When does homesickness — that longing for the familiar — become grief for something lost? What the nomad feels in that time and space between longing and mourning are some of the feelings explored in Jennine Capó Crucet’s My Time Among the Whites, a collection of autobiographical essays that reflect on her Hialeah childhood and the various places she has lived since. Crucet is scheduled to speak during the Miami Book Fair's Immigrants’ Tales: Nonfiction panel Sunday, November 24, alongside authors Abdi Nor Iftin and Suketu Mehta.
The essays begin with the enormous culture shock Crucet experienced as a college freshman at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. The discomfort began from her first day landing on campus, as she watched all the other students wave goodbye to their families and realized her family had not been expected to stay for the entire week of freshman orientation. As the first college-bound child of her Cuban immigrant parents, Crucet found herself simultaneously translating for her family, attempting to make friends with other freshmen, and assisting her loved ones with a major life transition. Needless to say, it proved both difficult and confusing.
Despite the fact that her parents would have to take out a second mortgage to finance her years at Cornell, they insisted their daughter take advantage of the “opportunity to transcend the limits of [her] imagination about who [she] might someday be.” But, she notes, “[a] promise is not the same as a guarantee, but we couldn’t yet tell the difference.”
The essays take Crucet from college freshman to tenured professor. (She is an associate professor in the department of English and the Institute for Ethnic Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.) One of the emotional threads permeating her latest work is the bittersweet sting of homesickness. In a 2017 interview, she described it as a “literal ache" and "a productive emotion for me to write from.”
New Times asked Crucet in a recent interview whether that ache had abated somewhat in the past two years. She said it has grown stronger. “I think the ache has only intensified, especially since my sister had a kid and I wish I were around more to show her myself how lucky she is to have been born in Miami," Crucet says.
"And thanks to climate change and how the last two years have propelled us even faster toward sea-level rise," she adds, "I think the ache is starting to convert into a sense of loss, a sense of knowing that the place I grew up will be underwater and, eventually, erased by forces that we could’ve stopped. It’s been a little depressing. These days, with the new novel I’m working on now that this nonfiction book is out, I am mourning, in advance, the loss of Miami to the sea.”
Her words seem foreboding in light of Hurricane Dorian, and in her new book, she weaves in stories of life in America in the periods before and after November 8, 2016. In an essay about her stay on a Nebraska ranch where she went to understand the places that were producing her incoming college students, she notes moments of cultural dislocation, not only for herself, but also for a local rancher, who greeted her Toyota Prius as something unfamiliar and confusing.
She reconnoiters the psychological territories attached to issues of financial security and homeownership in a poignant essay about Carol, the Lincoln financial adviser who guided so many of Crucet’s decisions about savings, investments, and homeownership. Carol fundamentally changed the author’s attitude toward homeownership.
“Before Carol, I’d bought into the idea that buying a house was something you did only when you were on your way to having a family of your own," Crucet says. "But Carol worked hard to reframe that idea for me, from something perpetuated by our culture to something grounded in the financials of my life.” As she notes, the paradox Carol taught her was that “in order to keep an eye on an exit strategy” you had to make forward-thinking financial decisions.
Crucet’s previous published works have both been fiction. So what prompted her turn toward nonfiction, and does she draw from a different part of herself to write it?
“Fiction is my first love and where I most often surprise myself via my imagination — which is my favorite feeling," she says. "Also, I get to hide in a novel. Even if something in a novel is rooted in real life, I still get to say it’s made up, and there’s a tangible safety in that for me. In fiction, the characters tell me what to do, and I live for the moment they take over whatever I was trying to do. But essays can and do speak to current cultural moments in ways novels can’t quite do, and while that means essays are more ephemeral, it also means they can feel more immediately relevant — and so they can urge people to take direct, immediate action in ways that novels have to do implicitly.
"Essays can respond directly to cultural ills in ways readers want and expect," she continues. "When novels do that — directly, I mean — they risk being didactic; they risk failing to provide the experience a novel promises the reader. The hardest thing for me about writing this book of essays was accepting that I could just say things, that I could present ideas and tell stories around them, to support them, rather than the other way around. In a lot of ways, it felt freeing, and the writing came a lot faster. As far as our current political situation calling for one or the other, we always have — and always will — need both.”
Shortly after she spoke with New Times, Crucet gave a talk at Georgia Southern University, which had assigned her novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, in some of its freshmen classes. During the Q&A session that followed, a white student asked her a hostile question, wanting to know whether she "had the authority to address issues of race and white privilege," according to the statement Crucet made on Twitter.
The atmosphere became tense, and Crucet was concerned about the safety of the students of color in attendance. In an event that has been widely condemned and which has made international headlines, angry white students burned copies of Crucet’s books.
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The administrators at GSU announced they considered the book-burning to be within students’ “First Amendment rights” and also said they didn't plan to take any action against the students. Crucet’s second speech, scheduled for the following day, was canceled by school officials, who she said told her “the administration said they could not guarantee my safety or the safety of its students on campus because of open-carry laws.”
Perhaps — let's hope — things will be different during the Miami Book Fair, where Crucet is slated to speak in a place and with an audience a little closer to home.
My Time Among the Whites, by Jennine Capó Crucet. Picador; September 2019. $17. 208 pages.
Miami Book Fair 2019: Immigrants’ Tales: Nonfiction. With Jennine Capó Crucet, Abdi Nor Iftin, and Suketu Mehta. 2:30 p.m. Sunday, November 24, at Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami; miamibookfair.com. Admission is free.