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Jennine Capó Crucet: I’ve heard from publishers that “People don’t really read in Miami,” and that’s true but it’s not true: people don’t really read anywhere.

Pedro Medina

jennineJennine Capó Crucet (Miami, Florida, 1981) y su libro de cuentos How to Leave Hialeah, han sido unos de mis más grandes descubrimientos literarios recientes. Las historias que dan vida a esta colección son una representación “en carne y hueso” de ese Miami profundo y folclórico que bien conocemos los que vivimos en la ciudad. Con un gran sentido del humor, pero sin caer en la exageración, Capó Crucet logra dar vida a una serie de personajes y situaciones que solamente pueden tener verosimilutud en un vecindario de Miami tan pintoresco como lo es Hialeah, en el que cohabitan cubanos con un gran arraigo hacia su isla natal y sus descendientes, que si bien han nacido acá y son anglo parlantes, han crecido comiendo croquetas, lechón, plátano frito y viendo partidas de dominó. Así pues que “oh, my God, que tal arroz con mango” el que hay en esas páginas.

How to Leave Hialeah, ha obtenido el Iowa Short Fiction Prize (2009), el John Gardner Book Award (2010), el Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award, y fue nombrado Best Book of the Year by the Miami Herald (2009), y el Miami New Times (2009).

Hace unos días tuve la oportunidad de conversar con Jennine. Fue una charla en inglés, pues es el idioma con el cual se comunica la autora.

Please tell us about your first steps in Literature.  When you started writing and when you considered to take Literature as a profession.

I have always been a storyteller and a writer. From a very early age, I kept notebooks where I wrote down dreams and ideas for plays (which very quickly turned into stories) and funny things I would say if I were to ever host the Oscars or something. I used to write songs and skits and then force my younger sister to perform in them, and we’d put on these “shows” for my parents that were not at all good, but which were the highlight of my week.

But for a long time, I considered writing a hobby—probably all the way through college. I managed to take a creative writing class every semester and thought it was an extreme luxury to be able to do so. When I was a sophomore, a professor—the writer Richard Price, who was a visiting writer at my university—told me he thought I should think about an MFA program and continue writing as a profession. I remember asking him, “What’s an MFA program?” I had planned to go to law school even though I was not looking forward to it, but as the first in my family to go to college, I felt responsible for pursuing a profession that could at least offer some guarantee about a job down the line. It wasn’t until this professor, along with another writer/professor who became extremely important to me, Helena María Viramontes, told me I should follow my dream of studying and practicing writing that I had the courage to really go for it.

Do you consider yourself a Miami writer ? (Yes /  No; why ?)

Yes for many reasons, and no for one or two. I think at this point in my career, Miami is definitely still where most of my imaginative focus lives. It’s also informed—on a literal level—how I write. I need noise and music and people talking around me to focus. I have to hear the voice of a character yelling at me before I can feel it’s real. I have to stream Power 96 over my computer when I write to feel at home, and I think nothing says Miami like Power 96. The city can be sort of absurd and crazy and over-the-top, and those qualities find their way into my work whether I want them to or not. So absolutely yes, I’m a Miami writer in the sense that growing up in that city has informed and shaped my aesthetic and style.

Yet I’m not a Miami writer because, well, I don’t spend as much time in Miami as I would like, and it took me leaving Miami to understand how important the city was to my fiction. It took me leaving to see that Miami is largely misunderstood in the popular imagination of the rest of the United States, and it’s that drive to provide another angle on life in Miami that pushes me to write about it. That said, I’ve heard from readers of my book that the specificity with which Miami is depicted reminds them of their city—be it Los Angeles, Houston, New York, DC; I even heard from a woman living in Nebraska!—that the more specific I am in my rendering of Miami, the more it reminds people of their own home city and the affections and ambivalence they feel toward it. In which case, I’m not a Miami writer as much as I am a writer depicting a certain economic class in America that exists in cities all over this country, and that’s definitely the direction my work is growing towards.

How difficult is to emerge as a writer in Miami, which is known as a frivolous city ? Is there enough support for young writers or you had to look for opportunities outside, in other cities ?

My career as a writer really began when I was living in Los Angeles (I’d been living there literally three days when I found out my book was getting published), so I can’t answer this question except to say that that I’ve heard from publishers that “People don’t really read in Miami,” and that’s true but it’s not true: people don’t really read anywhere. The number of people who seek out literary fiction in any city is small when compared to the whole of that city’s population.

That said, when I gave a reading at the Miami Book Fair, there were 200 people in the room—the fire marshal had to kick people out and shut the doors—and I swear less than a third of the crowd was related to me. My reading at Books & Books—which I think is one of the best independent book stores in the country, and it’s ours!—was also packed. So the readers are out there, the community support is out there.

The idea of Miami as a frivolous place has its roots in the depiction of the city on TV and in movies, though I think us natives sometimes buy into that depiction ourselves and perpetuate it to some extent. People visit Miami, spend four days on South Beach, and go home thinking, This place is a joke! Little do they realize that I when I trek from Hialeah to South Beach, I too find Ocean Drive to be frivolous. So Miami’s frivolity is true but not complete: it’s not the whole picture, just as the White House and politics are not the whole of Washington DC.

I think there are many cool things happening in Miami’s literary scene—this magazine being one of them—but since I live up north, I sadly feel somewhat apart from them. I wish that weren’t the case.

How much time took for you to write the stories of How to Leave Hialeah ? 

I wrote the book over about three or four years. Some of the stories in it, I completed fairly quickly, over the course of a month or so. Some I kept revising and reworking for much longer, the longest one in there taking a few years. Once I realized all the stories were forming into a book—that they were all set in or around Hialeah—the whole project came together over a few months.

Is there a Spanish version of How to Leave Hialeah?  how-to-leave

No, but there should be! A lot of those decisions are out of the writer’s hands. I asked my agent at the time about foreign rights and translations, and she said there was no serious interest—short stories are hard to sell, and even harder to get translated, and a bunch of phone calls from my abuela and her friends don’t count as serious interest.

This probably goes back to the idea that people in Miami don’t read—or, more accurately, they don’t buy books, so there’s nothing in it for a publisher to put out a Spanish version that they feel won’t sell based on the track record of similar books that have come before it. If anyone reading this wants to publish a Spanish version of How To Leave Hialeah out there, you should call me!

 How to Leave Hialeah constantly plays with the language. You combine Spanish with English phrases (resulting in a sort of “Spanglish”, lets say). Tell us about your “relationship” with language. Was it difficult for you to get to that tone of voice or it just came spontaneous?

I grew up speaking Spanish and English in my home, but the further I went into my education—middle school, high school—the more English became the language I felt more comfortable with. Like a lot of people born in this country but whose parents were born elsewhere, I find that, when I’m home, my parents speak to me in Spanish and I respond in English and we all seem to communicate just fine. That ease between languages shows up in my fiction, and that tone/voice that you’re describing is not something I struggled with at all. Mostly, I tried to honestly depict the way characters think and speak, and that manifests itself in my choice not to italicise any of the Spanish in the book. To me, italics mark a word as “other” or foreign, but the Spanish words are, for the characters, neither other or foreign—they are simply the words they would use, so it felt wrong—maybe I mean dishonest?—to mark them as distinct via the typescript.

 Most of the stories of How to Leave Hialeah refer to Cuba. For example, in the story “And in the Morning Work”, you place its plot in a Cigar factory at Pinar del Río. What is Cuba for you ? Have you ever been there or it’s just an imaginary fictional universe?

I have never been to Cuba for various personal reasons that mostly involve me wanting to be respectful of the things my family has been through. It doesn’t feel right to go there as a tourist—and anyone visiting Cuba as an American is a tourist—when my parents and grandparents felt they couldn’t go back to see relatives before they passed away, etc. It feels disrespectful to my family right now, but I know time softens these kinds of feelings. That said, it feels odd that I’ve never been there considering how much I’ve heard about it, how much the stories set in Cuba about my family’s history have informed who I am and what I write about. I still have family there that I’ve only met when they’ve visited Miami. The question of returning/not returning is something I’m exploring actively in my new work. It’s something I think about often lately.

Do you find yourself  identified with any character of the stories of your book?

Well, I sort of identify with all of them, because they all came from my imagination, you know? I’ve given each of them some of my anger, some of my grief. I’ve given them my obsessions and worries and watched how they’d handle them. At the same time, the beauty of fiction is that you get to make things up, and I know a character is real when they surprise me, when they do something I would never do.

Do you read Hispanic or Latinamerican authors? If yes, which ones. If no, why?

I teach Latino Literature at Florida State University, so I’m constantly reading old and new heroes. You guys recently interviewed Manuel Muñoz, and last semester I taught his collection, The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue to my undergraduates. Recently, I met Justin Torres at a conference and read his first book, We the Animals, which is gorgeous. I read like crazy, all the time, though I do pay particular attention to the Latino Lit scene, even before I started teaching Latino Literature. I think it’s incredibly important to be a good literary citizen.

Are you currently working on a new book? If yes, can we expect something similar to How to Leave Hialeah, with Miami as its main scenario?

The novel I recently completed is set in both Miami (Little Havana, to be specific) as well as in upstate New York. This time around, I’m using more than one setting to draw explicit attention to the depictions of Miami versus the realities of being from this city—to have a character outright deal with expectations based on her hometown. It picks up on several of the themes raised in the collection’s title story, so I think readers will find some recognizable aspects, but it’s pretty different in the way it handles Miami’s politics. I mostly try to shy away from them in the story collection. The novel did not let me do that. It was a very exciting challenge to work through.

Thank you so much !

No, thank YOU! This was very fun!