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.

What else do you miss about your hometown now that you're based in L.A.?

I miss knowing where to get a great café con leche on the cheap. And I miss Power 96! I know they kind of play the same 18 songs in a row all day long, but seriously, that station was the soundtrack to my life. Thank God I can stream it live off the Internet. I also miss my family and not being around for the day-to-day stuff, like if the dog peed in the house or if my sister backed up into the fence again.

What literary role models influenced you along the way?

I don't know if they count as literary (they certainly do to me), but my abuela and my mom are master storytellers. Almost everything I've learned about dialogue, plot, and suspense I picked up from them. And Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God taught me that you could get that oral tradition on the page. That and all those Superfudge books by Judy Blume. Those were the shit!

You've experienced being Latina in Miami, the Northeast, the Midwest, and now the West Coast. Any observations you care to share?

I don't recommend living in the Midwest unless you're in Chicago. L.A. is great, but I can't find the Cubans. Oh! I did find one — in Echo Park, there's a bust of José Martí's head! Maybe I should tell Pitbull about it. I think anyone who reads the book will figure out real quick that you can't really leave where you're from, but also that you don't really want to.

Upon leaving Hialeah, the protagonist in the title story is confronted with rabid stereotyping. How do you deal with this sort of thing?

I deal with it the only way I know how — by calling it out. Outside of Miami, I get a lot of "You must like to dance!" or "You're pretty feisty and fiery!" I just ask outright: "Why would you think that?" When people realize their answer is "Because you're Cuban and from Miami," I think they pretty much realize what they're doing on the spot. In writing, as is the case of the title story, the use of the second person let's me get at that immediately.

You'll return as a hometown hero for the Miami Book Fair in November. Excited?

I'm not a hero! Can I be a hometown hottie instead? Hometown hippo, maybe? But I am super-excited. As a kid, I always dreamed of being an author reading at the Miami Book Fair, and I still can't really believe it's happening. Anyone who comes by and sees me can expect a hug and a kiss, and of course some free swag.

What kind of free swag? Lollipops? Cupcakes?

Some kind of candy, for sure. But also, my husband and I have been working on an EP of original songs inspired by the stories in the book. The songs take minor characters and give them a little more space or sometimes open up the stories in a new direction. It's mostly just for fun. I'll be giving it away to anyone who buys a copy of How to Leave Hialeah at the fair and anywhere else I happen to be.

You manage a balance of fierce compassion and uncompromising truth incredibly well in your storytelling. Will any of your characters find their way into your next book?

I'm not sure. Some of them, like Luis from "The Next Move" and Sandra in "Men Who Punched Me in the Face" may still have something to say. Also, I'm incredibly worried about Rebecca and Jovany in "Drift" — I didn't leave them in a good place. I'm working on a novel now and I can see some of these characters finding their way into its pages, at least in some small way. Of course, the novel is set in Hialeah, so they all have to run into each other at Sedano's eventually.

That brings me to your background in performing and writing comedy. You and your husband met while performing in a sketch comedy troupe at Cornell. Have you considered adapting any of the stories in How to Leave Hialeah for the stage or screen?

That would be awesome! But no, I haven't. I know that my comedy roots and time as a member of a sketch group definitely influenced the way I wrote the stories and staged them on the page. And some of them did start off as just funny riffs on something but eventually became bigger ideas, and then naturally, stories.

Can you talk about that process a bit?

The more time characters hang out in your head, the more nuanced they get. You start to see the dark side of what makes them tick, and sometimes what's found there isn't funny at all. The story “El Destino Hauling,” for instance, started off as this funny story about a fight at a funeral. Very Que Pasa, USA?. But the more time I spent with that narrator on the page, the more I realized that she wasn't laughing.

I have to say the Nandos in that story are among my favorite in the collection.

Those guys crack me up, but there's something really sad about the lives they're leading. I like hanging out in that writerly place between cracking up and crying.

How do you feel about ex-boyfriends reading your book?

I think they should all buy multiple copies. It is, after all, a work of fiction. No real ex-boyfriends were harmed in the making of this book.

The Society for the Protection of Ex-Boyfriends will be very happy to hear that.

Like they really need their own society.

So what advice do you have for aspiring young writers?

Read everything you can get your hands on. And believe in your voice.

What are your hopes for your future in writing?

I think of my job description as this: to exercise compassion by creating and shaping a sensory experience that ultimately inspires compassion in others. I want to do my job and do it well.

And you do! Thanks, Jennine!

Thanks, Patricia!

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