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The princess' pride: Chantel Acevedo and the story of a royal rebel

Chantel Acevedo was at a dinner party in Alabama when she first heard the story of the princess. In a room filled with academics from Auburn University, where Acevedo was teaching English and creative writing, a professor shared an account of the Infanta Eulalia of Spain’s visit to Cuba in 1893. With the Cuban War for Independence approaching, Eulalia, a member of the Bourbon Court and the daughter of Queen Isabella II, was sent to the island to put a smiling, pretty face on Spain’s diminishing empire. The princess, Acevedo learned, had other ideas, meeting with pro-independence rebels and, as legend has it, appearing on the deck of a ship wearing the colors of the Cuban flag. In all the best ways, the Infanta Eulalia was a royal pain.

“I’m like, ‘Wait a minute — who went to Cuba? And how come I’ve never heard of her?’ ” Acevedo recalls asking. “I went home and started researching her, and she turns out to have been this incredible rebel.”

She also turned out to be the subject of Miami-born Acevedo’s next novel. Published Sept. 12, “The Living Infinite” is Acevedo’s fifth book and second for Europa Editions, the publishing house perhaps best known as the home of celebrated Italian novelist Elena Ferrante. While based on real events and circumstances, Acevedo’s novel imagines Eulalia’s life from birth through her late 20s, when her refusal to play the retiring princess at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago was considered scandalous. A reluctant royal in real life, Eulalia is every bit the iconoclast in Acevedo’s book, and the plot involves the princess’ attempt to publish a secret, tell-all memoir.

While the memoir is a product of Acevedo’s imagination, Eulalia in fact published several books during her lifetime, including “Court Life From Within,” in which she describes royal life as “empty and meaningless”; and “The Thread of Life,” a collection of essays on divorce, feminism and religion that resulted in her being exiled by the king of Spain, who was also her nephew.

“The idea that she gave up so much, and was willing to give up so much is what really drew me to her,” Acevedo says over coffee on a recent Friday afternoon at Books and Books in Coral Gables. “I took that idea and thought, ‘Well, if this is what she would write in her 40s, what could she have written at 29, when you’re not as measured, not as worried about the consequences, and are perhaps at your most rebellious?’ And so, in the novel, I imagine the manuscript that she wrote before [‘The Thread of Life’] and her journey to get it published.”

Acevedo’s journey leading up to the publication of “The Living Infinite” also involved a fair amount of defied expectations and broken traditions. Acevedo grew up in Hialeah the daughter of Cuban parents. She attended Miami Lakes High School and the University of Miami. “I was a good Cuban girl,” she says. “Cuban girls don’t leave home.”

Marriage followed, and Acevedo and her husband spent 15 years living outside Florida while pursuing academic and literary careers in Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Alabama. All the while, her family in South Florida openly wished she would move back home. Acevedo returned to South Florida in 2015, and she now works as an associate professor in the University of Miami’s master of fine arts program. She lives with her husband and two daughters, 11 and 5, in Coral Gables.

“It was invaluable to leave,” Acevedo says. “It was hard to leave, because it was home, to go to places where you’re the other, where you’re marginalized in ways you’ve never been before. And you realize how privileged your life was growing up here. It checks you in important ways that open you up to what our country is, in both the good and the bad, in ways that I think Miami can protect you from, for a Cuban-American kid. And it was hard. I’m glad to be home, but I’m glad I went.

“I say this as a mom now who doesn’t want her kids to ever leave,” she adds with a laugh.

For much of the fall, Acevedo will travel the continent once again, this time to promote “The Living Infinite” with appearances at bookstores and festivals from Miami to Toronto. For now, she has no plan to bring the book to Spain, as “The Living Infinite,” like her earlier novels, is not being published in Spanish.

“I’m told Spain is a tough market to crack. But maybe I don’t want this one to be published in Spain,” Acevedo says, laughing. “This is the first one where I’m like, ‘Nah, let’s not.’ ”

Chantel Acevedo will appear in conversation with novelist Patricia Engel 8 p.m. Nov. 2 at Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave., in Coral Gables. Go to BooksAndBooks.com. She also will appear during the Miami Book Fair’s Festival of Authors Nov. 17-19 on the Wolfson Campus of Miami Dade College. Go to MiamiBookFair.com.

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