Jennine Capó Crucet is the author of the novel Make Your Home Among Strangers (St. Martin’s Press). The book is a New York Times Editor’s Choice, winner of the 2016 International Latino Book Award, and cited as a best book of the year by NBC Latino and the Miami Herald. Crucet is a contributing op-ed writer for the New York Times and teaches at the University of Nebraska.
Make Your Home Among Strangers is the 2017-18 University Common Reading for incoming students at Holy Names University. The book follows Lizet Ramirez, a first-generation college student, as she navigates her first year in college.
Jennine Capó Crucet was interviewed by HNU Student Jefferson Cortave.
Jefferson Cortave: How would you introduce your book to an audience that is not familiar with the story?
Jennine Capó Crucet: Ultimately, it’s the idea of being somewhere you didn’t expect to be and figuring out how to make a home in that place.
You dedicated your book to three students that you worked with at a non-profit, One Voice, in Los Angeles. How did they inspire you to write this story?
Jose, Mark, and Angelica were three students I met while working as a counselor at One Voice. They Googled me, found out I was a writer, and independently found my first book. After reading my book they started asking me for recommendations on books that would reflect the experience of going off to college, and being the first in your family to do so. I realized that the book I wanted to give them didn’t exist yet. I realized that I had to write it. It was a part of my job calling as a writer, and also as a counselor
Thank you for writing this book. I found the story so relatable for myself and fellow first-generation students. How did you find Lizet’s voice and character?
Part of the process of writing any novel is learning about that main character. I wanted to figure out who Lizet was and the only way I could do that was to write the book. I imagined she was a friend of mine and she was telling me the story of a year in her life. It sounds a little kooky, but that is a lot of what writing is, listening to voices that you believe are real.
Were there similarities between your own first year in college and Lizet’s? Did you draw inspiration from your experience?
Yes, a lot of the feelings Lizet had I felt as well, but literal plot elements had nothing in common with my actual lived experience. I definitely felt her homesickness. My family wasn’t totally aware of what was happening while I was at school and that worry translated into a lot of guilt for me.
I’ve been really lucky to have parents who support me in my education and life choices. Lizet’s family wasn’t as supportive. Do you have advice for first-generation college students whose families are not supportive?
That’s part of why I wrote this book. My family was supportive but they didn’t quite understand what kind of support I needed. Often their form of support was telling me, “you can come home whenever you want.” That’s not a family's default response when you come from a college-going family.
I want students who are doing this to know that they are not alone. I wrote the book, not just for those three students at One Voice, but for myself. If I had found this book when I was 18, 19, or even 25, I would have known that this is normal. There are so many people going through this same thing, we need to find each other and offer each other support. My advice is to seek out other first-generation students so you don’t feel alone on campus. And understand that your experience is a valid one.
At HNU we have an orientation workshop for first-generation college students. It was very comforting going to that orientation and knowing that I’m not alone, there are students that look just like me and have similar backgrounds.
In the book, Lizet’s Dad tells her, “you’re not Cuban.” Can you speak about the tension you explore in your book about not being American enough and not being Cuban enough?
In my writing, I put these questions out there and try to define them clearly so that readers can talk about them. I have a hyphenated identity as a Cuban-American. What’s interesting is how it’s context dependent. When Lizet is on campus she feels the Cuban aspect of her identity on the forefront, that’s the main identity category that she feels reflected back at her, but in Miami that’s not the case.
That’s something I struggle with myself. Am I American? Or am I Guatemalan because that’s where my parents are from? I’m American on one side, but when people see me they see a Latino. They see all these different identities that are placed on us.
College is a place where we start thinking about these questions because we are reading so much and we are meeting so many people that are like us or not like us. It’s a real exciting time. It’s also baffling.
In our current political climate, how do you feel this novel will resonate with readers?
My hope for the book is that it’s a tool for empathy. I hope the novel convinces people of the humanity of people that are not like them. Lizet does not want to talk about [political issues] with anybody on her campus, she just wants to deal with her family. It comes to the forefront at the end of the novel that, that is political, it is a choice. The personal is very political, for all Americans.
At various times Lizet thought “I’m Cuban, I should speak up for this,” but held herself back. I felt her internal struggle.
Think about the stress that puts on someone. I know I felt that in college. Part of what I wanted to get across [in the book] is how much added stress is put on, not just first-generation college students, but students from low-income families, and families of color.
Did you feel like the shock of your first college experience prepared and shaped you for a professional life?
I wouldn’t be where I am without the experience of going to college. College was a space where I was allowed to figure out who I was. I needed the freedom that came with that space. It was in college that I accepted and understood that I was a writer and that I could make a life out of it. Even if I didn’t make a career out of it, I could make a life out of it.
Jefferson Cortave will graduate in May 2018 from Holy Names University with a Bachelor of Arts in Criminology with a Sociology concentration. He is a Peer Mentor at HNU and is completing an internship at Fresh Lifelines for Youth (FLY). He is a first-generation college student.
Interview edited by Stephanie Silva