It all started with a sentence: “We heard they were from Mexico.” The sentence randomly popped into Cristina Henriquez’s mind and for her, this sentence had questions that needed to be answered and even those answers had more questions. After five years of dissecting and expanding on these questions and answers, Henriquez’s junior novel “The Book of Unknown Americans” came to be.
Henriquez took the audience of the packed Abeloff Performing Arts Center on a journey through her creation of this year’s One Book, One Campus selection “The Book of Unknown Americans” last Wednesday. All semester long, students and staff discussed and analyzed parts of the novel leading up to Henriquez’s visit.
“What’s amazing is that [‘The Book of Unknown Americans’] means something to people,” Henriquez said. “I certainly didn’t anticipate that it would be the kind of book that students will be reading—that colleges would be adopting.”
Henriquez wrote the story of the Rivera family. After their daughter, Maribel suffers from a life-altering injury, the Rivera’s move to the United States with the hopes of accelerating Maribel’s recovery. The apartment complex the Rivera’s now call home is filled with other immigrants from various parts of Latin America. The novel is told through multiple first-person perspectives of the individuals living in the complex and their view of home and the “American Dream.”
As a part of the One Book discussions, many professors and students gave presentations surrounding the laws in immigration; however, Henriquez emphasized that the novel is not about immigration. It’s about immigrants.
“Documented, undocumented, legal, illegal. They weren’t even people anymore. They were paperwork.” she said. “I wanted to recover that sense of humanity. Immigrants, yes, but first and foremost people.”
Though all of the characters in the novel are fictional, Henriquez added bits of her father and even herself in some of the characters. Her father came to the United States from Panama when he was 18. Henriquez said listening to her father’s stories as an immigrant in the U.S. inspired her to keep writing. Though the novel does not surround her father’s experience, she said she was able to write the book because of him.
“I have seen firsthand what his life has been like as an immigrant in the United States, and I felt like I wanted to honor it in some way,” Henriquez said.
The characters she saw the most of her father in was Arturo, Maribel’s father, and Rafael Toro.
“There are little details like Raf’s love of cars, my dad is totally that guy,” she said. “But I think his really essential decency and goodness in the world is fed into Arturo.”
Henriquez felt the closest to Mayor Toro, Maribel’s love interest in the novel. The feeling Mayor had of being stuck between two identities, Panamanian and not, echoed what Henriquez felt at times. In school, Mayor was often bullied and called “pan” or “Mayor Pan” by other students.
When flipping through the pages of her old high school yearbook, the first thing Henriquez saw was “hey pan,” which was an insult directed toward Panamanian people.
“These were things meant to put me in my place. These were things that reminded me that not only was I different, which is okay but that I was less,” she said. “Giving those things to Mayor was a way to unburden me.”
However, like Mayor, even after being ridiculed for her ethnicity, there were times when she felt that she wasn’t Panamanian enough. When she would visit her cousins in Panamanian, they would say she was so “gringa” or American.
Even though both these places are a part of her, she rejects the term “dual identity.”
“I just don’t believe in a dual identity. I have a whole identity which is just made up of lots of different parts,” she said. “It’s part of what makes me who I am.”
Henriquez traveled across the nation, speaking about her book and its meaning, and one of the most frequent questions she is asked is about the ending of her book.
From the first page of “The Book of Unknown Americans,” Henriquez said she knew how she wanted to end the book. The Rivera’s came to the United States for the “American Dream,” but they weren’t going to get it.
“I didn’t want to shy away from it. I felt like it is part of the immigrant experience in so many ways—to have that kind of constant threat,” she said. “I wrote this at a certain time which was predating what is going on now where, frankly, the atmosphere feels much more threatening to immigrants. I felt like it would be disingenuous to not confront that if I’m going to be writing a book about the experience that immigrants are having in the United States.”
When writing the book, Henriquez said she didn’t have any goals in mind. Rather, she wanted to give a new narrative to the immigrant story and allow readers to imagine someone else’s life, one they might not have been able to before.
“This is one of the reasons that stories matter. They bridge us to other people They give us a way to understand a life that is not our own,” she said. “If you cross over that bridge and you do it again and again, it starts to become reflexive and with that there is hope.”
For more information on Cristina Henriquez or to check out her other works visit www.cristinahenriquez.com.
To get involved with ESU One Book, One Campus visit quantum.esu.edu/onebook.
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