Next Year in Havana: Book Discussion and Recipe
To be a Cuban-American woman is a difficult thing to explain. It means to long for an island you’ve never seen, despise a dictator you’ve never met, mourn for the loss of family members and possessions others could not take with them, and feel tremendous pressure to cook perfectly, be a beautiful wife, and succeed greater in your career than the generations before you who sacrificed and lost more than they’re ever willing to divulge.
Marisol Ferrera is such a woman, a writer whose cherished Cuban immigrant grandmother has just passed and left it to her to go to Cuba and find the perfect final resting place. But when she arrives, she finds letters her grandmother never shared, from a man the young Elisa loved long before Marisol’s grandfather, in the last days of the Cuban revolution that placed Fidel Castro in power.
Elisa is a society girl of nineteen who knows nothing of revolution, other than her brother has been outcast from the family for speaking out against Batista’s injustices. But at a party, she meets a man named Pablo, filled with passion to right the social exploitations of his country’s leadership, and bring in a new way of living, of ending the suffering for the poor of whom Elisa knows nothing. While Pablo awoke Elisa’s mind to the sufferings of the Cuban people, so does the grandson of Elisa’s best childhood friend who remained in Cuba, a handsome university professor named Luis. He takes Marisol on a tour of the island for her magazine article, but he also tells her the truths that the government wishes no one to know, about what life is really like for the Cuban people, and what it means to be truly Cuban.
Chanel Cleeton captures more than the essence of Cuba, she brings a country and its passions to life, while showing how to hold empathy even for an enemy, and fury even for a comrade. inflames the emotions, from rage at injustice, to peace at the sounds of the sea and the Malecon, and mouth-watering hunger for paella, ropa vieja, and espresso. Our hearts our broken at each loss, each death, yet still, somehow, filled with hope, like a true Cuban. Next Year in Havana
Why would most people ask Marisol about her writing, where she had been published or how successful she is, but Luis asked instead, if she enjoyed it? Did that show of glimmer of the type of person he is? How did he measure success?
The exiles in Miami and around the world hate Castro because? How is their anger different from that of the Cuban who stayed?
What were the things Elisa chose to save in her box? What do you think Marisol might have saved in a box? What would you have kept and buried?
For Elisa, why was marriage for status, for wealth, and for family? Why was love a luxury for the poor? How did this affect her decisions?
How could Elisa both envy Alejandro for casting off the weight and responsibility of being a Perez, and also envy him at the same time? Was family or country higher for his loyalties? What about for Elisa or for Marisol? Are lines crossed when one crosses the boundaries of another?
How did money buy the Perez family proximity to power, but also create a target on their backs? Where is “the difference between sin and survival” when they did not agree with many of Batista’s policies? Does the benefit they received from his power automatically damn them in the eyes of some of their countrymen?
How was it different to be a woman in Cuba in the 50’s and 60’s, from what Elisa could do versus her father, or Pablo, or Alejandro? Did the same differences exist for Marisol and Luis, or his mother and grandmother?
While Elisa’s sisters were her friends joined by birth, how was there “freedom in having a friend [Ana] with whom I can be myself, without the expectations and strings of family dynamics and drama”? In what ways did Ana continue to show herself to be Elisa’s friend?
How could Elisa love someone who had taken a life? Was he “really different from the men who give orders behind desks, who are equally responsible for the bloodshed even if the violence is carried out in their authority and not by their neatly manicured hands? “Where do matters of right and wrong fall in times of war?” Were Pablo and Alejandro soldiers or criminals?
In speaking of the revolutionaries, Luis said I didn't necessarily say there were good ones...Merely men who died before they made the full transition from liberating heroes to tyrants.” Where is the line between hero and tyrant? Is it a slow progression, and how do you think it came about for many of these men, especially Castro and Guevara?
Why is the Cuban convertible peso so important? Why do some Cuban doctors and lawyers spend their free time working in hotels in Cuba?
What is “so ironically vicious” about the fact that, at La Cabaña, “You can gawk at the world’s largest cigar in the site where we bled”?
What are the food rations like in Cuba? Is there ever excess, or even enough? How is that a contrast to how the tourists live when they visit, or how most Americans live? Why was Marisol “filled with the deepest amount of shame” thinking about all the food she had taken for granted in her life?
What did Marisol mean when she quoted Animal Farm “All are equal, but some are more equal than others”?
Why is there a generational divide on the Cuban embargo with the US? How did Marisol’s grandparents’ generation feel about “giving Fidel anything” and why?
What does the toast mean “Next year in Havana”?
What did Elisa mean “there are no saints in Havana”?
Why was the need to know the truth, to understand where she came from, so powerful for Marisol?
Why is the spirit behind the word ojalá “so quintessentially Cuban, incrementally beyond hope?”
Elisa (and Marisol) hated the Argentinian Che Guevara, whom some still in Cuba herald as a hero. Why did his nationality add insult to injury? Though she didn’t know about it at the time, what cruelties would Che be responsible for in the prison at Santa Clara? What did it mean that “Che likes his schedules”?
Why, after the revolution, when Batista left the country in Fidel was in power, did those closest to him fear him most? Shouldn’t they have been reveling in their victory?
Why did Marisol’s American nationality only afford her so much protection in Cuba? Why is Cuba still dangerous, even for her, a journalist? How is Luis “just one Cuban in a long list of human rights abuses”?
“Is it better to stay and become part of the system, or leave and be considered a traitor?” How did the speaker of this quote try to be a counterbalance of some of the more extreme notions over the years?
How is Cuba a “world where you have no rights” and though America also has injustices, what are some of its mechanisms that protect its citizens from a life like that in Cuba?
Mamey Cupcakes with Coconut Frosting
- 1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) salted butter, softened to room temperature
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 cups fresh mamey, pureed
- 1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt or sour cream, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract, divided
- 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- 3 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 3 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp milk
- 1/2 cup shredded coconut, divided in half
- 2 cups powdered sugar
- 1 tbsp coconut extract
- Note: When purchasing mamey, you want a fruit that is soft underneath the skin when pressure is applied, like a peach or plum. Peel off all the skin and remove the large black seed in the center. Then cut into chunks and puree in a food processor or blender. Any leftover mamey makes a wonderful, creamy batido (milkshake).
- Preheat the oven to 350°. In the bowl of a stand mixer on medium-high speed using a paddle attachment, combine one half stick of butter with the granulated sugar for about two minutes. Then add the pureed mamey. When those are combined, add the full teaspoon of vanilla extract, followed by the sour cream.
- In a separate bowl, sift together the flour with the baking powder and soda. Begin to slowly add this in quarter increments into the wet ingredients of the mixer while the mixer is on low speed. Halfway through, pause to add the half cup of milk, then finish with the flour. Then add the eggs, one at a time. If some of the ingredients are sticking to the sides of the mixer, stop it and scrape down the insides with a rubber spatula. When all are completely combined, scoop about 3/4 into cupcake liners in a muffin tin. Be careful not to over-mix. Bake for 16-19 minutes.
- For the frosting, in a clean bowl of a stand mixer using a whisk attachment, whip the remaining stick (1/2 cup) of butter for about a minute on medium-high speed. Stop the mixer and add one cup of powdered sugar and the coconut extract. Mix on medium-low speed for a minute or two, until those are incorporated. Then add the remaining tablespoon of milk, followed by the rest of the powdered sugar. When those are fully mixed in, add about 1/4 to 1/2 cup of shredded coconut, depending on how much you like in your frosting. Frost onto cupcakes that have cooled at least fifteen minutes on a counter outside of the cupcake tin. Top with toasted coconut. (I placed 1/4 cup of shredded coconut on a baking sheet and baked it in the oven at 400° for about 4 minutes). Makes about 18 cupcakes.
Mamey Cupcakes with Coconut Frosting
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Other books by Chanel Cleeton are the romance books (Wild Aces #1) and its series, Flirting with Scandal (Capital Confessions #1) and its series, I See London (International School #1) and its series, and Between Shadows (Assassins #1) . Fly with Me
Animal Farm by George Orwell is referenced by Marisol once in this book. It shows a metaphorical representation of the long-term effects of Communism.
Other fantastically absorbing romantic dramas set in war times or political unrest are The Lost Castle by Kristy Cambron, The Distant Hours by Kate Morton, The Tea Rose by Jennifer Donnelly, and My French Whore by Gene Wilder.
“To be in exile is to have the things you love most in the world—the air you breathe, the earth upon—taken from you. They exist on the other side of a wall—there and not—unaltered by time and circumstance, preserved in a perfect memory in a land of dreams.”
“So I will have something to hold on to when I must forget you.”
“I never imagined I’d meet you. And then there you were, so beautiful it hurt. You looked so earnest...as though you feel the same restlessness inside you, the same desire for more than that which life has given you.”
“Where is the difference between sin and survival?”
“It’s different to be a woman in Cuba.”
“You’re going to be difficult to walk away from, aren’t you?”
“My siblings are my friends because we are joined by birth, the bond strong and unbreakable…”
“Where do matters of right and wrong fall in times of war?... I fear I’m not equipped for these judgments, for the moral equivocacy war creates.”
“I didn't necessarily say there were good ones...Merely men who died before they made the full transition from liberating heroes to tyrants...I imagine a number of history’s most notorious offenders started out with the very best intentions.”
“You can gawk at the world’s largest cigar in the site where we bled.”
“The beauty of life here—the simplicity of it—is also the tragedy of it.”
“Truth in Cuba is constantly being redefined so much so that it is now meaningless.”
“There are no saints in Havana.”
“Is it better to stay and become part of the system, or leave and be considered a traitor?”
“You never know what’s to come. That’s the beauty of life. If everything happened the way we wished, the way we planned, we’d miss out on the best parts, the unexpected pleasures.”
“Never forget where you come from. You come from a long line of survivors. Trust in that when things get hard.”
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Amanda Leitch