Reverse gentrification of the imagination: A Conversation with Cleyvis Natera
Neruda on the Park (May 24, Ballantine Books), the debut novel from Cleyvis Natera, follows members of a Dominican family in New York City who take radically different paths when faced with encroaching gentrification. When demolition begins on a neighboring tenement, Eusebia, an elder of the community, devises an increasingly dangerous series of schemes to stop construction of the luxury condos. Meanwhile Eusebia’s daughter, Luz, after losing her job at a top Manhattan law firm, becomes distracted by a sweltering romance with the developer of the company her mother so vehemently opposes.
Natera’s novel tackles the expansive subject of gentrification by zooming in on the lives of two women with vastly different relationships to their neighborhood and diverging roles within it—one wants to protect the neighborhood, while the other is desperate to leave it. By alternating between the perspectives of a mother and daughter whose lived experiences can’t seem further apart, Natera tells the story of a whole community. It is also a stunning meditation on the interior lives of women of color. Here are not just suffering women but women with agency, women who pursue joy and love, and women who are determined to have a hand in shaping their lives, no matter the consequences.
Cleyvis Natera was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York City. 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). She teaches creative writing at Fordham University and the Writer’s Foundry MFA Program at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn.
I was delighted to speak with Natera about her propulsive debut novel. Natera and I exchanged a series of messages in which we discussed literary influences, the challenges and joys of writing from alternating perspectives, and how to write about community while honoring the complexities and nuances of the individuals who comprise it.
The Rumpus: You worked on Neruda on the Park for fifteen years before it was published. Tell me how this book changed over the years from its first iteration to the version that was published.
Cleyvis Natera: My aim was to write a book about family and community, identity and belonging, immigration and capitalism, but to do so with the humor and beauty of the best literary novels I so admire, and the propulsion of a thriller that keeps you glued to the page. Interestingly, the concept of the book never changed over so many attempts. But what changed was how I told the story. It went from first singular to first plural, to a roving narrative that included the entire cast critical to Eusebia’s schemes, to finally resting in its final form—a story about a mother and her daughter and their home. It was the process of failures that led to a book I’m very proud of.
Rumpus: Speaking of novels you admire, the book’s protagonist, Luz, has a deep love for literature, from Pablo Neruda to Toni Morrison to Julia Alvarez. Did these authors influence how you approached writing the novel?
Natera: I love books and have been an avid reader since I was in my teens. There are a great number of writers who have affected my imagination and the risks I’d like to take in my own work. Toni Morrison, Julia Alvarez, as well as more contemporary writers like Angie Cruz, Tayari Jones, and Jenny Offill have had a great impact on me as a writer. Pablo Neruda plays a pivotal role in the book for many reasons, but his place in the book serves a different purpose. First, Neruda was well known as an artist who believed literature should be accessible to every member of society and shouldn’t be considered a concern of the elite. I love his poetry and find his language lyrical and evocative. But he’s a problematic figure in Latin America for his behavior which includes the alleged rape of a woman. Because my novel is also concerned with gender dynamics and womanhood, I wanted to bring Neruda into a conversation that hopefully will explore aspects of toxic masculinity.
Rumpus: I loved the exploration of women’s agency in the novel, especially as it relates to Eusebia, whose unlikely battle against a property developer becomes a battle for control of her life. Going back to what you said about the perspectives in the novel changing over the years, I’m curious about your decision to tell the story in alternating perspectives between Luz and Eusebia, a mother and daughter pair who love each other fiercely, but who don’t always see eye to eye. How did you decide whose perspectives to include in this sweeping story about gentrification and community?
Natera: Settling on the perspective was one of the most difficult aspects of telling this story. As I previously mentioned, the POV changed quite a bit. The answer seems so obvious now—the story truly is about these two women and their community, so the answer rested in giving Luz her say, giving Eusebia her say, and using the older neighbors—[characters I call] the Tongues—as the voice of this community. I avoided including Eusebia’s perspective for far too long because her character was so complex, I feared I might not do her justice. When I allowed myself to fully inhabit her perspective via this close third eye, there was a tremendous amount of rage, pain, and violence, but also a great deal of humor and beauty and love. Luz’s perspective was easier for me from the get, perhaps because the voice that first reached me was hers, and at the time my own life experience was closer to what Luz experiences in the book. There was an easier entry point there. The Tongues were a wonderful treat—I heard them so clearly and understood their convictions. I ended up cutting many of their chapters because they kept wanting to take over the book.
Rumpus: How fitting to hear that the Tongues couldn’t stop talking—they were such a delight to listen to! I felt like I was sitting among good friends who were always in the know, getting the real scoop. Can you talk a little more about why, in addition to Luz and Eusebia, the chorus was necessary to represent the community? Did you ever find the close third person perspective limiting?
Natera: The Tongues’ perspective differs from the close third of Luz’s and Eusebia’s sections as their shorter chapters are told from a first-person plural because they are literally the “we” voice that carries forward a tradition as caretakers of the community. The Tongues hold the history of the community. They inherited this tradition from a group of Black women who used to hold this responsibility for the previous inhabitants (my fictional neighborhood, Nothar Park, was a Black American neighborhood before it became an immigrant neighborhood). It was important to me that my immigrant community be aligned with Black people in this country because I find that Black immigrants who speak Spanish are often not considered part of the Black diaspora in the United States. This alignment as part of the Black community isn’t quite as radical now with the rise of the Afro Latinx identity as it was when I first began to write this book. Calling myself Black a decade ago was very controversial. Identity and community are important themes of the book and I wished to take race as a concept out of abstraction into the representational. I found the Tongues’ had the best voice to illuminate that rich history.
I never found the close third limiting. It gets me close enough to access the character’s interiority while at the same time providing enough distance to navigate over to the other characters without the confusion of a shifting first. I attempted this novel in first and found that perspective most stifling for these characters and this story.
Rumpus: To me, the Tongues, Luz, and Eusebia all act, in their own separate ways, as caretakers of their community. People often think of New York City as this transient place that’s always changing without seeing the communities that exist here. It was refreshing to see a novel portray the way communities persist here, and take care of each other, through generations.
Natera: Absolutely! Although I would say there’s a very direct way in which Eusebia and the Tongues rejoice in this act. For Luz, it is more of a journey in accepting that she also is a caretaker of the community. I’m glad you enjoyed that aspect of the book!
Rumpus: I was so fascinated by Luz. At the beginning of the novel, she’s too absorbed in her high-powered job to pay much attention to what’s going on in her neighborhood. Eventually she realizes that the soul-crushing and alienating culture at her law firm is something she can’t return to. I think that story will resonate with lots of readers who quit their jobs during the pandemic. As you wrote this book, did you feel pressured to mention the pandemic? Did it inform the story at all? I’m not sure you mention what year this book takes place in, but it felt entirely contemporary and probably relatable for many readers right now.
Natera: I’m so glad you found Luz fascinating. I love these characters so I hope their experiences resonate with readers. I didn’t specify the year it takes place, but it’s meant to be a contemporary story.
I love that you note Luz’s work environment as soul crushing. That’s exactly what it is! I worked a full-time corporate job the entire time I was writing Neruda on the Park. Although I enjoyed my job and ascended to the executive level of leadership I desired, I was interested in interrogating Luz’s isolating corporate structure. For many of us, the pandemic only exacerbated situations that were terrible to begin with. I was part of the so-called “Great Resignation,” and in hindsight, I can’t believe it took me so long to leave my job. For Luz, it works out that way also, though there’s no pandemic to speak of. What is at first terrifying turns out to be the best and most liberating choice.
I didn’t feel pressure to speak directly to the pandemic in this novel. But it was critical that the novel speak to the current moment. My way to approach it is through the characters’ preoccupations which I think, if as a writer I do a decent job of being truthful, those circumstances will resonate with readers regardless of whether they are from this same environment and live during this same time.
Rumpus: I think one thing that really interested me about Luz is that her advocates in the corporate world are other women of color. At first, I was as thrilled as Luz was to meet this group of super-educated women of color who seem to be running the world. Later, I was saddened to see those women replicate cruel, corporate structures that isolate them from their families and friends and even each other. I wonder if, for people like Luz who are racial minorities in predominantly white spaces, achievement comes at the cost of being separated from one’s community. By leaving the law firm, Luz seems not only to reject a job, but the mindset that personal success is more important than anything else.
Natera: At the beginning of the novel, we find Luz has bought into the capitalist edict that’s commonplace: Material success leads to happiness and fulfillment. When Luz loses her job unexpectedly, she’s at first shocked and sad (as many of us would be under those circumstances). But part of her story is to reject the competitive, individual win-at-all-costs mentality in favor of a path that leads to true fulfillment. Service to her community offers her spiritual fulfillment, which is an altogether different achievement. But it wasn’t easy to get her there! I had so much fun writing the scenes where Luz’s skill set is exactly what the community needs to get out of tight jams. As an only child, she’s at times self-centered and selfish, so it was so satisfying to help her understand the power that rests in truly affecting people’s lives.
Rumpus: Switching gears a little bit, I want to ask about how you use headers to separate your chapters—brief descriptions that read like teasers of what’s to come. What inspired you to use these descriptions over numbered chapters?
Natera: In poetry, titles are so nimble. I love how a title can raise suspense or bring awareness to the beauty of language or even, at a very basic level, guide a reader where it is the speaker wants their attention focused. Poetry was a point of inspiration. I also think these headers are more authentic to the way stories are told in my community. As a storyteller, my cultural roots stem first from the oral tradition.
Rumpus: Do you write poetry as well? Can readers look forward to a book of poetry from you one day?
Natera: I don’t write poetry but hope to one day. I love poetry.
Rumpus: You mentioned earlier that it was more difficult for you to write from Eusebia’s point of view than from Luz’s. As writers, we’re often instructed to “write what we know,” but sometimes to tell the stories we want to tell, we have to stretch the imagination a bit. Can you talk about what methods you used to inhabit different characters and channel their voices, especially when their life experiences didn’t match yours?
Natera: For me, reading fiction, non-fiction, and poetry has been the best method that prepared me to tell stories that vary wildly from my own experience. Books were my teachers long before I took formal creative writing courses in undergraduate and graduate school. Books by Gabriel García Marquez, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Julia Alvarez, Haruki Murakami, Edwidge Danticat, Cristina Garcia, Cormac McCarthy, and so many others provided instruction and inspiration that in many ways swept my imagination on wild journeys that were still rooted on deep character transformation. Those writers, their bodies of work, spoke with urgency and beauty to contemporary themes that remain evergreen.
What I most aspired to in this novel was to provide an immersive experience where the reader would walk away changed, aware in a meaningful way of what it means to be an immigrant, to love nuanced and complicated people, to be at war with your own self. The truth is that being an immigrant in this country often means hostility, uncertainty and violence. But we’re all so much more than labels and the environment that attempts to dehumanize us. I wanted to celebrate the spirit of immigrants, so getting the crafting elements to work (setting, dialogue, interior character motivations that all served the plot) was hard work but necessary for that full, immersive experience. I wanted the book to feel like the most thrilling and delicious journey that also aches with truths and insight that may prove helpful to readers in their own existence.
Rumpus: There are some fantastical elements in the novel. When it comes to writing about fantastical or supernatural phenomena, do you have any specific guidelines or rules?
Natera: I love magical realism, speculative fiction, and other stories that lean toward the fantastic. I wanted to write a book that borrowed the power of the fantastic to wrestle with contemporary issues, especially class issues that affect my community such as gentrification, colorism, and sexism. It’s difficult as a writer to approach these concerns in innovative ways.
When I’m reading books that work within fantastic traditions, I find they’re able to hold more truths simultaneously and give me, as a reader, room to contemplate social justice and political issues and come to my own understanding of what’s what. I trust my readers will want to do some work alongside me so I didn’t adhere to guidelines or rules. If the story is good and the characters are compelling, readers will ride along, and my biggest hope was to use these elements of the fantastic in a deeply realistic world to enchant and delight and surprise readers willing to suspend expectations. In a way, I hope the feeling that emerges as they read is of walking through a neighborhood that feels familiar, but by the time they leave they’ve encountered a place unlike anywhere they’ve been before. Reverse gentrification of the imagination, I’d like to call it.
Author photo by Beowulf Sheehan