CJLC editor Tara Skaggs McTague interviews Cleyvis Natera about her debut novel, Neruda on the Park. Natera is a novelist, essayist, and critic whose work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, and Kweli Journal, among others.
This novel takes place in the fictional New York neighborhood of Nothar Park, which is a center of Dominican life. How come you chose to write about a fictional, rather than real, neighborhood?
From the time my family and I arrived in New York City from the Dominican Republic when I was ten years old, we had many homes. Upon arrival, we spent the first few months at my Abuelita’s house on 144th Street and Broadway. When we were able to finally get our own place, we lived in the Bronx for about three years. Then we came to settle in Northern Manhattan, on 133rd Street and Amsterdam, where my mother still lives. One of my ambitions when writing Neruda on the Park was to collapse the concept of borders, so Nothar Park, the fictional neighborhood where the story takes place, ended up being an amalgam of all the places I consider mine – from the burnt-out tenement we stared out of our window in the Bronx to Washington Square Park, where I spent a great deal of time as I pursued my MFA at NYU. Home is a big concern in the book, and I rejoiced at the opportunity to have a borough-less New York City represented in my novel.
How long did it take you to write Neruda on the Park? What did that process look like for you?
I wrote this book over the course of 15 years. Part of the reason why it took me so long was because I was trying to tell so many different stories about my immigrant community. In earlier versions of this book, there was a group of five-to-six friends that included Angelica, Luz, Franchesca, and the brothers and each of them had their own chapters, their own character’s arc. And at a certain point I had to say to myself, “Calmate, there are going to be other books.” In restraining the story I found that I could delve more deeply into the main characters of the story, a mother and daughter who find themselves at great odds when it comes to the idea of home and belonging, and how do we go about protecting what we love when it comes under great risk.
I really enjoyed reading Eusebia’s storyline and arc. Eusebia is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic and Luz’s mother. How was the character of Eusebia formed? Was she inspired by anyone you know, or perhaps a family member?
Eusebia is inspired by the rage, strength and resilience of many women I grew up around. One of the starting points for this book, which is centrally concerned with displacement and gentrification, is memories I had of walking to the 1 train on 125th Street as I made my way to the subway on my way to Fashion Industries H.S. downtown. When Columbia University was pushing aggressively further north into West Harlem, there were so many community members who resisted that move, understanding what it would mean for the members of our community. What I was most struck by as I witnessed the fight was that in ways it mirrored the ways in which women are often left out of the narratives about resistance or given a minor role, when I’d argue in most instances we are central to social revolutions. I also wanted to document the rage and strength I witnessed regularly during that time, a rage that I found inspired my own artistic boldness as a writer.
In constructing Eusebia’s character, it was also critical that she not be longing to return to her birthplace. I know a lot of immigrants that do not long for the home they left. They love their country, but home is where they’ve established roots, grown their families, built community. Luz, Eusebia’s daughter, is also an immigrant as she arrived in New York City when she was very young. In thinking about generational attitudes about belonging, I wanted to show how home isn’t a concern for Luz. Luz is completely assimilated. For Eusebia, on the other hand, who is very Dominican in every way, claiming the United States as home felt radical to me. It felt as a revolutionary act in writing her character because I haven’t seen this truth of who we are, in claiming the space we inhabit, when I read stories that center immigrant communities. The United States is our home. It is ours, period. We don’t have to bend down to the idea of being grateful and or behaving respectfully for the sake of not overstaying our welcome.
What inspired you to include the issue of body image as it relates to the extreme case of Cuca?
Being Afro-Latina and being of darker complexion, the idea of what it means to be valuable as a woman has been top of mind since I was a child, way before it should have been if I’m honest. I became aware of beauty standards before I even understood why they were important because I didn’t fit into them. I got picked on a lot as a child. I grew up always looking around and thinking something wasn’t quite right with me and understanding that it had to do with the fact that I wasn’t lighter skin, that I wasn’t white. As I consider the idea of how beauty standards contribute to our lack of self-esteem, I knew I wanted to tackle through Cuca, Eusebia’s sister, the prevalence of violence against women’s bodies and how that shows up in society. For example, if you’re Afro-Latina, you’re often erased from what Latinos deem Latino. So, that’s one kind of violence – the violence of erasure. Then, the idea of how, because of colorism, and an ever-shifting beauty standard that specifically targets women, we are conditioned to never feel at home in our own bodies, to always feel as if self-contentment is just a purse away, a tightening cream away, a nip-or-tuck away, perhaps a set of extensions or longer eyelashes or whiter teeth is the thing that will make us feel good about ourselves.
When we first meet Cuca, she is very adamant about the body-work she intends to get. Cuca will not be ashamed that her primary reason for wanting surgery is because she loves her husband, and her husband has a wandering eye, and she has a feeling that her life will be better if she goes through this full-body cosmetic procedure.
Part of the reason I was committed to making this an issue of the book that cleaves Luz and Eusebia is because I think it’s a never-winning battle for women; it’s like if your ass isn’t big enough, then there’s something wrong. If your ass is too big, then there’s something wrong. The standard of beauty now, which has somehow morphed into a body that I align with a voluptuousness naturally found in Black and Brown bodies, became most popular based on white-passing celebrities. So, even when the bodies of women of color are the beauty standard, we are somehow not included in its ultimate manifestation. My hope in including Cuca and the different ways that my main characters react to both her desire for physical transformation and its after-effects is that it open up space for a conversation around beauty, that we recognize the systems as intentionally capitalistic in their pursuits of our lowered self-esteem but also that the purpose is distraction. If all of us are busy starving ourselves, or cutting into our bodies and recuperating from surgery, then we are not focusing on other ways in which violence is being done in and to our community. It’s important that we recognize that these pressures were created intentionally in a patriarchal society.
Luz, a twenty-nine-year-old lawyer, enters into a relationship with the white developer Hudson who is constructing a new building in Nothar Park. Eusebia vehemently opposes this relationship. What does this relationship say about the attractive nature of gentrification and generational responses to it?
Hudson and Luz’s love affair was such a wonderful part of this novel to write. First, because I wanted to include a woman who truly has sexual agency, who is often the aggressor when it comes to acting on her desire. I also wanted to explore the idea of how even the most well-meaning person, in this instance Hudson, who is concerned with the Climate Crisis and genuinely believes building luxury condominiums in this immigrant neighborhood will solve more problems than it will create. There is a naivete that stems from a privileged life, and I would like my readers to sit with the idea of how we sometimes cause harm even when we don’t intend to. There are no flat characters in my book largely because as an artist, the way I want to showcase humanity is by showing, on the page, the complexity and beauty of what it means to be a person living and doing our best during difficult times. Luz’s decisions about whether she will end up with this man, who offers her a way of recognizing her own self-worth beyond the confines she’s been restrained by, is as seductive as the idea of true liberation. I hope readers of Neruda on the Park meditate on the ways in which we are free and the ways in which we have to revolt to gain freedom.