The storied history of the United States is often spun as a tale of humble but courageous people who traveled across new lands toward an unknown future, in desperation, their only guarantee uncertainty. But from the beginning the US identity was predicated on exclusion. Long before a 2,000 mile border took shape along the southern front, other borders and identity boundaries defined America—not just Black or Mexican.
As historian Amy Greenberg writes in Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire, “The ability to assert racial dominance over non-white peoples was a crucial factor in the assimilation of immigrant groups like the Irish in the United States in the antebellum period.”
Indeed, admission into the American identity has meant joining in a national campaign of exclusion.
Within this context, author Cristina Henríquez introduces The Book of Unknown Americans, a chronicle of families whose origins can be traced to Mexico and Latin America, all dwelling in a Delaware apartment building. The families’ stories of risk and courage embody the ideals represented by that mythic history of the United States. Readers come to know Alma and Arturo Rivera, whose migration from the beautiful town of Pátzcuaro in central Mexico was sponsored by a US mushroom farm where Arturo goes to work after running his own construction company. They travel north searching for better educational support for their daughter, Maribel, who suffered an accident that left her with mild brain damage. Maribel’s friendship and budding love with her neighbor, Mayor, the son of Panamanian immigrants, changes both families’ destinies.
Henríquez focuses tightly on the inner worlds of these “unknown Americans,” the forces outside of their control and difficult decisions reached in extraordinary circumstances. The book is essentially about imperfect people making the most of an imperfect world.
From their disparate stories, Henríquez constructs a new myth that re-imagines the US by celebrating random occurrences and the luck of the draw. In her work, the descriptor “American” is rendered accurately to capture an identity that is both national and transnational.
Indeed, even in Henríquez’s other works, she has dissected and, at times, upturned mythical narratives. Her essay about Hillary Rodham Clinton parsed the weight of political statements contained in Clinton’s name. In another of her pieces, she toyed with the myth of Texas. In her fictional stories, the pioneer figures are embodied by young women who take jobs, travel great distances, love and live fully. Her characters approach life with the maturity of knowing that the essence of life is faith. She reminds us that to love, as to live, involves risk. Such tales of love and faith, of sticking together through the unknown, were written by an author who wonders if she has lost hers.
I spoke with Cristina over Skype, and our conversation meandered to the places she described in her novel, which also form a map of my travels over the years: the Days of the Dead I spent in Pátzcuaro, long before it became a site of violence; melancholic, rainy afternoons spent staring at the volcano in El Salvador; a lonely Christmas gliding across a quiet lake in Guatemala. The memories of travels, filtered through Cristina’s eyes, are images of home.
—Michelle García for Guernica
Guernica: When the words immigrant or immigration are used in connection with your writing, do you find that readers bring certain assumptions to the work?
Cristina Henríquez: I think that there’s a certain kind narrative that we have about the immigrant experience and that people probably go into a book like this thinking it’s going to follow certain points of that narrative.
Guernica: I have to admit, before I began the book, I thought it was going to be the living-on-the-hyphen storyline, or a How I long for the country that my parents left that I never knew story. It took me a while to realize that what you were constructing was a window into the heart of the United States. What is the purpose and effect of writing a book about “Unknown Americans” that departs from the narrative of difference or battles with acculturation?
But to me the very essence of America is that it’s as expansive and as inclusive as possible, and therefore that the word “American” should encompass as many different kinds of people as possible, too.
Cristina Henríquez: I think the purpose was just as you delineated in the question. Very simply, I wanted to write something different. Although what you describe as the narrative of difference and battles with acculturation, both of those are still present in my novel, I think. As for the effect, I don’t know. Perhaps it subsumes the reader in a different way, more entirely.
Guernica: What then does “American” mean to you and for this book? Is your novel an act of an ongoing redefinition and expansion of “American,” as used to describe a national identity?
Cristina Henríquez: I guess it could be viewed that way, though that wasn’t my explicit intent. Expansion is an interesting word, though. It does seem to me that the way many people define “American” is limited, and that insofar as that’s the case, it’s usually limited to white America. But to me the very essence of America is that it’s as expansive and as inclusive as possible, and therefore the word “American” should encompass as many different kinds of people as possible, too.
Guernica: You make a point in The Book of Unknown Americans to explain the US’s historical involvement in the countries your characters come from. You write about the Reagan era and the Contras, the American government-backed guerillas in Nicaragua that sought to destabilize the Sandinista government, sending the country into chaos. Nicaragua, of course, was central to the development of a US policy in Central America that backed autocrat Manuel Noriega in Panama in an effort to stave off a feared threat of Communism. In 1989, in a unilateral use-of-force that later became a template in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US invaded Panama, to depose the “evil” Noriega.
But, as you write, what is often described as US intervention in America Latina includes the fact the United States has a colony in Puerto Rico. I was taken by the Panamanian story because it offers a sharp contrast to the Cold War-era narrative about the freedom-loving US ridding the world of ruthless dictators. What was behind that? Are you trying to fill a gap left by limited/biased coverage?
Cristina Henríquez: To some degree, yes. I’m not sure that I conceived of it in those terms, but I am always interested in shifting perspectives and in telling stories, especially stories that we’re used to hearing from one side, from a different point of view.
My dad is from Panama; his family is in Panama. We lived in Delaware and I remember my parents being on the phone during the time of the invasion, being desperate for phone calls and hearing their side of what was going on over there. On the other hand you study history or read the news, and you get a completely different impression of what happened.
There’s a line [in the book] where Mayor says that their parents fled to the country that drove them out of their own, and they never copped to the irony of it. And I felt like that was part of the duality. To this day, I go to Panama and people have very differing ideas about the United States. On the one hand, they felt like Noriega was a bad guy and they’re glad he’s gone. On the other hand, there are places like Chorrillo that are still in ruins, and you can see that going on all around the country.
Guernica: How did you arrive at the idea of organizing the novel with multiple narrators?
Cristina Henríquez: I wish I could pinpoint exactly when or how it occurred to me, but the best I can do is tell you that I started feeling like the coverage of immigrants—Latino immigrants, in particular—in the mainstream media didn’t take into account the broad range of experiences those immigrants were having nor the broad range of humanity that those immigrants represented. And I thought the best way to combat that was to go to the other extreme, to tell as many stories as I could, and for all of those characters to have a chance to be heard.
Guernica: In one of your essays, you have a character who sells refrigerators with ice cube makers, a commodity that stands in sharp contrast to the vibrancy of life and human contact. Throughout your work, there seems to be a commentary about emptiness of consumer goods versus the vibrancy of relationships. What inspired this commentary?
Cristina Henríquez: We would go to my grandparents’ house at lunchtime, and everyone would be coming in and out and my grandfather would unbutton his shirt. My grandmother would come out with the food she had been slaving away making all day and we would be sitting there in plastic furniture.
I didn’t speak Spanish growing up and I had no choice but to sit there and observe. My grandfather would regale everyone with stories, and everyone would be laughing and falling out of their chairs. And I would see my dad, who was much happier. His face would get all red and his cheeks would balloon up and he would do this thing with his fingers [a snapping motion] that I never saw him do anywhere but Panama. So there was a kind of life that I associated with being there. When we came home it was more reserved, more somber.
The further I get into my career, the less autobiographical the stories are getting, though in a way they are more so.
Guernica: The love that your characters have for each other seems to be a theme in your work, even as they face unexpected struggles. Yet, an understanding of the randomness of life is suspended when it comes to immigrants or that somehow immigration is exempt from the reality that events occur beyond our control and we must react to it. It becomes: “No, they did something wrong,” or, “They could have done something else to stay in their country,” or emigrated in the “right way.”
Cristina Henríquez: This is the thing with Alma and Arturo Rivera [in the novel]. They’re like: We’re going to do it the “right way,” we are going to get papers, we’re going to wait our turn, even though that extra time is costing their daughter. And despite all of that—and that’s the irony for them, the cruelty for them—the rug still gets pulled out from under them. They do everything they think they’re supposed to do, and still Arturo loses his job, and still they end up here undocumented, much to their embarrassment.
I also think I was wrestling with the issue of God in a very large, philosophical sort of way. I think if you’re a believer there’s a certain comfort in that. I’m trying to figure out if I’m a believer at this point; I’m not even sure. And so you’re just trying to wrestle with it, to pin it down for yourself. That just comes through somehow in the characters. The further I get into my career, the less autobiographical the stories are getting, though in a way they are more so. All of a sudden my preoccupations go into my work in a more forceful way, even though the characters, and the circumstances they find themselves in, are less like me.
Guernica: In one of the most moving passages, following a horrific episode involving a shooting, Mayor says: “Who can say whose fault it is? Who can say who set this whole thing in motion? Maybe it was Maribel? Maybe it was me. Maybe if I hadn’t left school that day, or if I had answered my stupid phone when it rang, or if I hadn’t fallen asleep in the car on the way home, none of this would have happened. But maybe if our parents hadn’t forbidden us from seeing each other, I wouldn’t have needed to steal her away in the first place…You could trace it back indefinitely.”
Cristina Henríquez: I think that paragraph was really crucial for me to land on when I was writing it. I think that it pulled together a lot of threads in my personal life and in the book too that nothing is ever pure; nothing is ever clean-cut. You start realize how messy the world is, how tangled up everything is. There’s nothing you can extract from everything else to look at on its own. Everything is connected to everything around it, and you cannot know which vein leads to the heart.
Guernica: You also have this passage in this book: “Americans can handle one person from anywhere. They had Desi Arnaz from Cuba. And Tin Tan from México. And Rita Moreno from Puerto Rico. But as soon as there are too many of us, they throw up their hands. No, no, no! We were only just curious. We are not actually interested in you people.” Where did that come from?
Cristina Henríquez: I think that certainly is a sense that I harbor. We clearly need diversity in movies and in television. But then you get into this idea of tokenism, this feeling that, well, maybe they just published me so they can feel good about it. Junot Díaz said this in an interview: you make room for the one so you don’t have to make room for the many. And I think that I probably had that sense.
Guernica: I imagine that if a novel called The Book of Unknown Americans had been written by a white man, the questions posed to the author, and readers’ perceptions in general, would be very different.
What I think I’m always hoping is that in the mingling of all those voices, there’s some synthesis of influence.
Cristina Henríquez: It’s such a loaded conversation. I live in Chicago, and there are lots of great literary events going on all the time. A few years ago, I went to three different events within a period of a few weeks, to see Junot Díaz , Sherman Alexie, and George Saunders.
When I went to see Junot and Sherman, almost all of the questions during the Q&A were about identity politics. People were asking Sherman about the Redskins, and should they change the name of the football team. Then I went to see George Saunders, and all of the questions were about craft. How do you know when a story is over? How do you revise? To me that was very telling.
Guernica: Who is influencing your work these days? Where in the literary landscape do you and this novel fit in?
Cristina Henríquez: When the writing is going well, which is to say when I feel most open to the world, everything starts to feel like an influence. It feels sort of vampiric at times, like you’re trying to suck the blood out of everything that strikes you as alive in its way, to try to imbue yourself with it. In the last year or so, I’ve been under the spell at various times of Marilynne Robinson, Jennifer Clement, Lindsay Hunter, Merritt Tierce, James Baldwin, Elena Ferrante, Eula Biss, Edward P. Jones, Jenny Offill. Lots of women, it would seem. What I think I’m always hoping is that in the mingling of all those voices, there’s some synthesis of influence. As for the literary landscape, I don’t know, and I don’t really want to know, either. I just want to do the work I want to do and hope people respond to it.
Michelle García is a writer, public radio producer, and video journalist whose work has appeared in the Oxford American, The Washington Post, Salon, The Boston Review, the Columbia Journalism Review, and numerous other media outlets. She is the producer and director of the PBS documentary Against Mexico: The Making of Heroes and Enemies. García, a native Texan, is traveling the US-Mexico border working on a book about the border, myth, and masculinity. Find her at www.michellegarciainc.com and on twitter at: @pistoleraprod
Cristina Henríquez is the author of The Book of Unknown Americans, which was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014 and one of Amazon’s Top 10 Books of the Year. It was the Daily Beast Novel of the Year, a Washington Post Notable Book, an NPR Great Read, and was chosen one of the best books of the year by BookPage, Oprah.com, and School Library Journal. It was also long-listed for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Henriquez is also the author The World In Half (a novel), and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection. Her stories have been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, The American Scholar, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly, and AGNI along with the anthology This is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers.