In Chanel Cleeton’s novel, NEXT YEAR IN HAVANA (Berkley), a Cuban-American woman’s grandmother dies with one wish – that her ashes are spread in her country of Cuba. The grand-daughter returns to the Island and discovers the roots of her identity and a family hidden since the revolution.
I was immediately absorbed in Chanel’s novel. Being I live in Miami and there are always stories in the Cuban community, I’m intrigued by all things Cuba. Chanel’s novel goes back forth between the time of the sugar barons and high society 1950s Cuba and tells 19 year-old Eliza Perez story of being sheltered from unrest, and alternates with present day Eliza’s grand-daughter, Marisol Ferrera’s story.
One thing that stood out for me was Chanel’s use of the senses. You hear and smell the sea and taste the unique meals, as well as visualize the landscape of the Island and smell the flowers thriving in Cuba.
I was excited to read NEXT YEAR IN HAVANA, since I was in Havana, Cuba in 2015 for the CUBA Havana 12th BiENNIAL. I think the cover is absolutely breath-taking, focusing on the Malecon where many Cubans center their social lives.
I was also thrilled to do an interview with Chanel about her novel and being Cuban-American. Here’s what she had to say.
CR: Describe the Havana your relatives grew up in, and told you about, compared to what your experiences are as an American Cuban?
CC: My family left Cuba in 1967, eight years after Fidel Castro took power, so their stories of Cuba were really fragmented by the Cuban Revolution. Before the revolution, many of their stories were of a tight-knit community and family gatherings. Our extended family lived close together so the children were all raised together, and despite the political upheaval of that time period, my family looked back on those days fondly. After the revolution, much changed, family members and friends slowly leaving the country, families separated. My father and grandparents lived through events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Bay of Pigs, and more in Cuba and their days were filled with uncertainty and fear.
As the child of a Cuban exile, I grew up on stories of Cuba and I was so fortunate that my family shared our traditions and culture with me, really preserving that history. Not having had the opportunity to live in Cuba, my family has really been my biggest cultural influence, and much of my Cuban identity is inextricably linked with my family and their history.
CR: What defines Cuban pride?
CC: I think it’s really about preserving a legacy. My grandparents did such an amazing job of passing our history down through the family and gave me a greater appreciation of all they sacrificed in order to give their son and now me a better life. There’s a tremendous resilience, courage, and sense of ingenuity in Cubans—both those in exile and those who have remained in Cuba—and those qualities really are our legacy and a source of tremendous pride. For those who were forced to leave Cuba, the version of Cuba that they’ve nurtured and preserved in exile for future generations is truly an extraordinary thing and certainly has filled me with pride as the daughter and granddaughter of Cuban exiles.
CR: Have you been to Havana?
I have not, but it’s at the top of my bucket list. My grandmother who I was very close to passed away several years ago and one of my greatest wishes is to return her ashes to Cuba. That said, my grandfather feels very strongly about us not supporting the current regime, and while I understand that everyone has different positions on this and many members of my extended family have traveled to Cuba, out of respect for my grandfather, my father and I have not gone.
CC: What makes Cubans unique?
CC: Unfortunately, many communities have experienced political and economic upheaval that has led to a large diaspora movement of people in exile so there are quite a few parallels between the Cuban experience and that of other groups. That said, Cuba itself is in a bit of a unique position because there are so few countries that have remained fairly closed off from the rest of the world in terms of access to media and technology. It’s also unique in the sense that it’s one of the few countries where a communist government has been in power for such a long time.
CR: Make believe you have a crystal ball …… What is the future of the Island?
CC: I wish I had a crystal ball! Honestly, I think there have been gradual events that have demonstrated that change is coming to the island, albeit a bit slowly. The opening of diplomatic relations with the United States, the government’s recognition of paladares—the restaurants run out of people’s homes—and casa particulares—the hotels/inns that are being run out of private residences—are changing things within Cuba. Technology and a desired access to that technology is really influencing the younger generations and it will be interesting to see what comes of that increased access with some of the restrictions to the Internet loosening as well as the potential for increased tourist travel and exchange of ideas. As the current regime ages and some of the original figures like Fidel Castro pass away, it’s really going to be the younger generation that sets the tone for Cuba’s future, and I think we will start to see relations opening up and restrictions continuing to loosen
CR: What are your dreams for Cuba?
CC: I would love for Cuba’s future to include more social, political, and economic opportunities for its people. I dream of a free Cuba that puts its people first and gives them a chance to realize their dreams and provide a better life for their children, a Cuba where people are able to speak out without fear of government retaliation, where people have access to a good healthcare system, an education system, where they are able to take control of their futures. I dream of a Cuba that has a place for the exiles, that can give a piece of their legacy back after it was taken from them. I dream of a day that I can go back to my family’s homeland and feel that sense of connection, to explore my family’s history there, and to learn more about how the country has changed since they left. I dream of a Cuba that I can pass on to my children and grandchildren, a Cuba that exists not just in stories, but that is also the future for so many of us who have only known it as an island of dreams.
CR: Thank you, Chanel. The novel is NEXT YEAR IN HAVANA.
Originally from Florida, Chanel Cleeton grew up on stories of her family’s exodus from Cuba following the events of the Cuban Revolution. Her passion for politics and history continued during her years spent studying in England where she earned a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Richmond, The American International University in London and a master’s degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics & Political Science. Chanel also received her Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina School of Law. She loves to travel and has lived in the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia.
Thanks to Berkley Books, we have one copy of NEXT YEAR IN HAVANA to giveaway. Just tell us if you’ve ever been to Havana, or what you know about the small Island nation just 90 miles off the United States. We’ll announce a winner at the end of the month.
Wishing you a happy, healthy 2018.