A journalist takes a long road to fiction

by Fabiola Santiago

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

17 September 2008

This is the portrait of journalist Fabiola Santiago that appears on the back jacket of her book, "Reclaiming Paris." (Michael Wallace/Miami Herald/MCT) 

In the fall of 1994, I traveled to Guantanamo for The Miami Herald to report on the tent-city camps erected by the U.S. government to house and detain thousands of Cuban rafters rescued at sea.

The trip was unforgettable from the start. When our tiny Fandango Airlines plane took off from Fort Lauderdale, the door handle fell into my lap, a distraction to amuse fellow journalists and help hold my emotions at bay. It was my first trip to Cuban soil since I had been exiled at 10.

Hours later, as I was rushed through the camps by military escorts, many of the refugees begged me to help them contact relatives in South Florida. As I conducted interviews and took notes, the Cubans hastily scribbled names and phone numbers on pages I had torn from my reporter’s notebook. Then they stuffed their SOS pleas into the pockets of my vest and jeans.

One man told me he didn’t have family in Miami but pressed into my hand a tiny, sepia photo of a little girl, his daughter back in eastern rural Camaguey.

“She’s the reason I’m here,” he said. “Take her with you. It might bring me luck.”

After I got home and had filed my news story, I spent the weekend calling the people listed on the crinkled slips of paper to tell them their loved ones were safe - not lost at sea as so many had feared. Some wept when I read them the names, and I did too. I was embarrassed to read to a stranger the florid words of love - “I promised you that we would be together again” - that a young man had written to his wife in Hialeah, Fla., but she was ecstatic.

And in fact, behind many Cuban stories I’ve reported, no matter how political, how tragic, there has always been a love story waiting to be unveiled.

The next morning, I woke up with the sun and went straight to my computer. At Guantanamo I had interviewed refugee children like I once was, women like my mother and grandmother, men like my father and uncles, and hearing of their losses resurrected the ghosts of my past and fueled a need to try to make sense of my experience.

But when I emerged from my writing trance well past noon, I realized that, instead of a true story, I had written the tale of my maternal grandmother’s quixotic love life embellished with detailed descriptions of a land I loved but barely remembered, with dialogue I suspected but had never heard. I couldn’t have “known” any of the story. I was separated from my beloved Abuela Ramona by exile, never to see her again. The characters who now populated my tale - imperfect, sensual, loving, humorous - flowed from a river of feelings, memory and imagination.

That day I discovered the freedom to explore history - and its limitless what-ifs - that a writer can only find in fiction. No matter how many newspaper stories I wrote, they simply couldn’t tell all the stories I needed to tell. More than a decade later, the essence of what I had written that morning became the sixth chapter in “Reclaiming Paris,” a novel about the loves and losses - personal and historical - that define a family and are handed down through generations.

My book is a fictional story about contemporary Miami and the ties that bind this city to Cuba, but as the Nicaraguan novelist Sergio Ramirez once said to me, “Sometimes you have to tell a big lie to tell a bigger truth.”

But I quickly learned that, for a journalist, the transition to fiction is complicated and overburdened with second thoughts. I’m more comfortable as the observer, the note-taker, the narrator of someone else’s true story. I’m more comfortable writing with my blue-striped reporter’s notebook by my side.

At first, I could only write fiction surrounded by research materials - maps of Havana, Matanzas, Miami, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris - and when they weren’t enough, I zoomed in and out of places on the Internet. I erected forts of books about Cuba. I began the day reading the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Federico Garcia Lorca, Nicolas Guillen. I studied old family photos, my travel journals, diaries, anything that could replace my reporter’s notebook.

Still, it took a long time for me to surrender to the uncharted, lonely task of writing a novel. Along the way, many more news stories, and many people and places, fueled my imagination and shaped my plot and characters: a reunion, after 38 years, with a beloved cousin who sings “boleros” in Buenos Aires; an unforgettable retrospective of the work of Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta at the Miami Art Museum; the glimpse of a sad woman cruising South Beach in a limousine full of revelers; a return to Paris alone to reclaim streets once strolled with another.

To my surprise, chapters evolved, and my tale grew. Not my love story, but that of a woman named Marisol who shared a similar timeline and history but was exiled along with her grandmother, a story populated by characters who became like my best friends and who dwell in the places I have loved: Matanzas and Miami, in my heart one; my dream cities, Havana and Paris, those incomparable grande dames.

The present-day story of “Reclaiming Paris” begins in Miami on Dec. 31, 2004, and unfolds in fictional and real settings. The Miami Riverfront Hotel and the nightclub Dos Gardenias exist only in my imagination. But some of my favorite landmarks make appearances - the Freedom Tower, Fernando Botero’s sensual sculpture in the lobby of the Four Seasons on Brickell Avenue and Miami’s oldest bar, Tobacco Road.

I didn’t set out to hop between a real and an imagined Miami, but, in hindsight, I think this mix of myth, fact and interpretation is how cities take on the characters and personalities by which each of us defines them. The “real” Miami often depicted in the media has almost nothing to do with the more textured, layered and infinitely complicated Miami of my day-to-day life.

But perhaps the script that led me to write “Reclaiming Paris” was etched the day I was plucked from all that was familiar, the day my parents, little brother and I left our house on Calle Levante never to return. Everything that came after - university life, marriage and divorce, high-charged career and world travels, impermanent loves - will always be colored by the powerful act of leaving and starting anew.

When I left Matanzas for Miami on a Freedom Flight in 1969, I carried only a doll soon lost in the labyrinth of early exile, a set of silver bracelets that I still wear when I fly and a tiny bottle of perfume, a gift from my best friend, Mireyita. I don’t remember its scent, but the wooden bottle, inscribed “Cuba,” still holds a place of honor in my bedroom. And so, like Marisol, I developed a penchant for collecting poetic fragrances, and when all else fails, I change my perfume for inspiration. Once an exile, always an exile. One survives. With luck, one becomes not only a connoisseur of change but also a vagabond, a journalist and, someday perhaps, a novelist.

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