Jennine Capó Crucet is the author of the novel MAKE YOUR HOME AMONG STRANGERS, forthcoming August 2015 from St. Martin's Press. Her story collection is How to Leave Hialeah, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, the John Gardner Book Award, the Devil's Kitchen Reading Award, and was named a Best Book of the Year by the Miami Herald, the Miami New Times, and the Latinidad List. She was recently the Winter 2013/14 Picador Guest Professor at the Institute for American Studies at the University of Leipzig, Germany. Originally from Miami, she's currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Florida State University.
On July 7, Jennine Capo Crucet kicked off Kweli’s Third Annual Writers Conference with her signature style. Needless to say, this former sketch comedienne had everyone in the room in stitches. One minute she was discussing fictionalizing real events and a sex scene in her novel—Jennine fell back on the Shaggy Defense: ‘it wasn’t me, it was my friend’—and the next minute, Jennine was talking about Miami and motor oil and storm surges. “Miami is going to be underwater in roughly 50 years. Manhattan too apparently, so head for high ground.” But things got real serious when Jennine read the opening from Make Your Home Among Strangers. Jennine’s new book is set against the backdrop of Elian Gonzalez (her fictionalized character is named Ariel Hernandez) and explores issues of immigration and family loyalty. Kweli published the first excerpt from Jennine's novel in October 2011 and you can read it here. Our July 2014 interview has been edited and abridged for publication, and what follows is a small portion from Jennine’s talk on humor on the page and “the rule of three.”
Jennine Capo Crucet: At this reading in Seattle I was given a prompt to write on the topic “Some Like It Hot.” It was about global warming. They said just go wherever you want with it. The piece that came out of that was Facts About Neil deGrasse Tyson. I think it fits considering the weather we’re having. So here it is: Facts About Neil deGrasse Tyson.
(Audience laughed hysterically throughout the reading.)
Laura Pegram: I’m not sure how many of you know that Jennine is a former sketch comedienne.
Jennine: There are two people that I used to perform with here in the audience.
Laura: Sweet. Your piece on Neil deGrasse Tyson is a perfect segue into writing humor. In your short story collection, you make the reader laugh out loud on the page. And you make it look easy. I’m guessing that it isn’t.
Jennine: It’s not easy and obviously there is an element of it that has to feel organic and natural. There are things we talk about in sketch comedy: the rule of three. Like the first time you hear something, you are like haha. The second time, you are like hmph. The third time it is all of a sudden hilarious for some reason. In that essay on Neil DeGrasse Tyson you can see little threads that come up, so that by the last time it is funny. But when you’re writing humor in literary fiction or nonfiction, that “third time” something comes up can also feel as if it is making some sort of greater point. When I use humor in my work, I try to do what David Sedaris does. If you ever read any of his stuff, he is always super funny right before he says the thing. I think this makes the emotional drop more dramatic. Sometimes I will have some turn of phrase that will hit the ear as funny on the page right before a moment of intense drama, or something very serious, to sort of increase that emotional drop. So I think it is a tool that you can use. Also, whenever you have a really long sentence, and then you put a short one at the end, that also is funny for some reason. And when I say funny, literature funny is haha. You don’t have to be super funny. Our bar is really low when you’re writing. All you really need is the literary laugh which is hmph hmph. You don’t have to do much. (audience laughter).
Laura: Edwidge Danticat said that “humor is good for balance especially with darker and heavier subjects.” And Dinaw Mengestu’s take on humor was “it lowers the reader’s resistance to a character or scene and can make something tragic that much more powerful because of the contrast it creates.” Case in point, your title story: How to Leave Hialeah. You balanced rather weighty subject matter with comedic touches brilliantly.
HOW TO LEAVE HIALEAH (Excerpt)
Date the third-year because he finds you fascinating and asks you all sorts of questions about growing up in el barrio, and you like to talk anyway. More important, he has a car, and you need groceries, and this city is much colder than your college home—you don’t plan on walking anywhere. And you are lonely. Once the weather turns brutal and your heating bill hits triple digits, start sleeping with him for warmth. When he confesses that the growth you’d felt between his legs is actually a third testicle, you’ll both be silent for several seconds, then he will growl, It doesn’t actually function. He will grimace and grind his very square teeth as if you’d just called him Tri-Balls, even though you only said it in your head. When he turns away from you on the bed and covers his moon-white legs, think that you could love this gloomy, deformed person; maybe he has always felt the loneliness sitting on you since you left home, except for him, it’s because of an extra-heavy nut sack. Lean toward him and tell him you don’t care—say it softly, of course—say that you would have liked some warning, but that otherwise it’s just another fact about him. Do not use the word exotic to describe his special scrotum. You’ve learned since moving here that word is used to push people into some separate, freakish category.
Break up with him when, after a department happy hour, you learn from another third-year that he’s recently changed his dissertation topic to something concerning the Cuban American community in Miami. He did this a month ago—Didn’t he tell you? On the walk to the car, accuse him of using you for research purposes.
—Maybe I did, he says, But that isn’t why I dated you, it was a bonus.
Tell him that being Cuban is no more a bonus than, say, a third nut. Turn on your heel and walk home in single-digit weather while he follows you in his car and yelps from the lowered window, Can’t we talk about this? Call your mother after cursing him out in front of your apartment building for half an hour while he just stood there, observing.
—Oh please, she says, her voice far away, Like anyone would want to read about Hialeah.
Do not yell at your mother for missing the point.
Jennine: I have to give credit to the place I’m from a little bit. Hialeah is unintentionally hilarious sometimes. (audience laughter) But think about what makes you laugh—when you see something unexpected somewhere. It is not that the thing itself is funny, it is just that it shouldn’t be where it is. It is the same thing with a feeling. You are made to feel something in a moment in a paragraph and you shouldn’t feel that way. Let’s say that it is a really serious moment, but you feel a different emotion in the middle of that. George Saunders calls it “the site of rupture.” The result is discomfort, and we translate that discomfort into a laugh. We’re really breaking down what humor is here. But in the story How to Leave Hialeah there is a little bit of that rule of three. The father is always saying “What the fuck are you talking about?” He says that three times over the course of the story.
HOW TO LEAVE HIALEAH (Excerpt)
After almost four years away from Hialeah, panic that you’re panicking when you think about going back—you had to leave to realize you ever wanted to. You’d thank Michael for the push, but you don’t know where he is. You have not spoken to Myra since the blowout by the pool table. You only know she still lives with her parents because her mom and your mom see each other every Thursday while buying groceries at Sedano’s. At your Iota brother’s suggestion, take a Latino Studies class with him after reasoning that it will make you remember who you were in high school and get you excited about moving back home.
Start saying things like, What does it really mean to be a minority? How do we construct identity? How is the concept of race forced upon us? Say these phrases to your parents when they ask you when they should drive up to move your stuff back to your room. Dismiss your father as a lazy thinker when he answers, What the fuck are you talking about? Break up with the Iota brother after deciding he and his organization are posers buying into the Ghetto-Fabulous-Jennifer-Lopez-Loving Latino identity put forth by the media; you earned an A- in the Latino Studies course. After a fancy graduation dinner where your mom used your hotplate to cook arroz imperial—your favorite—tell your family you can’t come home, because you need to know what home means before you can go there. Just keep eating when your father throws his fork on the floor and yells, What the fuck are you talking about? Cross your fingers under the table after you tell them you’re going to grad school and your mom says, But mamita, you made a promise.
Jennine: I teach a lecture on Humor Writing in conferences. I feel like the writers that need humor the most in their work tend to be the ones that are writing about subjects like the death of a child where you think well, . . . humor wouldn’t be appropriate. And it isn’t in some ways, but you can do it on the line level. It is not about making jokes, it is about disrupting a pattern in a sentence or a paragraph enough that it just kind of brings some levity to it, so that you can then give the reader what you need to give them that is more serious. I am sure that we have all found books where we say, I just can’t anymore. I can’t read it, it is just too much. It is just too painful. Having a sense of rupture on a prose level can make it so that your reader can stay with you for the really difficult stuff that you want them to see.