Artistic Director Günther Grosser interviews American novelist Jennine Capó Crucet

Günther Grosser: Can you give us an idea what your forthcoming novel Magic City Relic that you will read from at English Theatre Berlin will be about and what the story is?

Jennine Capót Crucet: I try not to talk too much about new projects while they’re still in production, but what I can say is that the novel is set in both Miami and New York in 1999-2000, and it revolves around a fictionalized version of the Elian Gonzalez immigration ordeal as it unfolds. The protagonist, Lizet, is the first in her family to go to university – she’s the first in her family to graduate from high school, too – and she’s struggling enough as it is when her whole first year gets abruptly politicized by the national immigration debate that emerges.
Alongside these larger political issues, the novel takes up some of the themes and questions raised in my first book’s title story, How to Leave Hialeah, in that I hope it will function as a sort of road map of the first-generation college student’s experience, one that shows some of the ugly things class differences force on us, but that also shows how we can push through them somehow.

GG: Any inspirations for the book that you would like to share with us?

JCC: Questions like this one are normally hard for me to answer, because it’s usually a whole bunch of things that go into the genesis of whatever I’m working on, but in the case of this novel, there is actually one big moment of inspiration. It’s a little difficult to explain, but the voice of the novel came to me almost fully formed one afternoon in March of 2010. I was meeting with a group of students as part of my then-job as a counselor for a non-profit organization to groups of first-generation college kids.

Every single student I worked with was about to be the first in their family to go to university, each of them was incredibly smart and motivated, and each also happened to be from a low-income family.  These students tend to encounter particular struggles in the university system, and part of my job was to help them prepare for this transition. During the meeting, one young woman – who I’d been working with for over a year and who I think might be one of the most amazing people I’ve ever known – started crying and saying she wasn’t really smart enough to go to the ridiculously exclusive and awesome university that had accepted her. And then, as she went on about her fears and her sense that she was only admitted because they needed minority students, all the other kids in the circle started nodding their heads and saying they felt the exact same way, and at that instant, I was immediately thrown back ten years to myself at 18, having the exact same fear upon my own acceptance to a university.

All that horribleness rose up out of me – I barely made it through that meeting and had to, at one point, excuse myself to go pull myself together in the bathroom – and I started writing that night. The narrator’s voice came to me immediately (and this only really happened to me one other time, with my story Men Who Punched Me in the Face, which I wrote when I had a high fever and no health insurance and was pretty much delirious), and it was urgent. That urgency never wore off, and it sustained me through the long process of writing and revising the novel.

GG: Cuban-American literature is like a white spot on the literary map for Europeans, with Oscar Hijuelos who just passed away probably the only one translated into German, and Cristina Garcia who Germans interested in American literature might have heard of. Is there a Cuban-American literature scene and do you consider yourself part of it?

JCC: I like to think (and hope) I’m part of the general American literary scene, especially since Latinos are becoming such a large literal and cultural presence in the U.S. overall. Any Cuban-American literature scene, I thinks, exists as part of a larger pan-Latino movement in American literature that’s been around for a few decades, even if it’s only now coming to the forefront of the publishing conversation. Much like how Oscar Hijuelos broke down a huge barrier by being the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize, I think Junot Diaz (who is Dominican) becoming the second Latino to do so a few years ago re-energized the interest in finding and reading Latino writers. Many writers tackle the big task of questioning and redefining identity in their work, and Latino writers are no exception — for better or worse, we may even be on the forefront of that kind of conversation in the United States.

GG: A similar question about literature from Florida in general: Crime writers Charles Willeford and Carl Hiaasen are the only novelists from Florida, to my knowledge, translated into German. Is there a contemporary Floridian literature or literature scene?

This is a great question. There absolutely is, in both producing writers and in supporting them. Florida is home to the Miami Book Fair International, one of the biggest, most exciting book fairs in the country. The state has some of the best programs for writing instruction; people from all over the place come to study in the state. Now, do all those writers go on to write about Florida? That’s a different story. Part of why I felt compelled to set the vast majority of the stories in my first book in South Florida was to honor the place that made me, to help establish it as a realistic, nuanced setting for literary fiction.

Jennine Capó Crucet will read from her forthcoming novel Magic City Relic at English Theatre Berlin on Saturday November 2nd.