Cristina Henriquez’s novel The Book of Unknown Americans, out in paperback in 2015, was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014. In it, two families struggle to make their home in a Delaware neighborhood, as their children—Mayor, a Panamanian teen, and his beautiful, shy Mexican neighbor, Maribel—seek comfort in each other’s company. Their families’ stories are interwoven with the voices of other Central and Latin Americans who reside in their apartment complex. Henriquez is also the author of the novel The World in Half and a collection of short stories, Come Together, Fall Apart. TriQuarterly spoke with Henriquez in Chicago.
TriQuarterly: Did you know when you started The Book of Unknown Americans that it would be a novel?
Cristina Henriquez: I go into things thinking, it will be a short story. It’s easier. It’s not overwhelming, and I know I can do that in a few weeks or a few months. If I go in thinking novel, it feels so overwhelming. It just has to do with your natural stride as a writer. My natural stride is short story. I think in those components. It’s just me.
The Book of Unknown Americans started as a short story that was just from Mayor’s point of view and about falling in love. It ended with him taking Maribel to the beach, which is a scene that still exists. I thought it was a short story for months after I finished. My agent and I sent it to magazines but kept getting the same feedback, that “there is something more here.” It’s hard to trace back and remember when I decided it would be populated with all these other neighbors, but the broad consensus I couldn’t shake was that there was more there.
This happened again recently. I wrote a story, we sent it out, and people said, “This is the start of something bigger.” Is it possible I’ve done this again? That story maybe is going to turn into the next book.
TQ: You’ve said how gratifying it is that readers tell you they look at people differently having read The Book of Unknown Americans. Did you realize this might happen when you wrote it, or is that part of the product rather than the process, and you weren’t really thinking about it?
CH: I don’t think I was thinking about it at all. I wasn’t anticipating any kind of reaction from people one way or another. The process is really just the day-to-day writing and creating, and to me that is always the best and most interesting part. When you’re writing, you are just trying to get through it and tell a good story. You are trying to make sure everything makes sense and that the characters’ motivations all seem plausible. That’s where you’re headed as you’re doing it. And it’s actually a blessing, because then you are not pulling forward and thinking about whether people will read it, if they read it will they like it, or what will they take away from it. Which I think is as it should be. You should be burying yourself in the work and in the writing. Whatever happens after that is what’s going to happen. So if you are thinking about that in any way, then it’s going to alter how you write, and I think that’s problematic.
TQ: Did you choose the title, The Book of Unknown Americans?
CH: I did.
TQ: The word unknown implies an audience. Unknown to someone.
CH: That title is residual from something that existed in an earlier draft, in which Mayor had been given an assignment by his social studies teacher to go around and talk to what his teacher called “modern day immigrants” about coming to this country. And so Mayor realizes that he can interview the people in his apartment building. So he starts interviewing them, and the title of his report that he turns in is “The Book of Unknown Americans.” But then I sort of fell in love with that as a title, and I tried to figure out a way I could keep it. So in that sense it does have an audience, because Mayor is thinking of it and writes it that way for his teacher.
TQ: For whatever reason, that section about the class assignment didn’t make the final cut?
CH: At some point I showed it to my agent. I showed it to a few friends, too. We talked about whether the book really needed that construct to make sense or whether it felt too much like a gimmick. Too clever or something. And whether it wouldn’t be just more powerful to have the voices on their own without any kind of frame or structure beneath them.
TQ: So, in a way, you took over his assignment and co-opted his title?
CH: Yeah. Basically. We just dropped that as a device and let it stand on its own, which I was not sure about for a while. I wondered, does it feel too disruptive then? I think we ended up making the right decision.
TQ: You once suggested to me to boil a story in progress down to a single word. I’m curious what word you’d use for The Book of Unknown Americans.
TQ: At what point in the process did that occur to you? Was it there from the get-go?
CH: Pretty early on. That word can be so many things. It can be a physical space. The apartment building became its own presence very early on. This idea of people moving from country to country grew pretty naturally early on. But even the idea of finding place with another person. In the acknowledgments I say that my husband and my kids are the closest definition I can think of to the word home. I think Mayor finds something like that with Maribel, and Maribel finds something like that with him. I think that is what love is.
TQ: You are a graduate of an MFA program (Iowa). How did that experience affect you and does it continue to affect you as a writer?
CH: For most people and for me certainly, while I was there I had trouble making sense of anything I was told. There was such a flood of information coming at me. It was this real immersion in writing and reading that I’d never had the luxury of having before. Thinking about nothing but reading and writing filled my brain in this intense way that is hard to make sense of when you are in the middle of it. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I can’t do this.” I just didn’t know what to do with this information until I left. Until it settled.
In graduate school, you sit and talk intensely about work for two years. It’s just about words on the page. You have no responsibilities beyond going to workshop. To make the most of your time there, you have to be disciplined. It is this amorphous thing, and you have to build that discipline. An experience like that forces you to do that. Or it did for me.
I hold on to a piece of writing advice from Frank Conroy: “Have faith in the process not in the product.” Now, I think about that all the time. You have to have faith that something in your brain, in your subconscious, is working and the right things will make it to the page. That is infinitely more important than the thing you will one day have. What brings you joy is working it out along the way.
People will say, “Oh, when you first see it in the bookstore, isn’t that the most amazing moment?” Yes, it is a moment, but the most amazing is when you are at your desk and you write something better than you thought you were writing. When you make that connection, that is the whole reason for doing it. The book itself is just a thing. People read it and love it for their own reasons. The parts that mean something to me are the moments along the way.
I think you learn, if you are lucky, a way to trick yourself. Well, not really a trick, you learn the work is not you. It’s not personal. It comes from you, but it is not you. So when people have feedback or are critical . . . Toni Morrison said something about it, like, “It’s just data.” It’s not you.
TQ: You mentioned there is a flood of information that you work through and it is more meaningful later. Does the same experience happen with a novel?
CH: I think you get to that point where you just can’t quite see it clearly anymore, and you are making decisions, and you don’t know if they are the best for the book at some point. You are basically going off instinct for a long time. And then at some point you start to try to make sense of it, make a shape, and make it palatable to a reader. And I think that’s when I start second-guessing. “Well, my instincts tell me this, but would it technically make more sense if this other thing . . . ” and then you are having sort of a battle within yourself.
Ideally—and I think Zadie Smith maybe is the one who said this, but I’m sure lots of writers have said this and lots of them feel this—ideally you would write something, and then you would spend years away from it. And then you’d look at it again, and you would instantly see so many things that you weren’t capable of seeing at the time, both because you’d have that distance and because you’d have grown as a person, as a reader, and as a writer. The problem with that strategy is you would never publish anything. You have to be willing to put flawed things into the world.
TQ: That said, once you’ve put something into the world, are you able to let it be what it is and move on?
CH: Pretty much. Yeah, it’s interesting. I had a student ask me one time if I had trouble letting go of the characters, and I said no. I think that is surprising to people. There is this idea that writers get so attached to their characters. And I do as I’m writing the book, but once done, it’s done. I’ve sent them on their way. I’ve sent the book on its way. I do readings, and I’m standing in the front of the bookstore reading a passage, and as I’m reading, I think, Oh shoot, why did I include that word? Or, I should have done this. So there are always little things you wish you could change, but I don’t think that means that I’m not able to let it go. For the most part I do.
TQ: Panama figures in all three of your books. How, why, and when did writing about Panama and Panamanians capture your interest? What motivates you as a writer?
CH: Panama is definitely something that motivates me. When I got to graduate school, I was writing stories that were set in the United States pretty exclusively because that’s what I had grown up reading. All the writers that I loved were white Americans writing stories set in the United States. So I was sort of mimicking them. Then almost by accident I started to discover Latino literature. It started because I found an excerpt from The House on Mango Street in an anthology I bought in a used-book store. When I read it, it occurred to me suddenly that I had had all these experiences my whole life, going to Panama and visiting my dad’s side of the family there, doing all kinds of interesting things that were not things kids my age were normally doing on summer vacations. I had never written about any of them. I didn’t think any of them were worth writing about. I didn’t think anyone would want to hear those stories. That’s what reading Mango Street did for me. It made me see and believe that those were stories worth telling.
So I started writing about Panama, and as soon as I did, there was a hell of a difference. There was something profoundly different about the stories. I wasn’t mimicking anymore. I had to find my own way. I haven’t looked back from then. Putting my head in the space of Panama changed my writing so much. Now, this new book, The Book of Unknown Americans, was sort of a challenge in that way because I was setting it in the United States again. The way that I comforted myself, or the safety net that I gave myself, was to write at least one of the main characters as someone from Panama. I felt like that gave me a little bit of a crutch still.
TQ: Did you do research? You’ve got a Mexican family in The Book of Unknown Americans. You’ve got people from other places. So those probably weren’t as instinctive to you, or were they? Did you do any additional research to flesh those out?
CH: I did minimal research. The extent of my research was I looked up certain language, idiosyncrasies and colloquialisms from various countries. I looked up a little bit of historical detail, depending on the time the character had come to the United States. I wanted to see what the environment they were coming from was like. Beyond that, I really did very little. What was most important to me was showing any human aspects of them, and that had nothing to do with the cultural aspects of them. It had to do with their fears and longings. Those are all things that are easy to imagine if you are alert to your life.
TQ: So in a way, is writing about Panama more for you than for your reader?
CH: Yeah. I think it is really almost incidental. I just finished a new story that’s ostensibly set in Panama, but it wouldn’t tell you anything about life in Panama necessarily or anything about the landscape. I put it there in my head to ignite some kind of access to language and imagery that I somehow can only get when I’m in that space. But the story in so many ways could have been set anywhere.
TQ: What do you think the reason for that dynamic is? Why do you think that works for you?
CH: I think there are two things. One is that it is uncharted terrain in a sense. Clearly, there are Panamanian writers who are writing about Panama, but there are not as many published in the United States as there are writers who are writing about the United States and published in the United States. It’s just a wide-open land for me. There’s no prescription of, “Oh, you could write like that or like that.” It’s a completely open, fertile territory.
But also I think I have these really resonant sensory experiences of going there as a kid. It became part of my life. Every time we would land in Panama, it was this jarring thing. It is such a different place. Just the smell of the air and the salt and the heat. The conditions. Like sleeping under a very thin sheet even though it was so hot. My brother and sister and I all sharing one fan. And smothering ourselves in mosquito repellent before we would go to bed. Sticking to the sheets. And being woken up by roosters in the backyard and the smell of garlic because my grandmother was already cooking breakfast. It was like being dipped in a sensory bath. That is so easy to draw upon as a writer. I can get back to that space so quickly in my head.
TQ: Did your parents talk about their stories of growing up—either in Panama or in New Jersey? Are you from a family that tells those kinds of stories?
CH: No, no. It’s only been since I’ve been writing about Panama that I’ve been asking questions and learning certain things about my family and my family’s stories. When my dad first came to the United States, he lived with a host family in Delaware. Now, with the power of the Internet, the daughter of the parents who hosted my dad—she was around four or five at the time—she contacted me via Facebook and said, “My parents were the host parents for your dad.” I had never heard that story. So I asked my parents. And then they started telling me stories. My mom told me about the first time she saw my dad. “Did you speak in Spanish to each other?” I asked. She said, “No, we spoke in English.” I didn’t know any of this. There’s a whole repository of stories there that are untapped. You have to ask the right questions, I guess. They don’t talk about anything unless you ask.
And some of it has passed on with the generations. There are all sorts of rumors and stories about my grandfather, my Panamanian grandfather, that I would love to have confirmed or validated. But there’s no one around anymore to tell those stories. I think my grandfather was a storyteller, but I wouldn’t have known. He didn’t speak English, and I didn’t speak Spanish. So when we would go, he would just sit, and the entire room would be enthralled with what he was saying. I think he probably told stories from his life, and he had from what I know a really interesting life. He was the mayor of Panama City for a time. He was a senator. He had a radio show for forty years. He was exiled from the country for a little while. He had done all these really interesting, amazing things. He was heavily involved in politics. But I would sit on a plastic couch, the backs of my legs sticking to the cushion. And just look from face to face and have no idea what was happening.
TQ: What are you working on next?
CH: I have a book that’s brewing in my head, and it’s sort of too early to say whether it is going to succeed or fail. And that’s okay. I’m still seeing it through and seeing what happens. I have fifty pages due to my agent. I made a pact with her. By July 1, I told her, I will send her fifty pages. So we will see with that. But when I get really stuck on it, I turn and I write a story. I just finished a new story that I’m really happy with. So hopefully I can do something with that.
And now I don’t know why, I think subconsciously, I set this challenge for myself where I’m not going to have any Panamanian characters. This is going to be completely from scratch, no tether. And so a part of me says, “Well, is that stupid?” If this other thing was working for me, why would I move away from it? But then, I don’t want to keep retreading the same territory over and over. It might make for a fine book, but it is not that interesting to me as a writer. I want to stretch myself and see what else I can do. But now I’m in this terrifying position of trying to write a book about people and places I know nothing about. I feel like I’m building it from the ground up, which is what a fiction writer is supposed to do, but I’m doing it without any kind of safety net this time, and I’m wondering if that is part of why I am struggling so much with it.
TQ: Is putting yourself in that terrifying situation a part of who you specifically are as a writer? Or is that part of writing in general and more universally about the growth of a writer?
CH: I don’t know. I don’t think it’s the latter, because I can think of lots of writers who write in the same space for all of their books. And I love all of their books. I get bored with myself after a little while. I could sit down—maybe it is presumptuous to say this, but I would like to think I could sit down and churn out another short story collection set in Panama. And that is what I might be doing if things get dire enough with this.
I was pulling out of my driveway the other day, and I was thinking about a line in some George Saunders story, “But if greatness were easy everybody would be doing it.” I don’t necessarily want it to be easy, I want it to be good. So if it means I have to struggle but that the book ends up being good, then that is okay.
TQ: So your alter ego or your evil twin who took another path in life, what does she do? What’s her career?
CH: In another life, if I had a different kind of career, I maybe would be a hairstylist. Every once in a while, very weirdly, someone will just come out and ask me, “Are you a hairstylist?” And I say no, but I’m always so gratified by the question, that somehow I could come off as one.
TQ: What word would you boil your career down to?
CH: The word that came to mind first was unexpected.
TQ: How so?
CH: It took me a long time to come to writing. Well, not a really long time, but I think some writers know from the time they are kids that this is what they want to do. I didn’t know really until I was in high school that I even liked writing. And then in college, I had so many rejections along the way for various programs and graduate schools and all kinds of things that I thought would be the next stepping stone, and it always seemed like, “Eghh, I’m never going to get there. This is never going to happen.” In my wildest dreams, this is not something I thought would ever happen really.