Write the Book You Want: A Conversation with Angie Cruz

June 18, 2021   •   By Alex Espinoza

I’VE BEEN A FAN of Angie Cruz’s writing ever since I encountered her debut novel, Soledad (2001), when I was a graduate student pursuing my MFA at UC Irvine. I was unsure about the position my work would occupy in a world dominated by voices that didn’t speak for me (or for those like me), and Angie’s words were rays of hope in an otherwise dimly lit, daunting landscape. I suddenly felt less alone, less marginalized. “Nobody’s ever really given us such a revealing look at New York’s Dominican population before,” the Los Angeles Times wrote about Soledad. “Cruz, in this determinedly real yet often magical novel, offers canny insights into family life.” Reviewing Let It Rain Coffee (2005), Cruz’s second novel, Kirkus praised the author’s “enormous affection for her characters,” hailing the book as a “powerful, affecting second effort.”


Cruz’s latest novel, Dominicana, published by Flatiron Books in 2019, tells the coming-of-age story of 15-year-old Ana Canción, who weds a man twice her age whom she does not love. When she follows him to New York City, Ana must confront the choices she’s made and the lengths she’s willing to go to in order to live life on her own terms. A Good Morning America Book Pick, Dominicana was praise by The New York Times as “[a]n intimate portrait of the transactional nature of marriage and the economics of both womanhood and citizenship, one all too familiar to many first-generation Americans.” Dominicana will be published in Spanish by Seven Stories Press this June.


The founder and editor-in-chief of the award-winning literary journal Aster(ix), Cruz is an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, where she teaches in their MFA Program in Writing. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, VQR, Callaloo, Gulf Coast, and other journals. Cruz has received recognition for her work from Lighthouse Fellowship, Siena Art Institute, and the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute Fellowship.


Never afraid to confront the difficult truths of the immigrant experience, Angie Cruz’s novels boldly unearth the legacies of trauma and violence inherent in our long history of colonialism, with its tangled racial and gender dynamics, subjects too often misrepresented (or altogether avoided) in other books.


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ALEX ESPINOZA: I’d like to start by asking you to talk about the inspiration behind the story of Ana Canción. How did this book evolve?


ANGIE CRUZ: Before this novel was named Dominicana, it was In Search of Caridad. Many, many years ago, I asked my mother if she had any regrets. We were sitting in my grandmother’s backyard in the Dominican Republic, hot and tired from a long day, so our minds were loose. Exhaustion doesn’t allow for censoring oneself, but also the mind drifts in this dream space where images get conjured, and we are surprised by them, and she said, “I wish I had had the chance to thank Caridad for saving my life.” I had heard the story of my father’s longtime lover, Caridad, many times. When my mother almost died from post-childbirth hemorrhaging, she was alone in her apartment, having recently moved into it with my father. His lover, Caridad, swooped in and, “with the strength of a man,” wrapped my mother in bedsheets. She pulled the sheets in between her legs like a diaper, to help contain the bleeding. She held my mother with one arm and me in the other, taking us both to the hospital. As the story goes, she stood by my mother, caring for us both until my father could reach us.


I think of this as my origin story. One where the women, despite the unorthodox and challenging circumstances, took care of each other. So, I tried to write that novel, but a decade later the novel became something else. I shifted from third person to first person to allow the character, Ana, to tell her own story. The more I worked on the novel, the more I understood that the story I wanted to tell was not about what had happened to my mother or what we remember happening. I was more interested in the kinds of experiences my mother couldn’t imagine happening.


Your novels have always cast complex female characters at the center. There is Soledad in your novel of the same name and Esperanza in Let It Rain Coffee. In what ways was Ana different from the previous two? What challenges in writing about her did you face that you didn’t in your previous works?


The biggest challenge with writing Domicanana was the constraint I gave myself. My first two novels were both nonlinear and told in multiple points of view, but with Dominicana I wanted to write a book told in a more conventional narrative arc, covering a single year and from a singular point of view. I wanted to work against the narrative style and structure that I tended toward as a way to flex new writing muscles. So, when writing Ana I was also reworking sentences, so that even if written in English the reader understands the characters are speaking Spanish. Another challenge was writing explicit scenes of abuse and also writing a story about a character who, for a good portion of the novel, was trapped in an apartment.


I’ve always admired the way you depict the forces of history shaping the lives and choices of your characters. What is your approach to tackling such epic sweeps while simultaneously telling such intimate and refreshingly unique stories?


Before I thought to seriously pursue writing novels, I considered getting a PhD in history. This is because I was turned on by the interconnected histories of the Black diaspora. This love of history and the ways our histories are recovered and remembered by researchers was prompted by a course I took at SUNY Binghamton with Dr. Tiffany Patterson. Many of the historians we read in her class mapped new histories by looking through receipts, tickets, etc., to show how our communities were always fighting against systemic injustices. In that class, I understood that Dominicans’ anti-Blackness and practiced colorism was the elite’s agenda to further disempower working-class Dominicans by creating divisions with the Haitian community. But I also think about what Toni Morrison said about the difference between fact and truth, and what a novel can do. History can tell us a fact but fiction, in Morrison’s words, “discloses truth.” Reading fiction created the urgency in me to dig deeper and tell our stories. But my love of history, what we inherit, how it informs today, is still very much in my work. But character always comes first, and thinking of what I don’t know or what else can happen in any given life or circumstance is what excites me the most about writing.


A particularly moving moment for me comes toward the end of the book. Ana is close to giving birth and is anticipating the arrival of family members, including her mom, from the Dominican Republic. She says, “To fill my days, I write in my small notebook. Writing becomes like talking. I write down my dreams. In them, Juanita [her cousin] sits at my kitchen table, her belly as large as mine. We press our bellies together, becoming a two-headed pregnant beast. It’s a comforting dream.” Did you, like Ana, find that writing this book was almost like “talking” to a younger version of your mother? In what ways, if any, was the telling of this story a “comforting dream” for you?


In retrospect, I do believe writing the novel was my way of becoming closer to my mother. I moved out of my mother’s house when I was 19 and never looked back, in the way that I never moved back to live with her. And my leaving was very painful to her. But I wanted independence. And privacy. So, yes, writing her story and her reading it did close a distance between us. She understood that, even if I was physically living far away from her, I was still with her, always looking and thinking about her.


How do you hope this book will shape the discourse around immigration and the sacrifices women like Ana make in order to secure a better life for themselves and their children?


One never knows the work a book will do. But to learn and know that readers are reading Dominicana with their families, that difficult conversations inside of the home regarding domestic violence and colorism have been prompted across generations, has renewed my faith in the work books can do. Novels brought me solace and raised my consciousness, so it’s wonderful to think that Dominicana can create a shift in the heart and offer more compassion or even action toward women who are facing similar challenges as Ana.


What do you see as the biggest challenges faced by writers of color, particularly women, in the publishing world?


I think we still have a long way to go regarding the number of books published by writers of color. The recent hashtag #publishingpaidme has exposed the ways mainstream publishers heavily invest in white writers without track records or platforms, which just proves what we’ve always known — that writers of color are presumed to be incompetent or unsellable until we prove otherwise. It’s frustrating to think that the industry keeps making decisions on presumed markets for our books when we also know that “our” market (in addition to the already fertile and thriving book market) is largely untapped and unknown. To be presumed incompetent, or for our stories to be deemed unsellable, is a real problem. Our stories are erased in mainstream narratives, and the damage of that erasure terrifies me because I have seen how, even when given the opportunities and access, many writers struggle to overcome the lifelong demand to perform our/their identities.


It would be great if we lived in a world where writers of color could write about whatever the fuck we want, in an aesthetic that we choose, and be supported for it. Like the investment of a writer is not the book but the life of a mind. That would be exciting. Often, writers of color are invited to write about the trending topics of diversity and inclusivity. In fact, in response to this problem, the journal I edit, Aster(ix), is launching “The Ferrante Project,” in which 16 established writers of color write anonymously, in order to experiment with form and topics free from performing our identity. The result has been an exciting array of topics and innovation. As an editor, I found it a bit scary to say, “We’ll publish whatever you send for this project,” but it was exciting, too. And the writers involved said they didn’t realize how liberating writing anonymously would be. So that made me think, more of this has to happen.


What advice would you offer a young Latina wanting to publish?


First, write the book you want. The story that keeps you up at night. Don’t think about the market and what it may want. What we have learned is that nobody knows what sells or why. So, we might as well just write from our hearts, and read widely so we can be better at telling the story we really want to tell. Then find mentorship and go to places like Kweli, Vona, Macondo, etc., to be read by peers who will hopefully help you write the book you want to write. Once the book is finished, don’t give up on your story. I faced four years of rejections for Dominicana. From small and big presses alike. They all said my book had no market. Or the editors didn’t connect with it. This included a number of POC editors. But I persisted and had a community of friends and an agent who didn’t let me give up. And this is very important — to have a community that steps in when we don’t have the energy to fight for ourselves.


As a university professor, how do you balance writing with academic responsibilities?


There is no balance. I gave up trying to be good at everything at the same time. Sometimes I’m a great professor — I am present and able to give more to my students — and other times my novel needs the love. I’m also a mother and editor of a literary magazine and have many activist projects. I prioritize what is most important and urgent at any given time. Or try to.


If there is one book by an author, living or not, that you wish you could have written, what book would that be and why?


That’s an impossible question! I will share with you a list of books that feel like a magic trick when I read them. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement, Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee, The Stranger by Camus, The Vegetarian by Han Kang, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka.


Can you tell us a little about what you are working on now?


I’m working on a novel that, for the most part, I’ve drafted on Google Docs on my phone while commuting. It deals with two women who are unemployed during the recession of 2008–’09, after working at the same factory for two decades. It’s probably the most fun I have ever had writing a book. Maybe it’s because I’m leaning into the deliciousness of oral storytelling, and el chisme, the delight of embellishing.


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Alex Espinoza is the author of The Five Acts of Diego Léon.