Cristina Henriquez Talks 'The Book of Unknown Americans,' POC vs. MFA, and Compassion


When you finish Cristina Henríquez's latest novel, The Book of Unknown Americans (Knopf), you may want to lie very still. That's normal. This is a book for which you will allow very few, if any, interruptions. You'll want to silence your phone, bring your copy with you to the restroom, hazardously walk down the street with eyes glued to the page. And when you reach the end, you'll likely need some time to stare at the ceiling and think.

Henríquez's powerful novel is largely about love: familial love, two kids' first love, love of friends, neighbor, and country. When teenaged Maribel Rivera sustains brain damage after an accident in Mexico, her parents choose to uproot the family and move to Delaware, where there's a reputable school for developmentally disabled kids. The hope of a better life for Maribel sustains them through the challenges of employment and language barriers. The Rivera family moves into an apartment complex occupied by other Latin American immigrants, and they grow especially close with the Toro family, Panamaians who have two sons. Mayor, the younger son, first sees Maribel at a Dollar Tree store, and he falls for her immediately.

Braided into Maribel and Mayor's story are the voices of other men and women who have come to America for reasons similar to the Riveras: new beginnings, resources, opportunity. Henríquez deftly casts light on many unseen aspects of the immigrant experience and unearths truths about parenting, growing up, being in love, and being an other in a place where you desperately want to have an easier life. She writes the unforgettable scenes of the novel with emotion-laced, colorful prose that will change how you see those around you.

I spoke with Henríquez about her novel, how her experiences validate her fiction, people of color in MFA programs, and how her Google history could give you a clue as to what to expect from her next.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez, $12, Amazon

BUSTLE: You’ve said that this book is not meant to be about political issues but about the stories behind the issues, which is what you achieve by piecing together different character’s experiences of America. How do you conceive the relationship between fiction and politics?

CRISTINA HENRÍQUEZ: I think to some degree, all politics is personal. It would be naïve of me to say I wrote a book just about immigrants and there's nothing political about it. As has been pointed out to me in the past, it's political to have the last name that I have. There's nothing that's not political.

But I wasn't trying to take a stance one way or another, and I hopefully wasn't betraying my own political opinions about immigration. The characters weren't like a mouthpiece in any way, though. I really wanted to fictionalize it, imagine their lives and tell the human stories.

Someone asked me recently why I write fiction, and why I wrote this story as fiction. Why not just write a political treatise about what I really do think? Part of it has to do with the reception that it will get from readers. If you put something out there that's overtly political and didactic, it turns so many people off. But to say that this is a love story, and a story about parents who are protecting their daughter — it's so many things, but it also happens to be about the lives of immigrants. I think that makes it a lot more palatable. If you put it in fiction, they're more likely to read it and perhaps think about it. The highest praise I've gotten so far is that somebody living in Delaware told me, after they read my book, they were driving down Kirkwood, which is where the families all live. She was looking at the families waiting at the bus stop, and she saw them differently. That's my job. That's my goal.

So did you always envision this set in Delaware?

No, I think it could have been set in any number of places, but I did want to set it somewhere surprising to people. I didn't want to set it in New York or Houston or Chicago or L.A. — somewhere where you think of those places as having large immigrant populations, because to me, this is a story that's everywhere. This is not just a story that's about inner cities or specific areas, this is an American story.

This is not just a story that's about inner cities or specific areas, this is an American story.

It's been fun on a personal level, too, because having mostly grown up there — I moved around a lot, but I mostly grew up in Delaware — it's fun to throw in names of places that I know and to situate my mind there as I was writing, to re-inhabit a space that I haven't occupied in a long time but that's very familiar to me.

You also said the novel started as a short story from Mayor’s perspective. How’d you decide to incorporate the experience of Alma, Maribel’s mother, and the other voices?

It started as a story that started the way Mayor's chapter does now: he and his mom at the window, watching people move in across from them. That story ended with him taking Maribel to the beach. Basically I drew it out and filled in everything in between.

You’re a mother yourself — what did you learn from writing Alma’s character? How did you identify with her?

It's interesting — I tend to feel that don't always identify with my characters, and I don't feel that they come from me, necessarily. I don't always see that connection. But after I wrote the book, something had happened at home. My son is allergic to milk, and my husband had taken out a milk box from the refrigerator, and my son was crawling on the floor, and some milk squirted out and landed on our son's back. He had a onesie on, but even through the clothes, his back burst out into hives, and he was having a crazy reaction. My husband was so apologetic, and I could see the blame he was taking for this super small incident. We remedied it with Benadryl and it was done in 20 minutes, but I could see how badly he felt and how he carried it with him and vowed to be extra careful the next time. He was anticipating that I was going to be mad at him — all that kind of dynamic, and I recognized it instantly as that scene [from the book] unfolded in my own house. It was the same exact thing that happened with Alma and Maribel and Arturo — on a bigger scale. And then it made sense to me, and I felt like I had made the right choices that it does make sense that she would’ve carried this thing around with her and been burdened by it and made choices based on that guilt. So that was an interesting thing to see. Because I think I write from a very instinctual place, and then, later, I have my instincts confirmed, if that makes sense. And then that feels validating.

The only voice that we don’t hear from is Maribel. Is that something that you ever considered including?

I didn’t think about it as I was writing it! And I have no idea why because people keep bringing it up and now it seems obvious to me that, like, I should’ve at least thought about it and had a good reason why she wasn’t included. But it just didn’t come up. You know, there’s these notebook excerpts, a little bit from her, so kind of hear her voice in that … I think I was just being really, sort of, rigid almost about, like, there were these two narrators, Mayor and Alma, and then everybody else was like going to be one person from every unit who had a chance to speak, and I really had to have that be Arturo, for obvious reasons, but, so then it just left Maribel out somehow. But I don’t know! Like maybe for the paperback I should lobby, “Why don’t we include that chapter where Maribel speaks?” Because everyone asks for it.

In some ways it made sense because this is a character who isn’t really given a voice in her situation, for valid reasons, and that just kind of adds to the tension of the story.

Yeah. I mean, I thought about that, but then it seems like it would’ve been nice at some point to then allow her to have a voice. I don’t know, it just, it really never came up. I wish I had a better answer every time, something brilliant to say about it.

I’m interested in how you feel about the endings of novels and stories in general. Do you feel a reader is supposed to take the author's final chunk of the novel as his or her ultimate judgment or say on the novel's themes?

Oh, I think so, for sure … I think for a short story it’s a little different from a novel, ‘cause a short story’s really just like this very narrow slice of a life. And you really have the sense that it’s going to continue in a very drastic, radical way almost. I remember when I started reading Chekhov stories, when I was in graduate school, and they would end and I’d be like, I was struggling for so long: “Why is it ending here? This doesn’t make any sense!” But that’s the form of a short story, and I think for people who don’t read them a lot it can be frustrating to get to that end and feel like they just have fallen off a cliff or something! But in some ways, I think a novel does something similar and I want there to be a sense of continuation. I put in a lot of details at the end of this book where it was, like, not flash-forwards, but it was like this feeling that they were going to go on. And that Maribel, for example, would continue to get better, and that they were on the path to something else that wasn’t going to be on the page, but that a reader could plausibly imagine. And that’s kind of the sense that I want to leave people with. The other thing is, for me, I don’t know why, I seem incapable of writing happy novels. [Laughs] But I wanted to leave the reader with this feeling of, despite all that, maybe a bit of uplift. There’s something to hope for that’s coming at some point beyond the last word.

You should have this rush or roar of the language, and the plot, and all the elements; everything should come together.

I don’t know why, but I think I’m better at endings than beginnings and middles! Like, my last book I felt the same way, like, “Man, that ending.” There’s something musical about it to me, like there’s this crescendo, right, of all these elements coming together. And you should have this rush or roar of the language, and the plot, and all the elements; everything should come together, and I feel like in the best novels, my favorite novels, that's what happens. So, I’m always kind of working toward that.

How do you feel about ambiguous endings?

I don’t want to feel, as a reader, that I’ve been cheated, somehow. I don’t want to feel as if the rug has been taken out from under me, because, as a reader, you invest all this time, you invest however many hours in reading a book, and not only reading a book — connecting to it, and then, if something happens at the end where it’s just kind of weird twist where all of a sudden you’re like, “I don’t really know what just happened now!” It’s okay to leave people with a sense of a debate to be had. You and I could read the same book and we could talk about the ending of something and neither of us could come down exactly on what concretely had happened, I think that’s okay. But I just, I don’t like it if I feel like, somehow the tables have been turned, you know? And that everything, all the work I had put into it was suddenly erased. That can be frustrating. I don’t think it happens very often, and I think writers know better, you know?

I think as a writer, the way I always think about it, and this is something that I learned in school, but there’s a reader energy and a writer energy, you know, and you want the reader to be able to put as much energy into it as you put into it as a writer. So you’re like, meeting somewhere in the middle, because, if you’re a reader and the writer’s putting a lot of energy into just telling you everything, it’s really boring to read. But on the other hand, if you have to put in too much energy and figure out so much stuff, then it’s frustrating to read. So there’s some happy middle ground. So I think that that’s what you want to walk away with, that you put in the work, but also maybe you don’t know exactly everything, but there was enough revealed to you to feel like satisfied. Did you read We, the Animals by Justin Torres?

No. I hear that I have to, though.

Yeah, that’s very, very good ... I’m still not totally sure what happened at the end, but I forgive it, because I didn’t feel like it took anything away from the experience for me. And it’s fun always to talk to people about what actually happened.

What are you reading now that you're on tour, and what are you excited to read?

I just read a whole spate of really great books in the spring—

It’s been a big spring.

It’s been awesome. I read Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill, and I thought that was amazing. I just loved the structure of it. There’s a bunch of things I’m looking forward to, too, like Eula Biss has a nonfiction book coming out in the fall called On Immunity, and she’s one of those authors that I would read basically anything she wrote. Like she could write a grocery list and I’d be all over it. There’s another book coming out in the fall that I got a galley of and read, and [the first thing I] thought was, it’s gonna blow people’s tops off. It’s called Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce. It’s her first book, and it really starts out in this unassuming way. I mean, it’s about this waitress, basically, working jobs, like it sounds like nothing, and then you finish the book and you feel like you just got hit by a truck. Like, that was amazing. So I’ve been excited about that. I mean, right now I have the new New Yorker fiction issue in my bag, I’m gonna read that. I finished Americanah last week.

She could write a grocery list and I’d be all over it.

Yes, did you hear the news that Lupita is going to play her in the movie adaptation?

Yeah, I know! Yeah, so now I’m like newly obsessed with Chimamanda. I’m a little late to the game on this one, but I thought that book was brilliant.

Better late than never.

We share the same editor, which is amazing, but I called my editor after I finished it and I was like, “Let’s just let Chimamanda write all the books from now on, because my God…” So, a lot of women, I’ve been reading a lot of women lately.

Did you read Junot Díaz’s piece about people of color and MFA programs?

Yes, I did.

What were your reactions?

I mean, I think he’s right that there’s an underrepresentation, to be sure. I’m sort of of two minds about it. One is, I personally just had like a great experience in Iowa when I did my MFA; I never felt that overtly. So when I was there, though, I wrote all these stories that I thought I was supposed to write, which were set in the United States and were about American characters, and those were the stories I would workshop and show everybody, and then I would go back to my apartment and I would write stories for myself that were set in Panama, and I would never show those to anybody. And I’ve been thinking lately about why that was, and whether, sort of even subconsciously, I understood that those stories weren’t going to be as acceptable, or that maybe they were going to be taken in a different way than the stories that were set in the United States and that I was trying in a way inoculate myself or something, and that’s a shame. I’m glad that I had someone finally who read the stories set in Panama and said, “These are the stories that you should be writing.” Not only were they exploring a territory that, you know, a lot of writers weren’t exploring, but they were just better stories. So, that’s something that I’ve been thinking about lately, especially in light of that, I’d say. I think, basically, until it’s not a conversation anymore, it’s a problem.

Tell me about the research that you did to back these stories up.

I did a little bit. I mean, I tried to limit my research because if I do too much research, it hampers my imagination. But I researched colloquialisms and certain customs, and I tried to weave some of that in, and I also wanted to make sure I included certain prejudices and biases that someone from one country would have against someone from another country — like how a Mexican thinks of a Guatemalan, whether they look down a little bit. I tried to kind of suss out what some of those attitudes were, and leave those in, too, you know, but by and large it was invented. I had an idea at one point maybe that I would do actual interviews with real people and intersperse those throughout. But, I don’t know why, at some point I just backed away from that and decided to make them up.

It seems like, in general, as humans, we’re very good at finding someone to be intolerant about.

So the title comes from a character's declaration: “They might realize that we’re not that bad, maybe that we’re even a lot like them, and who would they hate then?” Is it your sense that people in general need someone to hate or blame?

It seems like, in general, as humans, we’re very good at finding someone to be intolerant about. And my feeling was basically, as he says, that … maybe it’s a naïve thought that I really feel like if we would all take the time to get to know each other a little bit more, you would realize that people, that they’re not this other. It’s just the label that gets applied to so many people so often. We could broaden the breadth of our empathy and summon the fullness of our humanity and see them as people, and not just as a debate or a statistic.

I think this is an issue for me not just with immigration but with everything in life. Like, you know, that we need to have more empathetic values and follow through on them. I mean, even on social media, one person does one thing wrong and it’s like, everyone’s jumping all over them! I really feel like, “Guys! Chill out!” Give people the benefit of the doubt!

Someone misspelled my name the other day in a print publication, and then the next thing I know they’re sending an email to my publicist, and they’re so apologetic, and my publicist is sending me an email, and she’s apologetic and I’m like, “It’s okay! It happens.” It’s an honest mistake. There’s nothing malicious. They put an "h" in my first name, which is a common mistake. I feel like we should all give each other that leeway.

We could broaden the breadth of our empathy and summon the fullness of our humanity and see them as people, and not just as a debate or a statistic.

It’s that Saunders idea, for sure, just the idea that we can all just be a little more compassionate.

Yes! Nicer and kinder to each other, yeah. I feel that pretty deeply. And so that extended, then, to this idea and immigration, and I don’t know that I’ve seen, growing up, my dad being mistreated or treated as a second-class citizen or anything like that, but I have a sense of what his life has been like. So it’s easy from there to go beyond that and imagine what other peoples’ lives are like.

So, how close do you think you — and I know this is kind of a fraught question — but how close do you think you stayed to what you sought to get out of the book?

It is a broad question because I think there’s kind of two components to it. One is kind of like, did I write the book I wanted to write? Which, I think I did. I had a vision for what the book would be and I think it came together in the way that I hoped it would. But on the other hand, there’s like, kind of implied in that another question: Am I satisfied with what I did? I think that would be harder to say. I think I’m proud of what I did, but I think it’s impossible to ever be satisfied, actually.

Especially as a writer.

Yeah … I think as any artist … There’s a line from Martha Graham that I always think about where she says that, “No artist is pleased. There’s no satisfaction whatever at any time.”

And that’s not really the point.

Yeah! And I think the point, actually, is to be dissatisfied, because that’s what makes you create the next thing. Because you’re always thinking, “Maybe I’ll do something better the next time.” Or you want everything you do to be great, and at some point in the translation from your mind to the page, it always loses something, even if you’re happy with how it turned out. You always feel like the next time, you could do better. So I think I carry that around with me, too. This is probably not something my editor wants me to say, but it’s like the most honest way I can think of putting it.

Do you have a sense of what you want to take to the next project?

This book was interesting in the sense that I kind of learned how I could translate something that I feel passionate about in life to fiction, and that’s not something I had done before — sort of something topical or controversial. And so I kind of feel like I gained some level of confidence to be able to tackle something big again next time. I didn’t have that confidence before I finished this book, if that makes sense. So I don’t think it’s gonna be necessarily about immigration or immigrants. I have like some slowly marinating ideas, but, it’ll be about something that consumes me in my life.

You know, on Twitter, things just fly by your face, and what are the things you click on? What are the things you care about enough to click on and say, “I actually want to read about that. I want to read, like, 30 articles about that because it’s something that’s really compelling to me." I think when students ask me, “What should I write about?” That’s one way to think about it, at least. What’s really compelling to you? And so… immigration was one thing — the lives of immigrants was compelling to me, but I think, you know, there’re a lot of things like that in my life. So I don’t know which one’s gonna be next. I have sort of like this loosely festering idea. But it’s pretty clear — Google could probably tell you what I’m gonna write about next based on my search history.

The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez, $12, Amazon