By Amaris Castillo
In the summer of 2019, Adriana Herrera got the idea for a new romance book when she learned the Dominican Republic had participated in the Exposition Universelle of 1889, a world’s fair held in Paris. The USA TODAY bestselling author used her exhaustive research into women in business and the distilling business at that time to write A Caribbean Heiress in Paris.
Out on May 31 by HQN, A Caribbean Heiress in Paris centers on Luz Alana Heith-Benzan, a Dominican-Scottish businesswoman who is determined to expand the rum business her family had built over generations for herself and her little sister, Clarita. They set sail from Santo Domingo for Paris where Luz Alana encounters obstacle after obstacle, including being denied access to her inheritance unless she marries. She’s not in the best place when she meets James Evanston Sinclair, Earl of Darnick. From their first meeting, Luz Alana is conflicted as tensions build between them.
A Caribbean Heiress in Paris is the first book in the Las Leonas series, about three Dominican women and their romances during the World’s Fair of 1889 in Paris. Herrera, who has already begun working on the second book in the series, spoke to the Dominican Writers Association recently about the research behind this book, Dominican women and culture, and more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Congratulations on A Caribbean Heiress in Paris! How do you feel about the book coming out soon?
I’m nervous because it is my first full-length historical romance. I feel a lot of pressure. There's quite a lot of historical fiction out there, but this is a romance and there really isn’t any romance with a Latina in a historical setting in Europe. I am nervous about how people are going to receive it, but I’m excited, too, because I’m really proud of the book. I’ve been thinking about it and working on it for so long that I’m just excited for it to be out in the world finally.
In your author’s note, you mentioned that the idea for this series came from an article you read about the Dominican Republic attending a French international exposition. As you discovered more, what was it about the DR’s involvement that piqued your interest?
I’m Dominican, so anything that’s Dominican is going to pique my interest. I was actually going to Paris with my partner and my daughter and, whenever I go to a city, I always search “Dominicans in Paris,” or “Dominicans in Athens” – just in case there’s something going on with Dominicans from that city that I could happen to catch. That’s how we are.
I was researching “DR Paris” and I happened upon this article saying that the Dominican Republic was at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, which was a big one because it was the centennial of the revolution and they were unveiling the Eiffel Tower. The king of Belgium, King Leopold, was being given a tour of all the pavilions of dozens of countries that exhibited. Thirteen of them were Latin. During the tour, he snubbed the Dominican pavilion because Ulises Heureaux – who was president of the Dominican Republic in the late 1880s – had borrowed money from Belgium and didn’t pay it back. So we got snubbed at the world’s fair because our president owed him money. I was like, ‘This is way too good not to research further.’ I ended up going into this rabbit hole of the different Latin countries that were in Paris for the world’s fair.
My mother made me go to French lessons for like 10 years, so I can read in French and I ended up finding this guidebook for the world’s fair for that year. They had illustrations of each pavilion and really detailed descriptions of everything that each country was exhibiting. The DR’s pavilion had about 80 presenters, and part of the presenters were rum distillers and they also had amber and sugarcane. I was like, “This is really fascinating. What if one of the rum distillers was a woman?” That was my little nugget of an idea for the book.
So being able to read French opened up your research even more and the possibilities of the story.
Yeah, and part of it, too, was could there have been a woman selling rum or a distiller in the DR? I was lucky enough to get connected with the librarian for the Dominican Studies Institute at the City University of New York. His name is Jhensen Ortiz and he’s fantastic. I requested information about women doing business at this time period in the DR, and he was like, “I got you.” He sent me all these articles in Spanish. There was pretty good documentation about all the different people that were in commerce in Santo Domingo and in Higüey, which is where my heroine is from. A woman researcher had found this ledger of all the different people in commerce at that time, whether they were men or women. It just so happened that most of the liquor vendors in the Dominican Republic in the second half of the 19th century were women.
That’s incredible. As you continued your research with the help of the Center for Dominican Studies at CUNY, what pieces of Dominican history surprised you?
I was born in Santo Domingo and lived there until I was 23. The beating heart of Dominican free commerce has always been women. There’s a term for a woman that sells things in the street – las marchantas. They sell you a little bit of something, like a little bag of sugar; that part of the commerce has always been women. I knew that, but I didn’t know that women were trying to register their businesses with the municipalities or doing business as legal entities at that time. That was interesting to see because there’s a big informal economy in the DR.
At the center of your story is Luz Alana, a Dominican-Scottish businesswoman who is determined to fight every obstacle in her way, mainly men who don’t see the value she brings as a woman to this industry. Is she a mirror to women you personally know?
Dominican culture is very matriarchal. I was raised by women who worked in business or were entrepreneurs. The Dominican woman who hustles, who doesn’t give up, and is doing what she needs to do is very much a recurring theme in my books. For this book, I wanted to really get at women in business because there were a lot of merchants who came to Paris that year to do business.
I also wanted to talk about women in distilling. There’s a long history of women being trailblazers in the distilling world, and we don’t ever hear about that. I wanted to use Luz Alana as a place to focus on all the different aspects of the distilling history and how women don’t get the credit that they should get.
You’re really good at building up the tension between Luz Alana and Evan Sinclair so well. I found myself wondering, “When are they getting together already?” Can I read a passage to you that I liked?
"She tugged on his very neatly tied four-in-hand and crashed her mouth against his. She smiled with satisfaction when he responded with a growl and lifted her against the wall of the alley. All she could do was hold on. The door to the Fourniers’ restaurant was mere feet away. Anyone could walk by and see, and she could not make herself care. She’d been nothing but sensible in these last two years; she’d been sensible her whole life. Always pressing on and doing what had to be done. The future of Caña Brava, of her family’s legacy, of Clarita were hers to secure. And that was an inescapable, absolute truth. Her responsibilities owned her, but this kiss, this moment was hers.”
From this passage, I understood that Luz Alana has been a dutiful daughter all her life, and now has the weight of her family’s legacy on her shoulders. Is this symbolic of anyone, or on women of color?
For me, Luz Alana is the embodiment of a lot of how my mother, my aunts, and myself live in this world. We do what we need to do, always. And a lot of the time, we do it without anyone seeing what it’s costing us. That was what I wanted to create between Evan and Luz Alana. He sees her and he sees how competent she is, how capable she is. The only thing that’s holding this woman back is that people won’t let her in the door. Because if she was given the same privileges that men are given just for being upright and breathing, she could literally take over the world. Imagine being that capable and seeing that the one thing holding you back is that people won't give you a chance – and the weight of that. And knowing that that’s what’s keeping you from honoring the legacy that your family has handed to you.
There’s just so much that’s weighing her down, but Evan sees all of it. He’s her reward. He’s the man that comes into her life to help her – not do it for her, or save her. He gives her the space to do what she needs to do. That was something that was really important to me to get right, because he’s a very powerful white man. I didn’t want to fall into a trap of this man being a white savior. It’s always that piece of “You do something for me. I do something for you. This is all transactional. You are not saving me. We’re equals here.”
I had to build on the chemistry between them because he’s gone from the first moment they meet, but she’s still suspicious of what his intentions are.
She’s like “I don’t know about you, but I have business to tend to.”
But then she keeps thinking about him!
How did you come to the decision to make them an interracial couple, and in this time period?
I write about a lot of different kinds of couples and a lot of interracial couples. I wanted to do something within the greater container of historical romance. If you read a lot of historical romance, which I do, titled men like earls and dukes are very much a convention in the genre. “A woman meets a duke and unravels him” is a big trope in the genre. I wanted to do something that fit well into what a historical romance reader looks for, but coming at it from my lens of being a Black woman who is Latina.
I’m not going to give a lot away, but there’s a big plot twist in terms of Evan’s title. A big theme for me was the idea of unpacking the history of colonialism and its vestiges. I had to build a character who saw the realities of what his wealth and his position come with, and who also had a personal history that made it viable for him to be the kind of man that could be a hero for a woman like Luz Alana. Evan’s best friend is Indian, and his cousin – who is like his brother – is biracial. Evan’s world was already filled with people that were people of color. When I have an interracial couple, what I always try not to do is burden my woman of color, Luz Alana, with spoon-feeding culture to the white hero. Like, “This is a plátano!” You know what I mean?
This is a man who already has a sense that the world is bigger than the white world that he lives in. He understands that discrimination happens. Prejudice happens. I had to build a character that at least had an awareness of that. So when she comes into his life, it’s about what he sees in her and not about his whole arc as a character.
References to Dominican culture are woven throughout A Caribbean Heiress in Paris, largely because Luz Alana is part-Dominican. You mention larimar on the brooch that belonged to her late mother, and Dama Juana. What do you think adding these references did to your story?
One of the things that I really wanted to make a point of is that Western culture is not the only thing that exists. In the book I talk about how we have precious stones like amber and larimar. At one point, they go to a ball and they’re dancing a waltz and Luz makes the point to say that it’s a waltz written by a Mexican composer. I have music from danzas, which were basically the origin of merengue and other Latin ballroom dancing. I have poems by Ruben Dario and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. When you read a historical romance, there’s a lot of historical references to Western culture and European culture. To me, it was important to reference Latin artists, Latin musicians, and Latin poets – to all the things that we had that never make it into these books. Any cultural reference that I was going to make was going to be a cultural reference to something Latin.
Who did you write this book for?
I write my books for people who want to see themselves in the books that they read. I really try to make it so that you can see specific sides of yourself. I’m 43, so I grew up having to be happy with seeing glimpses of myself in a story – like someone was from the Caribbean, but they weren’t Dominican. Or if they were Dominican, they were white.
I want people to read a full book and see multiple things that are calling them home. That’s really important to me.
About the Author:
Adriana Herrera was born and raised in the Caribbean, but for the last fifteen years has let her job (and her spouse) take her all over the world. She loves writing stories about people who look and sound like her people, getting unapologetic happy endings. Her Dreamers series has received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly and Booklist and has been featured in The TODAY Show on NBC, Entertainment Weekly, OPRAH Magazine, NPR, Library Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. She’s a trauma therapist in New York City, working with survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
Amaris Castillo is a journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, and is forthcoming in Quislaona: A Fantasy Anthology. One of her short stories, “The Moon and the Sun,” was longlisted for the 2021 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival.
Amaris lives in Florida with her family. You can follow her on Twitter @AmarisCastillo and read her stories from the colmado at bodegastories.com.