Suspend Your Disbelief

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How to Leave and Why You Stay: An Interview with Jennine Capó Crucet

When The Clash asked the question “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Jennine Capó Crucet had an answer. In How to Leave Hialeah, Crucet’s debut short story collection, characters wrestle with how the places they’re from shape their identity, how to grow beyond them, and why leaving is sometimes the only answer.

Jennine Capo CrucetWhen you listen to Jennine Capó Crucet tell a story, you feel the energy from Miami. Her work is infused with the Cuban American culture in which she was raised. As the daughter of Cuban exiles, she grew up in Hialeah, Florida, and though she’s lived for the past two years in Los Angeles, she still calls Miami home. The stories in her collection, How to Leave Hialeah, which won the 2009 John Simmons Short Fiction Award and was published by the University of Iowa Press, reveal a complex portrait of a place you both love and can’t wait to escape. The physical and metaphorical energy holds these characters in the palms of their extended families. For her debut collection, Crucet won the John Gardner Book Award, and the title story won a PEN/O. Henry Prize. She also won the 2010 Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award, and when she came to Southern Illinois University in October of 2010 to accept it, we had dinner and talked about what it means to have your feet firmly planted in so many places all at once.

Melissa Scholes Young: Setting and place seem to be vital to your telling of these stories. You write about the neighborhood in Miami in which you grew up. How did your experiences in Hialeah help you write these stories?

Jennine Capó Crucet: We never could go grocery shopping in Hialeah without bumping into someone my mom had been meaning to call AND someone whose calls she was avoiding. It was usually my job to swing our cart out of an aisle we’d just turned down before being spotted by, for instance, the grandma of a friend from school or the some guy who was a cousin’s dentist in Cuba. An encounter like that could derail your plans for the whole day.  I really wanted the book to capture that feeling—the idea of a big, overcrowded city still feeling small and inescapable, with everyone up in each other’s business, connected in some vague way but not necessarily recognizing it. The bulk of the stories in the book happen within in a ten- or fifteen-block area, so the characters are neighbors and they naturally float in and out of each other’s stories.

Is that what it was like growing up in Hialeah?

Absolutely.  I come from a big extended family where we call people who aren’t technically our uncles Tío—and everyone is a cousin even if it was our grandparents that were the actual cousins.  When I left Miami and went to college and made non-blood-relative friends, I realized that my parents didn’t really have friends in the traditional sense—why would you branch out to new people when you have all these cousins and aunts and uncles around? So Hialeah, for me, is very much tied to the idea of family. Everyone I’m related to lives either in Florida or in Cuba (though I think I’ve got some of those not-technically-a-cousin cousins in Jersey now). It’s pretty nice to be able to travel within one state to recharge your familial batteries.

Did you still write about Miami when you lived in Los Angeles or did setting change when you moved there?

How to Leave Hialeah coverWeirdly, while in LA I wrote several stories set in Illinois, which is where I lived before moving west. I have a tendency to set stories in places I miss. (I wrote all of How to Leave Hialeah while living in another Midwestern state, and I was desperately homesick for Florida the whole time.)  Although I don’t really miss living in Illinois, I’m only now seeing how living there affected me, and that raises questions for me that I can only answer through writing fiction. I have yet to set a story in LA and can’t imagine doing that; now that I’ve moved back to Florida, I’m certain that in the next six months, I will write a story set in Los Angeles.

For the most part, though, Miami is still the main setting for my fiction. My novel largely takes place in a part of Miami called Little Havana, so I’m still writing about South Florida regularly. I read the “Neighbors” section of the Miami Herald almost every morning, and it’s full of spectacular ideas for stories. I read until I find something I think of as the “striking detail,” meaning something that stops my reading because it’s so crazy, so unusual, so ripe for writing.  My story “Animal Control” came from an article I read where the reporter mentioned that a guy who’d been shot was “survived by his pet ferret.”  I could not read past the mention of that ferret. I couldn’t stop wondering what had happened to the thing—or what had compelled a reporter to include it in their report.  So I wrote from there—from that striking detail. Normally, the writing I do as part of my morning Herald exercise ends up never seeing the light of day, but sometimes, like with “Animal Control,” I get lucky and the story takes over.

When you read “Animal Control” at AWP during the Potomac Review’s celebration of their 50 issues, the audience was laughing throughout the story.  You have a character dipping a dead ferret into a Styrofoam cup of ice water, attempting unsuccessfully to revive the animal, and we’re cracking up.  It all seems so inappropriate and sad, the character’s grief and desperation, and yet it’s funny.

I have a background in sketch comedy writing, so my gut response is to try to make people laugh.  With fiction, I find that using humor lets readers take in the hard stuff; it’s easier to digest that way.  Most of my characters don’t always know what’s going on with themselves—they don’t go around thinking about things or immediately understanding their reactions to the world around them—so writing about them is challenging.  The main character in “Animal Control” is not someone who I would describe as self–aware in any way.  He doesn’t recognize that he’s grieving the loss of his roommate or the loss of a potential friendship.  He just thinks he’s got this “stupid ferret” and he’s put out that he has to deal with it.  But he’s a pretty lonely character, so we need something to make us laugh and keep us reading, something to contrast the really depressing situation he’s in. And humor is a way around a character’s lack of self-awareness: it helps the reader (or the audience, if I’m thinking in sketch comedy terms) understand what’s happening in his mind even if he doesn’t.  We see in the character what he can’t see in himself.

We read again and again that short story collections aren’t as marketable as novels.  Which are you focused on now?  Short stories or a novel?

I’m trying to keep working on both, but mostly the novel. While in an MFA program, I did what I think happens a lot: I worked on a novel for the first two years, submitting related and unrelated stories for workshop, and then by the third year I’d given up thinking of the novel as my thesis and submitted the stories instead. I didn’t think about this much until I read Cathy Day’s essay in The Millions called “The Story Problem.” She writes about how we might feel pushed to write stories in grad programs and how tough it is to receive instruction on writing longer projects, which might be what we actually want to write, but it’s not necessarily encouraged.  The good news for me over the past year is that I very much want to be writing the novel I’m working on now.  These days, when an idea for a story comes to me, my first reaction (before giving in and writing it), is, Oh crap, not now—I’m writing this novel.

When we had dinner at the Devil’s Kitchen Literary Festival at SIU, you told me that you sent your collection of stories for the Iowa Prize basically on a whim.  Was it the right move?

It wasn’t so much a whim—it was more that it felt pointless: I was convinced I wouldn’t win, so sending it felt a little stupid at the time. The fact is, no Latino had ever won that prize—not in the thirty-nine years it had been around.  So based on that reality, I didn’t have much hope for year forty; at some point I just got so discouraged about facts like that, and when you add that in to the general discouragement all writers sometimes feel, it was hard for me to see the point in mailing all those pages off to Iowa. But I am so, so happy I was wrong, and I feel honored to be part of this new page in their history. It was absolutely the right move, even if winning seemed impossible at the time, and I hope it encourages all writers—but especially writers from communities that are not often represented in fiction—to make bold, impossible-seeming choices in and for their writing.

One of the things I love about the stories in How to Leave Hialeah is that we have a conflict introduced almost immediately. We know in the first few lines what is going on and even how it will probably turn out. My fiction advisor at SIU, Beth Lordan, calls this the seven-sentence rule, meaning you’ve got seven sentences in a short story to tell me the whole story and keep me reading. Would you agree?

I’ve never heard of it in those terms—the seven-sentence rule—but I like it! There are tons of writers whose work I love who probably don’t follow this rule, but in my stories, characters and conflict go hand in hand, so I can see how it applies. I tend to be interested in characters who are in some kind of trouble already (this can obviously be a problem in one’s romantic life), and that conflict is the occasion for the story. I don’t start writing until I have both the character as well as what they’re up against firmly grounded in my thinking of the story. That’s not to say the conflict can’t change from draft to draft; it means my characters need something to figure out before I can give them a story’s attention.

Let’s talk narrators. You’ve got some bossy, heavy-handed ones, which I adore. In “Resurrection” we have a narrator speaking directly to the reader in second person as if we are in the scene: “This is how these pookie-heads talk; you know that; even the nun knows that.” Can you talk a little about these narrative decisions?

“Resurrection” is a tricky story because it’s told in a very subtle second person—it feels like a detached third person for most of the piece. But then that “You” voice gets pretty aggressive in the last third, and then the first person sneaks in as part of the story’s climax. The truest thing I can say about those choices is that the story demanded them. I kept writing myself into these spots and I’d think, “The story must address the reader directly in this paragraph or else it fails.” So that’s what I’d do. I only did it when it felt absolutely necessary; these moments couldn’t be seen as decorative, or the whole story would fail. I knew the choices broke certain conventions, but I also knew the story had its own logic that it absolutely needed to follow, and my job was to make that logic as clear as possible and hope that the story’s climax justified those narrative moves.

In “The Next Move” you reveal the push and pull of being in exile, of loving a place and needing to leave it. It seems an impossible grief. Luis has to convince everyone, including himself, that leaving Cuba was the right thing to do. Do you see that dilemma in other characters? How do you convey that feeling of being caught between two worlds and perhaps not belonging really to either?

When it comes to this dilemma as it relates to Cuba, the older characters in my stories feel this pull more than the younger ones, which makes sense since the older ones have more memories and have literally lost more than the younger generation.

But as far as being caught between two worlds in a more general sense, that dilemma is absolutely present in other characters. I think the story that best examines it head-on is the book’s title story, which is the one in the current O. Henry Prize anthology. Here, the dilemma is class: the main character comes from a background that most people would define as lower-class, and she’s thrust into a world that is different from home in pretty much every way imaginable. I conveyed the feeling of being trapped by these two worlds mostly by manipulating the story’s pacing (it spans several years) and by using the second person (which I tried to avoid, but again, eventually the story demanded it, and I do what the story tells me to do). My novel is based on the events of the title story, and it takes up the specific themes of belonging and class as the narrator navigates the consequences of choosing to live between two worlds.

¿Y qué?I’ll be honest. The story “How to Leave Hialeah” broke my heart a bit. I also come from one of those towns, Hannibal, Missouri, with a defined Midwestern culture that both props you up and tries to strangle you just a bit. It’s hard to leave and impossible to stay. You wrote in your online bio that you’re slowly trying to go home.  What keeps pulling you back?

My mom! (I know there are a lot of terrible mothers in my fiction, but they couldn’t be further from my actual mom). For real though, what you said is exactly what pulls me home: it props me up. I feel stronger there, more like myself— or the version of myself I sometimes think I want to be. I think of Hialeah as this charging station—I mentioned familial batteries before. For the first few days I’m home, I never, ever want to be anywhere else.  Then, around day four (and on some trips home, this has happened sooner), I start to feel like I’m losing my mind and that I have to get away. I know this happens to a lot of people when they visit family, but for me, it’s a whole history, a whole city. There are parts of my identity that have come to me since leaving home, and those parts just do not fit with the parts of me that need to think of Miami as home base. Living in Tallahassee means I’ve got about six or seven hours between worlds—that’s pretty much perfect.

In the story, when the addressed “you” escapes Hialeah, you write that the parents accept the departure because “you are their American Dream.” Can you talk a little about that dream? What does it mean? Is it an impossible ideal?

My job in LA was working with students in South Los Angeles who went to some of the most under-served high schools in the county. I had a lot in common with them as far as background (first in their family to go to college, from a low-income community, from a high school with a high drop-out rate where the bulk of the students don’t go on to a four-year school) and having gone through less than ten years earlier what they were about to begin, I never sugar-coated what was in store for them when they asked. I told them bluntly, as fun and as challenging as the next four years will be, and as much as the rest of your lives will be a reward for valuing your mind and your education over more ephemeral things, you will never relate to your family in the same way. You will never fit in here the way you think you have so far. You will never really belong in either place once you go. You are going to be stuck between two worlds because one formed you into the person who feels fulfilled by the second. You are taking the hit for your future children and their children—no one after you will feel torn in exactly this way again—and you are doing that because you are strong enough to be all these different versions of yourself and still be okay.

So do I think it is an impossible dream? No. But does it ever feel like an “ideal?” Not to everyone, and not to me, not yet.

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