Montclair’s Cleyvis Natera recently published her debut novel, NERUDA ON THE PARK, to a warm reception from outlets as varied as The Today Show and Elle Magazine to Refinery29 and The Rumpus. The complicated, recognizable relationships and conflicts highlighted in the story show the depth of the 15-year project, but the topics of gentrification, immigrant communities, and mother-daughter relationships still feel fresh and relevant for today’s readers.
NERUDA ON THE PARK follows Eusebia and Luz, a mother/daughter pair, as they navigate the threats inherent in new development, their own symbiotic relationship, and relatable life changes like retirement for one generation and career changes for another. The neighborhood’s history and the long-term residents of the fictional Nothar Park are brought to life with embedded smells of tempting Dominican food, lively salsa music, and the chatter of neighbors exchanging the news of the day. Luz lives in the apartment she grew up in for two decades, but she yearns to leave the neighborhood and move to a bougie apartment, like her colleagues in a prestigious law firm.
When a burned out building is demolished to make way for a shiny, new apartment building, the neighborhood’s residents are offered buyouts to leave, threatening a community that has bolstered generations and become a chosen family for the entire neighborhood. The temptations of and resistance to the changes are what keep the novel’s storyline and characters moving, but the complicated personalities and the push and pull of unchosen changes are what will entangle readers into caring about the futures of the characters even when they make decisions that might repel us.
NERUDA ON THE PARK is dramatic, but substantial. It reads like a telenovela with passion and arguments, but its conflicts around gentrification and climate are found in local newspapers and heard on street corners in most cities and towns. Pick it up for a weekend of reading that is a guilty pleasure on one page and a social justice lesson on another.
Fresh from a promotional tour that included podcasts, bookstores, and a foray into the world of TikTok, Cleyvis Natera sat down to chat with us about details and hard truths in Neruda on the Park.
Baristanet: Congratulations on your debut novel! Neruda on the Park is a complicated and layered story, but at its heart it emphasizes family, home, and finding a place in both. What brought you to the telling of this dramatic story?
Cleyvis Natera: My novel introduces readers to Nothar Park, a fictional neighborhood in northern Manhattan comprised predominantly of a Dominican immigrant community on the cusp of great change. The gentrification that has altered neighborhoods all around New York City has somehow missed this community. The plot revolves around how my two main characters react to this great change once the gentrification of the neighborhood arrives. While Luz, a young upwardly mobile lawyer, sees the coming change as inevitable, her mother Eusebia sees it as an opportunity to fight. The inspiration for this book came from my own lived experienced. Growing up in New York City in the 1990’s, primarily in Harlem and Washington Heights where my family still lives, I witnessed first-hand how quickly people are displaced by the forces of gentrification. Gentrification, a force of erasure and of displacement, affects people who already occupy the most vulnerable places in societies across the globe. Because I’m an avid reader, I found that many books that explore this topic often took the change as inevitable. Yet, what I witnessed in my own community – what is evident to this day in all gentrified neighborhoods, is that there is a great deal of resistance. I wanted my novel to explore and celebrate the love of home and community required to fuel such resistance.
Baristanet: We meet Luz, one of the main characters, just as she is let go from a high powered job, and we meet her mother Eusebia just before she has a fall and starts organizing the neighborhood in more and more shocking ways. Both are at once deeply sympathetic and also hard to support at different times in the novel. What do you hope readers will remember about each woman and their relationship with each other?
Natera: I’m such a big fan of mother-daughter stories. My hope in crafting the relationship between the protagonists was twofold. First, I wanted to make sure it was clear to readers that these two women have a fierce and undeniable love for each other. They are each other’s best friends and support systems. But that in and of itself doesn’t make for great fiction. To complicate the story, I also wanted to play with the idea of silence. These two women have withheld important facts about their inner desires from each other, and it is that silence that leads them to assume they know what is best for the other. Much of the tension stems from the conflict that unfolds between Luz and Eusebia arises when they each try to push the other toward what each believes is the surest path to happiness. It’s important to me that readers contemplate the ways in which our personal relationships can lead to intimacy that aids or hinders our true path to happiness. How often have we been complicit in assuming we know what our loved ones need? What they desire?
Baristanet: Gentrification and its fraught relationship to the community of Nothar Park is the central conflict during Neruda on the Park. The novel has some of the most honest and realistic takes on development I’ve seen. Some characters, including Luz, are torn about the changes and the ways the neighborhood could benefit. Eusebia’s efforts to stop the new construction seem futile, but she does convince neighbors to fight for their neighborhood, at least for a time. What do you hope the novel does to sway readers’ awareness about the issues inherent in gentrification of neighborhoods?
Natera: Since the novel has been published, I’ve been surprised – perhaps in a naïve way – by how often people speak to me about how gentrification is good for communities. My response is often – sure, but good for who in the community? Newcomers get to land in cheaper homes and transform communities that have often been marginalized and neglected. The influx of middle and upper-class people usually ushers with it a myriad of services and amenities previously absent from the community. Yet, for those who have been displaced, who have been pushed out because of higher rent and brutal underhanded maneuvers by landlords to get them out – what is lost is literally their home. My hope in tackling gentrification isn’t to sway readers one way or another; I don’t think that’s the task of the writer. My hope, rather, is to create a space for contemplation and conversation. I hope to reveal the anguish and rage that exists in a community that occupies a vulnerable place in our society. As immigrants, we’re often presumed to be yearning for our birthplaces, to be temporary fixtures and that is a dangerous presumption. It justifies the horrifying treatment of people. Likewise, there is this presumption that a neighborhood is made better through the injection of wealth. The focus is always on progress – cleaner, quieter, better served communities on the other side of change. We don’t often consider what is sacrificed in the pursuit of such progress. My focus in this book was on the fight – and in so doing to showcase the love required to stand up for that which is worth saving.
Baristanet: Parallel to the new construction in Nothar Park is the new home Luz’s father Vladimir is building in the Dominican Republic, meant for his and Eusebia’s retirement. While it’s not a sharp contrast, it seems to be part of the issue Eusebia has with leaving Nothar Park and returning to D.R. Without giving too much away, how does the family come to terms with their actions mirroring those in Northern Manhattan?
Natera: What I discussed earlier – how silence mobilizes faulty action in the name of love between Luz and Eusebia – is also at play in the relationship between Eusebia and her husband Vladimir. There was a time when all they yearned for was to set Luz, their child, up with a good life so they could get the hell out of dodge. But somewhere along the line, Nothar Park became Eusebia’s home and the thought of losing it energizes her to take a series of reckless risks that ends up putting that home at greater risk. A moment of reckoning arrives toward the end of the novel when both Eusebia and Vladimir must confront the silences that mobilized each of their actions. My hope is that the reader will see how an inability to vocalize desire results in tragedy.
Baristanet: Horrific news stories are returned to throughout the novel, and they affect Eusebia deeply. The stories of a little boy shot and mutilated with a cruel message, a whale unable to let go of its dead calf, carrying it along for days on end, and women and children found dead in a truck end up relating to the storyline and characters in different ways. Why did you want to include these stories? How do they add to the novel’s message in a unique way?
Natera: Many of the news stories in my novel were plucked from real news headlines. Because sorrow and loss are themes of this novel, as is mental health, the anguish that plagues Eusebia in the face of loss is magnified by a relentless news cycle of violence and grief that until now, she’s been able to ignore. I wanted there to be a natural escalation to the way in which Eusebia grows unable to disregard grief that mirrors her own past trauma. In some ways, I wanted Eusebia to embody the ways in which an unresolved wound festers until it is healed or putrefies. Fortunately for Eusebia, her wound is ultimately healed.
Baristanet: The novel is structured in layers of narrator, event, location, and message. The sections of each chapter also have a heading taken verbatim from the text. It encourages the reader to both look for the line and return to the heading, giving us time to reflect on each event. How did you decide on this structure, and what does it add to the storyline overall?
Natera: I love structures that help to guide and propel the narrative. My inspiration for this structure came from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which happens to be my favorite book. In Morrison’s novel, the seasons drive the narrative forward and it becomes a way that both comforts the reader with familiarity but also leads to understanding the story in terms big themes: decay, death, and ultimately rebirth through the imagination. The Bluest Eye, at its heart, is a story about telling stories, using language as subtext to both challenge and confront the inequities of narrative storytelling in American English. All right, I know what you’re thinking now, NERD ALERT. Bet you didn’t think you’d want me to go back to talking about gentrification but here we are! Bear with me for a bit longer.
I aspire that like The Bluest Eye, Neruda on the Park be a story rooted in character and voice but also about storytelling. I used headers that comfort (as in, oh, yes, I will find something familiar ahead that signals importance) which, if executed properly, can be enchanting and have the reader feel confident in their ability to navigate what they’re reading – especially later when the story is meant to be disorienting. Those moments of narrative complexity depend on readers willing to push forward and my hope is readers continue to stick with it. One big leap of faith I took in trusting my reader is that as the story becomes ever more aware of itself as storytelling artifact, the headers dissociate from the story and aren’t to be found in the scene. Although a risky move, I did it because I want readers to be immerse in the language, and for the story itself to help them feel what it means to be enveloped then disoriented and jarred, which is what it often means to be an immigrant in hostile lands.
Baristanet: Luz’s relationship to Hudson echoes the attractions of gentrification as well as the costs. His well-meaning ways tempt Luz deeply, and she falls for him quickly and fully. However, the wealth and breezy dismissiveness with which he and his friends treat Nothar Park and its residents begin to crack their attractive facade for both Luz and the reader. You made sure to portray Hudson and his friends as similar to Luz in many ways (ambitious, hard-working, from diverse ethnic backgrounds, highly educated), but she is unenthusiastic about their motivations. Why did you include this group in the novel? How do they serve Luz’s development as opposed to, or perhaps in addition to, her mentor Raenna?
Natera: Toward the beginning of Neruda on the Park, Luz has a fraught relationship with her neighborhood. She yearns to move out of Nothar Park and live in a neighborhood she associates with affluence and upward mobility. The Tongues, her mother’s best friends, as well as Angelica, an old childhood friend, are openly hostile to Luz. The reader understands that the cost of achieving the American Dream is that Luz has become isolated from her community. As we witness this whirlwind and very sexy love affair unfold with Hudson, the developer of the luxury condo that threatens her home and community, I wanted the connection between Luz and Hudson to be undeniable. The attraction is only a manifestation of a deep attachment. When the cracks start to show – as demonstrated by her interactions with his friends – it forces Luz to reveal to readers how fiercely protective she is of the people in her community. The realization that people in her community are worthy of dignity and respect wouldn’t be possible if not for those in Hudson’s circle who aim to dehumanize all members of Nothar Park for the actions of a few.
Baristanet: Luz and Eusebia are very close, and the reader sees many examples of how Eusebia has sacrificed over the years to ensure Luz has everything she needs. Those of us with immigrant parents will recognize many of the ways Eusebia keeps her culture vibrant, especially through food, even as she grows stable roots in her new home. Despite the closeness and that Luz recognizes all her family has done for her, there are tensions and frustrations. Why did you keep Luz living at home with her parents even when she had the finances to get her own place? How does this reflect themes in the novel overall?
Natera: Because of the pressure Luz feels to keep up with women at work who spend outrageous amounts of money on clothing and expensive bags and the obligation to help her parents build a dream home in the Dominican Republic, Luz finds that she doesn’t have the financial ability to live on her own – at least, not in the dream neighborhood she aspires to live in. She is someone readers will recognize as living far beyond her means as she’s drowning in debt and feels much shame related to that. Here, we should also note that Luz also yearns for home ownership herself, so the idea of having enough money to own an apartment in the Upper West Side is truly out of her reach. Having Luz live with her parents served a few purposes in the book. First, the financial strain is a reality that halts upward mobility for many young people in my community. Also, it acts as a signal of the ways in which though high achieving in some ways, her development has been arrested: she is perpetually a child being fed and cared for by her mother. Eusebia loves it, of course, as it gives her a sense of purpose. It helps show their inter-dependency.
Baristanet: The Tongues function almost as a Greek chorus or all-seeing consciences for the neighborhood. Ironically, they don’t talk much, but they serve as a support system and an archive in the life of Nothar Park and its residents. Unlike other residents who take buyouts and leave for school or a “better life,” they are constants. How did you decide on how to portray these three women? Who have you known who is like them in your life?
Natera: There is an earlier version of this novel where the entire narrative was told through the perspective of The Tongues. The portrayal of these women centers on what it means to be fiercely loyal and flawed, loving some and being hostile to others. They are also really funny women, who see all, understand more than they can ever share and are vulnerable, made afraid of a world that often requires they sacrifice not only their homes but also their physical well-being for the good of the community. Although the characters aren’t based on any specific people in my life, the inspiration came from the women in my family. I have always been surround by incredibly powerful women who refuse to bend to the wills of those who would cause them harm. But you’re right, of course, there is a direct lineage to Greek tragedies I loved as an English Major when I studied at Skidmore College. The chorus was always the spine of those stories and plays, helping readers have context and understand the stakes. For me, they also serve a critical element I often see in literature – we need to see older women reflected in ways that show strength and humor and vulnerability. There just aren’t enough older women populating modern literature, in my opinion, who end up winning.
Baristanet: Eusebia’s sister, Cuca, has undergone heavy plastic surgery over the last nine months. It was expensive, painful, and Cuca has long-lasting negative effects — but she is thrilled to be a totally new person. Eusebia is repulsed and disappointed by her sister’s actions. Cuca’s choice seems to be a reflection of the shiny new building replacing the burned out tenement in Nothar Park. How are neighborhoods both grotesque and impressive once gentrified?
Natera: There is so much to admire about modern architecture. The glitz and glamour of all that steel and glass, how it reflects all that surrounds it, is sexy as all hell. I find myself often torn when I see new developments because I know the amenities that new constructions bring, and it is often very impressive. Yet, what I know from my experience living in New York City over three decades is that it isn’t burnt out tenements that are demolished. It is bodegas and other mom and pop businesses, family homes, brownstones, three and four family buildings that are torn in service of modernity – here, meaning stacking more and more people in smaller and smaller spaces that reached up into the sky. What I mourn is what becomes invisible once destroyed and built anew – the histories of those who came before.
NERUDA ON THE PARK is out now. Order it from your local bookstore or check it out from your neighborhood library. It’s also available as an audio book, in a Kindle edition, and in large print.