Monday, January 5, 2015

Q&A with Cecilia Fernandez

Cecilia M. Fernandez is the author of Leaving Little Havana: A Memoir of Miami’s Cuban Ghetto. She 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.

A former reporter for The Stockton Record, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the Miami television stations WPBT, WSVN, WSCV, and WLTV, Cecilia covered the state legislature, the National Democratic Convention, local and presidential elections, Operation Desert Storm, Hurricane Andrew, the drug trafficking trial of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, the rape trial of William Kennedy Smith, the Mariel boatlift, and the Miami riots among many other stories. She believes her best reporting – and writing – happened while covering the lives of the simple folk living in the ethnic neighborhoods of California and Florida.

An Emmy nominee from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Cecilia received Dartmouth University’s Champion Tuck Award (Honorable Mention for Television), the Scripps-Howard Award: News Writer of the Month and a Fellowship for Independent Summer Study from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Cecilia earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida International University, an MA in English Literature from the University of Miami, and a BA in Journalism and Social Science from the University of California, Berkeley.
Her debut memoir, Leaving Little Havana, was selected as a finalist in the 2011 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Book Contest.

She lives in Weston, Florida and teaches writing and literature at Broward College and Miami International University of Art and Design. She is working on a collection of short stories, among four other projects.





1.       What inspired you to write Leaving Little Havana?

I wanted to tell the story of the first Cuban immigrants fleeing Castro’s communist regime in the early 1960s before they are forgotten deep within the history books. I did so by telling my own story and how the political realities of two nations – the U.S. and Cuba – impacted the individuals of those first generations.  


2.       What was the development process like?

I started this book as an essay in a memoir writing class while I was working toward my Masters in Fine Arts ten years ago. From there it kept growing as I turned in more and more assignments, all related to my book. When my publisher accepted it for publication in 2013, the editor sent me lists of items I had to expand. I worked on these for three months straight, morning, noon and night, during the summer. I happily partnered with the editor who had become part of my remembering. I had to turn to my old journals to fill in the gaps. After the final draft was finished, we had to agree on a title and a cover. We did so after much brainstorming. The process was the most exhilarating and educational of my professional writing life.


3.       What was the hardest part about writing this book?
     The hardest was excavating the depths of memory for the details needed to tell a really good story. It is not enough to remember a scene; the scene has to fit into the narrative arc of each chapter which forms the overall narrative arc of the book.


4.       What was the best part about writing this book?

Settling old debts with my father. A famous writer once said that all writing has a tinge of revenge in it. Because my father was such a hurtful, inconsiderate person, I was able to expunge the damage he created through writing my story and his. Revenge is sweet, always. Hand in hand with this purging was the opportunity to take my mother’s story, along with the stories of the first generations of Cuban-Americans, out of the shadows and into the forefront of American history.



5.       What do you hope readers will gain from your book?

I hope to reach the young reader who is mired in the same tragic circumstances of alienation, truancy, shoplifting, drugs and aimless sex as I was and show him or her how possible it is to overcome the obstacles and reach one’s dream. Moreover, I hope to inform the world of the specific immigration circumstances faced by the first immigrants from Fidel’s communist Cuba. This group of pioneers set the stage for what Miami is today. Good and bad. I want to educate others about this small segment of American history.


6.       What inspired you to be a writer?

My mother and step-grandmother inspired me through their love of language and books. My step-grandmother gave me numerous books in the first six years of my life and read them with me. My mother signed me up for a creative writing class in fifth grade. She happily wrote down all the stories I dictated to her as a child, since she wrote faster than I did. I have always known I was going to be a writer. Stories have just kept whirring around in my head since I can recall.  



7.       What do you like best and what do you like least about being a writer?

 I love my ability to access my imagination and intellect in a split second to produce a scene, a line of dialogue, a descriptive paragraph, and then wonder where it all came from. I love walking around in the world writing in my head. That means I am never alone.

What I really hate is that writing can only be done in the spare minutes of your life, since very few writers can support themselves through the sale of their books. But the tug of war with time is also part of the delicious state of alert that a writer must cultivate to produce that beloved book in stolen minutes.


8.       Who are some of your favorite authors?

I love and am deeply influenced by Joan Didion’s journalism, Anais Nin’s diaries, Virginia Woolf’s essays and Simone de Beauvoir’s memoirs. These four writers weave astute observations about their social and political environments into the art of their writing, offering intensity, texture, depth. Their words spark my own thinking about things.  Their insights and their writing act as a magical spell on me, propelling me into that creative moment needed for writing.   


9.       Are you working on anything right now?

I am just about to start a second book taking up where Leaving Little Havana left off.  Moving to California, I experienced a second “exile” similar to the one I faced when I left Cuba. I dealt with very similar identity and marginalization issues. The book will focus on the struggle to learn how to be a writer/journalist at UC Berkeley and then on the struggle to practice my profession in numerous newsrooms throughout California, New York, Washington DC and Miami despite the obstacles of racism and sexism.  The political and social milieu of the seventies and eighties in the U.S. and Cuba will provide the backdrop for this story. Feelings of alienation and questions about identity are not, intrinsically, the inner state of immigrants, but also the status quo for most of society. Everyone is caught up in an existential conundrum.


10.   And, finally, what do you think is in store for the future of Latino literature?

Latino/a literature needs to be brought out of the shadows and into the forefront of book selling as exciting reading for the general book buying public. Marketing is essential in making these books appeal to everyone and not only to the Hispanic consumer. The topic of immigration is now and has always been a major issue in American society. The arrival of the immigrant and his or her efforts to adjust, assimilate and keep a cultural identity is happening all throughout the world as more and more people flee instability at home. These themes resonate with almost everybody. But the marketing and awareness of Latino/a literature have a long way to go.  

Up next: A review of Leaving Little Havana: A Memoir of Miami’s Cuban Ghetto.

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