An Interview by Jennifer Maritza McCauley
In Cecilia M. Fernandez’s newest work Leaving Little Havana (Beating Windward Press, 2013), the celebrated writer recounts the difficulties, triumphs, and struggles of leaving Havana, Cuba and adapting to Miami, Florida.
Leaving Little Havana is a coming of age story that reflects the experiences of many young immigrants. Fernandez says her memoir “…connects with every immigrant’s story…Cuban or not…” and “[every] immigrant story is filled with trouble, especially for the children and teenagers who are taken along by the parents into a journey they can’t fully understand.” Leaving Little Havana has moved readers from all backgrounds with its lush prose and realistic depiction of a young girl struggling with divorce, cultural displacement and identity.
Leaving Little Havana recently won first place for the most inspirational nonfiction book in the 2015 International Latino Book Awards and second place for drama in the 2015 Latino Books into Movies Award. The book was also translated into Spanish as Adios, Mi Pequena Habana.
Fernandez presently lives in Weston, Florida and teaches writing and literature at Broward College and Miami International University of Art and Design. Her work has appeared in Latina Magazine, Accent Miami, Upstairs at the Duroc: the Paris Workshop Journal, Vista Magazine, and Le Siecle de George Sand, among other publications.
Here we discuss Fernandez’s childhood in Cuba and Miami, transitioning from journalism to creative writing and writing the story that “haunts” you.
Your memoir Leaving Little Havana beautifully captures your childhood and young adult life as a Cuban immigrant living in Miami. Why did you decide to write a memoir about your younger life?
This story had been haunting me for years, and I felt that I couldn’t go on as a writer if I didn’t tell it. I saw that my story was historical in that it reflected the events of the first Cuban immigrants fleeing Castro’s government back in the 60s. Most people think that only the rich left Cuba during that time, when, in fact, middle class Cubans made up the majority of those who left the island at the beginning.
In Leaving Little Havana, your family is forced out of a comfortable life in Cuba and ends up in Little Havana or “Miami’s Cuban Ghetto." Many Cuban immigrants share some version of your migration story, especially in Miami. Were you concerned about getting the facts of your own story right or writing a book that connects to the Cuban exile and Cuban American community?
Yes, I did a lot of research for this story to present the historical events happening in both Cuba and the United States at that time. I wanted to preserve the story of these pioneers who came to America when there was no Cuban or Hispanic community to make the transition easier. Every immigrant story is filled with trouble, especially for the children and teenagers who are taken along by the parents into a journey they can’t fully understand. The story connects with every immigrant’s story, whether Cuban or not.
You studied journalism at the University of California-Berkley before you pursued creative writing in Miami. How has your background in journalism informed your writing of Leaving Little Havana?
My father opposed my journalism career on the grounds that journalists are “scoundrels.” This led me to fully appreciate my status as an outsider/rebel as I lived my life and as I reported for many news organizations. This feeling of being marginalized made me see the protagonist (me) in my memoir as a rebel as well. The “rebel” just happened to have a love for words that crystallized during my days in journalism school and my time reporting. I learned that language is a tool used to inform and entertain. I also learned that deadlines are your friends, not your enemies. Without deadlines, it’s doubly hard to get out a piece of writing. I was forced to write on the spot which led me to tap into my imagination quickly and unceremoniously. I was forced to edit in my head and create a text on demand because of time limitations. This training is extremely helpful to any creative writer.
The younger you in the memoir is a joy to follow. She’s curious, plucky, funny, introspective, and she subverts traditional expectations of the Latina woman. What were the challenges of re-creating your younger self in your memoir?
As I went back to my younger self, I was overjoyed to see that I had always been a feminist. I hate injustice and oppression and the experiences of my mother as an oppressed woman under the tyranny of my father gave me the energy to fight against any traditional expectations placed upon me. I wanted in my memoir to give hope and strength to many young Hispanic women who are mired in the oppressive world of patriarchy. I wanted to let them see that they too can be self-reliant against the forces of an oppressive father and a sexist society, and that they too can make their dreams come true if they draw up a good plan and execute it fearlessly.
How do you feel about the representation of Cuban writers in the American literary world? Do you feel comfortable with your work being categorized as Cuban or Latino literature?
I have no problem with the category since I believe my writing hails back to the tradition of immigrant narrative beginning with the English who arrived at Jamestown in the 1600s. Every immigrant group is different but very similar in the challenges it faces. Issues of identity and displacement are not only immigrant problems; these are shared by the population at large as well. There are really very few minority writers, Cuban or otherwise, in the American literary world.
Cecilia M. Fernandez is an independent journalist and college instructor with a passion for literature. Her work has appeared in Latina Magazine, Accent Miami, Upstairs at the Duroc: the Paris Workshop Journal, Vista Magazine, and Le Siecle de George Sand.
She lives in Weston, Florida and teaches writing and literature at Broward College and Miami International University of Art and Design. Her debut memoir, Leaving Little Havana, was selected as a finalist in the 2011 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Book Contest.