Saludos todos! I’m popping in to share with you some information about Cristina Henríquez, the author of our November book group title, The Book of Unknown Americans. According to her personal website, The Book of Unknown Americans “was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014 and one of Amazon’s Top 10 Books of the Year.” In addition, “It was the Daily Beast Novel of the Year, a Washington Post Notable Book, an NPR Great Read, a Target Book of the Month selection, and was chosen one of the best books of the year by BookPage, Oprah.com, and School Library Journal. It was also longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.”
Henríquez earned her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University and participatedin the the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa. She currently lives in Illinois, and is a prolific writer for various literary magazine and journals. Some of her other works include The World In Half (a novel) and Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories, which was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection.
In an interview with NBC, Henríquez talks about how her childhood influenced her novel, The Book of Unknown Americans. When asked about her family’s experiences, she responds:
My dad is from Panama, he came to the U.S. in 1971. He came to study chemical engineering at the University of Delaware. He thought he would go back and then he met my mom here. I was born and mostly raised in Delaware. One time, my mom and I were talking about how immigration is portrayed in the media, and she commented that, “no one is ever going to ask about our stories.” That was sort of my jumping-off point. I saw firsthand some of the struggles that my dad went through, like the longing to go home, that sense of existing between two cultures, being self-conscious about his accent. I thought it would be interesting to explore all of those everyday experiences in a book. I also wanted to show that Latinos are not one monolithic entity, so I have characters from throughout Latin America.
In the same interview, Henríquez is asked about the politicization of her work. When asked if she set out to write a social commentary, she responds: “Not at all. Certainly, I read a lot and follow the news. But as a writer, I am not interested in a political story. I am searching for the humanity of the characters. I never set out to write a book about an “issue.” This was never a story about immigration; it is a book about immigrants. Immigration is a system, and immigrants are people. I just tried to focus on bringing people to life.” Henríquez’s focus on the intimate lives, thoughts and emotions of immigrants, who are so often dehumanized through the media and represented only by sheer numbers and statistics, is one of the reasons her work is so captivating.
Finally, Henríquez gives some advice to aspiring readers:
I used to say, read as much as you can. Now I say, read the best that you can, the stories that resonate with you, the books that are important to you. Try to read, not only as a reader, but also as a writer, to deconstruct how the author is telling his or her story. The other thing is, stop thinking about being published! Resist the temptation to think about what the market wants, or how to become successful. Back away, do the work, and eventually when your work is strong enough, then your writing will be recognized. My writing students come to me with anxiety about being published, and I tell them that it doesn’t really matter how fast you write or how quickly you get published. It matters how well you write.
Hopefully these words resonate with any aspiring writers out there!