Immigrants, not immigration
Cristina Henriquez did not want to write about immigration, and she didn't want "The Book of Unknown Americans" to be political.
"I wanted to write a book about immigrants — their lives and their experiences," Henriquez told a standing room-only crowd last week at the signature event of Lake Oswego Reads. "There's an idea that you often hear, that people come (to the U.S.) for a better life. That is often true, but I wanted to make a point that (these characters) had a beautiful life. They made a choice to come for a very specific reason."
Published in 2014, "The Book of Unknown Americans" is a story of hopes and dreams, guilt and love. It examines life in America today from the perspective of various immigrants — primarily the Toro and Rivera families — while also offering insights into the lives of others living in the apartment complex where it's set.
The book is at the heart of this year's Lake Oswego Reads, a communitywide reading program that is now in its 13th year. More than 40 events have been planned around the book's themes in February — from food, music and art to discussions about implicit bias and the U.S. immigration system.
For her appearance at Lake Oswego High on Feb. 13, Henriquez told organizers she didn't want to give a formal presentation. Instead, she sat in comfortable chairs in a recreated living room-of-sorts on the LOHS stage and chatted informally with former Library Director Bill Baars. She also answered questions from the audience about the novel and her writing process.
She told Baars that while she didn't want "The Book of Unknown Americans" to be political, she wasn't naive to the possibility that it would be taken that way. "If I say my last name, Henriquez, that in itself is political in this world," she said.
And so she set out to challenge some of the stereotypes that surround immigrants. For example, the novel is intentionally set in Delaware — not just because that's where Henriquez grew up, but because Delaware isn't a place normally associated with immigrants.
"That told me I had to keep it there," she said. "I started to realize that I was trying to portray the idea that people from Mexico are not just one big indistinguishable mass. I wanted to differentiate them, but I also wanted to show that they're just like anybody else."
Henriquez said the novel began as a short story told from only one perspective, as opposed to the 11 narrators contained in the finished novel. She said her editors told her, "We like it, but there's more here" — and it took her five years to complete the award-winning work.
"I went back to the barbecue scene at the apartment complex, for example, and thought 'Who are all of these other people who live in this building?'" Henriquez said. "Maybe that was the 'more.'"
Henriquez's family is from Panama, and she said she visited the country often while growing up. She was inspired by her experiences there and by her life as a Latina in the U.S.
"I tried to take little seeds of what I know or things that I have seen, and try to plant those in the book," she said.
However, Henriquez didn't always feel confident writing about her roots. Originally, she said, "I had come to the conclusion that no one wanted to read it, and that those stories didn't have value. … I only wrote white characters. I thought that's what literature was."
That all changed when Henriquez read an excerpt in a literature anthology from "The House on Mango Street," by Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros. She said she realized, "You can put a character named Carlos in a story and that's still literature."
To her surprise, the response that Henriquez has received to the novel has been overwhelming positive. "The Book of Unknown Americans" was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014 and one of Amazon's 10 Best Books of the Year. It was the Daily Beast Novel of the Year, a Washington Post Notable Book, an NPR Great Read and a Target Book of the Month selection.
It was also chosen as one of the best books of the year by BookPage, Oprah.com and School Library Journal, was longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction and was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
"It's been embraced in a way that I did not anticipate at all," she said.
Henriquez told the audience that many people have asked her what she imagines happening to the characters after the dramatic ending of the book. She said she has no idea.
"That's the magical thing about writing. It's a transfer of energy," she said. "A reader breathes life into it in a way that the author never intended. …They imagine the lives of the characters beyond the last page."
She also answered an aspiring young writer's question about the creative process with a quote from Martha Graham that she has turned into a poster. It now hangs in her Chicago home, she said, inspiring her every day to keep doing what she does and to strive to do it better.
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it," Graham said. "It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open…
"No artist is pleased," Graham concluded. "(There is) no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."
Lake Oswego Reads events will continue throughout the month. Most are free, thanks to the financial support of the Friends of the Lake Oswego Public Library, the Lake Oswego Rotary Club and The Lake Oswego Review.
For more information and a list of future events, go to www.lakeoswegoreads.org.
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