A New York Times Book Review Editor's Choice, winner of the International Latino Book Award for Best Latino-themed Fiction 2016, Longlisted for the 2015 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize.
Named a best book of the season by Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, Harper's Bazaar, Redbook, Bustle, NBC Latino and Men's Journal
The arresting debut novel from award-winning writer Jennine Capó Crucet
When Lizet-the daughter of Cuban immigrants and the first in her family to graduate from high school-secretly applies and is accepted to an ultra-elite college, her parents are furious at her decision to leave Miami. Just weeks before she's set to start school, her parents divorce and her father sells her childhood home, leaving Lizet, her mother, and Leidy-Lizet's older sister, a brand-new single mom-without a steady income and scrambling for a place to live.
Amidst this turmoil, Lizet begins her first semester at Rawlings College, distracted by both the exciting and difficult moments of freshman year. But the privileged world of the campus feels utterly foreign, as does her new awareness of herself as a minority. Struggling both socially and academically, she returns to Miami for a surprise Thanksgiving visit, only to be overshadowed by the arrival of Ariel Hernandez, a young boy whose mother died fleeing with him from Cuba on a raft. The ensuing immigration battle puts Miami in a glaring spotlight, captivating the nation and entangling Lizet's entire family, especially her mother.
Pulled between life at college and the needs of those she loves, Lizet is faced with difficult decisions that will change her life forever. Urgent and mordantly funny, Make Your Home Among Strangers tells the moving story of a young woman torn between generational, cultural, and political forces; it's the new story of what it means to be American today.
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Make Your Home Among Strangers
By Jennine Capó Crucet
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2015 Jennine Capó Crucet
All rights reserved.
CANALS ZIGZAG ACROSS THE CITY I used to call home. Those lines of murky water still run beside and under expressways, now choked by whorls of algae — mostly hydrilla, a well-known invasive, though that's likely the only algae I ever saw growing up in Miami. Even just ten years ago, before it took over, you could float tangle-free down those waterways from neighborhood to neighborhood, waving to strangers from your inner tube as they would wave back and wonder whether or not you needed rescuing.
While they were married, my parents used the canal across from the house they owned until just before I left for college in ways that make my current research group howl. Every Tuesday, at the weekly lab meetings I help our principal investigator run, each of us in the group is supposed to catalog the slow progress we're making toward understanding the demise of coral reef systems everywhere. But being one of the institute's lab managers means I've been working on this project longer than any of the postdocs or graduate students we hire, so my segment of the meeting has another goal: I try each week to make our PI laugh at least once by revealing, like a prize behind a curtain, some new and highly illegal thing my mom or dad tossed into that canal's water.
My dad: every single drop of motor oil ever drained from any of the dozen or so cars he's owned and sold over the years; a stack of loose CDs I once left on the couch and forgot, for days and days, to put away, each of them dotting the water's surface like a mirrored lily pad; an entire transmission. My mom: a dead hamster, cage and all, the failed project of my older sister Leidy, who was charged with keeping it alive over Christmas break when she was in fifth grade; any obvious junk mail, before I knew to grab the brochures from colleges out of her hands lest she send them sailing from her grip; dried-out watercolors, homemade tape recordings of her own voice, parched hunks of white clay — any and all signs of an attempt to discover some untapped talent she hoped she possessed wound up in the water. Too many things got dumped there. I know this was wrong — knew it then. Still, I say to my drop-jawed colleagues when they ask how we could've behaved so irresponsibly, what do you want me to tell you? I'm sorry, I say, but it's the truth.
Starting my segment of our meetings this way has let me turn Miami's canals into a funny family story. But I know which stories not to tell, which stories would make these particular listeners uncomfortable. Once, when my dad was thirteen, a friend from junior high dragged him and some other guys to a nearby canal to see a dead body he'd found there. My dad told me this story only once, the summer after Ariel Hernandez was sent back to Cuba after months of rallies and riots. I'd asked him if what people like my mom said was true: that Ariel had seen his mother's body floating in the Florida Straits, had watched sharks pick her apart before his rescue. This story was his only answer. So I asked him, What did you do, did you tell anyone? We just left it in the canal, he said. It got worse and worse, then one day it was gone, problem solved. My dad didn't say any more, even when I asked him why he'd kept the body a secret. He doesn't have any evidence to prove this actually happened, and there's no verifiable record I can look up to confirm it, but the fact that he's never mentioned it again — that he'll deny this story if I bring it up now — tells me it's true. My dad's canal isn't far from the one in front of our old house. The two waterways are probably connected, and though I don't know exactly how you'd navigate from one to the other, I'm sure it can be done.
Years after that summer, managing my first lab at the institute and working for a parasitologist studying the effects of sewage runoff on canal-dwelling snails, I slipped under another city's slick water: I lost my grip on the concrete shelf lining that particular canal and screamed as a reflex, which meant the contaminated water flooding my ears and nostrils had — via my open mouth — an additional (and an exceptionally gross) way to enter my system. My head submerged, the image of all these objects — the body, the CDs, the hamster cage, all of it somehow still intact and floating in Miami's water — surged over me. I found I couldn't kick my legs, fearing that I'd cut open my foot on a transmission that couldn't possibly be there: I was already on the West Coast by then, far from the canal my parents had abandoned to another family almost a decade earlier. The parasitologist hauled me out from the nastiness, made some unfortunate joke about Cubans and the coast guard, then spent the drive to the hospital apologizing for said joke, which he claimed was truly offensive in that it wasn't even that funny. Nurses plugged antibiotic-filled sacks into my arms, the hope being that intravenous administration would keep the various organisms that'd bombarded my body from calling it home for too long.
I called each parent from my sublet a couple days later once I'd been discharged.
— I don't know why you do that nasty work, my mom said, angry because I'd waited to call her. She preferred the rush of an emergency, the play-by-play of panic.
My father asked, after having me explain the basic facts of my treatment, Did you call your mother already? When I said yes, he said, Good girl, Lizet — his voice the same as if I'd brought home a decent report card or gotten rid of a Jehovah's Witness at the door without bothering him for help. Good girl, Lizet. I was almost twenty-eight.
Neither parent brought up the canal across the street from us during that phone call — I didn't let either conversation go on very long because I didn't want to hear that other story, another supposed truth about our canal, one my family has always claimed but which I don't know I believe.
It goes like this: When I was three years old and left under the very temporary supervision of my then five-year-old sister while my mother spoke with our backyard neighbor, I marched into the garage and rummaged through piles of old-clothes-turned-cleaning-rags and half-empty bottles of detergents and oils, found the floaties used to buoy me in the Atlantic Ocean, and blew them up on my way across the street to the water. By my mother's account, I stood on the sheer edge of the canal and blew these things up the way my father always did — bending forward as I pushed air into them, as if that motion helped — then licked them to slip them up my arms. By my father's account, I went over there with the floaties already on, my arms hovering out from my sides so that from behind, I resembled a tiny body builder. (Sometimes they say I was barefoot, but that can't be true. I would remember, I think, the asphalt embroidering my heels, shredding the pads of my toes. I would remember the sting of every step there.) By all accounts — even my sister's, who you could argue was too young to have an account, but that's not how stories work — I took several huge, shoulder-raising breaths before launching myself into the canal's crowded water. In some versions I pinch my nose; in some I know to breathe out through it as I hit the water; and in others still the water rushes into me through this and other openings, mandating that I be prescribed antibiotics the minute my parents, who take embarrassingly long to discover me floating across the street, explain to the triage nurse in the hospital's emergency room from where it is I'd just been pulled. Versions of this story change from teller to teller, from time told to other time told. But every version ends with almost the same lines: She was fine! All that worrying, all that time and money and crying wasted — and for what? She was fine. It made us want to kill her.CHAPTER 2
A NOW-DEFUNCT AIRLINE IS MOSTLY responsible for giving me and Ariel Hernandez the same day as our Miami Homecoming: Thanksgiving 1999. He was a five-year-old Cuban boy rescued from a broken raft by fishermen earlier that day after watching everyone else on the raft, including his mother, die; I arrived that night, a day later than I'd planned because I underestimated, having never done it, just how chaotic flying on the busiest travel day of the year could be. And even though we each eventually set foot in the city our families called home, no one was expecting either of us to show up the way we did.
That first flight back home from college — which, I should confess, was only my second time ever on an airplane — started off badly enough that when I got to Pittsburgh and learned my connecting flight was overbooked, I should've asked the airline to just send me back to New York for Thanksgiving. Staying on campus for the holiday was the original plan anyway, the one designed by my dad months earlier, before he'd moved out, the plan my mother and sister thought I was following: I was not supposed to come home for Thanksgiving. It was not in the budget, or el college lay-a-way, or any of the other euphemisms my dad had used to describe how we would finance the astronomically expensive education I was mostly failing to receive. The four thousand dollars a year my family was initially expected to pay toward my tuition at Rawlings College seemed to my dad (and to me, back then) an insane amount of money, a figure almost as ludicrous as the forty-five thousand dollars Rawlings expected from each of its students every year. The aid package later approved after our appeal — the one with my parents' marital status revised to say "Formally Separated" and my dad's address changed to "Unknown" — brought the amount down to something me and my mom together could earn, a flight to upstate New York and another back in December being all our final budget said we could afford. But we hadn't taken into account something called federal work-study — a mysterious line in my aid package that I thought had something to do with working for the government or joining the army, and so I'd ignored it, hoping it would disappear. I got to campus for freshman orientation, marched into the aid office to pay my fall bill in person with a check my mom had written out three days before in tense, tired script, and learned from my aid officer that work-study was just a job on campus — an easy one, usually. Nothing to do with the government at all. I was one of the very first students to come in, which meant I had my pick of jobs, and so that fall, I'd spent the hours between classes working in the library, searching bags for mistakenly stolen books when the sensors hugging the doors went off. Which is how I'd managed to save enough for the Thanksgiving ticket and the shuttle ride to my mom and sister's new-to-me address.
I was surprising everyone, even myself: I was home for a holiday we didn't really celebrate. Eating turkey on a Thursday seemed mostly arbitrary to my Cuban-born-and-raised parents, and so to my sister and me growing up. Still, my entire school career up to that point celebrated America and its founding — the proof: a half-dozen handprint turkeys stuffed under my mother's mattress, now in a Little Havana apartment instead of our house — and I must've been feeling sentimental for stories of pilgrims and Indians all getting along around a feast the night I scoured the Internet for a ticket home. Also, the fact that everyone at Rawlings (in the dining hall, around the mailboxes, before class while waiting for a professor to arrive, even in the morning bathroom banter bouncing between girls in separate shower stalls — all conversations in which I had no place until I decided to fly home as a surprise) couldn't stop talking about family and food only made me want the same thing even though I'd been fine without it my whole life. So as people talked around their toothbrushes about the aunts and uncles they dreaded seeing, I recast the holiday as equally important to some imaginary version of the Ramirez clan and booked the trip, then mentioned going home one October morning as I towel-dried my face. A girl from my floor who'd barely ever noticed me finally introduced herself — I'm Tracy, by the way, but people call me Trace — and told me, as she spat toothpaste foam into the sink, how jealous she was that home for me meant Miami Beach. I didn't mention that I lived miles from the ocean, just like I didn't mention — to anyone — that I'd drained my fall savings on this trip.
A day later than the Wednesday printed on my original ticket, and a good hour after most of East Coast America would've finished their turkey and potatoes and apple pie and all the other All-American things all Americans eat on Thanksgiving, I shuffled down the aisle of a plane, my bag catching on the armrests then slamming back into me the whole way out. I stepped through the squarish hole in the plane's side — I still couldn't believe this opening counted as a door — and the night's humidity swooped over me like a wet sheet, plastering my already-greasy bangs to my forehead. An old white man behind me huffed, Dear Christ, this place! Part of me wanted to turn around and snap, What do you mean, this place, you stupid viejo? You want to freaking say something about it? But the part of me that had calmly worked with the gate agent in Pittsburgh to find an available hotel room once it was clear they'd sold more tickets than seats on my connecting flight — the part that a week earlier had borrowed my roommate Jillian's blazer for my academic hearing without mentioning the hearing itself — knew exactly what he meant. My bangs, which I'd blown out to give the rest of my hair some semblance of neatness, curled and tangled in that oppressive, familiar dankness. When I reached up to finger-comb them back into place, a motion that had been a reflex throughout high school, my nails got caught in the new knots.
The Miami International Airport terminal smelled strongly of mildew. The odor seemed to come up from the carpet, each of my steps releasing it into the air. That terminal was one of the last to be renovated, so the only TVs in it back then had one of three jobs: to display a pixilated list of ARRIVALS, or of DEPARTURES, or to relay the weather, updated every fifteen minutes. There was no recap of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, no local news about a food kitchen blaring overhead — the TVs weren't connected to the outside world that way. If they had been, my ignorance about Ariel Hernandez might've ended right then, before I'd even stepped through the airport's automatic glass doors and into the Miami night. It would've been at least a warning.
After explaining my overbooked flight and how my original shuttle reservation had been for Wednesday evening, and after an absurd amount of clicking on a keyboard and many Mmmhmms and almost no eye contact, the woman behind the shuttle service's counter managed to squeeze me onto a ride-share leaving in ten minutes.
— But you getting off last, she told me, the clicking suddenly stopping as she held up a finger to my face. Her acrylic nails — pink-and-whites that needed refilling — had slashes of diamonds glued across their long, curved tips. I could see her real nails growing up under them, like echoes.
— I got you, I said, happy to recognize something I hadn't seen in months.
I sat at the very back of the blue van after reluctantly handing over my bag to the driver: I didn't have any cash for a tip and almost told him so as we wrestled over it, each of us wanting to make sure we got the credit for putting it away.
Excerpted from Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet. Copyright © 2015 Jennine Capó Crucet. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Well written, entertaining novel of a Cuban family in Miami. ~*~LEB~*~
Wow! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. Jennine writes with such emotional sensitivity and humor. Being Cuban-American myself, I could total relate to the story. She captures the experiences, doubts and struggles of, not just 1st generation college students, but anyone who is experiencing tremendous change and growth.
In an article apparently originally published on BookPage but reprinted on LitHub, Jennine Capó Crucet explains what led her to write Make Your Home Among Strangers: "I imagined the book to be this fictional road map of the first-generation college student’s experience, one that shows some of the ugly things race and class differences force on us." In its focus on race and class differences, this book is particularly timely, given the recent spate of student "demands" on college campuses across the country and the scholarly focus on the concept of "mismatch" as it affects the Supreme Court's consideration of affirmative action in Fisher II. I received a free copy of Make Your Home Among Strangers through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.