The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
The Book of Unknown Americans
by Cristina Henriquez
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An exclusive Authorlink interview with Cristina Henriquez,

Author of The Book of Unknown Americans

By Diane Slocum

September 2014

The Rivera Family arrives at an apartment building in Delaware in the dark of night. It is a strange world to them, but they gave up the only life they knew in Mexico for Maribel. Their beautiful, free-spirited daughter suffered a traumatic brain injury and a school in Delaware may be their only hope to get her back. Their one bright spot in this confusing new home is that their neighbors are also all immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries. One family in particular, the Toros from Panama, help the Riveras to adjust. The teenage son, Mayor, has always been an outcast in his own way and is especially attracted to Maribel with wonderful and tragic consequences.

“. . . when I started, that concept was still subconscious.”

AUTHORLINK: When you got your idea for this book, what did you think of first? Was it Maribel and Mayor or a story about a group of neighbors who are all immigrants? Or what?

HENRIQUEZ: The very, very beginning was just this: “We heard they were from Mexico.” That was the first line of a short story that ended up being about Maribel and Mayor, about them meeting each other, him having this attraction to her. I guess the idea that there were all these neighbors in the building, too, was already embedded in that “we.” There was a notion of collectivity from the first word. But when I started, that concept was still subconscious. I didn’t know until much later that there would be neighbors, that they would all live in one apartment building, what their role in the story would be.

AUTHORLINK: How did you develop your title?

HENRIQUEZ: The title came to me about midway through writing the book. It just occurred to me out of the blue. One of the first people I revealed it to asked, “But are all the characters Americans?” I think she meant, Are they all here legally? But to me that was beside the point. They think of themselves as Americans. That’s enough.

AUTHORLINK: Why did you set your story in Delaware and why is that important?

HENRIQUEZ: I was born in Delaware and lived there from fifth grade on, so I wanted to set something just because of that personal connection. It’s been interesting to me how many people said they were surprised to learn that there is such a big Latino community in Delaware. That’s a good thing, I think. It’s important to show people that, look, this isn’t only a story that could happen in New York or Houston or Los Angeles. This is a story that could happen – and that is happening – everywhere. It’s an American story.

“. . . the most helpful research was watching YouTube videos.”

AUTHORLINK: Did you research brain injuries to give Maribel such a realistic portrayal?

HENRIQUEZ: Yes. I consulted with someone who works pretty extensively with students who have special needs. So that was one thing. But the most helpful research was watching YouTube videos, in particular by one man, of people who had traumatic brain injury, listening to them, the cadences, the patterns, the hesitations. I learned a lot just by listening.

AUTHORLINK: Why is Mayor drawn to Maribel so intensely?

HENRIQUEZ: Mayor and Maribel are both outcasts. They both exist at the margins of their social groups. Mayor sees in her something of himself, something recognizable. But he also has this impulse to take care of her. And then again, the attraction is rooted in something very simple. As he says at one point, she takes him in. She accepts him, without judgment. It’s not something anyone’s ever done for Mayor before.

“My goal is never to edify or illuminate necessarily. It’s just to be true to the characters . . .”

AUTHORLINK: What do you hope people come away with from this story?

HENRIQUEZ: I find it hard to think about my work this way. I never go into anything hoping that someone will get something out of it. My goal is never to edify or illuminate necessarily. It’s just to be true to the characters, to try to write them as honestly as possible, and to tell a good story in the meantime. But I will say that more than one person has told me that after reading this book, they’ve found that they think about people differently. That they think about immigrants differently. They’re quicker to consider that everyone has a story, if only we would take the time to hear it. To feel that I’ve perhaps contributed to a broadening of someone’s empathy is an amazing thing.

AUTHORLINK: How do you feel about getting so many glowing reviews?

HENRIQUEZ: I post on social media or my website. But otherwise, I try really hard not to know what’s going on with the book.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

HENRIQUEZ: Right now, a few stories. I don’t know what shape the next book will take, though. I wish I were further along but I’m trying to give myself a break about it. I’ll get there when I do.

About Cristina Henriquez:

Henriquez graduated from Northwestern University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her first novel is The World in Half. Her short story collection, Come Together, Fall Apart, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection. She is the recipient of an Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award. She lives in Illinois.

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.