Until I ditched the East Coast for sunny California a couple of months ago, I lived in Delaware for five years, in Rehoboth Beach, the town I’d been visiting from my hometown of Washington, DC all my life. While I lived there I wrote what I jokingly call “The Great Delaware Novel.” Last spring, I started reading interviews with Cristina Henríquez where she talked about her forthcoming book, her third, The Book of Unknown Americans as, of course, “The Great Delaware Novel.” A few weeks later Henríquez and I connected by email for unrelated reasons and joked about the coincidence. She suggested we share the phrase, but it’s all hers. After reading the book, I could see that it is, in fact, great, and replacing “The Great American Novel” with “The Great Delaware Novel” turns out to be important.
Too often we think about border states when we think about Hispanic immigration. We think of Delaware—if we think of it at all—as beaches, as Dover Air Force Base and the caskets of soldiers killed in Viet Nam returned there. We think of the Vice-President, (“That’s Delaware’s Joe Biden,” as the locals say) and of DuPonts and of Wilmington as accessory to Philadelphia. We don’t think of it as place populated by immigrants and their families. We don’t think of much of the country that way, yet that is much of the country.
Delaware as synecdoche. Who’d have thought it?
Henríquez is also the author of The World In Half, and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories. Among her vast publication credits, her stories have been published in the New Yorker and the Atlantic and her non-fiction has appeared in the New Yorker and the Oxford American. She earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She lives in Chicago—and when The Rumpus asked me to interview her, I jumped at the chance.
The Rumpus: The story of Mayor and Maribel, the central characters in your novel, The Book of Unknown Americans, is a love story. Was it difficult to stay close to their story—which you do—and not overtly tell a larger story of immigrants. Did you constantly have a larger story in mind? Or not at all?
Cristina Henríquez: I started off with the idea that the backbone of the story would be Mayor and Maribel, and I followed that path for a good while. It wasn’t until I was well into the book that I started seeing how the story might also be something larger. Basically, once I started thinking about the other neighbors in the building, the story took on a different scope. But even then, I never wanted the book to be political, or not overtly so. I mean, I don’t want to sound disingenuous. I understood that by writing about immigrants, there was going to be something inescapably political about the book, but my interest really was the same as it is every time I write—in telling a good story, in learning about the characters, in being attuned to the language. It helps me to think about projects in an elemental way, the sum of its parts, instead of in any conceptual or thematic way.
Rumpus: I love the mosaic of voices you use to tell the story. The multiple first person narrators. Your novel is at once unusually structured and highly structured. Can you tell us about that, how you mapped it out, the challenges, what it allowed?
Henríquez: There were a few big challenges. One was differentiating all those first-person narrators. You have to do a lot of fine-tuning at a language level to get all of the narrators to sound individual. Another challenge, as you mention, was how exactly to lay it all out. At one point I had thought I might stack all of the neighbors’ stories at the end of the book to function as a sort of chorus, but because the plot would have been over by then, I was afraid readers would gloss over the neighbors’ stories, which to me are so fundamental to the texture and the spirit of the book. So I went through and started working out exactly where to slot each person. In most cases, I tried to have a neighbor tell his or her story shortly after he or she had made an appearance in the story. The whole time, I kept two separate files—one for the main narrative told by Mayor and Alma, and one for the neighbors. It helped me keep things straight and helped me have a better sense of the continuity of the main storyline.
Rumpus: One thing that was in sharp focus for me when I was reading it was a sharpened sense of intolerance in this country and a more nuanced questioning of why we are so intolerant as a people. I felt a rich call to compassion in your story.
Henríquez: Thank you. It’s amazing how many excuses people find to be intolerant. But one of the biggest compliments I’ve gotten about the book was from someone who, after reading it, said she was driving down a street and saw a group of Latinos waiting at a bus stop and she thought to herself, “They have a story.” She saw them differently. If the book encourages compassion in people, that’s a very humbling thing.
Rumpus: There was an abundant sense in your book of “almost there”—of opportunity, of being on the verge of success. I felt hope and promise… and right there with those a palpable frustration… a sense of injustice, fear, sorrow. A weight… yet the presence of hope most strongly.
Henríquez: Again, thank you. I wanted the hope to wriggle its way through the darker moments. I’m aware that sometimes in life it doesn’t work out that way, but I did want there to be a sense, even if it’s not fully explicated in the book, that the characters might go on to better things, that life would go on and that it would be okay for them, all things considered.
Rumpus: You write about immigrants, not immigration. Which of course is writing about immigration, telling the story of particular immigrants, their families. But you are telling a story not issuing a polemic. Tell me about staying on course. Did you ever veer? And if so, how did you know? How did you “correct” for that?
Henríquez: I think the most overtly political section in the book is Micho Alvarez’s chapter near the end, where he expresses his anger at being treated like a lowlife, like a criminal, like someone who can’t speak English, etc. all because he happens to be Mexican. That’s his own ire, certainly, but of course it reflects my indignation about the way Latinos are often treated. Maybe I veered off course in that section, I don’t know. But if I did, I’m glad I did. I think that ends up being one of the most important sections in the book, not for its connection to the plot, but for its moral clarity.
Rumpus: The book is set in Delaware where you grew up. One thing I’ve heard over and over again about your novel is, “You don’t think about immigrants being in Delaware.” Was setting the book in a place that’s not the “traditional” setting for a story of immigrants intentional?
Henríquez: I was born in Delaware, so it started off that I wanted to write about a place that meant something to me. Simple as that. But maybe halfway through writing it, I mentioned to someone that the book was set in Delaware, and she was so surprised. She had no idea, it turned out, that there was any sizable Hispanic population in Delaware. And as soon as her surprise registered, I knew it was important to keep the book set there, precisely because it wasn’t what people would expect. I wanted to make the point that this is a story that’s happening not only in places like Texas and California, but everywhere. This is a story that is part of all of us.
Rumpus: Can you tell us some of the books/writers/writing that have been important to you?
Henríquez: So many! Donald Barthelme, George Saunders, Kurt Vonnegut, Samuel Beckett, Dylan Thomas, Joyce Carol Oates, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Díaz, Flannery O’Connor, Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth McCracken. Just to name a few. I’m seduced by stylists, I think.
Rumpus: So often in reading, I felt the presence of Faulkner and of Garcia Marquez. Are they important influences for you?
Henríquez: Wow. Talk about a serious compliment! Thank you. I have to confess, though, that I’ve never read Faulkner. How that’s possible, I don’t know. But Marquez was a towering figure for me when I was starting out writing. The only novel my father ever gave me was One Hundred Years of Solitude. We were on a road trip and I had run out of books to read, so we stopped at a Walden Books and he came back out to the car with it, handed it to me, and told me it was one of the only books worth reading.
Rumpus: What are you reading now? What’s coming out that you’re looking forward to/that we should know about?
Henríquez: I just finished Lila by Marilynne Robinson, which I thought was magnificent. And my dad and I are doing a mini book club together, so we’re both reading Spare Parts by Joshua Davis. I have Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend by Erika T. Wurth and the newest Paris Review on my nightstand now. Antonio Ruiz-Camacho has a book coming out in April, Barefoot Dogs, that I’m very much looking forward to. I really want to read After Birth by Elisa Albert, too.
Rumpus: Can you tell us about what you are working on now?
Henríquez: No, no, no! You’re not getting that out of me. I’m in the very early stages of a new book, but it’s so fragile right now, like a bubble on the tip of my brain, and I’m doing everything I can—including not talking about it—to protect it and keep it intact.
Rumpus: One piece of advice I give to writers—at every stage—is “be generous.” How do we foster that in other writers? Should we be fostering that?
Henríquez: That seems like good advice for all humans. Imagine if we could all be a little more generous. When I think of it in terms of being a writer, there are a number of different interpretations that spring to mind. One is to be generous with how much of yourself you pour into a project, and I think whether or not that’s an advisable goal depends on the writer and on what s/he is trying to accomplish with a given project. The more obvious interpretation is to be generous with how much of yourself you invest in other writers, especially writers just coming up. That’s something I think about quite a bit. On the one hand, I do believe, as many writers before me have said, that it’s supremely important to protect your writing time. You simply cannot say yes to everything that’s asked of you, and you have to understand that saying no is in many ways part of your job. Without saying no, you just won’t have the time that you need to do your own work. On the other hand, I think about writers who gave me their time as I was getting started—whether it be by answering an email I had sent them, or reading a story and giving me feedback, or teaching me in school—and how much those generosities meant to me. I do believe in giving back what’s been given to you, so in that regard I think it’s important to carry on the cycle in the ways that you can.
Rumpus: Any thought on the way women writers are treated? The demand for likable characters. The personal attacks. The comments that we aren’t funny or as good or writing about important topics.
Henríquez: My thought? It’s all just bullshit. Who cares about likable characters? Give me terrible characters who I understand. Understanding is where it’s at. Personal attacks on anyone for any reason are odious. Not as funny, not as good? Come on.
But I’m hopeful that we’re making progress, too, and that things will continue to get better. The other day I was reading an old children’s book from the seventies with my seven-year-old. It was about a polite puppy who was using his manners, etc. And on one page it said that he “opens the door for ladies.” And my daughter, like, snorted. “What?” I asked. She said, “That’s actually kind of mean. He should open the door for everyone.” I loved that. Equality. It was just so obvious to her.
Author photo © Michael Lionstar.