I first met Jennine on the dance floor in a barn on a summer night at Breadloaf. Or at least I like to remember it that way. She’s an electric person, both in the flesh and on the page. She says the unexpected, and also the uncomfortable and necessary. She’s equal parts funny and fearless, irreverent and brilliant. Our interview, below:
MMB: I think of you as a writer who addresses the specific impact a place has on the human experience and shaping of self, but in a way that feels fresh and contemporary. In your first collection, How to Leave Hialeah, Charles Baxter praised you for writing a book that starts “with Cuban American neighborhoods and cultures and then sails off into the direction of the great themes: love, familial bonds, aging, and death. And resurrection.”
Your latest novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, concerns the daughter of two Cuban immigrants, and one who chooses to leave Miami for a more privileged college environment. What do you make of the current dialogue in America on immigration, and how does this fuel your current work, if at all?
JCC: My family bought into the American Dream rhetoric in a pretty hardcore way. I was raised to think of this country as the best one on the planet specifically because it welcomed my family and gave them opportunities for a better life. I mean, my parents named me Jennine after the Miss America runner up the year I was born (though spelled differently, I think)—so it goes that deep for them. As I got older, naturally my own ideas about this country grew more complicated, particularly around the issues of immigration. I think what’s most disappointing for me about our current dialogue is how quickly the conversation dehumanizes the people these policies impact. And I thought about that a lot while writing Make Your Home Among Strangers: I wanted the book show how a larger national conversation impacts one person&mdashhow these policies eventually come to shape who we are and how we move through our communities. And what I thought about the most as I wrote certain scenes—namely the ones about the fictionalized version of Elian Gonzalez—was how little things have changed in the last fifteen years, how we’re still using the same broken system, how very disappointing that is.