Cristina Henríquez, who now lives in Chicago, earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and subsequently graduated from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her short fiction has appeared in The American Scholar, The New Yorker, AGNI, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, and Ploughshares, as well as in the anthology This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers, edited by Elizabeth Merrick. Henríquez’s previous two books are The World in Half, and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection. This summer, Knopf will publish her new novel, The Book of Unknown Americans.
The novel has already garnered great praise. The Book of Unknown Americans is as disturbing as it is beautiful, a testament to the mixed blessings our country offers immigrants, who struggle against bigotry and economic hardship while maintaining just enough hope to keep striving for something better. It is about a group of Latin-American immigrants who live in an apartment complex in Delaware. They speak in their own voices, with alternating chapters in the first person. The result is a narrative mosaic that moves toward a heartrending conclusion.
In your new novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, you employ an uncommon structure, with many different first-person narrators. Why did you choose this structure rather than the more traditional third-person voice?
This book was inspired by my father, who came to the United States from Panama in 1971 to go to college, and who has been here ever since. He’s made a life here, he’s become a citizen, and even though his story isn’t dramatic or spectacular, it’s important for the simple reason that it exists at all. We all have stories to tell. They might seem ordinary to us, but one of the things fiction does well is to take even the most ordinary story and elevate it into something extraordinary. That’s the hope at least. It can force us to slow down long enough to consider beings other than ourselves.
So, you know, I wanted to celebrate that — hurrah for ordinary stories! I felt very strongly that each of the characters — immigrants who, in our current national culture, are often denied a voice — should have a chance to speak. First-person point of view seemed the best way to accomplish that. I never considered anything else.
At the heart of your novel is a love story between two teens, Mayor Toro, whose family is from Panama searching for a way out of poverty, and Maribel Rivera, a beautiful girl who had suffered brain damage and whose parents want her to attend a special school in Delaware, hoping it will improve her cognitive skills. What was the inspiration for these two characters, and why did you decide to make their love the centerpiece of your book?
The novel actually started as a short story told from Mayor’s point of view. Mayor is an outsider in some ways — the kids at school tease him for being a nerd and for being a Pan, which is their slur for Panamanian (and which was the slur used against me when I was in high school); he’s uncoordinated, which makes him a disappointment to his father, who has dreams of him being a soccer star; he only has one real friend; he’s never been with a girl. I thought it would be interesting to pair him with a someone, Maribel, who is an outsider in her own ways, ways very different from his. She’s new to the United States, she doesn’t speak English, and, as you mentioned, she has recently suffered a brain injury, which has completely removed her from any normal teenage experience. What might two people like that find in each other? What might they give each other? The fact that it’s a first love for both of them only ups the ante — Mayor feels with absolute conviction that he would do anything for Maribel, but when he does attempt a grand gesture, it’s terribly misguided. The consequences of that gesture alter the fates of all the characters.
What does your novel say, if anything, about our country’s attitude toward immigrants and their struggles?
Look, immigration as a system, as a national policy, is broken. No one on either side of the debate needs me to tell them that. But that’s not what the novel is about. It’s about the human faces, the human stories, the human lives behind what for many people has become only an issue. As one of the characters says, “We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then?”
It’s really a story about two parents, devastated after their only daughter suffers a brain injury. They bring her to the United States so that she can attend that specialized school to help her recover. They end up in Delaware, in an apartment building with residents from all over Latin America, neighbors that become something like a family. And while they’re there, one of those neighbors — this 16-year-old boy from Panama — improbably falls in love with their daughter. It’s a story about tragedy and guilt, but also about hope and about what it means to belong somewhere, to find a place to call your home.
Daniel A Olivas is a correspondent for LARB. His forthcoming book, Things We Do Not Talk About: Exploring Latino/a Literature Through Essays and Interviews will be available through San Diego State University Press this summer.