Make Your Home Among Strangersis a coming of age novel about a Cuban American girl making her way north. We asked author Jennine CapÃ³ Crucet to talk to us about the book, and then current events intervened...
I am writing this minutes after watching a video of the U.S. flag being raised at the U.S. Embassy in Havana for the first time in decades. I had a whole other post planned"”one that was clever and fun and which talked about the writing of my novel, one that told you a little about my protagonist, Lizet, and how her experiences as a first-generation college student both mirrored and didn't mirror mine, about how I worked on that book all over the country and in the weirdest places. There's even a part about Michael Jackson in it, about how I was stuck in Los Angeles traffic for hours the day he died and passed the time writing scenes that all ended up in the novel. That post now seems like nothing to me, in the wake of this image: the three mariners ordered be Eisenhower to lower this nation's flag flown back to raise it, in the country of my parents' birth, a country I have never visited but that lives vibrantly and real in the stories they've repeated to me like commandments.
I am writing this from Vermont; I just moved to Nebraska; it feels strange, all of a sudden, to be in these places and not in Miami, and I am searching my memory for another time like this in my life"”a time where something monumental is happening in the community that raised me and yet I am not there to witness it, to be physically part of it"”and I realize: Oh no. Oh no because the time that comes to me is the Elian Gonzalez madness back in 1999-2000, and I was away at college, up in New England (and here I am again, fifteen years later!), and I'm thinking, I just wrote a whole novel about this exact feeling, but I'm still haunted by it. I think Oh no because I have more in common with my novel's protagonist than I want to admit. Oh no because fifteen years have gone by, and I am looking out at green green mountains"”such foreign but familiar terrain"”and I think, Fifteen years and I have not moved an inch, have I?
As the flag went up in Cuba this morning, a band played our national anthem. Weeks ago, when the Cuban flag went up in Washington DC, a band played the Cuban national anthem and I thought the exact same thing: They're playing our national anthem. A smarter essay would, here, talk about Life on the Hyphen, about dualities and the concept of double-vision, about first-generation Americans and how we are part of at least two Ours.
But I can't go there"”it sounds like hiding to me, like falseness, if I were to write that here, now. There is instead something else I keep thinking about, and it's weird because it's something I made up but that now feels more real to me than any other concept or theory I could use to frame my thought: It's a moment in my novel where Lizet, the protagonist, comes home for winter break and sees her mother in the airport for the first time, having had her world view rocked by both the privilege she witnesses on her campus and the fact that there is a international immigration crisis happening pretty much in her front yard at home. She sees her mother waiting for her and thinks: Oh no oh no oh no, because she can see her, really see her, and she is terrified at the thought of what this means her mother can now see in her. And when I watched the US flag go up in Havana this morning, I realized I was seeing it as an American, and as a Cuban, but also as neither"”I was seeing it as someone who did not know what this moment meant or would mean: there was no mind, only heart and shivers and tears and confusion as to why I'm not home"”then a sudden shock at home still meaning Miami, after over a decade away calling other places home.
And the only way I've ever been able to make sense out of anything is to write my way through it, so I needed to throw the other essay out and give you this instead. I needed to save Michael Jackson for another time. I needed to instead admit to you and to myself that I have no answers, only stories that are lies but that are somehow more true for being fiction, and that in the wake of this historic moment between the two countries inside me, I know the only thing I can do is to keep telling those stories in the same way those anthems played: loudly, with fervor and urgency, in celebration and in mourning.