Behind the Book: When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton

Beautifully, exquisitely wrought, When We Left Cuba is everything you could ask for from a historical novel, and it’s our HPB Book Club pick for April and May 2019. Chanel Cleeton will break hearts with this tale of a privileged Cuban refugee and the powers and people that change her life. Full of love, revenge and deadly situations, When We Left Cuba will leave your heart racing and your mind transported. Chanel  provided us with an in-depth look into her protagonist, Beatriz, for our Behind the Book series.

Next Year in HavanaWhen I began writing Next Year in Havana in the summer of 2016, I imagined it to be the sole entry into the lives of the fictional Perez family. Loosely inspired by my family’s history in Cuba—my father and grandparents left in 1967 after the events of the Cuban Revolution—I wanted to explore the effects of the revolution on those who experienced it and also on subsequent generations who grew up on stories of Cuba as I did.

In doing so, I created my two heroines—Marisol and Elisa. In Marisol, I was able to examine my Cuban identity, and in her grandmother Elisa, I had the opportunity to traverse some of the memories my grandparents shared with me throughout their lives. I gave Elisa three sisters and a brother partly because I admired my grandmother’s relationship with her five sisters and brother, and because I knew Elisa would draw strength from them in the difficult times ahead much as my grandmother drew strength from her family. I never expected for her siblings to take center stage…

And then I met Beatriz.

From the first moment I introduced Beatriz Perez, I had to tell her story. I actually stopped writing Next Year in Havana to write the first chapter of When We Left Cuba because her voice was so clear in my head, her story demanding to be told. She came to me vividly. I saw Beatriz not in Havana, but standing on a balcony in an unfamiliar place, out of her element, burning with vengeance, facing off against a man, her entire world shaken by revolution and her need to alter the course of history. The words flew onto the page.

9780451490865 (4)When I’d finished writing the first chapter of When We Left Cuba, I wanted to continue with Beatriz’s story. She was so vibrant, her headstrong, unapologetic nature so similar to the examples of Cuban women I saw around me, that she was both mysterious and familiar. I had to force myself to set her aside for another day, but as I worked on Next Year in Havana, the roots of Beatriz’s story grew.

While Next Year in Havana covers the lead up to the revolution and its immediate aftermath, When We Left Cuba begins in 1960 after the Perez family has been exiled to the United States. From the beginning, it was always Beatriz’s story as her larger-than-life personality dominated the page. Rather than a continuation, it felt like an entirely new entry into the lives of these characters I’d grown to know and love as Beatriz led me in unexpected directions.

I’d always envisioned When We Left Cuba as a book about the weight of exile and the longing to go home which my family grappled with, but with Beatriz’s desire to avenge her family, even I was surprised to be thrust into a world of secrets and espionage as she became embroiled in one of the many CIA plots to assassinate Fidel Castro as well as the tumultuous Cuban-American relations of the early 1960s. As I researched this time period from the Bay of Pigs to the Kennedy Assassination, Beatriz’s story unfolded for me as her courage and passion cemented her place as my personal favorite of the Perez sisters.

The final result is a book filled with longing and hope, sacrifice and loss, and a testament to the extraordinary lengths to which one will go in order to return home again.

It is undeniably Beatriz.

chanel_cleeton_color-cchris-malpass.jpgChanel Cleeton is the USA Today bestselling author of Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick Next Year in Havana. She received a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Richmond, The American International University in London and a master’s degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics & Political Science. Chanel also received her Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina School of Law. She loves to travel and has lived in the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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