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PALABRAS: Author Cristina Henríquez Finds Success Transforming Childhood, Family Memories into Award-Winning Fiction Books

First Posted: Mar 05, 2015 05:00 AM EST
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This article is part of Palabras, the Latin Post Latino Author Series. 

Like many authors, Cristina Henriquez writes with her childhood and family in mind. Little did she know that her story would pave the way for her own award-winning books.

Henríquez, author of the critically acclaimed novel "The Book of Unknown Americans," was born in the United States, but spent a great deal of her childhood in her father's home nation, Panama.

Panama deeply impacted the author, swaying the lives of her characters and deciding the locale for many of her stories. That experience coincided with a long held love for reading. That enjoyment was not shared by Henríquez's parents; nonetheless, they supported her interest and her willingness to read. This is likely evident solely by the volume of books that her parents purchased for her through Scholastic order forms, the hours they allowed her to browse the aisles of book stores, and the number of trips made to the local library for the sheer sake of literary exploration.

At a young age, she saw the tremendous importance of gauging her own world view and the world view of others. She embraced the notion, "[Go] outside of yourself, to move beyond your own narrow experience of life." Reading and traveling were a part of that discovery, and both have long been a large part of her life. Both have helped to hone her narrative voice, helped to structure the way she delivers her writing and helped to dictate which subjects earned her attention.

"I tend not to think about themes," Henríquez said to Latin Post. "I think about specific characters and their stories. The themes are something that bubble to the surface naturally, but they're never something I set off with the intention to explore. If other people were looking at my work, though, they would probably say I write about family, about home, and about loss and forgiveness. As for inspiration, nothing is off limits."

Henríquez's first two publications, "Come Together, Fall Apart" and "The World in Half," manifested from a need to write about Panama. The author wanted to give shape to the experience of growing up and visiting the Central American nation, both in her mind and on the page.

"Each of the stories in the collection had a different origin, of course, but the novella ["Come Together, Fall Apart"] was inspired specifically by my grandparents' house in Panama that fell out of the family when my grandfather died," said Henriquez. "I adored that house with its sea foam green paint and its tile floors, its long hallway to the bedrooms in the back. And I think I was in mourning for a while, for my grandfather and for the life in that house, and I wanted to translate that into a story."

"The Book of Unknown Americans," however, was inspired by her father, an extraordinary yet common man who lived as an immigrant in the U.S. For her, the entire book started with the line, "We heard they were from Mexico," and it grew from there. The novel functionally gives a voice to those who emigrated to the U.S. for improved opportunities. And it tells more than a tale of immigration, but also a tale of love, optimism and consequences.

When writing, intentions don't always align with the finished product. Sometimes scenes change, sometimes it's the ending or the gender of the lead protagonist and/or antagonist, and this can be distressing.

"I set out to do something and it almost never turns out how I think it will and it's never as good as I wanted it to be. I'm always dissatisfied. But maybe that's as it should be. It's the dissatisfaction with your own work, the feeling that you could do better, that's part of what keeps you going," said Henríquez. "[And] I've largely eschewed the idea of structured time. I try to write as often as I can for as long as I can. And during the writing, I try to know as little as possible as I move forward through the work. Having a handle on what I'm doing comes in the second draft. The first draft, that initial spasm of writing, is about trusting my gut."

Last year, "Book of Unknown Americans" was named An Amazon Best Book of the Month for June and The New York Times named the novel one of its 100 Notable Books of 2014. So, obviously, Henríquez has great gut instincts ...and insight.

The paperback version of "Book of Unknown Americans: A novel" will hit stores this March. The author is in "the very nascent stages" of a new book, but it's too early to say much about it. 

During the interview, Henríquez shared her thoughts on the many beautiful Latino authors writing about the Latino experience, but added that "not nearly enough are getting the recognition that they deserve."

"To the publishers, to the media, to everyone, I say: Bring it on. As for how my own work has contributed, I don't really know. My job is to do the work. Other people will decide what role it plays in the larger scheme. I do know that people, young people especially, have written me to tell me, as Latinos, how much my work has meant to them. That's a very humbling thing."

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