An Interview with Cristina Henríquez, Author of The Book of Unknown Americans

Yesterday I reviewed Cristina Henríquez’s latest novel, The Book of Unknown Americans. Ms. Henríquez graciously agreed to be interviewed via email. 

How would you describe the inception of The Book of Unknown Americans? What was the writing process like?

Cristina Henríquez Author photo (c) Michael Lionstar

Cristina Henríquez
Author photo (c) Michael Lionstar

CH: The novel started with a short story told from Mayor’s point-of-view. The first line of that story, which survives in the book, was, “We heard they were from Mexico.” But not long after the story was done, it haunted me — that “we.” Who was the community or group of people behind it? I wanted to find out, so I kept writing, characters and more characters, making up a community as I went along. It took me a long time to figure out the best way to incorporate all those characters, but the point of inception for the book was that story and then spinning it out.

The process itself was slow. It took me five years to write the novel. Lots of wrong turns and misdirection, lots of failed plot threads. But you just keep kneading it out, you know? Patiently, patiently. Until you realize that it’s starting to take shape.

How did you go about conducting research for the novel?

CH: I did as little research as I could. Too much research usually puts the brakes on my inventive impulses, so I edge into research cautiously, only going as far as I need to. For this book, the research consisted mostly of looking up colloquialisms, customs, and histories from each of the represented countries. I also relied fairly heavily on my mom, who is a translator for the school district in Delaware, for questions about how the special education system works and how traumatic brain injuries manifest themselves.

photo (95)Most of the characters in The Book of Unknown Americans narrate at least one chapter. Maribel is a notable exception — is that exception meant to underscore her isolation?

CH: I wish I could say yes, but really the only reason I didn’t give Maribel her own chapter was because I was being so rigid about structuring the book. I wanted the narrative to follow a pattern: Alma, Mayor, interstitial narrative, over and over. Which meant that there was space for only one member of each family to contribute to those interstitial chapters. For reasons that I hope are obvious to people after they read the book, for the Riveras, I really wanted that person to be Arturo.

Do you hope that The Book of Unknown Americans will have a political impact?

CH: No. If it does in some positive way, I would be thrilled. But I don’t hope for it. What’s more meaningful to me is if it has a personal impact, if people read it and start to see others around them — especially immigrants — differently, with more empathy.

What’s one question you hope readers take away from the novel?

CH: That’s an interesting one. Maybe: How have we let ourselves become so intolerant?

What’s next on your writing horizon?

CH: I wish I knew! I have some loosely percolating ideas, but nothing firm yet.

My thanks again to Ms. Henríquez for her time and thoughtful answers. You can read more about Cristina Henríquez, and The Book of Unknown Americans, on Ms. Henríquez’s website, www.cristinahenriquez.com. Follow Cristina Henríquez on Twitter: @crishenriquez

Recommended Reading: Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans

photo (95)As The Book of Unknown Americans* opens,  Alma and Arturo Rivera arrive in Delaware with their daughter, Maribel. The journey was long and uncomfortable, and already they miss their life in Mexico, but what they hope for eclipses all the uncertainty and fear they face: they just want their daughter, injured in an accident, to get well.

They’ve waited for months for Arturo to find work — though in Mexico he worked as a skilled builder, here he works long days in darkness at a mushroom-growing facility — so that Maribel can attend a school that might help her manage the memory loss and personality fluctuations that resulted from her accident.

Some of the first neighbors to welcome them to their new apartment complex are the Toros, a family who fled political upheaval in Panama years before. Mayor is about Maribel’s age; he’s shy, bullied at school, and woefully unskilled at soccer compared to his older brother. He feels caught between two worlds: “I felt more American than anything, but even that was up for debate according to the kids at school [. . . ] The truth was that I didn’t know which I was. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim” (78). Mayor falls immediately for Maribel’s beauty, but as the weeks go on they develop a deep friendship.

While Maribel is at school and Arturo is at work, Alma navigates life in a strange country, helped along by Mayor’s mother Celia. After a run-in with a menacing teenager soon after their arrival, Alma is extremely protective of Maribel.  Her protectiveness and Mayor’s growing affection for Maribel soon lead to friction between the two families, and, eventually, tragic consequences.

The Book of Unknown Americans is about love: not just romantic love, but the love of parents for their children. It’s not a Romeo and Juliet story, and I appreciated the depth of the narrative that’s due to Alma and Mayor’s alternating narration.

The novel is also an evocative rendering of the multiplicity of immigrant experiences. In deftly composed vignettes, Ms. Henríquez introduces us to many of the residents of the Toros’ and Riveras’ apartment complex, men and women from all over Latin America, men and women with sad and funny and terrible stories. These small sections, told in characters’ own voices, feature some of the best writing in the novel; I wanted to know more about these characters. The brevity of these sections is deliberate, of course; even these sketches are more than we usually read about the “unknown Americans” of the novel’s title. As Micho Alvarez puts it,

When I walk down the street, I don’t want people to look at me and see a criminal or someone that they can spit on or beat up. I want them to see a guy who has just as much right to be here as they do, or a guy who works hard, or a guy who loves his family, or a guy who’s just trying to do the right things. [. . . ] We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realizes that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then? (237)

The Book of Unknown Americans is a nuanced, deeply affecting examination of what it means to live in America, and what it means to be American. Highly recommended reading.

Tomorrow: An interview with Cristina Henríquez, author of The Book of Unknown Americans

* I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review