Voice and Chorus: Cristina Henriquez and “The Book of Unknown Americans”

jpegI saw Cristina Henriquez read just a few weeks ago at Book Court in Brooklyn, where my poet buddy, Sally Wen Mao, took me after a long day in the city. Generally, I’m horrible at readings.  I’m the guy seated in the front row, probably running on three hours of sleep or less, glassy eyed (behind actual glasses), with no indication as to whether I’m staring through you in idle boredom or at you in profound thought. But when my friend, Sally, invited me to see Henriquez, I knew I had to go. Sally is mostly in-the-know about all things literary in NYC in addition to having impeccable taste in books. So, I went. It was incredible. Oh, yeah—and it completely changed the way I read Latina/o literature.

Henriquez herself is a remarkably nice person and a gifted reader in addition to also being a really, really good writer. She’s a master crafstwoman of voice and narrative, her acumen on full display in her newest novel, The Book of Unknown Americans.

For those not yet familiar, The Book of Unknown Americans is about the Rivera family and their hopes of creating a better life in the United States, after their daughter, Maribel, sustains an injury in their native Mexico which changes her life forever. Once in the U.S., a love story blooms when Maribel meets Mayor Toro, whose family hails from Panama, but their futures are shadowed by violence as they attempt to maintain dignity at the hands of their pasts, and in the midst of the American condition in which they find themselves. The novel is a voice-driven, or perhaps I should say a chorus-driven, narrative: a patchwork of tragic-comic testimonials that give this book an incredible depth, which reinforces its narrative arc while concurrently placing it within the existing (and very real) chorus of voices resounding in this very contemporary American moment. I kept this in mind as I read The Book of Unknown Americans the first time around.

As I read this book, in the background news of the current humanitarian crisis erupting on the Texas-Mexico border unfolded by the hour: thousands of unaccompanied refugees—the vast majority of them minors—fleeing drug and gang related violence in Central America. I couldn’t help but think of Henriquez’s characters when I read about the refugee buses turned back in Murrieta, California, or the incredible vitriol projected onto these children—mostly rhetoric stemming directly from the anxieties of the contemporary American moment as it’s happening, just as it happened with Italian immigrants in the early 20th century, and the Irish before them, and the Germans before them.

As some of have noted, not once was a refugee interviewed on national television. Mostly, other people spoke for them. And this is what I love most about Henriquez’s writing. She does not give in to that old platitude surrounding so much of the contemporary conversation surrounding even Latina/o Literature: giving voice to the voiceless. Instead, The Book of Unknown Americans, as its title would suggest, boldly acknowledges that these voices have been here all along. And they have something to say.

Their testimonials resound on the page and online on Henriquez’s “The Unknown American Project” Tumblr page, which focuses on the lives of real immigrant stories from Latin America. I rarely say this—in fact, I’ve only ever said it once before in a blog—but I wonder if The Book of Unknown Americans is some new kind of book, some new kind of way we read and write about our supposed contemporary subaltern Latina/o characters and their narratives. At the very least, Henriquez’s work feels like the start of something positive and very exciting.

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