The PEN Ten: An Interview with Cleyvis Natera
The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week, PEN America’s Literary Programs and World Voices Festival Coordinator Viviane Eng speaks with Cleyvis Natera, author of Neruda on the Park (Ballantine Books 2022). Amazon, Bookshop.
1. What was the inspiration for Neruda on the Park? When did you realize that you had a novel on your hands?
Neruda on the Park is a novel about a fictional neighborhood in New York City that is suddenly under the threat of gentrification. My two main characters, Eusebia, a dedicated and selfless mother, and her daughter Luz, an upwardly mobile, Ivy League-educated attorney, react to the threat of gentrification quite differently. While Luz thinks it a long overdue inevitability, her mother Eusebia decides to resist. She rallies her neighbors to take part in a series of escalating schemes to stop the construction of the luxury condos. The point of inspiration for my novel is rooted in my own community. I wanted to celebrate the rage and resistance I witnessed growing up in New York City in the 1990s, a time when development violently threatened so many marginalized communities. Much of what I experienced was missing in the fictitious accounts of gentrification in New York City. There is a long history of resistance to development and gentrification, especially women-led resistance movements, and I wanted to focus my novel on dramatizing the love required to fight back.
2. The novel is set in Nothar Park, a fictional Dominican immigrant enclave located in Upper Manhattan. Why did you ultimately choose to place the narrative in a fictional neighborhood instead of one that already exists in New York? What creative freedoms did that choice grant you?
I chose to place my novel in a fictional neighborhood because I wanted to collapse the boundaries that exist between the neighborhoods where I have lived as an immigrant in New York City. Nothar Park is a combination of all the neighborhoods I have loved. The Guerreros live at 600 West, which is modeled after the first building where my newly arrived immigrant family lived in Washington Heights. The burnt-out tenement demolished to make room for a luxury condo is a building I often stared at as a child when we finally managed to move to our first apartment in the Bronx. There’s Nothar Park itself, which is a miniature version of Jackie Robinson Park. I lived across it in my twenties and wrote many drafts of Neruda on the Park while observing how rapidly gentrification changed the landscape and culture in front of me. The brownstones belong both in Harlem and in Brooklyn, which I have greedily lusted after my entire adult life. I felt such freedom in reimagining the places I have chosen to call home. It enabled me to inject into the narrative the fierce protectiveness Eusebia feels as she spirals out of control to save her community.
“ I felt such freedom in reimagining the places I have chosen to call home. It enabled me to inject into the narrative the fierce protectiveness Eusebia feels as she spirals out of control to save her community.”
3. The book opens with the protagonist Luz, an upwardly mobile corporate lawyer failing to make partner and ultimately losing her job. Luz’s mother Eusebia lives a very different reality during the day, with her concerns more centered on the rapid development and gentrification of the ethnic enclave they call home. In spite of their differences, the two women nonetheless care deeply about one another. Why was it important for you to draw attention to the multiplicity of immigrant and child-of-immigrant experiences?
Often, atrocities committed against immigrants are perpetrated because we’re considered outsiders, temporary people who come through the United States to escape horrors elsewhere but who are deemed to always long for our birthplaces. In Neruda on the Park, both of my main characters push against that narrative. Neither Luz nor Eusebia long for their birthplace, and though they each certainly have nuanced relationships to Nothar Park, it is without a doubt home. I also wanted to explore the complications of obligation through the lens of sacrifice. I find obligation is particularly sharp in immigrant and child-of-immigrant relationships. These women love each other fiercely but it is the silence between them—the assumptions they’ve each made about what the other wants or deserves that have kept them from truly seeing each other. Until the novel forces a reckoning, they haven’t truly honored each other as full human beings.
4. Some writers write with a specific reader in mind. This may be an individual, a group of people, a memory. Who or what do you envision as the reader, as you are writing?
As a young writer whose first novel out of my MFA program nearly sold but ultimately failed, I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to “make it” with this next attempt. I wasted many years writing toward the wrong readers. Today, I see a clear correlation between the audience I attempted to reach and the failure of those versions of this novel. There were times when I wrote toward editors or agents—yes, mostly white gatekeepers that I felt needed my story in a very particular way for it to resonate. Then, there were times when I wrote toward the critics and judges that I thought needed to be reminded at every sentence of my skill. Goodness gracious, do I cringe when I think of those days! The most painful gift out of all that effort came also by way of failure: the more I attempted to write to break down doors and force my way into spaces that couldn’t care less about this story, the less true I was to my own voice and the power it holds. It wasn’t until I decided I was going to write a novel that spoke most directly to my own community—and here I mean precisely the intersections of my lived experienced: woman, Dominican, Black, immigrant, those who often struggle to navigate hostile environments at work and at home, those who love fiercely but seem always to feel the deepest sense of loneliness—that this book began to sing.
5. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
The first book that had a profound impact on me is Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I grew up in a home where there was a great deal of violence (physical and sexual) and for so many years, I couldn’t make sense of the cognitive dissonance in my life. Adults often acted as if they were blind to the obvious signs of abuse. It wasn’t until I read Pecola Breedlove’s story, mind you, while still learning English, that I saw the world I lived in reflected back to me. It was a powerful and affirming experience. It also planted the very first seed I’d later come to recognize as the desire to write stories that were tragic and funny, chilling and true.
“It wasn’t until I decided I was going to write a novel that spoke most directly to my own community—and here I mean precisely the intersections of my lived experienced: woman, Dominican, Black, immigrant, those who often struggle to navigate hostile environments at work and at home, those who love fiercely but seem always to feel the deepest sense of loneliness—that this book began to sing.”
6. Which writers working today are you most excited by?
My excitement overflows at the incredible fiction being published today by Angie Cruz, Tayari Jones, Edwidge Danticat, Dawnie Walton, Naima Coster, Kimberly King Parsons, Robert Jones, Jr., Zakiya Dalila Harris, Mateo Askinpour, Deesha Philyaw, Christine Kandic Torres, Daphne Palasi Andreades, Kali Fajardo-Anstine, Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa, Xochitl Gonzalez, Carolina De Robertis, and Noor Naga. It’s a wonderful time to be a book nerd.
7. What’s something about your writing habits that has changed over time?
The most important change that has happened to my process since publishing a novel is that I’ve decided to silence the voice inside of me that so often works against erasure. The pressure to rectify systems invested in silencing the voices of marginalized writers brings with it a great deal of stress and pain into my process. Instead, I embrace the pure joy I feel at having this book out in the world, despite such a tough journey. These days, I write from a place of celebration and freedom I never imagined would be available to me until much later in my writing career.
8. What is the responsibility of the writer in times of unrest?
The responsibility of the writer in times of unrest is the same as in times of peace: tell the truth. I recognize within me the impulse to work with urgency, to work myself to the bone, to strive to dismantle the systems who oppress us but the truth is that the best art comes from our observation of what is happening around us, finding ways to process that and then creating work in response to it. I believe that rest and joy are an integral part of resistance and our ability to survive those who strive to destroy us must first be rooted in love.
“These days, I write from a place of celebration and freedom I never imagined would be available to me until much later in my writing career.”
9. You were a 2019-2020 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow. What was that experience like and how did the program help you develop your literary voice?
The writing for Justice Fellowship program has been an instrumental experience in the development of my literary voice and most importantly, in my ability to craft a strategy that helped me become a published author. The path to become a professional artist has been hard and lonely for me. Being part of the program gifted me a wonderful community I’m still deeply connected to today. It also established how art can be used as an effective tool for social transformation. I am forever in debt to PEN America, and Caits Meissner and my fellowship cohort, for helping me envision the life I should be living and arming me with the courage required to pursue it.
10. In times of crisis and general disillusion with the world, so many people turn to stories for comfort. What is a book or literary work that you find yourself revisiting when you want to feel hopeful?
I often read Julia Alvarez’s In the Name of Salomé when I am in most need of comfort. In this epic historical novel, Alvarez turns her immense talent to the life and works of Salomé Ureña, a poet who became a national icon in the Dominican Republic back in the 1850s and has often been given credit for inspiring the Dominican Republic’s revolt against Spain. In Alvarez’s novel, we see the ways Salomé’s daughter, Camila, leaves a normal and rather boring life to join a resistance movement. There is so much power in Alvarez’s novel. It often reminds me that fiction is an effective way to correct history as it can collapse the boundary between the present and the past. It is also a gentle reminder that novels are archives to honor figures who successfully changed the world through the written word.
Cleyvis Natera is the author of the debut novel Neruda on the Park. 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, The Kenyon 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.