Telling the stories of an immigrant community

Cristina Henriquez

Author Cristina HenrĂ­quez to speak at Jamison Lecture Thursday

April 10, 2023 – DENTON – Author Cristina Henríquez has spent her life in two worlds, the America of its native-born citizens and the America that is the dream of the immigrant, and she's dismayed that what passes for immigration debate misses the reason behind immigration debate.

It's not about hyperventilation over border invasions or fences. Not crowds of immigrants bused to Washington or New York or Chicago. Not civilians in SUVs watching the Rio Grande or mounted officers splashing through the river in pursuit of men, women and children carrying their worldly goods in a trash bag.

Immigration is about people. And immigrants are getting lost in discussions about immigration.

"I think that's part of what this book was born out of, a sort of frustration with the coverage, a feeling like there was only one story being told," said Henríquez, who will be the featured speaker at the 2023 Jamison Lecture at Texas Woman's University. "Ordinary people and their ordinary experiences were being left out of the conversation. They're not just paperwork, they're not just pawns. They're real flesh-and-blood people with real lives and real stories."

Those flesh-and-blood, ordinary people are the subject of Henríquez's novel, The Book of Unknown Americans. People like Maribel and Mayor, the two young people that readers followed and cared about and came to love in the pages of Henríquez's 2014 novel.

"I wrote this book to be about immigrants more than about immigration," Henríquez said. "I wanted to focus on the people whose lives are affected by some of the policies that are put in place and debated, and I have seen a lot of compassion for that, actually. But I think there are times where what gets lost is that everybody has a story. Everybody is a human being who is sort of looking for all of the same things, has the same kinds of hopes and fears and dreams and desires that everybody else has. Sometimes that can get lost in the shuffle."

Henríquez will make her first visit to TWU for the eighth annual Jamison Lecture this Thursday, April 13, 2023, at 7 p.m. in the Phyllis J. Bridges Auditorium in the Student Union at Hubbard Hall. The lecture is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

"I think we're going to have sort of on-stage kind of conversation," Henríquez said. "Certainly talk about the book and then probably about immigration, since that's some of the context of the book."

Henríquez's background in the immigrant and American experience positioned her to tell those stories. Her father came to the United States from Panama and her mother is from New Jersey. Henríquez was born in Delaware but spent summers in Panama, and she has a strong connection to her father's homeland and its people.

"While I was writing this book, my mom and I were talking about the way immigrants were typically portrayed in the media. And she said, 'No one from the newspaper is ever going to call Pop and ask him for his story.' I thought, as a writer, that I had some power to do something about that and to tell these kind of ordinary stories that I thought maybe were missing."

Dealing with such a polarizing subject and daring to put a face on the faceless, Henríquez braced for criticism. The response to the novel, however, has been gratifying.

"I expected actually to have more pushback against some of the themes of this book, and what I've seen has been actually quite the opposite," she said. "From what I see having had the privilege of talking about this book in many different places around the country, I think there are a lot of people who want to do something, want to help, feel a lot of natural empathy. But there are people who feel overwhelmed, feel like it's a big systemic change that needs to happen and don't know exactly what they can do as individuals."

Henríquez certainly has demonstrated the writing chops to tell these stories.

It's a bit of a cliché to call an author "acclaimed." A publisher can generally round up a couple of endorsements or reviews to reinforce such a label. In Henríquez's case, however, acclaimed is demonstrably, woefully inadequate.

Her 2009 debut novel, The World In Half, earned praise from The Washington Post, Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and The Chicago Sun Times. Fantastic as that was, it was just the warmup act.

cover of The Book of Unknown Americans

In 2014, Henríquez published The Book of Unknown Americans, and its reception from critics and readers is the stuff of every writer's dreams.

Named a notable book by The New York Times and The Washington Post; a great read by National Public Radio; Novel of the Year by The Daily Beast; and best book of the year by Mother Jones,, School Library Journal, and BookPage.

Reviews called the novel vivid. Striking. Powerful. Moving. Passionate. A triumph of storytelling. Gripping. Memorable. Remarkable. Lyrical. Exquisite. Profound. Beautiful. Unfailingly well written and entertaining.

But also notable is Henríquez's ability to tell these tales while deftly avoiding ham-handed preaching, and she does this by immersing the reader in the senses, feelings and world of her characters.

“The politics of immigration, while never explicitly argued, remain subtly in play, as do more existential matters affecting immigrants, such as the mixed national and cultural allegiances and affiliations between the generations," Kevin Nance wrote in the Chicago Tribune.

The novel was also described as "genuinely devastating." That was not by accident.

"I tend to enjoy reading or movie-watching that get to an emotion that I might not experience in my normal life," Henríquez said. "I think that's part of what art is for, is to allow you the time and space to practice feeling those kinds of things. Part of my aim was to give that experience to readers as well. But the story unfolded over about 20 different drafts, and so the exact directions that it was going to go and how it would all play out was not quite clear from the get go."

Of course, that kind of emotional content leads readers to develop deep feelings for characters and haven't had enough when they finish the last page of the book.

"They want to know what happens to Maribel and Mayor," Henríquez said. "Are they ever going to see each other again? They beg me to write a sequel. I'm like, I have no idea. I spent five years with these characters, and I was ready to just turn the last page and close that file. It's for you guys now to figure out."

Although a sequel to The Book of Unknown Americans is not on the horizon, readers won't have to wait much longer for Henríquez's next novel. Slated for publication in Spring 2024 under the working title The Great Cut, it's historical fiction about the construction of the Panama Canal.

It's a significant departure from The Book of Unknown Americans in the amount of research required, research that can take on a life of its own. One fascinating fact leads to another, one source leads to another and another and another. Research can quickly devolve into running down endless rabbit holes.

"It was hard to know where to stop," Henríquez said. "It was fascinating to learn a lot of history and what went into that project, but at some point, you have to reel yourself in and remind yourself this is about the characters. Don't get bogged down in the details."

Passion for a subject, however, is a strong motivator to see the task to completion.

"It's a book I've wanted to write for the last 15 or 20 years," Henríquez said. "I've just been walking around with this idea in my head that I would one day write a big novel about the Panama Canal. It's so rich. There's so many intersections of storylines there between medicine and engineering and race and nationhood. There's so much to pick up on. I spent the last few years working on it with great joy, and I'm really excited for it to come out."

The publication of a novel is what every writer looks forward to, even those who have already published. It is not possible to sufficiently express the feeling of a writer holding in their hands something that for so long has existed only in their imagination.

"It's an amazing thing when the box of books come to your house and you realize it's going to be in a bookstore and maybe you go and you see it in a bookstore," Henríquez said. "All of that kind of stuff is exhilarating, and I always try to think back to the time when I was in college and I wanted to be a writer so badly, and I had no idea how to make that happen. And I ran up against a number of rejections in a number of different ways. And it's still amazing to me to think that this is what I get to do every day and make a life of it. That's pretty magical."

That magic is reward for hard work and the inevitable rejections from trying to break through into traditional publishing. But there is a deeper satisfaction in the creation. Authors often speak of getting as much pleasure from writing as readers do from reading.

"For me, the real joy is during the time that I'm just alone with the work and I'm working on it and things are becoming clear to me and connections are being made and characters are forming, and that period of solitude when you're just working every day and you're so enmeshed in the work itself."

That's a powerful draw to return to writing, even if there isn't a new project in mind. Henríquez isn't sure what's next.

"I wish I knew," she said. "I'm finishing up this current book, so your mind starts to cast forward. What's next? And I don't know quite yet where I'm going to land. There's no one burning topic that I know of, but I'm sure it will still have something to do with Panama. I think that space, that place just animates me in a way that nothing else does."

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Page last updated 3:25 PM, April 4, 2023