The Place I Write About: How Obama’s Cuba Policy Shook Up My Novel

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a billboard opposing the US blockade, circa 1998

One of the big challenges of being a political writer of controversial topics is that the political foundation for your work-in-progress can suddenly shift. When legislative or policy changes happen—even positive ones—it can rock your fictional world. For example: I write sex worker characters who struggle against the legal barriers to making a living. I agree with many activists that consensual adult sex work should be decriminalized. However, if decriminalization suddenly took place in the US, the plot of my would immediately fall apart.

The same can sometimes be true in the politics of physical places. A novel can be set in a geographical location that experiences a tragedy or natural disaster. Between one day and the next, a book no longer speaks to the reality of a place. The same can be true if a location experiences a sudden, positive change. This is certainly true about Cuba, which is the setting for a significant portion of my book. But it’s not just a matter of moving the novel setting to a different island. I selected Cuba as a Latin American Caribbean island with a different political and economic philosophy than the US. I was interested in Cuba for the different context it could provide some of the characters in my novel. And that context changed overnight.

I visited Cuba twice in the 1990s, and learned that they had a medical school that trained doctors from all over the world who were committed to work in the Global South and areas of developed countries that were underserved. It was a natural place for my protagonist’s younger sister to go to medical school. The sister was a Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican with a huge commitment to public health. It also served the character arc, because it made sense for my main character to be isolated, but longing for connection with her sister. The economic blockade against Cuba by the US was a powerful character in my book. It served as a villain keeping apart two sisters who loved each other more than anything. I started writing the book in 2008. I got an agent in 2014. I sold the book in early 2015, and in the process, everything in US-Cuba relations changed.

I always said that Obama would be the one to change the game with Cuba at some point before he left office. I am thrilled to have this laughable problem of how to revise the entire relationship between these two characters, because this 50+ year blockade, this bitter, punishing political grudge, this crippling embargo has been lifted. The important thing here is not about my plot/character problem not having the oppositional force they need to create conflict. The important thing is that real families will now be able to reunite after decades of difficult communication and disconnection. The important thing is the Cuban people having access to medical supplies and technology. The important thing is Cuba being able to self-determine which parts of their society will engage in global capitalism and under what terms. This is nothing but good news in any way that matters.

And yet, all of a sudden my book was totally dated. I had to decide between leaving things intact—a story about two sisters torn apart by the US embargo against Cuba, implicitly setting the book in the recent past. Or I could revise the book. Before I got revisions from my editor, I did much hand-wringing over this. As it turned out, the book was too long, and my editor wanted all the anguished communication across the blockade to be cut anyway. Welp. That turned out to be simpler than I expected.

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me in Cuba, circa 1998

However, part of the book actually takes place in Cuba. I have decided not to change any of that, because–from what I hear–things inside Cuba are simultaneously changing rapidly and slowly. But human relationships don’t change that quickly, and neither do urban infrastructure or culture. As long as there are still small houses, crowded and close-knit Havana neighborhoods, humid nights, attractive people, under-resourced medical clinics, and lots of gossip, the Cuba portion of UPTOWN THIEF will be just fine.

And I am excited about this change for the Cuban people. Their revolution has had significant flaws. But unlike any Caribbean country I’ve ever visited, they have been crafting their own narrative in a part of the world that has been overwritten by colonial tropes. If Cuba were a novel, it would be a genre hybrid: communist, capitalist, a romance, a spy story, an international mystery, a tale of triumph for the underdog. I, for one, can’t wait to read the next chapter.

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.

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