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A magical Cuba full of romance

Author: Nicole Martinez
Newspaper: The New Tropic
Date: Nov 13 2015

It took Chantel Acevedo years to admit that she had become a writer. “Even when I saw my first novel in the window of a bookstore, I was paralyzed. I felt like I had imposter syndrome,” the author says, who is now celebrating the release of her acclaimed fourth novel, The Distant Marvels, a historical family saga set in 1960s Cuba, centered around the stories of Maria Sírena, the novel’s protagonist and heroine.

Acevedo, a native Miamian and University of Miami grad, has finally returned after a 10-year hiatus to assume her new role as an associate professor of English in the MFA program at UM. But becoming a novelist was never part of Acevedo’s plan. Growing up in Hialeah as the daughter of working-class parents, Acevedo had remained practical about her career throughout undergraduate school, envisioning herself teaching high school English. “When you grow up working class, becoming an artist or a writer isn’t an option. Your parents tell you to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, something they know can make you money,” she says.

She was encouraged to pursue an MFA thanks to novelist Lester Goran, her English professor at UM, who recognized her talent and insisted that the only way to continue developing her writing was by earning a master’s degree. “I actually called the school board to find out if you would get a raise by having a master’s degree in creative writing,” she laughs. “That was my mindset when I decided to do it.” Her MFA thesis would become her first published novel, Love and Ghost Letters, an experience Acevedo maintains was the most challenging, but exciting experience of her career. “The first book is always such a big deal, I didn’t know what to do,” she says. I thought that it was a fluke, and I wouldn’t be able to do it again.”

But Acevedo, who uses the famous words of Henry James to encourage her students “to be a person on who nothing is lost,” can certainly be considered as such an author. “I’m the kind of person who walks out of a museum with a million ideas in my head,” Acevedo says. “The hardest part becomes narrowing them down.” It’s likely why she’s enjoyed such a fruitful career, publishing four novels in a span of 10 years that present romantic stories that dwell in a magical Cuba — a place that defines her identity, but that the author has yet to visit. “Everyone always asks me how I can write about Cuba when I’ve never been,” she says. “For me it’s all about imagination. The fear of a hurricane is the same if you’re sitting in Miami in 1982 or sitting in Havana in 1890.”

What Acevedo does frequent is the Miami Book Fair, which she fondly recalls visiting throughout her childhood, long before she ever dreamed of becoming a writer. “It was a big deal because we had to get on the Metrorail, and it was something I always looked forward to,” she says. This year, Acevedo returns to the Book Fair for several panels, including “Fiction of Place,” where she’ll read from her latest novel alongside Uruguayan writer Carolina De Robertis and Haitian author Dimitry Elias Léger.Courtesy of Chantel Acevedo

Nurturing diverse voices is very personal to Acevedo, as the daughter of immigrants whose economic situation barred any real possibility of becoming an author. “A lot of times it’s an economic thing – American writers don’t emerge from minority cultures because they’re encouraged to go for safer careers.” Honored to be teaching at the University of Miami, which she says “boasts one of the most diverse faculties in the country,” Acevedo is pushing her students to find their voice and break away from being afraid to write about their cultures. “The first week, everyone turned in stories about Karen,” she quips. “They felt like they didn’t have permission to write their stories, like their stories weren’t interesting. I pushed them to go for it, and the next assignment brought me stories from all over the world.”