So, as I’ve said, I had Christina’s Henríquez’s collection of short stories, Come Together, Fall Apart laying around waiting for me to read it. I bought it at a used book shop, and yeah, when it comes to purchasing books – let’s just say I have a problem. I picked it up and read the first story. Henríquez’s writing was so lucid and compelling I felt I was walking around in the character’s life. Now that is what I’m looking for in a book. Now that I have a family, and I can’t read three novels a week, I need a book to be worth it. This is the other part of the reason I have lots of unread books laying around (besides, you know, the problem).
I was soooo stoked when I saw The Book of Unknown Americans suggested on Amazon that I bought it right away and put the other book down.
The Book of Unknown Americans is a novel composed of distinct chapters featuring different characters, all Latinos living in the U.S. The book story centers una familia michoacana: Maribel, a young girl who has been in an accident that caused traumatic brain injury, and her parents, Alma and Arturo. They come to the United States from Mexico for special education to improve her condition. Her neighbor, Mayor, falls in love with her. Most of the chapters tell the story from Alma and Mayor’s perspective.
Interspersed at even intervals between Alma and Mayor’s perspective, however, marginal characters pop up, delving into their story of coming to the U.S. and how they ended up where they are. The characters are diverse, hailing from Panama, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Mexico, Venezuela, Paraguay, and Puerto Rico.
“Maybe it’s the instinct of every immigrant, born of necessity or of longing: Someplace else will be better than here. And the condition: if only I can get to that place.”
One of the best things about this book are these perspectives. They tell the story of immigrants from place that is not stereotyped, not of pity. Perhaps best of all, these are not stories of the poor and downtrodden but noble immigrant. These are regular people who had dreams and whose lives sometimes took different courses. Our collective American narrative regarding immigrants is thrown out the window.
“‘Mi casa es tu casa,’ Celia joked as I looked around. ‘Isn’t that what the Americans say?’”
Henríquez explores relationships and emotions that are universal: mother-child, wife-husband, teenage love, guilt, grief, that feeling you get when you remember what your young self set out to do, but never achieved (is there a word for that?). This is where the book is triumphant. I like the format, I like that I feel there’s a sense of restraint (show-don’t-tell writing), I like the book’s possible positive impact on the image of Latinos in the U.S. But what I first saw in Henríquez’s writing was her ability to take a character’s feelings and implant them in you, so that you feel them. She doesn’t have to explain it, and sometimes I couldn’t put into words the feelings, either — I just knew.
Henríquez has a tumblr page dedicated to collecting stories of unknown Americans, which is also trending on Twitter via #unknownamericans.