You may be tempted to assume that Lizet, the college student at the heart of Jennine Capó Crucet’s new novel, is a thinly disguised version of Crucet. After all, there are similarities: They’re the same age. They’re both Cuban Americans whose parents were born on the island. They both left home in Miami to attend college in the frozen north.
But you would be wrong to fall into that trap.
“I think that happens a lot with women writers writing female characters — and even more for women of color,” said Crucet, who appears Wednesday at Books & Books. “She’s definitely not me. There are important differences. She’s a little more interesting than me! And she had her sh-- together way earlier than me.”
The author of the story collection How to Leave Hialeah, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, Crucet is returning home to launch her first novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers (St. Martin’s, $25.99). Set in the waning days of 1999 and early months of 2000, the book examines hard questions about identity, family and responsibility through the prism of the Elián González saga.
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Five-year-old Elián — he’s called Ariel Hernandez in the book — was rescued at sea after his mother perished trying to flee Cuba. The boy became a cultural hot button when his Miami family members petitioned to keep him, at odds with the federal government’s wishes (the Feds eventually seized the boy and returned him to his father in Cuba). The drama — which included prayer vigils, rallies and protest marches that stopped traffic on major highways — played out from Thanksgiving through Easter weekend and beyond.
Crucet, who graduated from American High in Hialeah and was a Cornell University freshman at the time, was mostly unaware of the political nuances.
“I had no idea what was happening,” she admits from a hotel in Denver, where she’s awaiting an NPR interview. “I was on a politically conscious campus, and people were asking for my opinion. The assumption was I’d be an authority on it because I’m Cuban American. It was interesting that kids from Westchester, New York, knew more details about what was going on in my hometown than I did. One of the questions that started the novel to me was: What if I had been more aware of what was happening? What if I had a family more involved?”
In the book, Lizet’s mother — reeling from her husband moving out and her daughter’s attempts to move on — becomes deeply involved with Ariel’s family, leaving Lizet frustrated, embarrassed and more than a little angry, unsure where she stands as the emotional toll of being so far from home proves almost debilitating. Crucet’s own family was supportive of her decision to attend Cornell — “When I left for college, my mom really latched on to the dog; She started buying him little outfits and calling him our brother, but that’s as far as it got” — but she writes evocatively of the hardship of being the first generation to attend college so far from the safety net.
“My parents were more surprised that I wanted to go away for school than anything,” she said. “They didn’t really understand the benefits. ‘You have FIU right here! And UM!’ ... I don’t know that people understand what a privilege it is to have a family that says, ‘Go away.’”
Make Your Home Among Strangers also portrays a side of Miami rarely touched on in fiction, which makes the book all the more vital to the local literary landscape.
“There was a whole generation of writers who are twice Jennine’s age that people associate with literary Miami,” said P. Scott Cunningham, founder of the O, Miami poetry festival and Jai Alai Books. “It’s important that there’s another generation coming up. Miami’s changed so much. So many iconic books about it were written in the ’80s, and she writes from a different perspective. ... She represents a huge swath of people who grew up in the ’90s and 2000s who have a unique experience that hasn’t been reflected in literature yet.”
Painting a real picture of her hometown was important to Crucet, who’s now teaching English and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska.
“I remember being so homesick and realizing that where I came from was not something that existed in the cultural imagination outside the city,” she said. “People used to think Miami was just partying in South Beach all the time. When I was at Cornell, if someone found out I was Cuban they would ask me about Scarface. I was like, ‘What?!’ There’s only one Cuban in that entire movie! People think of Miami as a place where there are a lot of drugs, and I know it as a place where people worked hard and were proud of their heritage.”
She dedicates Make Your Home Among Strangers to three students she worked with at the nonprofit One Voice in Los Angeles, the children of immigrants who faced the difficulties of going to college far from home.
“They asked me for books to help them understand what they were about to do, coming from low-income backgrounds and going to a places where suddenly, they were going to be minorities,” she said. “I thought, ‘I have to write it! I’m the only one who can speak to these things the way these kids need to hear.’ I let this book take over my life. I served it. At one point I was on a fellowship, and I was in London wandering around and in front of me was the Magna Carta, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, whatever,’ because I was trying to puzzle out a scene. I couldn’t disengage!”
Crucet said she misses the Miami she left — “When I go back now, I’m like, ‘Why is everyone doing CrossFit?’” — but that being away from the city inspires her (she’s already at work on her next book, also set in her hometown).
“I was in Minnesota and Illinois when I wrote How to Leave Hialeah. When I come to Miami, I’m happy. I don’t need to write in Miami. It’s where my imagination can take a break. Other people have said writing comes from a lack. I need to amplify that lack. I’m excited about the job in Nebraska, and when I’m there, I feel like I’m from Miami. When I’m there, it feeds my writing.”
Meet the author
Who: Jennine Capó Crucet
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables
Info: booksandbooks.com or 305-442-4408