Angie Cruz’s Dominicana is a coming-of-age novel set in 1965, a tumultuous year, at the heart of the civil rights movement. It’s also the year the US occupied the Dominican Republic. Ana, the main character, is part of the first wave of Dominicans to arrive to New York City. She is fifteen, married to a man twice her age by her mother toward what she hopes is a better life than the one she has left behind in Los Guayacanes.
Cruz is the author of two other novels, Soledad and Let It Rain Coffee, and the recipient of numerous fellowships and residencies including the Lighthouse Fellowship, Siena Art Institute, and the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute Fellowship. She’s published shorter works in the Paris Review, VQR, Callaloo, Gulf Coast, and other journals. Cruz is the founder and editor-in-chief of the award-winning literary journal Aster(ix). She’s also an Associate Professor at University of Pittsburgh, where she teaches in the MFA program. She splits her time between Pittsburgh, New York, and Turin.
Dominicana was shortlisted for the UK Women’s Prize 2020 and was the winner of the ALA Alex Awards in fiction. It was named most anticipated/ best book in 2019 by TIME, Newsweek, People, Oprah Magazine, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Esquire. The book explores colorism, domestic violence, and the hustle to survive. It provides an intimate window into a young woman’s journey upon being thrust into adulthood.
I spoke with Angie over email about the galaxies of emotion encompassed in a city block, friend crushes, vulnerability, and spaces of liberation.
The Rumpus: Because so much of Dominicana encompasses Ana’s pregnancy, I felt the entire book could be read through the lens of how the United States is perpetually born anew, through waves of arrivals. Ana’s journey takes place as Dominicans begin arriving in NYC in large numbers and weave into the fabric of the city. It oddly made me think of that final image in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the embryo floats through the cosmos. Ana’s pregnancy felt similarly rousing to me, though the tone was, obviously, much more down-to-earth. Am I off here?
Angie Cruz: I never thought of it quite this way but I like this observation. I do think, like newborns who can only focus on what is up close, that Ana, the main character, much like a newborn, has a narrow vision of what New York City is like. What she knows about the United States and Nueva Yol had been tall tales told by Dominicans, mostly men, who traveled back with dollars in their pockets. The myths persist with my elders who, even when they have experienced racism, poverty, xenophobia, stress, and so on, when they tell me the stories of their first years in the US, their eyes light up, remembering a time where jobs were easy to find and the chances to make money were many. “All the lights! They were always on!” is something people say when they recall what it was like to first be in New York City. It was like landing on another planet.
Your question made me actually revisit the ending of Kubricks’s film and how weird it is. I do like what Kubrick says about the idea for the movie. He said, “When you just say the ideas they sound foolish, whereas if they’re dramatized one feels it.” You have to watch the film to understand it. And I think, much like David in 2001: A Space Odyssey, who lands on Jupiter and witnesses something only to return old and forced to rebirth, Ana, once she arrives to New York City, is no longer only that girl who grew up in the countryside; she has now witnessed NYC and is born anew, as you say.
But also going back to what Kubrick said, about dramatization and feeling, if I simply say Dominicana is about a girl who immigrated to the US, some may think they know the story even before reading the book. I say this because I have heard a number of people say, “I wasn’t going to read the novel, because I have read books about immigration before,” as if each and every journey of arrival is not singular and deserving of our attention. It’s like saying I have seen a movie about going to outer space therefore I can skip 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Rumpus: The World’s Fair scene is a centerpiece of Ana’s growing relationship with her new country, and with César. It’s bold to position Ana and César this way: small and intimate and overwhelmed in the face of this international infrastructure and pageantry. Can you talk about this scene?
Cruz: When I decided that the novel would be set in 1965, it was impossible not to make central the World’s Fair. Stories abound of men with jetpacks and color TV and computers. It was about dreaming of a future when the US was just beginning to get involved in the Vietnam War. But for my characters, yes, it was an opportunity for them to inject themselves in this place even if they were not invited, and also to show the ways people of color are often made to perform their identities and not given space to show their complexity.
Rumpus: Ana throws herself into a friendship with Marisela based off of only a few visits. There is an instant friend-crush, which implies an isolation felt on both parts, a void that needs filling. It feels gendered—the men, who are also new to NYC, don’t seem to suffer the same loneliness. How do you think about the generation of women above you in relation to isolation? And what allows men to escape it?
Cruz: Oh, the friend-crush! Both these women who immigrated to New York City are isolated without their families or network. That is why it’s so important for Marisela to bring her sister to live with her. And I do think the men in the book suffer the loneliness, too. Especially an emotional loneliness, because they, too, move in a world where they don’t feel seen or heard and are not allowed to fully express themselves. I started this living archive of photos and short anecdotes on Instagram that I feel now accompanies this novel. For the past year, community members have submitted photos from the 1950s–1980s. There are many stories in which a person understood how alone they were in the world at lunch time, for instance, that being the saddest time in the day, a moment of dread, because it was then that they realized they were no longer with their families and were alone.
For Ana, the way she wanted to tend to Marisela was by feeding her, a gesture to build a chosen family in a city where she was without family. The men tended to isolation through the women they loved but also the brothers in my book had each other. They were working together toward something. I think of the different generations, and how my mother discouraged friendships. Also as a general rule in my family we were told to suck it up if we showed vulnerability. What I can say for myself is that even being able to say that I want to be seen and heard by those I love and who claim to love me is already a huge difference to the way I approach life and my relationships. That I can say I enter relationships trying to understand and full of curiosity is also different and are ways to not feel lonely. And, these are skills and aspects of care that many of my elders do not have access to.
Rumpus: How and when did you discover Latinx literature, whether in English, Spanish, or Indigenous languages? Did you grow up reading literature close to your cultural worldview and vocabulary, or did you have to seek that out consciously as an adult writer?
Cruz: I didn’t come across a book by a Latinx writer until 1991. I was walking by Barnes and Nobles and saw the title, How the García Girls Lost Their Accent by Julia Alvarez. I am so glad for that title because the title alone signaled to me, a young Dominican American. Then I discovered more books because I took classes that were explicitly Caribbean or Latinx. Unfortunately, from my experience, not much has changed. I have visited many colleges in the past year, and students will say, Dominicana is the first book by a Latinx writer they have read and I wonder, what are they reading in high school?
Rumpus: Dominicana is your third novel. When you began writing, what authors did you find your work in conversation with? Has that group of authors changed over the years, or do you find yourself returning to those formative texts and influences?
Cruz: It’s difficult to believe that I have now been writing for over twenty-five years. As a young writer I was greatly influenced by Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Ana Castillo, Cristina Garcia, Sandra Cisneros, Dorothy Allison, Edwidge Danticat. I read these writers in undergrad and they validated my experience and inspired me to pursue writing. But also now, in retrospect, I see the impact on my work by writers I was made to read or I read but didn’t completely understand their impact until I started working on Dominicana. For example, Dubliners by James Joyce, and The Lover by Marguerite Duras, a book I have reread numerous times in recent years. More recently I am interested in Clarice Lispector and appreciate her unapologetic style and use of syntax.
Rumpus: I’m also curious about the role of poetry in your imaginative life. You use line and paragraph breaks with a poet’s ear and eye, it seems to me.
Cruz: For sure, since I started working at University of Pittsburgh and have become affiliated to CAAPP: Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, I have dived deep into poetry. Collaborating with Dawn Lundy Martin on some of the programming and reading her and other colleague’s works has influenced how I use white on the page but also has me paying close attention to the line and image in ways that maybe I had less control of before.
Rumpus: You live in Washington Heights, not far from Ana’s fictional apartment. Tell me about the block as you scoped it out, either in real life or in your imagination. Ana has a view of history right out her window.
Cruz: I do live in Washington Heights when I am not teaching at the University of Pittsburgh. And still, up until this day a large part of my extended family lives in the Heights. So it is very much something I “scope” in real life and in my imagination. I was reading an essay by Toni Morrison, “Memory, Creation and Writing,” and she writes about memory as the willed creation—that “it’s not the effort to find the way it really was—it’s to dwell on the way it appeared and why it appeared in that particular way.” Morrison talks about pieces of memory and the way memory works, nonlinear, the pieces circling around each other, not always touching but when put together, illustrates a “galaxy of emotion.”
Your question made me think of that block and the building that I often return to in my work, especially in Dominicana. It’s a galaxy of story and emotion! I looked out of a window for a good part of my life to the Audubon Ballroom that, as a child, was where I saw King Kong, and there were dance parties on the second floor of the Ballroom and then there was a big fire and the ballroom was boarded up for a good long while and now it’s part of Columbia’s research complex. And a small portion of it is a memorial for Malcolm X. But the part that felt like the big betrayal, is how I went to school a block away from it, I grew up looking at it for all of my life, and it wasn’t until I went to college that I learned the history and story of Malcolm X, as if that story is not pertinent to me as a Dominican American—as someone who is part of the Black diaspora. This is why I included that moment in history in the book. I wanted to show that Ana’s story is connected to that story, too.
Rumpus: The moments of tenderness and sensuality in Dominicana are jolts and joys. Ana peeing in the grass. Ana swishing a bucket full of water onto her kitchen floor. And of course, the poolside scene before she leaves the Dominican Republic. It’s a gently erotic moment, while hinting at class hierarchy in Ana’s hometown. Is there something liberating about the wealth of the poolside to Ana and Gabriel? Does it give them the privacy to be themselves in a way their day-to-day life doesn’t allow?
Cruz: I felt that I had to include a scene where Ana was given a hint of first love, where she had agency and a certain kind of freedom. I also think in retrospect I wanted to show that while her mother thought sending her off to the United States was the path toward a better life, in her town of Los Guayacanes, even if the means for wealth or “a better life” were not as promising as those offered by Juan, Gabriel had all the keys, literally, to this secret sanctuary that was right in her town. So, is there something liberating about the wealth? I believe yes, I was making explicit the hierarchy of wealth but more so even the liberating and fertile space for Ana to choose to skip school, to be with Gabriel, to literally be naked with him.
Rumpus: Can we talk more about Ana’s mom in relation to Ana? These are women with different strategies and energetic fuels. I’m thinking about the ending of the book, and without giving it away, I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on women’s desire versus their sustainable goals and needs. Are these things always at odds?
Cruz: I love this question. Recently I was reading American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes and thinking about his series of poems that explores being American, America, of the ways it tries to kill/destroy us and also the love we feel for it. That push and pull of loving something that may destroy us or destroying something that loves us I think is at the center of Ana and her mother’s dynamic. If desire and sustainable goals are always at odds, I think in Dominicana, the main desire is not one pertaining to her love story. The goal for both characters is that they become financially independent as women so they don’t need Juan or any man to care for them. And to do this, they have to work together.
Rumpus: You told me, hopefully not in confidence, as we walked through Washington Heights, that Dominicana opened up conversations with the men in your family that had previously been closed. Can you share, frankly, about those talks? What is it about the novel that gave them permission to discuss sensitive topics of domestic abuse or gendered immigrant experiences? Did they see themselves in the work, or did the genre of fiction provide a protective space where no one is directly outed and everyone is therefore a bit safe?
Cruz: I will start with my brother. Two decades ago, I was flying back from Dominican Republic with my brother. We were visiting my father who was near death. On the plane I remember my brother saying something like, “Dad wasn’t a bad man.” I was shocked by this. I, for most of my life, villainized my father because I witnessed him abusing my mother and eventually physically hurting me when he didn’t have access to her in the same way. Flash forward to the present, I find out that many of the young men in my family, cousins, including my brother, read Dominicana. When I saw my brother, he said, “I think you let the men off easy.” It was clear that while my novel is fiction, Juan’s domestic abuse is written as I imagined it may have happened. When we gathered as a family for the holidays, I noticed a different tenor and tenderness with the men and the way they were checking themselves even when they talked about their girlfriends, wives, mothers. We felt closer? Or I felt closer to them, maybe.
I do think reading is an intimate conversation we can have with ourselves and each other. Even if we don’t explicitly say the horrors of our lives out loud, the characters in the books can bridge an understanding that we survived something or a knowing of something, between family members and our communities.
Photograph of Angie Cruz by Erika Morillo.