When a Novel Demands to Be Written
Jennine Capó Crucet Turns Fear and Frustration Into Fiction
It’s hard for me to explain this, but Make Your Home Among Strangers came to me almost fully formed one afternoon in March of 2010. I was sitting in a meeting as part of my then-job. Like a lot of unreasonably optimistic people, I gave the brightest years of my twenties to a nonprofit—an LA-based organization called One Voice, where I served as a counselor/mentor to first-generation college kids.
The students we worked with were from low-income families, were about to be the first in their families to go to college, and were also bright as hell.
About halfway through our group meeting, one girl—one tough, brilliant young woman who is very dear to my heart because of how much our lives have in common—started crying and saying she wasn’t really smart enough to go to the ridiculously selective and awesome college that had accepted her. And then, as she went on about her fears and her sense that she was destined to fail, that she should go somewhere “more at her level” for college if she even went at all, the other kids in the circle started nodding their heads and saying that they felt the exact same way.
I was immediately thrown back ten years to myself at 18, having the exact same fears, and I lost it. All that dark horribleness, that sense of internalized oppression, rose up out of me—I had to excuse myself from the meeting, and I spent maybe ten minutes pulling myself together in the bathroom of my boss’ house.
It was there that the narrator’s voice came to me—urgent and clear—as I sat on the closed lid of my boss’ toilet, and it was there that I literally started writing this book, in a small notebook I kept in my bag, which I’d had the foresight to drag into the bathroom with me.
Humble beginnings, yeah, but that voice—that of Lizet, the novel’s protagonist—found me every day, yelled at me when I wasn’t working hard enough, pushed me to write and to tell her story. It was a blessing and a curse, actually: to have a book’s narrator make those kinds of demands of you.
Many elements of the novel never changed from how they came to me that day in the meeting: The book is set in both Miami and New York in 1999-2000, around the time the Elian Gonzalez immigration ordeal was unfolding. Like me and like the students I worked with, Lizet is the first in her family to go to college—she’s the first in her family to graduate from high school, too—and she’s struggling enough on campus as it is when her first year gets abruptly politicized both at school and at home.
Along with the political drama Lizet works to navigate, I imagined the book to be this fictional road map of the first-generation college student’s experience, one that shows some of the ugly things race and class differences force on us. I didn’t know it at the time, but on the day I earned my B.A., I’d become part of a surprisingly small percentage of minority students from low-income families admitted to college in the first place to do so—most of us first-gen kids from that demographic drop out, so the graduation rate hovers at a little over 20 percent. Statistically speaking, I should’ve slipped through the cracks in college. I probably shouldn’t have made it to graduation day.
And I would’ve left that campus, I think, had it not been for the fact that I joined a sketch comedy group halfway through freshman year, and the friends I made there are still the best I have. (Something I told my One Voice students over and over again: Join a club based on some interest you’ve always had but that your high school didn’t provide.)
I also constantly hung out in the office of the professor who would become my mentor via her very existence—the writer Helena Maria Viramontes, the only Latina teaching in the creative writing program at the time—and seeing her on that campus made me feel like maybe I could stick around, too. Professor Viramontes gave me books and introduced me to writers she knew I needed to read, and so it makes sense that, years later, I would write the book I’d needed to feel less alone and afraid, a book that speaks to anyone looking to navigate the unknown—a book, it turns out, that I didn’t have much choice but to write.