by Leo Adam Biga
Best-selling author Jennine Capo Crucet, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate professor, is a featured writer at the September 14 Omaha Lit Fest. She’ll discuss her latest book, My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education. The essay collection is based on her work as a New York Times contributing opinion writer.
“It’s an exploration of the conflict of race and citizenship since the 2016 (U.S. presidential) election. Various forms of hope and dismay play against each other,” said Crucet, the daughter of Cuban immigrant parents. “There’s an essay about my parents very deliberate choice to not give me a Spanish name. I wanted to interrogate that moment in time and see how history’s repeating itself and what things have been afforded and denied me in this life because they gave me this name.
“A lot of it is stories about things I’ve encountered in my time living in Nebraska, including a small rodeo town in Nebraska. where I had a little bit of an adventure.”
Being a female woman of color in this polarizing era made her reflect on how curiosity can be stifled by fear.
“What does that fear lead to and where has that historically led us – not to good places. That’s sort of the larger thematic import of the book,” she said.
Crucet is eager for her first Omaha Lit Fest.
“I’m an extrovert by nature. The hardest part of writing for me is the loneliness and the solitude that comes with it and the wish to get out of my own space and interact with people, so I love doing events like this.”
Growing up, she used her vivid dreams as jumping off points for writing stories. After expressing a desire to be a writer, her parents discouraged her. “They were like, Don’t you want to be a doctor? A lot of first-generation American kids from Latinx backgrounds are pressured to go be doctors or lawyers or architects or engineers. There’s like seven jobs we’re allowed to have by our parents, who often still harbor fear about what life in this country will look like for us. They just want us to be stable. In stability comes happiness for them because it’s something they didn’t have in their home country and didn’t have for a long time here.
“I was pre-med in college (Cornell University) but that quickly fell away. I was sort of a secret English major for awhile. But it all worked out. I think my parents are only just now okay with it within the past year” (after learning she has a retirement plan through her teaching).
Pervious to UNL, Crucet taught at Florida State.
Her debut novel, How to Leave Hialeah, is set in her native Florida and centers on breaking from of home.
“It came very much from a place of extreme homesickness and sadness … and starting to build a life somewhere else. I really resisted the sense Miami wasn’t going to be home for a little while.”
Her smash second novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, describes the push-pull of a first-generation Latina college student far away from home and family.
“Many editors didn’t see any potential in it,” she said. “They saw it as a story of a young Latina that wouldn’t appeal to a broader audience. But that’s code for saying, White people won’t read this, and they were wrong. The publisher that did take it on still saw it as a risk. They had very modest expectations. Everybody’s been very pleasantly surprised.
“The book found a really wide audience. Over time it was the most often assigned first year on-campus read across the country for fiction. I kept getting asked to come to these colleges and talk about how my experience and that of this fictional narrator line up.”
Said Crucet, “This novel’s opened so many doors for me,” including her Times gig.
Crucet’s writing often draws on the Cuban diaspora.
“That will probably be material I’ll be working through for a long time. Every writer’s life is a backdrop to the work they’ll produce.”
Humor infuses her writing – a sensibility honed while writing for a sketch comedy troupe in college.
“My colleagues would say, You’re pretty close to having just written a short story, you should do that.”
Thus, humor became part of her emerging literary voice.
It’s hard for Crucet to think of herself as having made it.
“That’s a quality of being a first-generation American. You always think you could be working harder. It always takes me by surprise when someone has read my book and I’m not friends with them already.”
Her writers pantheon includes the late Toni Morrison. “Everything she’s written. She’s a masterful novelist. Another touchstone writer is Zora Neale Hurston – my favorite Florida writer. Her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God made me love literature and want to be a writer. Edward P Jones’s short story collection Lost in the City, all set in Washington D.C,, was a huge inspiration for my book How to Leave Hialeah. I just wanted to write a book as beautiful for my hometown like he did for his.”
Among mentors, Crucet counts Helena Maria Viramontes as “the biggest influence.” “She was the only Latina professor in my whole time at college (Cornell). She’s a phenomenal writer very much grounded in her hometown of Los Angeles. I was lucky enough to get to work with her when I was an undergraduate. Her influence on my career and my life cannot be overstated, She’s like my literary godmother.”
Crucet hopes to blaze her own path for others to follow.
“I see it as my job that with any kind of good thing that comes I support as many writers coming up right behind me with as much love, energy and excitement as mentors have fostered my career and whose success I’m following in.”
In the midst of a project, she said her only relief comes when “I just let it out on the page.” Once finished, she said, “It’s out of me, and I’m like, What’s next? Then I’m empty and I wait to be filled again with some new story. That’s sort of the cycle for a writer. That’s how it works for me at least.”
As for what’s next, she said, “I am working on a new novel. That’s all I can say about it. I know the more I talk about a project, the less I’ll work on it.”
Follow the author at www.jcapocrucet.com.
View the Lit Fest schedule at https://www.facebook.com/Omaha-Lit-Fest.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.