Most books have a quiet birth, but not “Neruda on the Park” (Ballantine 2022). Cleyvis Natera’s debut novel has been trumpeted by NBC’s “The Today Show” as one of its “what to read this summer” recommendations. Elle Magazine named it among the season’s “must-read” books. The positive New York Times review called the work “earnest, provocative” and praised the author’s style of her as “refreshingly direct and declarative. . . a mirror capturing the bleak comedies of life in a threatened community.” Publications like The Rumpus, Electric Lit, The Millions, and Lit Hub selected the newly released title as one of the year’s most anticipated.
The plot revolves around the Guerreros, a Dominican American family living in Upper Manhattan’s Nothar Park, and each member’s reaction to encroaching gentrification. The book examines the sacrifices people make to protect what they love the most.
Natera teaches undergraduates creative writing 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 behind becoming a writer, her family de ella’s reaction de ella to her novel de ella, and when she first discovered the poetry of Pablo Neruda.
After 15 years of working on this novel, how does it feel to have the published book out in the world?
Cleyvis Natera: I arrived in New York City when I was 10 years old from the Dominican Republic. I first fell in love with telling stories when we had to call my father from calling centers because he stayed behind. I’d only get a few minutes to speak to him about our new lives and prepared carefully each time because those calls were expensive, and we’d only get a few minutes. This is the late 80’s in New York City.
I remember longing for home and for my father. I would try to collapse this huge distance between us. This book has been a dream that has been in the making for so long, from those early days in calling centers when I tried to use language to connect.
Since the novel came out, I’ve been blissful. I worked a corporate job in the insurance industry the entire 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 into the night, even if the work is slow and painstaking, following our dreams is a worthwhile pursuit. It’s a wonderful feeling knowing readers will get to hold my book, further confirmation that persistence is worth it.
Your book depicts so much about the importance of neighborhood, family, females, and relationships. Can you share the gossip on how your family has received the book?
natera: This is going to be a scandal because I’m going to tell you the truth. “Neruda on the Park” is about a neighborhood and a family that is under threat. At the very beginning of the book, we find out there’s a burnt-out tenement that’s been torn down and there’s a plan to put up luxury condos. Then, we see that two main characters, Eusebia, who is a very dedicated and loving mother, and her daughter de ella, Luz, take starkly different positions around what this change means to their neighborhood and to their own lives. Eusebia concocts a scheme to raise crime in the neighborhood so that newcomers will be fearful of buying 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 people we love most?
Somehow, though the book wasn’t on sale yet, one of my aunts decided I had written about my grandmother, who passed away two years ago, in “Neruda on the Park.” My aunt started calling all these people in my family, telling them I’d dragged my Abuelita through the mud. . . that I am dirty . . .
I had a book tour stop in Washington Heights shortly after the book came out—I grew up in between there and Harlem—and started sending out invitations, because in my family, if you don’t invite every person, one by one, they will not eat. They’ll be so offended. I was very surprised that all I got was radio silence after reaching out individually. Except for one of my aunts, everyone else didn’t respond. I thought that was odd.
A week later, I got this text from one of my aunts saying, ‘I’m very offended that you’ve written about our mother.’ I had to ask her, ‘What are you talking about?’ She meant a piece of autofiction where I did take certain parts of my family’s story in service of a fictional account of 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 that 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.”
Next, I spoke to my mom. She was very distracted because she thought that 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, this sounds very painful.
natera: It’s devastating that a misunderstanding might keep members of my family from reading something that honors the legacy of womanhood in my family. I responded 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 died many years ago. Among the points if inspiration, it is in honor of them and as a celebration of our culture I wrote this novel. My Abuelita in particular is very important in my life. In my acknowledgements, I spent some time talking about my grandmother.
When did you first discover the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Chilean winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature?
natera: I studied English Literature in undergraduate school and in one of my classes, I got to read some of his love sonnets. Pablo Neruda is such a polarizing figure. I love his poetry by him. I read it in Spanish and English. I love the nuance of the language and its beauty. I also love what Pablo Neruda stood for as an artist. I believed that art should be accessible to everybody. Whether you’re 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 work.
Pablo Neruda is also a very polarizing figure because he was accused of doing some vile things in his life. This book is really wrestling with womanhood and masculinity. This idea of the beauty of his poetry by him and, at the same time, some of the more controversial issues that come up anytime you talk about Pablo Neruda really hit the themes that I wanted to explore.