Most books have a quiet birth, but not “Neruda on the Park” (Ballantine 2022). Cleyvis Natera’s debut novel was trumpeted by NBC’s “The Today Show” as one of its “what to read this summer” recommendations. Elle Magazine named it one of the “must-have” books of the season. The positive New York Times review called the work “serious, provocative” and praised the author’s style as “refreshingly fresh and declarative.” . . a mirror capturing the dark comedies of life in a threatened community. Publications like The Rumpus, Electric Lit, The Millions and Lit Hub have selected the new title as one of the most anticipated of the year.
The plot revolves around the Guerreros, a Dominican American family living in Upper Manhattan’s Nothar Park, and each member’s reaction to growing gentrification. The book examines the sacrifices people make to protect what they love most.
Natera teaches creative writing to undergraduate students at Fordham University. She holds a BA from Skidmore College and an MFA from New York University. In this Q&A, the author shares the story of her career as a writer, her family’s reaction to her novel, and when she first encountered the poetry of Pablo Neruda.
After 15 years of working on this novel, how does it feel to have the book published globally?
Clevis Natera: I came to New York when I was 10 from the Dominican Republic. I first fell in love with storytelling when we had to call my dad from the call centers because he was staying. I only had a few minutes to tell him about our new lives and I prepared carefully each time because these calls were expensive, and we only had a few minutes. It’s the late 80s in New York.
I remember that I wanted a house and my father. I would try to bridge this enormous distance between us. This book is a dream that has been brewing for so long, since those early days in call centers where I was trying to use language to connect.
Since the novel came out, I’ve been happy. I worked in a business in the insurance industry for the fifteen years I wrote Neruda on the Park and it’s important to me that people understand that even if you have to get up early in the morning and work late in the night, even if the work is slow and painstaking, following our dreams is a worthy pursuit. It’s a wonderful feeling to know that readers will be able to hold my book, further confirmation that the perseverance is worth it.
Your book describes so much the importance of neighborhood, family, women and relationships. Can you share the chism on how your family received the book?
Natera: This will be an escandalo because I will tell you the truth. “Neruda on the Park” is about a neighborhood and a family under threat. At the very beginning of the book, we discover that there is a burnt down building that has been demolished and there is a plan to build luxury condos. Then we see that two main characters, Eusebia, who is a very devoted and loving mother, and her daughter, Luz, take radically different positions on what this change means for their neighborhood and for their own lives. Eusebia concocts a scheme to increase crime in the neighborhood so that newcomers are afraid to buy into the new property. As things escalate and spiral out of control, I wanted readers to ask themselves: what are we willing to do to ensure our survival? What are we willing to do to protect the home and the people we love the most?
Somehow, even though the book wasn’t on sale yet, one of my tias decided that I had written about my grandmother, who died two years ago, in “Neruda on the Park”. My aunt started calling all these people in my family, telling them that I had dragged my Abuelita through the mud. . . que yo be una sucía . . .
I stopped for a literary tour in Washington Heights shortly after the book came out – I grew up between there and Harlem – and I started sending out invitations, because in my family, if you don’t invite each person one by one, they won’t come. They will be so offended. I was very surprised that all I got was radio silence after reaching out individually. Except for one of my aunts, not everyone answered. I thought that was strange.
A week later, I received this text from one of my tias saying, ‘I am very offended that you wrote about our mother.’ I had to ask him, ‘What are you talking about?’ She meant a piece of autofiction where I did take parts of my family’s history in service of a fictionalized account of a family in crisis. I grew up in a home where there was a lot of violence and sexual abuse. I had used elements of my life to write a short story which was published three years ago. I don’t even know how she found it, or why she thought it had anything to do with “Neruda on the Park”.
Then I spoke to my mother. She was very upset because she thought I had dragged her mother through the mud in this book. And I was like, ‘Mami, that’s not even what this book is about.’
Ouch, that sounds very painful.
Natera: It’s devastating that a misunderstanding can prevent my family members from reading something that honors the heritage of womanhood in my family. I wrote back to my aunt to clarify the situation and apologize. It was never my intention. . . my book is dedicated to my deceased. My grandmother, grandfather and father passed away many years ago. Among the points of inspiration, it is in their honor and as a celebration of our culture that I wrote this novel. My Abuelita in particular is very important in my life. In my acknowledgments, I spent time talking about my grandmother.
When did you discover the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Chilean winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature?
Natera: I studied English literature in undergraduate school and in one of my classes I was able to read some of his love sonnets. Pablo Neruda is such a polarizing figure. I love his poetry. I read it in Spanish and English. I love the nuance of the language and its beauty. I also like what Pablo Neruda represented as an artist. He believed that art should be accessible to everyone. Whether you are a cook, a doctor or whatever your profession, he believed that poetry should be accessible and everyone should be able to understand it. That’s a lot of what I try to do with my job.
Pablo Neruda is also a very polarizing figure as he has been accused of doing despicable things in his life. This book really grapples with femininity and masculinity. This idea of the beauty of his poetry and, at the same time, some of the more controversial questions that arise whenever you talk about Pablo Neruda really touch on the themes that I wanted to explore.