This past August, St. Martin’s Press published her first novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, and the book has received much-deserved accolades from writers as well as reviewers. Booklist proclaimed it “A brilliantly crafted, sumptuous tale.” “I was unprepared for the power of her debut novel … which I found wise and honest,” states Lauren Groff, while Kathryn Ma, in her review of Make Your Home Among Strangers for The New York Times, praised the book’s “sharp cultural observations.”
Wise, funny, and observant, Lizet — a Cuban American from Miami who secretly applies and is accepted to prestigious Rawlings College — is struggling to pass her classes and find her place among the snow-covered soccer fields and sumptuous halls of academia. Feeling estranged from her affluent classmates and her new surroundings, Lizet plans a surprise Thanksgiving visit back to Miami to spend time with her recently divorced mother and teenaged sister, Leidy, who is raising an infant son on her own. But Lizet’s arrival is overshadowed by another, as five-year-old Ariel Hernandez, a Cuban exile, washes up on the Florida coast. When the flimsy raft carrying him capsizes in the sea, killing everyone, including his mother, Ariel becomes a media sensation; debates about the boy’s future fill the news and penetrate deep into the American psyche. It isn’t long before Lizet’s own life is affected by Ariel’s arrival, which ultimately shapes her own destiny, altering her life in powerful and profound ways.
Heartfelt, witty, and startlingly original, Make Your Home Among Strangers isn’t a typical story of immigrants struggling to assimilate, but a powerful narrative with interesting things to say about home, family, and belonging. Capó Crucet is now an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. She took some time to answer a few questions about Make Your Home Among Strangers, writing, literary heroes and heroines, and the fear of sneezing.
ALEX ESPINOZA: When discussing Make Your Home Among Strangers in a recent interview, you stated: “Along with the political drama Lizet works to navigate, I imagined the book to be this fictional road map of the first-generation college student’s experience, one that shows some of the ugly things race and class differences force on us.” In what ways do you hope this book will work to help people more fully understand some of those racial and class differences? How, if at all, does your novel complicate our often very restrictive notions of these two binaries?
JENNINE CAPÓ CRUCET: I’m hoping it does what any good book does: gives the reader the chance to see what it feels like to be someone else for a little while. And so, in doing that, it shapes a sensory experience that inspires compassion and empathy in the reader. I don’t know if/how it complicates our notion of racial and class differences — I think that kind of interpretation is up to the reader, and I wasn’t actively thinking in those terms as I was writing the book — but I did hope, during the writing of the book, to portray the narrator’s experiences as accurately and unflinchingly as I could.
This book is loosely based on the case of Elián González whose mother drowned while fleeing Cuba with her son and boyfriend. Elián, who was soon caught up in a custody battle between not only the families of his mother and father, but between the United States and Cuba, suddenly became a point of debate, and his case raised some pretty powerful questions that challenged our definitions of home, family, and nationhood. When dealing with such a loaded and politically volatile situation, how did you decide which liberties to take?
Once I decided to use a fictionalized version of Elián, I took all the liberties that the story demanded. There was a point in the writing of this book where I decided it would not be a novel that tackles that time in history, but instead it would show a year in the life of a character as it plays out against a larger political situation, one where the political becomes very personal — so much so that it’s only personal, as far as Lizet [the narrator] is concerned. I took any and all liberties that Lizet’s story demanded, and when things lined up with the real-life events, I took it as a sign that the story was on the right track. I used the real-life timeline and events as springboards — as inspiration and as guidance — but I didn’t let them hinder Lizet’s story.
Do you view yourself as a “political writer”? If not, why? If so, what responsibility does the political writer have to her community?
No? I say no with a question mark because I’m really not thinking about politics when I write or revise, and I don’t have any specific agenda I’m trying to communicate through my fiction, but I obviously realize my writing has political implications — and really, couldn’t we argue that all writing is in some way political? I actually give this problem over to Lizet, in that she’s constantly asked her opinion about events going on back in Miami — she’s asked about her stance on things, her politics — and she doesn’t know how to respond. Her very presence on her college campus is in some ways her most political act, but she won’t come to understand it as that for years.
This isn’t a typical “immigrant narrative,” and your novel is less concerned with exploring the common terrain of culture shock and assimilation, of family and nostalgia, but rather it focuses our attention on a young woman’s struggles to find her place at an elite university. We witness the case of Ariel Hernandez unfolding in tandem with Lizet’s own dramas at her school. You braid these two plot points together very skillfully, giving equal time to both, and I’m curious to know what, if any approach, you took to ensure that one did not overshadow the other.
I had the help of my fantastic agent and stellar editor with that — both of whom, at different points, pointed me to places in the book where the balance felt rocky. And I outlined the book’s plot after I finished it — sometime after the third or fourth draft of it, I think — and so was able to see then the places where attention felt skimpy in one realm or the other. That outlined was terrifying to make but probably the best thing I did for the book. I couldn’t hide from things like "Then nothing happens for 10 pages." It felt brutal but was necessary.
In so many ways, both Lizet and Ariel are facets of you, both navigating the world as a Cuban in America and as a graduate of an Ivy League school. In what ways do you see other aspects of your identity shaping and influencing this novel?
I think the book is pretty funny in spots, and I’ve been told I’m pretty funny. And I made Ethan a Resident Advisor in part to reflect my own experiences as an RA in college, but that’s a smaller thing. I like the way this question is phrased — how is the novel shaped by aspects of my identity — and it’s got me thinking about the way the book is organized, how it tries to be careful and patient and thorough, which are things I try (and sometimes fail) to be. And I think parts of the book are angry, which I am — often. And the book doesn’t claim to be or attempt to be representative of anything other than this one person’s story, which is pretty much my MO, too.
There’s been a great deal of debate surrounding MFAs across the United States, specifically their lack of diversity. I know that you attended a very prestigious writing program, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your experiences there as a female writer of color. What do you see are some of the pressures writers of color face in the publishing world?
Yeah, I’m skipping this one. Shit was bad.
You mentioned that Helena Maria Viramontes was a big influence on you and your writing. Were there any other writers whose work inspired you?
So many, but none as important as her, both on and off the page.
What were some of the biggest challenges and frustrations while writing this book? How different were they from your first, How to Leave Hialeah?
Just keeping it all in my brain, you know? I felt liked my brain was packed in a way that the whole book was going to collapse in on itself if I sneezed too hard. I had to be in the book every day or else I could feel it slipping away. And I wanted it to be done so, so bad that it was hard to pace myself, to take care of myself. There were times where I was pissed that I had to stop to eat or sleep — I just wanted to keep going. For stories, you can power through and abuse yourself that way if you have to, because the end is in sight. That’s not at all the case for most of the time you’re working on a novel.
Any plans to return to the short story anytime soon?
Yes. I’ve written several since finishing the novel, and god, I missed them.
Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?
A new novel that might destroy me and which is making me afraid to sneeze (the collapsing worry thing again), and short stories in moments where I’m coming up for air on that.
Alex Espinoza is the author, most recently, of The Five Acts of Diego León: A Novel.