By Amaris Castillo
Over the course of 15 years, Cleyvis Natera quietly worked on a story about a Dominican mother and daughter who take dramatically different paths when faced with gentrification in their New York City neighborhood. Her writing wasn’t always continuous because life and family matters, as they often do, take precedent. But she was determined to see this through.
Natera – a mother of two who also teaches creative writing – is now celebrating the buzz around her forthcoming debut novel, Neruda on the Park (out on May 24 by Ballantine Books). The book centers on Eusebia Guerrero and her daughter, Luz Guerrero, in the fictional heavily-Dominican neighborhood of Nothar Park. Fueled by anger and the fear of her community’s displacement, Eusebia concocts a crime ring to try to stop the luxury condo building from going up. And Luz – freshly-fired from her law firm – finds herself in a sizzling romance with the white developer of the company her mother fervently opposes.
“When I got my author copies of the book, I was overwhelmed by emotion,” Natera said. Everything rushed over me holding this book in my hands — everything I’ve been through over these 15 years. It is the most beautiful feeling.”
Ahead of her book’s release, Natera spoke to the Dominican Writers Association about not giving up on her book, the complex relationships between her characters, and more.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Congratulations on Neruda on the Park! How do you feel about it being tangible now and soon to be released to readers?
It’s been a very surreal experience. When you've worked on a book for as long as I’ve worked on this book, there was always this fear that it wasn’t going to happen. For a long time – maybe because I’m Dominican and superstitious – I was so cautious about not dreaming too big for the book because anything might happen at any moment.
When I got my author copies of the book, I was overwhelmed by emotion. Everything rushed over me holding this book in my hands — everything I’ve been through over these 15 years. It is the most beautiful feeling.
It’s not difficult to see that you are an inspiration to writers because of your commitment to this story. What kept you coming back to the page to see this through to publication?
I think that this idea of persistence is something I struggled with as I was writing this book, so I don't want to misrepresent my journey. I wasn't consistently working on this book for 15 years. I wrote it over the course of 15 years.
My child, Julian, was born with sickle cell anemia and went through two bone marrow transplants. The first one failed to engraft and we did it again. It was during that second bone marrow transplant that he developed appendicitis. It was a very serious and scary time in our lives, because my husband and I almost lost our son. This happened in 2017. Up until that time, I would come to the book during vacations, during summertime, around New Year's Eve.
I didn’t touch the book for a period of about two years when my son was going through all his health issues. But once he was healed, I felt this certainty that this was the time to really give it all I had. So in 2018, I came back full throttle. I was like, “I'm not going to stop until this book is in the world.” I went back to waking up at five in the morning before my full-time job, attending writing conferences, and becoming a lot more active in the writing community. I knew that, without community, it wasn't going to happen.
The persistence of writing this book is something that I had to work on over the journey of the book. I'm really glad that I've ended where I've ended, which is that a writing practice needs to be consistent. Otherwise, it's not going to happen.
In your book, the threat of gentrification looms large as your characters witness the demolition of an old tenement building for a new, shinier development. How did you come to the decision to make gentrification a central focus?
The decision to make gentrification a central theme in this book came out of my lived experience. I grew up in New York City. My entire family lived between Harlem and Washington Heights. It was an interesting time because I arrived in New York City in the late 1980s. And between 1988 and 2022, the transformation that’s happened in my neighborhood that I grew up in — and in the larger New York City area — is brutal. When you think about how much of our experience and our culture has been pushed and erased, it's really sobering.
When I started writing this book in my late 20s, I saw the changes happening in the neighborhood. I saw a lot of the fear that people had. There was this sense of resignation that I saw in a lot of my family and neighbors. But then at the same time, there was a simmering rage that I saw and that I felt, like “Why are you coming into our neighborhoods? Why are you driving up the rent? Why is it that only when white people want to move into our neighborhoods, all of a sudden services are available and the buildings are nicer?”
I wanted to tap into what I saw as the tension of this idea of home and what happens when a home is threatened. What would people do to actually stop this from happening?
Your characters grapple with where home is to them. Talk about this concept of home and how you approached it in your book.
For me, that idea of home is very fraught. As someone who was born in the Dominican Republic and came to the United States as a child, I would argue that I have this privilege of calling several places home. And yet I have felt like an outsider. When I go to the Dominican Republic, people call you viajera and look at you like you're a tourist. And then here in the United States, with my accent, people are always asking me, “Where are you from?” And when I say, “New York City,” they're like, “No, where are you really from?”
There’s this tension and friction in my own life about this concept of home and what happens when the idea of home changes, and what happens when the idea of home transforms over
time. I was really interested in asking some questions about home. I don't think I have the answers for my characters. I know that for all of them, it was a journey.
Vladimir definitely saw the United States as a stepping stone and as a temporary place. He was coming here to work, to give his child a better life, and then he was getting the hell out of dodge.
Eusebia was very resistant and carried a lot of resentment about having to leave her birth home. But then when she arrived in Nothar Park, she found that she was deeply connected to the people, the land, and the landscape. She loved this neighborhood and she is willing to do anything she can to save it and to keep outsiders from claiming it.
Luz has a more complicated journey in trying to discover what home means to her. At the beginning of the book, she's really rooted in this idea of a profession and achievement as the places that she considers home. She falls in love with a person that feels like home. For some part of the book, there's this question lingering about whether or not her future will be with this person. But her own journey, to me, was really about her discovering what home means to her and why home should be important.
From the beginning, you paint Eusebia as a very selfless mother. It feels like she has poured everything into Luz. Did you mean to make Eusebia a martyr mother – a mother who does for their child things their child ought to do for themselves?
Yea, I definitely wanted that beginning point for Eusebia and Luz to be a place that should make most of us a little uncomfortable. They’re codependent. Luz’s mother helps her emotionally; she’s that foundation for Luz that helps keep her strong. For me it was really important to show Eusebia as someone who has put everything she has into caring for her family. She’s also put everything she has into her community. She’s constantly cooking for people and taking care of people’s children. She steps in whenever people need assistance in the neighborhood.
I wanted to show the reader very early on that “caretaker” was her central role, both within herself and also within her community.
Is Eusebia symbolic of Dominican mothers?
Eusebia was a bit of a challenging character because, in some ways, she was based on some people that I know who are very committed to the family and family structure. This is a very critical element of their identity.
Eusebia is not, in my experience, characteristic of most moms. I grew up in a home where all the women worked. My grandmother, my mom, my aunt — everybody had full-time work outside the home and was balancing that. Eusebia’s character transformation is so drastic. I wanted to show her starting off as someone who is a homemaker. For me, honoring that experience — which is an experience that is often undervalued — was important.
Yeah, I agree. We don’t really see characters whose central area is the block that they belong to. You don't really see Eusebia go anywhere in the book.
No, she doesn’t. Hell no. She’s not going anywhere on the block.
In a recent post for the Chicago Review of Books, you spoke about acts of resistance being fueled by a rage that lies dormant in grief and loss. One of the incidents that fueled Eusebia’s need to take action is the killing of Jose “Kiko” Garcia, a Dominican man killed in 1992 at the hands of a police officer in Washington Heights. Why was it important for you to include a real crime against a Dominican in your book?
It's really important to me to think about what it means to resist oppressive structures. There are a lot of people in the United States that think gentrification is a good thing. Even the way that people talk about it: “Revitalize community!” They think about “beautifying neighborhoods,” and it's like, “We’re bringing glory back to these spaces.” To me, that's a really dangerous narrative because that narrative assumes that these neighborhoods are broken, or not full.
I'll be the first one to say our neighborhoods need to be serviced in the way that other parts are serviced. But we don't need these forces of capitalism and gentrification to displace people.
One of the things that I was thinking about as I was creating this book was, “So what about the Dominican community in New York City?” I really wanted to tap into moments of resistance within the community.
When Jose “Kiko” Garcia was killed by Michael O'Keefe, the reason police decided to stop Kiko was because he had taken off a jacket and wrapped it around his waist. They thought that he was concealing a weapon. I was really struck by this idea that you're walking on the street, you take off your jacket, you wrap it around your waist. It’s like police already thought you were a criminal.
It was really the first time that the Dominican community protested, looted, and showed rage, because this was a beloved member of the community. There were so many articles where people said Kiko was not a criminal. He was not a delinquent. It was really a big moment in the Dominican Republic that I hadn’t seen in literature.
One of the most delightful parts of Neruda are the interludes you wrote of The Tongues – Eusebia’s bingo-playing triplet friends who are also community fixtures in Nothar Park. There was one interlude in particular that had me cackling out loud. What inspired these characters?
I really wanted to tap into the deliciousness of being Dominican older women and pay homage to how funny they are. A lot of times, older women get flattened in literature to be vessels of wisdom or moving forward the culture. I wanted The Tongues to stand on their own and have strong opinions.
They have this deep love for this community. They’ve inherited, from a group of African-American women, this idea of being the caretakers of this community.
That’s why they're always outside with those chairs!
Yeah, they're the watchers and the caretakers. For me, I really wanted to offer readers this really funny and complex set of women who act as a Greek chorus in some ways, and who are very in tune to wanting to preserve the community above all else.
There’s no doubt that loss is a recurring theme in Neruda on the Park. Your characters fear losing different things, and have already experienced loss. Tell us about your approach to loss in your book. Did you realize just how many losses your characters would experience by the end of Neruda?
I think that there is such a deep lesson to be learned in studying loss. I became obsessed with the concept of loss as a child. When I traveled here, I was 10 years old and I was separated from my father. At the time, my father was my whole world. He chose not to travel to the United States. And when I arrived in the United States, my mother had to work 24 hours a day to be able to take care of four children on her own. So in a strange way, we didn't gain a parent by coming here, we lost both parents.
This idea of loss and how loss, in some ways, can be a vehicle for beauty is something that was really important to me to tackle and not to romanticize it, because loss hurts a lot. I think about when I was a kid and we would get ready to go talk to my dad, we had to go use phone centers. We didn’t have long distance calls in my grandmother’s house.
And so for the first six months to a year, the only way that I talked to my dad was if we went to these phone booths in calling centers, and we couldn't talk for very long because we didn't have money. That’s where the first seed of me becoming a writer began, because it was the first time that I thought about words as important. Telling stories connected me to my father; I was very careful about what I needed to say and how to say it. If I have to do it all over again, I'd rather not be separated from my father. I can trace who I am as a storyteller to that loss. And so for my characters, I thought a lot about how love can be a vehicle for personal liberation.
What do you hope people will question after reading your book?
I want them to have so many questions. As writers, one of the most fun things is to try to create a space where there has been silence. For me, as a writer, it’s really important to try to create spaces for discussion. I really want us to interrogate what it means to be at home, in our bodies, and what it means to be at home in the spaces we inhabit — what it means to be at home in personal relationships. I want people to really question this idea of how we show up for each other.
About the Author:
Cleyvis Natera is the author of the forthcoming debut novel Neruda on the Park which will be published on May 24, 2022 by Ballantine Books. She was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York City. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from Skidmore College and a Master of Fine Arts from New York University. She’s received honors from PEN America, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation (VONA). Her fiction, essays and criticism have appeared in Alien Nation: 36 True Tales of Immigration, TIME, Gagosian Quarterly, The Washington Post, TheKenyon Review, Aster(ix) and Kweli Journal, among other publications. Cleyvis teaches creative writing to undergraduate students at Fordham University and graduate students at the Writer’s Foundry MFA Program at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. She lives with her husband and two young children in Montclair, New Jersey.
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.