Cristina Henriquez, the author of “The Book of Unknown Americans,” is up-front about it. She says she was inspired to write the book because, when immigration became a horribly hot political potato several years ago, her mother remarked to her that “no newspaper is going to call your pop about his story.”
And, she thought, as a storyteller, a fiction writer with an MFA from the University of Iowa, she could do something about that—tell a story about people who live lives like her father’s, who immigrated to the U.S. from Panama.
So she wrote “The Book of Unknown Americans,” and sent a copy to her mother.
Who called her up and asked: “Is something wrong with you?”
I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it, but the book does not end happily for all of its major characters. And many readers struggle through tears at the end as tragedy strikes.
But, Henriquez says, that means she did the work she wanted to do as a writer. She wanted to write a book that would make people feel the human experience that immigrants have. And, speaking for herself, she says she enjoys the emotional release that many works of fiction provide when the end isn’t sweet.
She says a happy ending wouldn’t have suited this story. And, she said several times during her appearance Oct. 6 at Mount Mercy University: “I wanted to break your heart.”
The English program at MMU sponsors an annual visiting writer series, and this year, chose a writer who is also part of our Fall Faculty Series: “Building Walls, Building Bridge: The U.S. as an Immigrant Nation.”
I was fortunate enough to attend both her author talk about writing at 3:30 p.m. in Betty Cherry, and her book excerpt reading at 7 p.m. in the Chapel of Mercy. My wife and I required the novel in a class we teach this fall, and we were thus invited to a dinner with the author, too.
Well, it was a pretty fantastic day, so full of interesting conversations, quotes and excellent points about writing that I almost feel at a loss to sum it up. But Cristina advised that she sometimes just writes not to tell the story, but to find the story—putting together one sentence at a time. I’ll try to take that advice and at least cover some highlights of her heart-warming visit to MMU.
So, on with some random impressions and thoughts from the afternoon and evening:
The novel Cristina wrote is narrated by various characters, primarily Alma—a Mexican woman who has just come to the U.S. with her daughter Maribel and husband Arturo—and Mayor, a 16-year-old resident of the apartment complex in Delaware that the family moves to.
The novel is partly a love story between Maribel and Mayor, but Maribel has suffered a brain injury, and while she improves during the year the novel covers, Cristina said she didn’t think Maribel was ready to narrate her own chapter. Instead, she serves as the center of the story, the thing around which all of the other characters and plot revolve.
My wife was with me at the evening reading, and wrote down on my notepad something Cristina said of Maribel that she stated was in an early draft but didn’t make it into the final novel: “Life is a party, and she (Maribel) didn’t realize she had been invited to it.”
Cristina dedicated the book to her father and was inspired by him to write it, although the story it tells is very different from her father’s experience. During her evening reading, it became apparent it was partly personal to her life, too. Of the four excerpts she read, three were narrated by Mayor, whom she described as her favorite character—and the original character of the book, the one who narrates its opening line where the writing of the book began.
I’m paraphrasing here—I don’t have Mary Vermillion’s knowledge of the book, and the family copy my wife and I read is in her office somewhere—but Cristina said one excerpt from Mayor had what she considered the most personal line of the book. Mayor, it turns out, is stuck between cultures, an American boy who isn’t allowed by American culture to be fully American, a member of a Panamanian family who had too few memories from his early life in another country to really be Panamanian. “I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt, and I wasn’t allowed to feel the thing I could claim,” Mayor sort of said (again, paraphrasing from notes without the book in hand.)
It turns out that passage, which sent a “jolt of electricity” through Cristina when she wrote it, described a key part of her life. Growing up the daughter of a Panamanian father, Cristina from an early age frequently visited Panama and even gained Panamanian citizenship. Nonetheless she was really a Delaware girl whose high school peers on the East Coast often derided and teased her for being “foreign” even though she’s as thoroughly American as Joe Sheller or Donald Trump.
Her American cohort teased her for being Panamanian. Her Panamanian cousin told her she was a “gringa.”
I suppose most of us in our teen years struggle with fitting in, with understanding who we are and what our place is in the world. But one reason to recognize that we aren’t past a few hard conversations about race and ethnicity in this country is simply this: In unsubtle ways, too many White Americans instinctively think of White as American.
Hence the unknown Americans.
Well, I don’t mean that the sessions about this sometimes sad novel were themselves heavy or sad. Quite the opposite—the voices that the book is written in are actually pretty bright and conversational, and, as it turned out, that seems to fit the speaking style of the author of the book, too.
It was easy to like Cristina Henriquez. I can tell her novel already won over my wife, because there are several other Henriquez books that suddenly showed up in our bedroom “read” pile—when my wife likes a book, she tends to find and buy other books by the same author, which is usually a pretty good strategy.
And my wife and I were both almost bubbly when telling our daughter of the day’s events after we got home. Cristina’s warm and genuine stories clearly appealed to both of us.
Henriquez had plenty to say about the writing process, too. Her book went through something like 20 revisions over the course of five years. When she wrote it, she didn’t clearly know what would happen in the story, and she says that is the way she does her best writing. If it’s all mapped out before the writing starts, the results tend to be a bit artificial and lifeless, she said.
She urged students to write not to tell stories, but to discover stories. She said it’s like having the courage to jump off a cliff, but the results are worth it.
She also noted that once you create something and release it into the world, it becomes the world’s.
“It’s not mine anymore,” she said of her book. “What happens to it now is beyond me.”
Well, one thing that happened to it is that the book did touch many hearts in Cedar Rapids, which explains why the events today at MMU were so packed. See more of my pictures here. Well done, heart breaker, well done.