Hanna Schwinn ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
The “When did you decide to become a writer?” question might be the bane of every author’s existence. It’s a very popular question, nearly everyone asks everywhere. But after the initial irritation of “Not this again!” comes the panic: how do you to sum up a lifetime of stories and characters and choices into a succinct, entertaining answer that makes sense to people who aren’t writers? Jennine Capó Crucet doesn’t miss a beat. She leans forward in her chair, folds her arms, and says, “I didn’t choose the thug life. The thug life chose me.” Every member of her audience laughs. Some applaud.
The funniest part is that it’s true. Throughout her childhood in Hialeah, Florida, Crucet’s Cuban immigrant parents instilled in her the five most important “American” jobs: doctor, lawyer, architect, engineer, and astronaut. They indulged her early stories, but as she grew older they made sure she understood writing is a hobby.
She tells the audience she tried to follow that cardinal rule. Step one of the plan to not become a writer was to study biology at Cornell University, but she switched to English. Step two was applying to law school, but she laughs when she tells her readers she spent her days with fingers-crossed that they wouldn’t accept her. She had already set her sights on the master of fine arts program in creative writing at the University of Minnesota.
“And so I became a writer, much to the dismay of my family,” she sighs.
Crucet’s novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, could have been an autobiography if a few details were changed. Herione Lizet Ramirez struggles through a year in which there are profound family issues, one of which her parent’s view that leaving for college is a profound betrayal.
It’s an exploration of the “Americanization” of things, something Crucet feels keenly. As the daughter of immigrants, she has two cultures to pull from: Cuban and American. Marrying the two is not an easy thing to navigate, for herself or her readers. “In my college creative writing classes, peer reviews consisted of comments on the culture. ‘Why is the fifteenth birthday such a big deal? Why do the characters get angry so fast?’…. I was getting white-washed.”
In the Q&A session, someone relates her short story collection, How to Leave Hialeah, to Junot Diaz’s Drown. She vehemently shakes her head. “I see where you’re coming from, but I was thinking Lorrie Moore. Unfortunately, no one makes that connection, probably because she’s a white woman.”
Being ticked into the “American” category or the “Cuban” category never really has done Crucet any favors. When she searched for a publisher for How to Leave Hialeah, she would chat with them on the phone. “They’d say, ‘we really want to work with multicultural voices’ and I didn’t like that. ‘Multicultural voices,’ no. My voice.” Eventually, the publisher she did find wanted to italicize the Spanish. “I didn’t want to. It’s a language, not an exception. So I wrote a 14-paragraph email explaining why not, and I won that battle.”
The battle paid off.
How to Leave Hialeah won numerous awards, including the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, the John Gardner Book Award, and the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award. The Miami Herald, the Miami New Times, and the Latinidad List also named it “Best Book of the Year.”
Crucet’s smile splits her face when someone stands up in the Q&A, no question to ask, just wanting to praise her: “I feel like you have translated not only the Spanish language, but the Cuban way of speaking, so accurately into English. It’s not translating, it’s transferring, the humor and the speed of the language.”
“I didn’t write that. The character said it.” Her voice goes high-pitched. “’I hear voices in my head and I have to write them down.’” She pauses and crooks a self-deprecating smile as her audience laughs. “If I had any other job, people would be worried about me!”
Regardless, this praise is not unfounded. It echoes an opinion voiced by Katerina Gonzalez Seligman, Emerson College’s assistant professor in the Department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing, in her introduction of Crucet. She said, “The political value of literature is to deliver a community back to itself. Your writing, Ms. Crucet, delivers the Cuban-American culture back to itself with your unerring ear for a community’s voices.”
Her response it seemed very subdued. “I tried to do other things, but I hated them,” she shakes her head. “I don’t hate writing, so I won’t fail as a writer because I’ll keep trying to find ways to make it work.” Cue more applause.
But what about the pressure to live up to the praise? “When I was writing Make Your Home Among Strangers, I’d wonder who I wrote it for. I daydreamed of a recliner, somewhere comfortable. Somewhere I knew my reader would want to sit.” Crucet bites her lip. “I’d sneak up on it, but not until near the end did I see who was in that chair… It was me!”