Hialeah Homecoming

Meet Jennine Capó Crucet, the next literary big thing.

Jennine Capó Crucet was born in 1981 in Hialeah, the child of Cuban exile parents from Havana. She attended American Senior High School and then earned an undergraduate degree from Cornell University. She now lives in Los Angeles, where her husband is pursuing a postdoctoral degree in physics at UCLA, but she still refers to Hialeah as home.

On September 1, her debut short fiction collection, How to Leave Hialeah, was published by the University of Iowa Press ($16) after winning the 2009 John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Crucet is the first Latina winner in the 40-year history of the prize. The book has received glowing reviews from writers including Julia Alvarez and Charles Baxter and from publications such as the Daily Beast and Publishers Weekly. Recently, she was nominated for the upcoming Best New American Voices anthology.

In August 2008, when she was awarded a fellowship to attend the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers' Conference (the former stomping ground of Robert Frost and Willa Cather), she met another scholarship winner now living in Miami, author Patricia Engel. Sharing the common bond of Spanish and an attraction to the strange allure of the Magic City, the two became fast friends.

Now they're both on the fast track to literary stardom. This summer, Engel received a two-book deal from Grove/Atlantic and will be featured in the 2010 Atlantic Monthly fiction issue. Upon the occasion of the release of Crucet's book, Engel interviewed her friend and colleague about Miami as literary fodder, what it feels like to get that first book published, and the common ground between Pitbull and José Martí. P. Scott Cunningham

Patricia: The rumor is that you almost didn't enter the University of Iowa fiction contest.

Jennine: That's true, actually. I learned about the contest about one day before the postmark deadline. So I printed the whole book out and read through it, thinking I'd mail it in the next day. After reading it, though, I thought the order of the stories was off, that maybe there were other stories — stories I hadn't written yet — that would eventually be in there. Plus, only two of the stories in the book had been published at that point, and I thought I had no chance of winning this super-prestigious prize. I left the book on my desk and figured I'd try for the next year. I was so depressed and discouraged about my writing that I remember calling it a day and crawling into bed, wishing I hadn't wasted the paper to print the thing out. The next morning, my husband was headed off to work, and he woke me, the manuscript in his hands. He asked if I needed him to take it to the post office — the mailing address for the prize was still up on my computer screen. I told him no. He asked how much the entry fee was, and I told him there wasn't one. He told me I had nothing to lose, might as well send it. I covered my head with a pillow and mumbled, "Fine, whatever." I spent the rest of that day imagining what the rejection letter would look like, how I would try to convince myself I didn't care. I'd gotten enough rejections — what's one more? But I couldn't manage to convince myself I'd be OK. This was my whole book being rejected. I tried to forget about it, and with the move to L.A. and all the other things going on in my life, I managed to do that. When I got the call saying I'd won, I actually vomited — it was happy vomit!

The book has received an incredible response and been widely praised. What inspired your particular vision of Miami and the way you chose to write about it?

I was more inspired by the people than the actual landscape. I was always able to find writing by Cubans talking about the exile experience, but that was my parents and grandparents' story. I wanted to read about Cubans for whom Miami had been their only home. Literature reflecting the experience of Miami-born Cubans was hard to find because it didn't really exist yet — we were still being raised. I was inspired by the idea of all these voices, still waiting their turn.

You're the daughter of Cuban exiles, but now you're a Miami exile living in Los Angeles. How has the distance affected your process of writing about home?

It's a little harder to be objective about it — Hialeah can do no wrong from 3,000 miles away. I think all writing comes from some kind of lack, and as long as I'm homesick for Hialeah, my imagination will live there. And I hope I'm not an exile. Have I really been barred?

Certainly not. And hopefully you'll soon receive the key to the city just like Pitbull, another Miami son, who, by the way, cites José Martí as an influence. Any thoughts?

I would like to ask Pitbull how a song like "Culo" is in any way influenced by writing as elegant and inspiring as Martí's. I think he might be mixing up José Martí with Sir Mix-a-Lot.

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