Chanel Cleeton on how the 'strong Cuban women' in her life inspired When We Left Cuba
With her 2018 book Next Year in Havana, Chanel Cleeton dug deep into her own history as a Cuban American to tell a sweeping tale of love, loss, and identity.
In the novel, a Reese Witherspoon book club pick, Marisol Ferrera returns to a newly opened Havana in 2017 to honor her grandmother’s last wishes and spread her ashes in her homeland. The book alternates between Marisol’s own journey of discovery and the tale of her grandmother Elisa’s dangerous past as she embarks on a clandestine affair with a revolutionary amid stirrings of unrest in Havana in 1958.
“It felt like I was diving into a conversation with my grandmother; it did feel very personal and like I was going through some of her memories as I was writing the book,” Cleeton tells EW of writing Next Year in Havana.
The author originally intended for the novel to be a standalone tale, but the voice of one of Elisa’s sisters would not let her go. Fiery, revolutionary-minded Beatriz Perez grabbed hold of Cleeton almost instantly — so much so that she even set aside the manuscript for Next Year in Havana to write the first chapter of what would become When We Left Cuba, the next chapter in the Perez family saga.
“I saw her standing on a balcony,” Cleeton says. “I didn’t see her in Havana, but I saw her someone else where she was a fish out of water, and had faced down all of this heartbreak and all of these struggles and was now was filled with this vengeance. After I finished the chapter, it was so hard for me to set it aside.”
Ultimately she did, promising herself she could return to the story once the first novel was done, a task which helped her flesh out her new heroine’s backstory. The result is a tale set against the upheaval of America in the 1960s with an eye toward American-Cuban relations amidst conflicts like the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. For Cleeton, it was a chance to move beyond the revolution that tore families from their home and to understand the continual crises facing them once they arrived on American shores.
In advance of the April 8 release of When We Left Cuba, EW called up Cleeton to get the details on why Beatriz was so compelling to prompt another book, how her own past informed the storytelling, and what we might see from the Perez family next.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you first started Next Year in Havana, you only intended there to be one book, yes? How did When We Left Cuba come to be?
CHANEL CLEETON: I did envision it just as the one book. I pitched it to my editor and agent as this story of a grandmother and her granddaughter that mirrored my relationship with my grandmother somewhat. My grandmother came from a large family, there were five sisters and a brother, and she was really close to them. Growing up as an only child, I was always mystified by their relationship because it was a connection I didn’t have. I saw how much strength she derived from her family, and so I wanted to give that to my characters. I gave Elisa her sisters knowing that she would need them for journey she was going through, but I didn’t intend to go past that. Then once I started writing the book and I actually introduced Beatriz on the page, she spoke to me in such a strong way. I heard her voice so vividly in my head that I actually stopped writing Next Year in Havana and I wrote the first chapter of When We Left Cuba.
What was it about Beatriz that took hold of you and wouldn’t let you go?
She was both mysterious and also very familiar. I definitely have a lot of examples of strong Cuban women in my life. There’s so much about her personality — that sense of confidence and her strength in her connections, and her loyalty, and her passion — that really reminded me of the women I saw. Her voice in my head always felt like a very familiar one, and one that I had grown up loving and admiring as a child.
Next Year in Havana dealt with the Cuban revolution and a lot of history that many Americans might not know much about. In contrast, When We Left Cuba dances on the edges of majorly familiar historic moments like the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Kennedy assassination. Did you always intend to play more fully with that well-trod section of history, or was it something that emerged more organically as you wrote?
It was probably a combination of the two. When I was deciding how to frame the story, I knew if I was going to pick it up post-revolution, I’d be starting in the early ’60s. I looked at how many events happened that were these hugely impactful, frightening events to live through on both sides of the ocean in such a short time frame. I knew that this was what I wanted to explore in my character because to have gone through the revolution and all of that trauma, and to then go from being in crisis to crisis, it really made me admire the strength of the people that lived through that and gave me a whole new appreciation for how much tumult people went through in that time frame.
For you, are the two inextricably linked? I mean, you can’t have all those things without the revolution first, right?
Yes, I think it was definitely a natural continuation in terms of the historical timelines, where you really saw how this one event that was isolated to Cuba had global implications, and how it started to involve other countries and shape their foreign policy as well, and I found that really fascinating.
Did you always intend for Beatriz’s primary love interest to be a politician?
When I was writing, I went back and forth a few times on who her love interest was going to be. When I originally envisioned the book, I did envision her having a love interest that was an American politician. With such a strong personality, I saw her needing someone that would match her in that and would challenge her. I didn’t think she would be a heroine that would choose the easy path, and so it came naturally that would be someone who was on the other side of things — who could both broaden her perspective and make her look at things differently, but who could also make her a little bit more entrenched in her beliefs and solidify how she felt about the world.
Did you ever consider making it a real historical figure?
I didn’t really ever consider making it a real-life person. I tend to fictionalize my characters as much as possible, just out of respect for anyone living or family members, but that whole Kennedy era… you have a lot of young politicians coming up that had a lot of glamour and military background. I definitely looked at that prototype when I created Nick’s character.
There are so many conspiracies about the Kennedy assassination and this period of history in the CIA. How did you cut through the noise of all that and also avoid becoming part of a debate you maybe don’t want to be dragged into?
The biggest thing is wanting to make sure I didn’t inject any modern sensibilities onto my characters, so I didn’t want to give them any information they wouldn’t have had at that time. I had to be really careful with my research to look at a very narrow window of what the theories were at that time. One thing I came across that helped me shape the book a bit was how concerned Fidel Castro was after Kennedy was assassinated that there would be blowback on him. He actually met with people and went to great lengths to try to convey to the Americans that he wasn’t involved because he didn’t want any retaliatory action to be taken against Cuba and against his regime. It’s always a challenge to not look at things with the hindsight of history and instead to try to act as though you’re in the moment operating off of the information you have at the time.
You are Cuban. Did writing these two books lead you to discover things about your own identity or history you didn’t expect?
They really did. You had talked about how in the United States there’s not as much knowledge about the Cuban revolution, but even within Cuban American families, at least at the level of my generation, it’s a strange dichotomy. I was very familiar with Cuba — my grandparents made it a part of our lives. They lived with us growing up, and so it was just always something I heard about, but looking back on it as an adult I realize a lot of the stories they told me were always of the good times. I didn’t hear the difficulties that they went through, and I don’t know if part of it was that they wanted to look back on it fondly and not think on those times or if they were just trying to shield me from some of it. But I didn’t have a full appreciation for just how violent and terrifying that time period was. It really did open up a discussion in my family about some of the things that they didn’t talk about, and the events of the revolution.
My family was still in Cuba during the ’60s; my dad and my grandparents didn’t leave until ’67. It was interesting to hear my grandfather’s perspective on the Cuban Missile Crisis. I asked him what that was like being in Havana, and he was telling me about how they looked out in the harbor and they just saw all these ships and he said, “We just thought we were going to die.” They didn’t see any resolution to this that didn’t end with their destruction.… I don’t know if it’s an unwillingness to talk about those things or just a sense of pride to move past them, but [writing these books] definitely opened my eyes a lot to where I came from and to all that went in to getting me to where I am.
Was one of them more difficult or painful to write in that regard?
Each book has their challenges, definitely. Havana was actually a pretty easy book for me to write. When We Left Cuba, Beatriz herself was a challenge, trying to figure out her character and how she fit into the world and that time period. I didn’t intend for the espionage and for some of the CIA plots to be as big a part of the book until I started writing it, and then she just directed it for me. She was the sort of character that wasn’t going to sit on the sidelines while other people were deciding her future. It kept changing my focus and my research, and I would say in that it was constantly surprising me.
Do you personally share many of the complicated feelings Beatriz and Elisa have of exile, feeling untethered, etc.?
A little bit. I definitely think a lot of my feelings about my Cuban identity are mirrored by some of the feelings Marisol expresses in Next Year in Havana. I felt a closeness to her character, and a lot of the self-exploration that she goes through was somewhat the self-exploration I went through when I was working on the book. It’s different for every generation. My father and my grandparents lived through these things. They had their property seized, and it’s a very personal connection for them. With me being born in the U.S., there’s a little bit of a distance. I’ve heard the stories and I’ve certainly seen my family’s pain and their anger about the current situation, but It’s a little bit removed for me just because I haven’t lived through it. At the same time, there’s also a tremendous sense of pride in Cuban families where they don’t want distance to exist. The older generations have really worked hard to pass as much on so we can keep it alive for them, and working on this book has definitely given me a renewed desire to do that and to pass it on to my children.
What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about Cuba and this period of history?
One of the big things that spurred me writing the book was [that] growing up in Florida, so many people have a connection to Cuba or someone Cuban or at least have a little bit of a personal knowledge of it from interactions or the news. But I realized people that are outside of that and aren’t around large Cuban American communities don’t really understand why it is such an important event for so many. I would have well-meaning friends ask me, “Why are Cubans so angry?” or, “I thought the revolution was a good thing.” Obviously it’s a complex answer, but I don’t think there is as much of an understanding of how violent it was or how much families had taken from them and why there is that lingering sentiment of sadness and exile.
One thing I adore about these novels is how exquisitely you describe Beatriz and Elisa’s clothes. Can you tell me more about what inspired them and how you write about fashion in your work?
I definitely love fashion, so it’s one of my favorite parts when I’m working on the books. My grandmother used to have photos of herself all over the house. I grew up seeing these pictures of her in these beautiful gowns and her stories of going to parties and falling in love with my grandfather. There was a very romantic sense about that time period for me. Media is a huge part of my writing process. I look at a lot of old photographs, watch old movies from the time period, really anything I can to immerse myself, and so I wanted to capture the glamour of that time period.
You originally planned one book, then it became two. Is this the end? Or will we get Maria’s story? More of Marisol’s? Even Isabel?
Right now my next few books are basically featuring ancestors of the family. I’m moving into different time periods just because I felt it was time for a change. My next book is actually in the 1930s and it’s set in the Florida Keys, but Beatriz’s aunt is one of the heroines and there’s two other heroines. It’s a different time period but [we] still get to see where the Perez family is in that moment in history and what events they’re dealing with. I have a few other books in the works — one’s a Gilded Age book that will have a Perez ancestor and deals with the Cuban revolution against Spain and then the Spanish American War. I am thinking about Maria, and if I did write one of the sisters, she would be the next one, but probably not for a few years. I’m waiting to see where she would be at an age that I would want to tell her story and what would be going on in the world at that time that would fit with her character.