Novel Highlights The Shocks Facing First-Generation College Students

Novel Highlights The Shocks Facing First-Generation College Students

5:33pm Aug 08, 2015
Make Your Home Among Strangers
Lydia Thompson / NPR
  • Make Your Home Among Strangers

    Lydia Thompson / NPR

  • Like her book's protagonist, Jennine Capó Crucet is also the daughter of Cuban immigrants.

    Like her book's protagonist, Jennine Capó Crucet is also the daughter of Cuban immigrants.

    Alexander Lumans / Courtesy Of St. Martin's Press

Jennine Capó Crucet was the first person in her family to be born in the United States. Her parents came to Florida from Cuba, and she grew up in Hialeah, a suburb of Miami that is 95 percent Hispanic.

For Crucet, going to Cornell was a bit of a shock — she was the first person in her family to attend college at all, let alone at a prestigious school in upstate New York.

"You leave home and then when you come back you have a kind of perspective that you didn't have before that in some way problematizes your relationship with your family," she tells NPR's Arun Rath. "You just start to be able to have a sort of double vision about them and who they are and how you grew up that can be really painful."

Inspired by her experiences and family stories, she wrote the story collection How to Leave Hialeah. Now, she's the author of a new novel called Make Your Home Among Strangers.

It follows an 18-year-old Lizet leaving Miami and going to a fancy school, just like Crucet did.

To hear the full conversation, click the audio link above.


Interview Highlights

On why she chose to write the book

I used to work for a non-profit organization where I worked as a mentor and a counselor to first-generation college students and they kept asking me, "What can I read to try to know what I'm about to be in for," and while I did have some good suggestions, I figured ... I don't know that that book is out there and that's sort of why I had to write it.

On a storyline modeled on the Elián González case

It's the 15th anniversary of him being deported, which happened in June of 2000. People really saw themselves in a big way in Elián González's story. ... I wasn't a very politically conscious 18-year-old, but I was on a campus that was with all these brilliant people ... I felt like they knew everything, and people kept asking me what I thought, and I was like, "I don't have any thoughts. I'm not paying a lot of attention to it, I'm just trying to study and get ready for these exams or get ready for this prelim or make friends."

And so part of the question for me was, "What if I was from a family that was more involved in it," or, "What if I had been a little more aware of the things that were going on?"

On how the recent changes in Cuban relations could affect Cubans in America

I think the novel in some ways is trying to answer that. It's gonna be a huge shift in your sense of identity. ... I think for a long time people in the community have sort of defined themselves in really polarizing terms ... You know, it's easy to say "This is my narrative. This is my story, and I won't go back because I can't." But what if you could? ...

I think there's a real need for literature and for music and for art that's gonna speak to these big shifts and try to help us find a way through.

On the question of planning a visit to Cuba

It seems disrespectful to my parents who left ... to hear their story over and over again which always ends with ... "and I'll never go back as long as anyone in the Castro family is in power." Well, what happens if you can go back? Would you want to see things?

You know, my grandmother before she passed away was like, "Ah forget it. I would totally go back." You know, she always said, "I just want to see my house. I want to see the church I got married in. I want to see my old classroom." ... But, you know, that's the kind of thing that I think if she knew I were saying it on the radio, she'd be like "No diga eso," you know, she'd be like "Don't tell people I said that." ...

Also Cuba exists as a story in my mind and I really like that story, and it's a gift in a lot of ways from my family. And, so, to go back would be to have to revise it in a way that I don't know I'm ready to do ... It's really nice in my head. It's a really sweet story, and the reality of it might not be something I'm ready for.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Jennine Capo Crucet grew up in a Miami suburb that's 95 percent Hispanic. Her parents came to the U.S. from Cuba, and Crucet was the first person in her family to attend college, a prestigious school in upstate New York. The peculiar kind of culture shock she experienced there fed right into her new novel "Make Your Home Among Strangers." It follows the 18-year-old Lizet, leaving Miami and going to a fancy school, just like Crucet.

JENNINE CAPO CRUCET: You leave home, and then when you come back, you have a kind of perspective that you didn't have before that in some way problematizes your relationship with your family. And you just start to be able to have that sort of double vision about them and who they are and how you grew up that can be really painful.

And I used to work for a nonprofit organization where I worked as a mentor and a counselor to first-generation college students. And they kept asking me, like, what can I read to try to, like, know what I'm about to be in for? And while I did have some good suggestions, I figured - I was like I don't know that that book is out there. And that's sort of why I had to write it.

RATH: And when we come into her story - she's returned home for a surprise visit on Thanksgiving, which...

CRUCET: Yeah.

RATH: ...Which is weird for a couple of reasons. Her family isn't quite thrilled to see her. And then there's an incident in the news.

CRUCET: Yeah. Because her family is Cuban, they don't really celebrate Thanksgiving. It's sort of an arbitrary holiday. They know they get the day off of work, but, you know, maybe they'll eat Thursday, maybe they'll eat Friday. It's no big deal. But she - her arrival happens to coincide with this breaking news story of a child - a kid named Ariel Hernandez, who's arrived on a raft from Cuba. And he's the only survivor, and he's brought in by the Coast Guard. And that's happened at the same - on the same day.

RATH: And Ariel is clearly modeled on the Elian Gonzalez story that played out.

CRUCET: Yeah. I think we're - actually, it's the 15th anniversary of him being deported, which happened in June of 2000. People really saw themselves in a big way in Elian Gonzalez' story. But I wasn't a very politically conscience 18-year-old. But I was on a campus that was - with all these brilliant people who knew - I felt like they knew everything. And people kept asking me what I thought. And I was like I don't have any thoughts. I'm not paying a lot of attention to it. I'm just trying to study and get ready for these exams or get ready for this prelim or make friends. And so part of the question for me was what if I was from a family that was more involved, or what if I had been a little more aware of the things that were going on?

RATH: I was thinking of the way that the characters in this book relate to Cuba. And in a way, it's similar to other ex-pat communities where, you know, this country that's so central to your identity actually only exists in your imagination. And for this Cuban community now, just thinking of the last - just the last several months - what do you think that's going to mean for people in Hialeah or other communities like that if relations are totally normalized - if they can return to Cuba?

CRUCET: That's a really good question. I think the novel in some ways is trying to answer that. It's going to be a huge shift in your sense of identity and how you've - I mean, I think for a long time, people in the community have sort of defined themselves in really polarizing terms or in really - you know, it's easy to say this is my narrative. This is my story, and I won't go back because I can't.

But what if you could? And so I think there's a real need for literature and for music and for art that's going to speak to these big shifts and try to help us find a way through. And that if you choose not to go back, it's on you. So that's - I'm excited. I'm excited to see it. I...

RATH: I'm assuming based on your age you've never been to Cuba?

CRUCET: No, I haven't. I've never been. And it's one of those things where my answer to that is always well, I won't go because it seems disrespectful to my parents, who left not as small children, but, like, they remember it. And they came at different times, but to hear their story over and over again, which always ends with, like, and I'll never go back as long as anyone in the Castro family is in power. And then to sort of, like, well, what happens if you can go back? Would you want to see things? And, you know, my grandmother, before she passed away, was like, ah, forget it. I would totally go back, you know? She always said...

(LAUGHTER)

CRUCET: She's like I don't want - I just want to see my house. I want to see the church I got married in. I want to see my old classroom. She was a music teacher, and she was awesome. But, you know, that's the kind of thing that I think if she knew I were saying it on the radio, she'd be like - (speaking Spanish) - you know, she'd be like don't tell people I said that, so I don't know.

RATH: Do you - are you planning a visit?

CRUCET: Oh, I'm not going to answer that question. Everybody'll get mad.

(LAUGHTER)

CRUCET: But it's interesting, right, that my reaction is uh-oh and not yes, I want to - I want to do it. And I have friends that have gone back and writer friends that - you know, they say oh, I have to do this research. I'm going. I just - I don't know, I think that's another question that the - writing the novel, I was hoping it would answer, but it just made it more complicated for me.

And also, Cuba exists as a story in my mind, and I really like that story. And it's a gift in a lot of ways from my family. And so to go back would be to have to revise it in a way that I don't know I'm ready to do.

RATH: It might spoil your fiction?

CRUCET: Yeah. And it's really nice in my head, right? It's like a really sweet story. The reality of it might not be something I'm ready for.

RATH: That's Jennine Capo Crucet. Her new novel is called "Make Your Home Among Strangers" and it's out now. Jennine, it's been a blast speaking with you. Thank you.

CRUCET: Thank you so much. This has been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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