91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Novel Highlights The Shocks Facing First-Generation College Students

Jennine Capó Crucet was the first person in her family to be born in the United States. Her parents came to Florida from Cuba, and she grew up in Hialeah, a suburb of Miami that is 95 percent Hispanic.

For Crucet, going to Cornell was a bit of a shock — she was the first person in her family to attend college at all, let alone at a prestigious school in upstate New York.

"You leave home and then when you come back you have a kind of perspective that you didn't have before that in some way problematizes your relationship with your family," she tells NPR's Arun Rath. "You just start to be able to have a sort of double vision about them and who they are and how you grew up that can be really painful."

Inspired by her experiences and family stories, she wrote the story collection How to Leave Hialeah. Now, she's the author of a new novel called Make Your Home Among Strangers.

It follows an 18-year-old Lizet leaving Miami and going to a fancy school, just like Crucet did.

To hear the full conversation, click the audio link above.

Interview Highlights

On why she chose to write the book

I used to work for a non-profit organization where I worked as a mentor and a counselor to first-generation college students and they kept asking me, "What can I read to try to know what I'm about to be in for," and while I did have some good suggestions, I figured ... I don't know that that book is out there and that's sort of why I had to write it.

On a storyline modeled on the Elián González case

It's the 15th anniversary of him being deported, which happened in June of 2000. People really saw themselves in a big way in Elián González's story. ... I wasn't a very politically conscious 18-year-old, but I was on a campus that was with all these brilliant people ... I felt like they knew everything, and people kept asking me what I thought, and I was like, "I don't have any thoughts. I'm not paying a lot of attention to it, I'm just trying to study and get ready for these exams or get ready for this prelim or make friends."

And so part of the question for me was, "What if I was from a family that was more involved in it," or, "What if I had been a little more aware of the things that were going on?"

Like her book's protagonist, Jennine Capó Crucet is also the daughter of Cuban immigrants.
Alexander Lumans / Courtesy Of St. Martin's Press
Courtesy Of St. Martin's Press
Like her book's protagonist, Jennine Capó Crucet is also the daughter of Cuban immigrants.

On how the recent changes in Cuban relations could affect Cubans in America

I think the novel in some ways is trying to answer that. It's gonna be a huge shift in your sense of identity. ... I think for a long time people in the community have sort of defined themselves in really polarizing terms ... You know, it's easy to say "This is my narrative. This is my story, and I won't go back because I can't." But what if you could? ...

I think there's a real need for literature and for music and for art that's gonna speak to these big shifts and try to help us find a way through.

On the question of planning a visit to Cuba

It seems disrespectful to my parents who left ... to hear their story over and over again which always ends with ... "and I'll never go back as long as anyone in the Castro family is in power." Well, what happens if you can go back? Would you want to see things?

You know, my grandmother before she passed away was like, "Ah forget it. I would totally go back." You know, she always said, "I just want to see my house. I want to see the church I got married in. I want to see my old classroom." ... But, you know, that's the kind of thing that I think if she knew I were saying it on the radio, she'd be like "No diga eso," you know, she'd be like "Don't tell people I said that." ...

Also Cuba exists as a story in my mind and I really like that story, and it's a gift in a lot of ways from my family. And, so, to go back would be to have to revise it in a way that I don't know I'm ready to do ... It's really nice in my head. It's a really sweet story, and the reality of it might not be something I'm ready for.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR Staff