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A family’s legacy

How one writer shaped stories from Cuba into her first novel

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For years, Melanie Furlong-Riesgo heard stories of life in Cuba from the family and friends of her husband, Roberto, who she met in 1996 and married a year later.

One of those stories, about the illegal sale of a car in Havana, struck a chord. Furlong says the Cuban man telling her the tale was a serious person humiliated by the circumstances of his situation. But Furlong, an occasional Halifax Magazine contributor, saw the humour in the tale, too.

“When he told me the story, I laughed so hard, I almost fell off my chair,” Furlong says. “It was a crazy and absurd tale.”

In 2009, Furlong shaped that tale into a short story she submitted for the now-defunct Atlantic New Cultures competition at Dalhousie. She won first place and a $1,000 prize.

From there, she decided to write a novel, combining all the stories she’s heard over the years. With the help of Stephens Gerard Malone, a novelist she partnered with via a mentorship program at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia, she finished her first draft of The Last Honest Man in Havana.

The book tells the story of Rafael Aviles, a young communist party member in Havana, his ambitious wife Elena, and their life in Cuba in the late 1980s. It shares a story of Cuba’s Communist Regime that is not often heard; that is, the tales of everyday people politics affect most. It’s a gripping and sometimes humourous story of love, resourcefulness, survival, and determination.

“It’s almost a coming of age story, really,” Furlong says.

The stories of Rafael’s life were all inspired by stories Furlong heard over the years. Some of the characters she created, such as Elena, were composite characters. Furlong modelled Rafael’s brother, Alberto, after her husband. The character of the mailman who appears throughout the novel was from her imagination.

“I had to blend stories together to make it work,” she says. “Most of the things that happen in the book are, unfortunately, true.”

Furlong traveled to Cuba to do additional research for the novel. She wanted to learn more about particular real-life events, such as the story of Hector Sanyustiz who crashed a bus into the grounds of the Peruvian embassy in Havana in 1980. “I wanted to see those places where those things happened,” she says.

Furlong’s husband gave her feedback during the writing process. “I think he’s finding it kind of emotional and he’s having to relive painful things that happened to him and his friends,” she says.

She also got feedback from some of her Cuban friends. “I appreciate their feedback more than anyone else’s, really,” Furlong says. “I am not Cuban and writing about someone else’s culture is really challenging. I tried to be as empathetic as I could to every character.”

Not everyone enjoyed the particular details in the stories, though. She says one Cuban woman she knows disagreed with the experience of a Cuban mother depicted in the book. But Furlong says The Last Honest Man in Havana is about the experiences of one family, inspired by the stories she’s heard over the years.

“The thing with Cuba is if they don’t want to remember something, they don’t,” Furlong says. “It’s not about every Cuban family. This is about a particular family in Havana.”

Still the novel represents a legacy of Roberto’s life in Cuba. Their son, Cam, who is 12, just finished reading the book himself. “He loved it,” Furlong says. “There were so many things he didn’t know about.”

And writing the novel was a learning experience for Furlong, too.

“I learned about resilience, what some people have gone through, they have very difficult lives, they lost a lot,” she says. “Some people lost everything.”

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