The first day of Jennine Capó Crucet's writing workshop at Florida State University in 2013, where I was a student, she made our class stand up and do an improv exercise. It made me sweaty and uncomfortable, but it was a necessary lesson in trust. We'd be sharing a lot of personal work with one another over the next semester, and after standing in a circle, beating our chests like gorillas, that would be a little easier to do. Back then, Capó Crucet was a creative-writing professor teaching short-story writing.
As a teacher, she possesses many of the same qualities you can read in her work: empathy, humor, and a genuine curiosity about her fellow humans. She taught us that any writer who spends time in a checkout line staring at his or her cell phone is missing out on invaluable opportunities to observe the quirks of fellow shoppers. She emphasized the importance of treating our characters like people and critiqued each short story as a serious work of art, which, if you've ever sat through a college fiction workshop, you know ain't easy.
I remember one time a student asked her: "How do you read all of these?"
She blinked and said, "Well, it's my job."
"I really just didn't think there was anything that spoke accurately to their experience, so I started writing it."
Back then she was still working on her debut novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers. She patiently answered our questions about what it was like to be a real writer, and after explaining how she'd been subsisting almost exclusively on string cheese and prunes, suddenly it didn't seem so glamorous.
The novel came out this past August. Make Your Home Among Strangers follows Lizet Ramirez as she navigates the uncertain waters of being a first-generation college student.
"I've been going all over the country, and people identifying with a Cuban-American girl from Miami is really awesome," she says. "I think it means I did something right."
Make Your Home Among Strangers is a story Miami deserves, one that both brutally and tenderly shows the ways in which being a "minority friend" (as Capó Crucet, a first-generation Cuban college student herself, was once introduced at Cornell) can slowly chip away at a person's confidence and identity through a series of micro-aggressions.
"I don't think people know that those things are hurtful," Capó Crucet says. Some of those things include when
The book was inspired by and dedicated to the first-generation college students Capó Crucet worked with at a scholars program called One Voice in Los Angeles. "They were nervous about the experience and wanted to know what [college] was going to be like and if there was something they could read that would show them themselves on the page. And I really just didn't think there was anything that spoke accurately to their experience, so I started writing it."
It's hard to believe there aren't more of these stories out there. But it's safe to assume, as long as Jennine Capó Crucet has enough prunes and string cheese, she'll continue to tell them, for Miami's sake.