Make Your Home Among Strangersmake your home among strangers

Jennine Capo Crucet
St Martin’s Press
August 4 2015

Amid the chaos of her home life—her parents splitting up, her nephew’s father refusing to acknowledge his baby, and her demanding boyfriend—Cuban-American Lizet applies to a super elite college. She doesn’t tell anyone but the guidance counselor at her under-performing, troubled high school. Surprising everyone, she gets in with a scholarship. Soon she’s headed from hot, and humid Miami to the cold Northeast and is totally out of her element.

Jennine Capo Crucet’s debut novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, is a memorable college coming-of-age that deals with issues of immigration, alienation, self-discovery, and a time in recent U.S. history when the news was obsessively covering the custody battle and immigration status of a little Cuban boy named Elian. Lizet’s life at the super prestigious Rawlings throws her for a loop. There she discovers snow for the first time, a love of scientific research, and that by the week before Thanksgiving break she’s already on academic probation. She’s plagiarized from a textbook without even knowing it and in danger of getting kicked out of school. So she does what any impulsive 18-year-old might do: ignores the problem and buys a ticket back home to Miami as a surprise.

When she’s home she finds her mother has gotten incredibly involved in the fight to keep Ariel Hernandez, a little boy whose mother died trying to escape from Cuba, in Miami. Her mother goes so far as to  lie about their own immigration story, lay on the road in front of trucks, and treat Ariel’s caretaker like her own daughter.

Crucet writes Ariel as a clear stand in for Elian Gonzalez, the boy who was eventually taken by force back to Cuba after his mother died trying to get him to the United States. The picture of a federal agent raiding his house and pointing an automatic weapon at the six year old has become famous and is still arresting and horrifying to this day.

Alan Diaz won a Pulitzer prize for this photo in 2000.

Alan Diaz won a Pulitzer prize for this photo in 2000.

So much of the story is about being in that liminal space between your home culture and the life that you can choose for yourself. It can make a person feel that they don’t fit in anywhere. When she’s home in Miami, Lizet’s sister Leidy resent her for leaving and scorns her for saying things like, “Awesome!” and other “white girl” slang. Her friends and fellow students don’t even know that her mother is so intimately involved with the case and that the Hernadezes live two block away, but when she’s at Rawlings she’s supposed to speak for the whole Cuban American community on the situation.

Lizet sees herself reflected in the way that Ariel is stuck in a sort of limbo, the no-man’s land of neither here nor there. And yet she is desperate for the attention of her mother who is totally consumed by justice for Ariel even at the cost of her own job and relationship with her daughters. Lizet struggles with her choice to leave Miami but when she’s home she doesn’t fit anymore. Everything in Lizet’s life seems to come down to her taking sides: her Mom vs. her Dad, red-haired Rawlings RA Ethan vs. her Miami boyfriend Omar, Miami vs. Rawlings, USA vs. Cuba.

Crucet seems to be saying: When you make your home among strangers, be ready to find yourself with no home at all. It’s an uneasy statement but in a way it can be true. Leaving our comfort zones forces us to figure out who we can be when we are adrift in the world. I thought that she did a great job showing how this can happen to anyone who goes off to college or moves to a new place but how it can be especially difficult for people of color to interact with a predominantly white world.

As one of those coincidences that happen so often in the intersection of literature and life, I was reading about Ariel Hernandez/Elian Gonzalez’s flight from Cuba when the desperation of the Syrian refugee crisis and civil war finally seemed to hit the national consciousness of the Western world. It only took about four years and the tragic photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on the beach in Turkey. How desperate must a family be to put themselves and their family at risk like that? How bad do things have to be to risk an overloaded boat or a flimsy inner tube? And here we are in the United States and other countries where there is no war, with all of our money and power and space, willing to shelter only a tiny percentage of the number of our fellow members of the human race. It is heartbreaking and horrific.  

Near the end of the novel, Lizet is sitting at an outdoor cafe after Ariel is seized and sent back to Cuba. Idiotic white men flying Confederate flags fly past her in pickups waving banners that say, “1 DOWN, 800,000 TO GO!!!” And so here we are at the same place again. We are a country who loves the immigrant story as long as the immigrant story is white and in the past. The immigrant stories of today, like the political or war ravaged refugees, like Lizet’s or Ariel’s or Aylan’s families are not always the bootstrap success stories the politically conservative media wants to feed us. They are messy, tragic, and complex and we should pay attention.

Lizet’s story, while fictional, is a story that deserves to be told. Crucet’s clear writing and the distinct voices of a college student coming into her own, make for a readable and memorable novel. But lest you think this novel is all family drama and big ideas, I laughed a ton. Lizet is adorable in her awkwardness and Leidy is the bitchy big sister you didn’t know you wanted. I know this book will stick with me for a long time.