Jennine Capó Crucet on Her New Novel, Miami, and Pitbull

In many respects, Jeanine Capó Crucet's debut novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, is a classic coming of age tale. Lizet Ramirez is the daughter of Cuban immigrants, born and raised in Miami, she leaves the proverbial nest to attend Rawlings College, an elite East coast university. While at Rawlings, Lizet must learn to navigate a privileged world that's virtually foreign to the Little Havana-raised Lizet. In the midst of Lizet's turmoil, her parents divorce and her hometown is rocked by Ariel Hernandez, a fictionalized Elian Gonzalez.

You might recognize Capó Crucet's name from her much-praised book of short stories, How to Leave Hialeah; a book we named Best Book by a Local Author in 2010.  Make Your Home Among Strangers expounds on many of the themes present in How to Leave Hialeah: identity, ethnicity and class.  It's a playful and touching look at Miami and the lives that are lived in it, and it’s definitely worth reading. Capó Crucet just might be the literary voice that the Magic City has been waiting for. 

New Times spoke to Capó Crucet about the novel, growing up in Miami, and her recent move to Nebraska where she's an Assistant Professor at the University of Nebraska. 

New Times: I want to start with a question that I think is terrible and should never be posed to woman writer because it's sexist and undermines the notion of creative independence. Yet, since I know you, I find myself needing to ask it anyway: How much of this book is autobiographical?

Jennine Capó Crucet: Noooooooo no no no no no. Come on! AHHHHH!

Okay, okay, fine: The book is totally autobiographical, so much so that my real name is actually Lizet Ramirez, but I changed it when I turned 18. Okay, for real for real: Like Lizet, I'm a first-generation college student. Like Ethan, I was an RA in college. Like Omar, I was really into my car when I was in high school. That's about it for the autobiographical elements.

Do you hate being asked that question?
I do, I do. But only because of the reasons you mentioned. If every writer got asked this, I don't think I'd mind it at all.

A fictional Elian Gonzalez provides the backdrop for quite a bit of Make Your Home Among Strangers. Can you maybe talk a bit about the demands placed on Lizet to translate a "foreign" culture to her white counterparts? Especially since Miami itself is often coded as a "foreign" place in the rest of America. 
It's a result of her being one of the few people of color on her campus, but also a consequence of whiteness being the default (both on her campus and in the United States in general). I think it's weird that Miami is viewed as foreign to a lot of Americans: in many ways, it's the quintessential American city. But I think of Target as the quintessential American store, so maybe I have weird ideas?

Following up on that , your book grapples with identity, namely what it means to be the child of immigrants, how to navigate two seemingly different cultures — I think of the scene where Lizet's asked by her classmates, "Where are you from from?" Can you talk a bit about your own experiences with that and the challenges of translating that into fiction?
I've been asked that question so many times and it always makes me think about where it's coming from for the person asking it. I think a lot of times, they are trying to figure out where I'm from from so that they know what set of assumptions to make about my life, which is of course extremely problematic. I've started countering it by asking the same question right back, and if the asker is a white American, they are almost always confused that I'm asking. Then there's some uncomfortable laughter and in my head, I'm like: TEACHABLE MOMENT, HIGH-FIVE!

As far as translating that into fiction, I think the key is leaving the analysis out of it. It's my job to just tell the story and set the scene as accurately and as specifically and as viscerally as possible. Let the reader do the analyzing.

You recently moved to Nebraska; how does a born and bred Miamian fit in the Cornhusker State? Still 305 for life?
305 for life, always. I don't have a choice in that, as it informs everything I do and the way I see the world.

But how am I fitting in at Nebraska? Surprisingly well, so far. People are pretty blunt and straight-forward there, which I admire and respect. I got coffee at this one place near my apartment, and I said to the barista, "This coffee is excellent!" And then she said, "Actually if you like this, you'd probably like this other coffee shop more, as they do it better." And then she proceeded to give me directions to a rival coffee shop. Which is very much a Nebraskan quality, I'm told.

And people work hard there, too, which I also admire and which makes me feel very at home. Fun fact: I'll be teaching at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, and the department I'm joining is actually more diverse than where I was teaching before,  I was the only Latina in a department of around 50 — despite the fact that our student population was 16-18%  Latino. So yeah, I'm making my home among strangers, big time.

Is Pitbull our greatest cultural treasure?
Pitbull is a sonic plague. I cannot wait until he disappears into obscurity. I'm hoping this happens any minute now. (COME AT ME, BRO!!) Seriously, I didn't mind him until he cited Jose Martí as an influence in an interview. Yeah, I'm totally seeing the Father of Cuban Independence in those lyrics. Sure I am.

Are you working on a new book, basking in the limelight, or both? 
I'm working on something new — another novel. No joke, my influences on it so far are Pitbull and Jose Martí.

Capó Crucet will read from her novel at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Books & Books (265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables). Admission is free. Visit
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Stassa Edwards
Contact: Stassa Edwards