Happy Sunday, friends! This week I am so incredibly honored to be featuring Cristina Henríquez and her amazing book, THE BOOK OF UNKNOWN AMERICANS in our interview series today. I decided to pick this one up after discovering it as an Amazon Best Book of the Month selection and read it in just a couple of short days over my winter break. It’s one of those that I couldn’t put down and I found myself reading portions of it out loud to my husband because it touched upon so many issues with what life would would be like as an immigrant coming to America. It has, in fact, made me more aware and more empathetic to others who may not be from our country. It’s that kind of book- the kind that resonates with you, long after you shut the pages.
I featured this book in my January 2015 Must-Read round-up and had my fingers crossed that I would get to interview Cristina. This lady is so busy with promotion right now, but she graciously took the time to share about her book with you. I hope if you’ve read it, you can leave her a comment and tell her how much you enjoyed this one too- I’d love our authors to know how lovely it is to read these stories behind the stories. It’s a treat for me and I hope it is a treat for you too!
Told from alternating viewpoints all from immigrant neighbors in one apartment complex, it gives the reader the opportunity to see America through an immigrant’s eyes. From struggling to make ends to meet, to the struggle to communicate, to finding a job, to sending your child off to school, to the sacrifices that are made when leaving your own country for something you believe will be better than the life you are leading- it looks at it all through new eyes.
The story hinges around two sets of parents who have sacrificed everything for their kids and the blooming love between their children in a beautiful coming-of-age story. Honest, human, and so moving. I am just going to say it, this is a MUST-READ this year. The New York Times even named it as one of its 100 Notable Books of 2014. This would make a fantastic book club selection because there is so much to talk about and you can even print out these handy book club questions for your group.
Now grab your coffee and settle in with this amazing writer today!
Although this is a fictional story, you deal with the real & true issue of immigration and the hurdles that immigrants face when they come to America. Why do you feel this was such an important story to tell and why did you chose to tell it fictionally rather than as a work of nonfiction?
The story was important to me because it was personal. My father is an immigrant who came to the United States from Panama in 1971. I wanted to honor him and stories like his – ordinary people who come here for their own reasons (in my father’s case, he came as a student to study chemical engineering at the University of Delaware) and who are trying to find a place where they belong even though the country they come to and the people around them are often inhospitable. As for choosing to tell it fictionally, that was a no-brainer. I am just much happier writing fiction. I am very, very content hanging out with imaginary people all day.
As a mom, I really related to Alma’s guilt over the tragic accident that caused her daughter brain damage, and I also related to her overwhelming need to protect her after the accident happened. As a mother, could you relate to Alma’s guilt and overprotectiveness? Has a situation ever happened in your life with your own children that helped to shape that story?
Oh, absolutely! I feel guilt and overprotectiveness almost every other day! That said, there was no specific incident in my own life that gave rise to that part of the story. But as I was writing it, any time even something small happened to one of my kids – they slipped on a patch of ice or they fell off the climbing area at the park — I found myself thinking about Alma and the weight of the guilt she was carrying with her. I knew how terrible I felt even in those minor situations, like somehow I should have been able to protect them better. Magnifying that to imagine what Alma must have felt was an easy leap.
You crafted a beautiful story told through many different points of views from all of the immigrants residing in the apartment complex. It seems everyone had a voice in this story except Maribel. Did you choose not to write her voice because you felt it would be difficult to tell with her brain damage or did you want the reader to come to her own interpretations of how/what Maribel felt?
This is a question that keeps coming up, and the answer is an exceptionally boring one. Basically, I had structured the book in my mind this way: Alma, Mayor, neighbor, Alma, Mayor, neighbor, etc. I wanted that to repeat throughout. I also knew that Alma and Mayor notwithstanding, I wanted there to be only one narrator from each family/apartment unit. For reasons that become obvious when you read the book, I felt strongly that from the Riveras that person should be Arturo. Which meant that Maribel was necessarily left out. Maribel is central to everything in the book. Everything everyone does from the start to the finish is because of her. It’s true that she doesn’t get her own chapter (neither do a few of the other characters), but I think there’s something powerful about her being the core of everything without having to say much at all.
The day-to-day struggles from simply putting your child on a bus and knowing when they will come back to communicating with the grocery clerk about what you need are so beautifully told and pulled so very much at my heartstrings. Did you interview immigrants who had come to the states to find out about their struggles to help shape your book?
No. I read some nonfiction accounts about the experiences of Latino immigrants, and I relied to some degree on my own observations of my father. But anyone who has traveled to a country where you don’t speak the language or speak it only haltingly probably knows the feeling of disorientation that the Riveras experience in the book. The last time I was in Panama, I tried to return a bottle of sunscreen that my husband had mistakenly bought. My Spanish isn’t very good, and returns are not a common occurrence in Panama, so I had two things working against me from the get-go. And it was amazing to me how embarrassed and how anxious I felt, fumbling through an explanation to the clerk about how my husband didn’t realize we already had enough sunscreen. It was a simple interaction, or what would have been simple in my life in Chicago, and it was suddenly so difficult and so fraught. I felt so conspicuous, so clearly an outsider. I tried to imagine the situations that Alma would find herself in that would make her feel the same way.
What do you have in store for us in your next book?
I wish I knew! I do have an idea, but it’s still very nebulous. Slowly, slowly, it’s taking shape.
If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own) what would that book be?
That’s so hard. But this one has been very much on my mind lately so I’m going to say Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.