, I carried a notebook. When my home became an almost-empty nest, the characters of “Reclaiming Paris” filled the empty spaces. Marisol, her men, her grandmother and Alejo became my everyday companions.
Q: How did you begin your career as a journalist?
A: Three weeks after I came to the Miami Herald as an intern from the University of Florida, the Mariel boatlift of 1980 began, bringing to our shores 125,000 Cubans in five months. An account of the arrival of a group of unaccompanied teenage boys who had left a party in Havana and sought refuge in the Peruvian embassy was my first front page story. I still get goose bumps thinking about that story. While The Herald had great reporters, most of them could not speak Spanish or fully appreciate the nuances of Cuban culture, and so as a 21-year-old I was thrust into a big story in which I was one of the few journalists who could interview the protagonists. Since then, the essence of my best stories has always come from people who lived the history — the protagonists — not from official sources or documents. I played the same role during the rafter crisis of 1994 when thousands of Cuban families were sent to refugee camps in Guantánamo.
Q: Like Marisol, you were born in Matanzas a few months after the Revolution. How closely did you identify with your protagonist? How much of her story is pulled from your own?
A: The novel deals with what happens privately within the framework of history. I “borrowed” from my life the historical chronology and I gave Marisol my birthplace because I longed to write about my beloved Matanzas. As a child exiled from her land and loves, I also identify with the feelings of loss and rebirth Marisol experiences, and happily so, with her wanderlust! Surely, I’ve had my share of interesting love affairs, but my life is defined by my marriage of 12 years to a wonderful man who was my college sweetheart and remains my friend, by being the mother of three daughters, by my career in journalism, and by the close relationship I have with my parents, my brother, and his family.
Q: Poetry plays an important role in Reclaiming Paris. Have you always written poetry?
A: Yes, in sixth grade I wrote in my notebooks love poems to “Bruce,” a teacher I adored. In adolescence, I wrote poems in my diary about Cuba and my grandmother to deal with those great losses. Although my writing language of choice is English, I mostly pen poetry in Spanish, and even poems that end up in English began as first drafts in Spanish. I love languages and poetry is an unrestricted playground for words. Poetry, however, is still something I prefer to write only for myself, as Cubans like to say, “para la gaveta,” to keep in a drawer, under lock and key. You could say that when I let Marisol roam the house, she found the key.
Q: The novel explores the new sort of identity formed by Cubans raised in the United States. Do you think it’s important to remain actively connected to your background? How do you pass this heritage on to your daughters?
A: In Miami, Cuban culture is considered mainstream, so it’s not difficult or unusual to remain connected to your roots. It happens simply by existing, and my daughters spent their after school hours in my parents’ Cuban home. Language and cultural knowledge are assets and my parents and I made an effort to speak to my daughters in Spanish when they were little so that they would grow up to be bilingual, and they are. When asked about their background, my daughters always say they’re Cuban because that’s their closest cultural affinity, but they’re half-Cuban, and via their paternal grandparents, they’re a quarter Japanese and a quarter English, with a dash of Irish and Welsh. I’ve traveled a great deal and consider myself a citizen of the world, and encourage my daughters to connect to people through our common humanity. I want them to be free to be whoever they want to be.
Q: You mention several literary influences in Reclaiming Paris. Which authors and poets do you consider the most inspirational to your life and work?
A: The literary influences in my life and work are a mosaic, and representative of the different stages in my life, and they include those referenced in Reclaiming Paris, but there’s a richer mosaic. The beautiful verses of José Martí were my lullabies, the slim novelitas of Corín Tellado in Vanidades magazine nursed my romantic adolescent heart, and in high school and college, I was riveted by the literature of the South, particularly Flannery O’ Connor’s short stories, Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, and Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. I gobbled the books of contemporary American women like Alice Walker and Anne Tyler, enthralled by how they turned intimacies into great novels. It was not until I became a journalist working in Miami that I began to read Latin American literature, seriously and in Spanish. My first love was Boquitas pintadas (Painted Lips) by Manuel Puig, an extraordinary Argentine storyteller who used journalistic devices such as press releases and newspaper accounts, and letters, interlaced with narrative to tell the story of life in provincial Argentina. The epilogue of “Reclaiming Paris” is a tribute to him.
Q: You describe the hopeful atmosphere in the Cuban-American community after the fall of the Soviet Empire. Do you think those hopes have returned with the current Cuban political climate in transition?
A: Unfortunately, not. Although there are indications of some change in Cuba, but as of this writing, it seems to be only cosmetic. This second regime by a Castro brother has not translated into freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, the release from prison of independent journalists and peaceful dissidents, and open multi-party elections. Any positive change is welcomed, of course, but the hope that real freedom would ring for Cubans, so pure and ebullient in 1989 when the Soviet Empire collapsed, has not returned. There is still hope, though. Cubans always say, “Lo último que se pierde es la esperanza.” The last thing you lose is hope.
Q: Reclaiming Paris is written in English, with Spanish phrases sprinkled throughout. Was it challenging to write a bilingual narrative for an English-speaking readership, since the two languages flow together naturally for you?
A: Language is musical, and when I’m writing I’m in a trance and the words flow and find their place. When the Spanish words find their way into my English narrative and when I let them stay in my final draft, they are there for a reason, sometimes to convey a sense of place, sometimes emotion. A few remain simply because I like them an awful lot; they strike the right note to my Miami ear.
Q: The novel is structured around different perfumes signifying new life changes and relationships. Do you also connect perfumes to certain periods of your life, or did this theme come from your imagination?
A: Like Marisol, I also have a penchant for collecting poetic scents, and when all else fails, I change my perfume to recharge my life with a little inspiration. I think my relationship to perfumes goes way back to when I left Cuba on a Freedom Flight in 1969. I had to leave people and things I loved dearly behind, and I only carried with me three mementos: a doll lost in the labyrinth of early exile, a set of silver bracelets that I still wear when I fly, and a tiny bottle of perfume, a gift from my best friend, Mireyita, who remained on the island until recently when we were reunited in Miami as 40-something women. I don’t remember the scent Mireyita gave me, but I’ve always kept the little bottle, made of wood and inscribed “Cuba,” on a shelf in my bedroom. I remember giving it little kisses when I was still a girl.
Q: Do you have any suggestions for first-time novelists looking to draw from their own backgrounds in their work?
A: Read, read, read. Write, write, write. Everyday. A writing career demands passion, commitment, immersion, and solitude. Dig into your background like an archeologist. Listen to those wonderful viejitos, the elders who are full of great stories. Travel as widely as you can. Your background and experiences are at the crux of what makes you unique as a writer. It’s what makes your stories genuine and resonant for readers.