A Map of Loss, a Compass Pointing Home
I have the writer’s habit of buying books, accumulating stacks of them with the sure knowledge that I will find time to read every single one. Lately my reading has been focused on debut authors; some novelists, like Preeta Samarasan and Tanya James, at least one master of the novella form, Josh Weil, and a range of short story writers including Paul Yoon, Tiphanie Yanique, Laura van den Berg, and Robin Elizabeth Black. While it is not possible to compare the work of Yoon, whose writing is an accumulation of gestured feeling, like standing in a mist, that leaves the reader surprised to find themselves completely drenched, or Yanique’s mastery of the from-the-gut story that spills out on the page, or Black’s careful examination of sorrow and death, or van den Berg’s pursuit of the connections between our emotional and physical environments, it is possible to find work that manages to unite these skills in a single volume of stories. How to Leave Hialeah, by Jennine Capó Crucet, is that book.
Capó Crucet is, among other things, the first Latina to win the Iowa Fiction Award in the forty years of its existence, and her collection is a solid honoring of those roots. In story after story, we find her taking on the twin daggers in the heart of working class Cuban Americans in and around Hilaleah, Miami: the worth of heritage and the visceral desire to escape from that heritage. The collection opens with ‘Resurrection, or: The Story behind the Failure of the 2003 Radio Salsa 98.1 Semi-Annual Cuban and/or Puerto Rican Heritage Festival,’ whose title alone is a marker of the wry wit and humor that creeps into even the darkest stories, a young girl high on ecstasy, which is “not like coke because it is mostly natural and not addictive,” wishes to bring the blockbuster Cuban salsa singer, Celia Cruz, back from the dead in order to save her job for which she is not being paid. The story is told as though Capó Crucet is sitting next to the reader, calling them “you,” participating alongside them in the business of voyeurism. The story ends with “And you, you keep watching her, hardly believing people like this exist.” In a single line she is both the secret-agent, bringing us a story from a place we have never been to and the one who got away, the one who looks back and says there but for the grace of God.
From ‘The Next move,’ about a man left to manage things in the absence of his wife – who has left to visit Cuba, something he will not do - to ‘El Destino Hauling’ where a daughter relates the story around the death and funeral of her father, the stories in the collection reach deep into the heart of a particular set of preoccupations and traditions that define the Cuban American community. And yet, the beauty of this collection, despite its no-doubt-about-it street creds with regard to Cuban-American culture, is that it manages to articulate the struggle of any immigrant in this country, whether one who has left another country to be here, or one who has left the culture of one home or town to belong to another domestic but “foreign” one. In ‘Noche Buena,’ the negotiation of fealty vs. freedom between Papi, the patriarch who embodies the former and his daughter, Teresa, who takes on the mantle of the latter, is played out over an annual family gathering during Christmas that is surely reminiscent of the feuds that take place over New Year for Sri Lankan-Americans or Chinese Americans or Deewali for Indian-Americans or, indeed, Thanksgiving for Boston Brahmins. Who goes where and why? Whose traditions matter more? The brother who runs out, at the end of this story, goes out not to say that his sister was right or wrong, not to tell them how their father said “I don’t recognize that horn,” when their car drove up, but to tell them that “their ride was pretty sweet.” In other words, that traditions remain, the family will gather, and doing it a little differently does not mean that everything must change.
The most poignant and relevant of all of these stories, however, remains the title story with which the collection ends. Picking up the direct-address of the opening story, ‘How to Leave Hilaleah,’ describes a journey from high school to college to graduation through the “Great White North,” of a young Cuban-American woman, and perhaps reflects the author’s own journey from Hialeah to Cornell to Iowa and back to Florida. But unlike most stories whose factual truth is evident in their gut-wrenching telling, this one is told with a distance that lets the story own its guts. Everything belongs to the first-person narrator who writes as though dispensing advice to herself and to us: the difficulties of leaving, the reasons to stay, the will to leave, the matter of representing an entire culture, the various ledges upon which a “multi-culti” is placed – pedestals, garbage cans, stages, designated Programs of Study, bookshelves, interest-groups. Everything is quintessentially Cuban-American, and yet ‘up for ownership’ for anyone who has ever left, who has ever missed, who has ever needed to go home. In the opening story, we try to raise the dead, in the closing one, who return to bury that which cannot be revived, to give the past it’s due, to own what cannot be left, ever, to acknowledge the sins of abandonment and betrayal, to “mourn everything.”
Capó Crucet manages to write an immigrant narrative that empathizes with all of the conundrums of leaving one home and setting up another, but she does it in a way that leaves room to talk about dysfunctions as well as strengths. There is no one great place, no single perfection. There is only putting one foot in front of the other, like Papi without his wife, Nilda, there is only raising children right even if the most that can be done is keeping them clean and healthy unlike the overweight Carmen, all of nine years old, of holding on to what traditions can be held on to, like gathering together for Noche Buena, like lighting candles at alters, of leaving home and of understanding that return is possible and necessary.
Ru Freeman is a Sri Lankan-American journalist and author. Her creative and political writing has appeared internationally. Her debut novel, A Disobedient Girl is published in the US and Canada by Atria/Simon & Schuster by Viking in the UK, Australia and India, in translation in Italy, Israel, Taiwan, Brazil, China and the Netherlands and in audio by Tantor Media with award-winning narrator, Anne Flosnick. She is a contributing editorial board member of the Asian American Literary Review. Her online home is at www.rufreeman.com