Interview Excerpt: “Navigating Rather Than Negotiating”
Misha Rai’s full interview with Jennine Capó Crucet appears in Vol. 34.1 of The Southeast Review. Purchase the issue here.
Misha Rai: So you once told me that you knew exactly who you were writing Make Your Home Among Strangers for. Can you talk a little about that?
Jennine Capó Crucet: Absolutely. I wrote this book for three people and, in the process of writing it, I told myself that as long as those three people saw themselves in it, I did my job. I’m excited and grateful about the reviews the novel has received—especially the starred Kirkus review, which really understood what the novel was about—but I also have to remind myself that this book was not really for them, that I didn’t write it for anyone other than myself and those three students. I thought about them every day as I worked and wrote.
Amara, José, and Angelica each asked me at some point while I worked with them at One Voice (a college access nonprofit based in Los Angeles) if there was a book they could read that would talk about what they were going to go through when they went off to university—they knew I was also a writer and an avid reader; could I recommend something? And I remember thinking: I don’t know if there is a book that really gets at what they’re asking. I’d recommend a couple short stories, like ZZ Packer’s “Drinking Coffee Elsewhere” and Manuel Muñoz’s “Tell Him About Brother John,” and I would also recommend Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, but that one moves into magical realism very quickly, and my students—their lives didn’t have space for that. They grew up like me, very urban and not with any kind of magic to escape into. And so I thought I could write a book for them. I told myself (mostly to take the pressure off myself as I wrote) that I didn’t care if it got published. I made the goal really simple: I’m going to write it, then I’m going to print it out, and then I’ll send it to these three people and I will have done my job.
That simplicity kept me working, and I really thought about them every day. Each day that I worked on it, if I felt I wasn’t up to it, I’d tell myself, What they’re doing is really hard, and I have to write this book fast, because they need it and there are more people like them that need it. So when it came to the dedication, that was a no-brainer: I wrote it for them, so it’s dedicated to them.
I wanted to ask you a little about the frame of the novel. We start when Lizet is in her thirties and she has a job, and we end again with her as a grown-up. Why did you make that decision to have these two chapters that are set in the present bookend the novel, and then the rest of the novel takes place in 1999-2000?
I started it that way because it’s important for readers to know right away that Lizet makes it through okay—that the point of the novel is not will she survive this tumultuous year, but how does she survive it? It’s meant to immediately dispel false tension. The true tension comes from the things that she’ll encounter and watching how they change her, seeing her change. One of the biggest struggles for me in writing the book was the balance between retrospection and immediacy, because technically everything she’s going through—she knows how it’s going to turn out. The opening chapter in some ways almost functions as a prologue, but in the end I made it chapter one because it didn’t feel separate from the book or its immediate events the way a prologue normally does. Lizet’s still suffering, in some ways, from this split in her identity—who she was versus who she’s become—and metaphorically speaking, that opening chapter shows that: how that split never goes away. It’s never really “solved.” The novel opens the way it does to show that being a first-generation college student—being the first anything, really—is always a process. You never shake that sense of double vision.
I have to say this: I am not first-generation (college-going), though I think my children would be first-generation (migrants but not college-goers), but the difference between going to school in India or England or the US is that the academic cultures, and cultures generally, are so different that it takes time to fully understand what’s going on. I know what I am talking about is a very different thing, but I found myself identifying with Lizet and the choices we make to leave, sometimes to leave all the time. I remember getting to the end and crying.
I think you’re right in that ultimately it’s a book about people landing in places and having no clue who they are as a result, and who they go on to become. And that is much more universal than the first-generation college student experience or the first-generation American experience.
I think hopefully that’s one of the strengths of the book: that everyone can see themselves in Lizet’s experiences because if you’ve ever pushed yourself out of what is familiar, then you’ll know exactly what she’s going through to some extent. So yeah, you’re totally right, going to school in different countries is absolutely emblematic of what she’s going through. That’s why that theme dovetails so naturally with what’s going on with the Ariel Hernandez material; here’s someone who literally lands somewhere (from Cuba to Miami) and we have no idea what to do as a country with this person. And there are these two very different versions of his life that exist, and we’re making choices now that will impact him for the rest of his life, and everyone’s just doing the best they can but they’re not even sure that the choices that they’re making are the right ones. That material just maps totally right with what’s happening to Lizet. She makes a choice for herself not even knowing how or if it’s going to pay off the way that she thinks it might. She doesn’t even know how to imagine it. Over and over again in the novel, she’s critical of her mom and sister for not knowing the questions to ask about her academic career, her time away at school. But what Lizet doesn’t realize is that even she doesn’t know what’s coming. She doesn’t know the extent to which her life has been altered by this choice and she’s taking essentially a leap of faith. She’s much more like her mother and sister than she really wants to admit.
So just to jump off of that, obviously the Ariel Hernandez storyline is based off of the Elián González affair, and I just saw this article of him (Elián) being “hot” now, supposedly—all grown-up and hot. It seems bizarre, all that media blitz, but how did these two storylines—a first-generation Cuban-American student burdened with guilt at having gone off to a prestigious college, leaving her family behind when everything at home is falling apart and then finding she has to navigate not one but two worlds in which she feels inadequate—come together with that of a refugee caught in an international crisis? As I read the book I was really struck by how both these young people were going through very hard things in life, one being worse off than the other, and their lives were running parallel in some way, and I wondered how you came to see that these two stories would work better fused together. Did one come to you first—writing for those three students of yours—or did you, as you decided to write this story about the experience of first-generation college students, also have a sense that this other plot of a Cuban refugee would bleed into the story you were trying to tell?
The Elián González material, the Ariel Hernandez material—I never really stopped thinking about it. Elián being deported in June of 2000 really polarized and sort of mobilized the Cuban community in Miami, who then turned out in huge numbers for the 2000 election, which then gave us (along with much controversy) a Bush presidency. And so Bush was in office when 9/11 happened. So I think of this little boy as butterfly wings flapping—that phenomenon where a butterfly flutters its wings and it causes, months later, a hurricane somewhere else.
The role Elián played in the 2000 election seemed kind of forgotten, but I had always been sort of following him, and I was very curious about alternate versions of his life. In my own case, I think a lot about how my own life was drastically changed because I went to the college that I went to. So many of the choices I’ve made in my life are based off of that. I didn’t have a lot of information when I was looking for colleges, so I applied to just one out-of-state school; all the other schools I applied to were in Florida. If I had known about schools like Wellesley or Smith or Mount Holyoke, all women’s colleges—now as someone who’s been through the process—I think those would’ve been really amazing opportunities for me and very empowering. I think I would’ve loved going to an all-women’s college, but I didn’t even consider them because I didn’t even know they existed.
And so those thoughts were mixing together with my thinking about what this kid’s life would’ve been like if he had stayed in the United States. Then one day, I was sitting in a group meeting with my students at One Voice, this meeting where we were asking them to share their real ugliest fears about going away for college. One of my brightest students—a phenomenal writer, though really anything she did, she was awesome at it—talked about how she was almost positive that she’d been admitted to her college because they needed brown people and she was sure she was a pity case. And I immediately felt like I was about to start weeping. As counselors, we were supposed to try to keep it together as best we could, but I realized that even though ten years had passed since I went off to college, she was saying the exact same things I was thinking when I was trying to convince myself to not go to Cornell. I realized in that moment how little had changed, and that almost immediately tied in with how little has changed in our immigration system, that the same rules that created the clusterfuck that was the Elián González fiasco were the same rules we have right now. And I was like, how do we have all this information, how do we have all these resources, and we don’t make any changes, we don’t make any advancements? I saw the impact of those laws on the families of the students I worked with, their impact on my own family, and I thought, This is fucking crazy, and it all sort of mashed together in that meeting, where I realized that I could write a book that other people would read, and maybe it would compel them to action.
You can read the rest of our interview with Jennine Capó Crucet in Volume 34.1.
Jennine Capó Crucet is the author of the novel Make Your Home Among Strangers (St. Martin’s Press, 2015), named by The Guardian as one of the Best Fall Books by a Latin American Author and selected as an Amazon Book of the Month for August. Her story collection is How to Leave Hialeah, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, the John Gardner Book Award, and the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award, and was named a Best Book of the Year by the Miami Herald, the Miami New Times, and the Latinidad List. A winner of an O. Henry Prize and a Bread Loaf Fellow, she was the Winter 2013/14 Picador Guest Professor at the University of Leipzig, Germany. Originally from Miami, she is an Assistant Professor of English and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Twitter: @crucet.
Misha Rai was born in Sonepat, Haryana and brought up in India. She holds an MFA from Bowling Green State University and is currently pursuing her PhD from Florida State University. Her prose has appeared in Indiana Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Missouri Review blog. She has work forthcoming in Sonora Review, where she was a finalist for their 2015 essay prize, and Crab Orchard Review. She is also the recipient of the 2015 George M. Harper Award. She is currently at work on her debut novel.