A Place of Longing, Ivelisse Rodriguez Interviews Jennine Capó Crucet

IVELISSE RODRIGUEZ:  There is a “Golden Exiles” mythology that surrounds Cuban-Americans.  In other words, Cuban-Americans are seen as a “model” Latino group.  They are seen as wealthy, educated, and are, in a sense, welcome in the U.S. through such policies as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy.  Your work is really different from other Cuban-American texts—let’s say, very different from Christina Garcia’s Dreaming in Cuban in that you present the life of working-class Cubans.  Can you speak on how this notion of the “Golden Exile” affected your work?

JENNINE CAPO CRUCET:  Cubans are the Golden Exiles? How come nobody told me!? I swear, I’ve never heard that phrase before. Maybe the reason my work is different from other Cuban-American texts is that I’ve never heard this idea of us being the Golden Exiles – I mean, there were rich Cubans in Miami, but as far as I know, they didn’t want to live in Hialeah.  I’m guessing, if anything, my book probably does a lot to make people stop seeing us that way: the people I grew up knowing were not wealthy or educated, and they didn’t see themselves as (or particularly feel) welcome in this country, and the stories in How to Leave Hialeah reflect that experience. 

Also, I think “The Golden Exiles” would make a pretty bad-ass band name.

IVELISSE:  How has your work been received in the Cuban-American community?  Has there been any backlash?

JENNINE:  Honestly, I haven’t heard much from a “Cuban-American community.” I mean, I gave a reading in Miami where some older Cuban dude asked me a question about my politics, and I just kind of smiled and reminded him he was at a literary reading and not a debate. Mostly, the response I get is from women of color from all over the place, telling me how the book feels, to them, like it’s telling their stories, and from people who are the first hyphenated Americans in their families, saying how it’s telling their stories, too. I recently heard from a student of mine who’s El Salvadorian, and she told me she finally understood the book’s title story now that she’s been away at college for a year. Most of the response has been geared toward the book’s approach to class issues, its treatment of Miami as a landscape, and the way the characters handle their budding sense of what it means to grow up as “other” in the U.S. while still seeing it as home.

IVELISSE:  Your bio states that you’ve worked as a sketch comedienne.  How does humor play into your work?  In a story like “Men Who Punched Me in the Face”—a story that lives up to its title—you use humor throughout.  Can you speak on why you made that choice in a story that deals with physical violence?

JENNINE:  For that particular story, the narrator uses humor to lure the reader into her confidence, which needs to happen for the ending to ring true. I use humor to disarm readers, to make them more receptive to the more serious issues a story might raise. Working as a sketch comedienne helped me refine my sense of timing and pacing—skills that I can put to work in any sentence, in any story.  Mostly, I try to avoid using humor for its own sake; it’s more effective to use it to illuminate something far graver.

IVELISSE:  In a New Times interview with Patricia Engel, another young and acclaimed writer, you said, “The exile experience…that was my parents’ and grandparents' story.  I wanted to read about Cubans for whom Miami had been their only home.  Literature reflecting the experience of Miami-born Cubans was hard to find because it didn't really exist yet — we were still being raised.  I was inspired by the idea of all these voices, still waiting their turn.”  Your award-winning short story collection is entitled How to Leave Hialeah.  So, do you think one has to leave one’s community to be able to tell the story of their community?

JENNINE:  I think every writer is different – some of us need to leave and some of us don’t. I didn’t know what being from Miami meant while I lived there. Leaving gave me the perspective to see both the good and bad of home. At the same time, all I wanted to do when I lived outside of Miami was get back to Miami. I was able to write that book because I was writing from a place of longing; the only time I saw myself as happy was either when I was home either in real life or in my imagination, while working on a story. So, I needed to leave, but I also needed to come back.

IVELISSE:  The wonderful novel excerpt you are allowing Kweli to publish, I think, really captures the experience of young people of color who go away to predominately white environments—they are seen as sell-outs when they come back to their communities.  This reminds me of the controversy that surrounded Esmeralda Santiago’s choice of title for her memoir When I Was Puerto Rican.  Santiago explains the title is a reflection/note on a lost community—on a Puerto Rican childhood that no longer exists.  It evokes a sense of loss.  What have you lost by leaving Hialeah and what have you gained? 

JENNINE:  By leaving, I traded in one version of my life for another. I think I lost a little bit of the ease I used to feel in being home, though that does come back with time. I gained the perspective that I mentioned above—the ability to see my hometown in a brighter light. I’ve gained an amazing education that opened up the world to me, as well as a new and tested appreciation for my family and my community and my heritage. I gained the courage to pursue my dream to be a writer, to allow myself to go after a career I couldn’t imagine for myself when I was a teenager.

IVELISSE:  Can you talk more about your novel and any other writing projects you are currently working on?  For example, can you get into greater detail about what your novel is about?  How is this novel different from How to Leave Hialeah?  Are there any threads between the collection and the novel?

JENNINE:  The novel is somewhat based on the collection’s title story, which won an O. Henry Prize and which I knew, even when I finished the story, would end up being something bigger. I don’t want to say too much about it, because I’m a big believer in my own ability to jinx things when they’re going well, and so far, things are going really freaking well. I keep stealing time from that book to work on snippets from another, which is also a novel but is very different in tone. But the new novel (the one that’s excerpted here in Kweli) has a real sense of urgency for me; it’s an exciting feeling.

Magic City Relic by Jennine Capó Crucet