The PEN Ten: An Interview with Angie Cruz
1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
The first book that comes to mind is Dubliners. There was one story in particular I read when I was in high school, “Eveline,” that lingered in me for years. I was not the best student back then, but the books assigned in class, I did read. This question prompted me to reread the story and its impact on my most recent novel, Dominicana, is clear. Like my teen protagonist, Ana, in [James] Joyce’s story, Eveline also spends her time looking out the window taking account of the avenue and how it’s changing. She is deliberating if she should run away with Frank, leaving everything she knows to this “distant unknown country” or stick around at home because “now that she was about to leave it (home) she did not find it a wholly undesirable life.” I also spent countless hours looking out windows onto Broadway knowing that one day I would run away to a distant unknown country. But in my case, the most distant unknown was art and writing.
2. How does your writing navigate truth? What is the relationship between truth and fiction?
My novel, Dominicana, was inspired by my mother’s story. She immigrated to the United States in the ’70s and was married off to a man twice her age by her parents who had hoped the marriage would secure visas for all the family. This was a “true” story told countless times in some version throughout my formative years, and when I asked questions to deepen my understanding of that experience, it exposed all kinds of incoherence. For me to write is to work through what vexes and puzzles me. It’s a simultaneous weaving and mapping and also unraveling that exposes the contradictions in any given story. While researching for the novel, I asked the same questions from the same cast of characters and always got a new version of what had happened.
“Writing nuanced and complicated characters is already an act of resistance against the stereotypes in the entertainment and corporate culture.”
3. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
My creative process looks like having lots of projects going at the same time. It’s fueled with a sense of urgency, thinking “if I don’t do it, who will,” and so I carve out the time between mothering, teaching, editing a literary journal, Aster(ix), etc.—there never seems to be enough time in the day to write. I stay inspired by reading and playing with other genres. For example, I just took a playwriting class with Quiara Hudes to think about what my ideas for fiction would look like in theater. Or I like to collaborate. For example, I am working with a composer, Eric Moe, on a multi-media piece. Meanwhile, alongside those projects, I work on my novels. For my forthcoming novel, I am writing a lot of it on my phone while I’m traveling on planes, trains, and buses.
4. What is one book or piece of writing by a Latinx author you love that readers might not know about?
Three Latinx writers I have recently read and love are Carolina de Robertis’ Cantoras, Jaquira Diaz’s Ordinary Girls, and Myriam Gurba’s Mean.
5. How can writers affect resistance movements?
Writing nuanced and complicated characters is already an act of resistance against the stereotypes in the entertainment and corporate culture. With other writers, I’ve been in multiple efforts and conversations steering away from the exceptionalism and individualistic culture often exercised in the literary industry and instead prioritizing and encouraging community and movement building so we can use our public platforms to address some of the bigger issues that impact us all, like inequity, sexism, the climate crisis, and the treatment of immigrants on the border.
6. What is your favorite bookstore, or library?
Admittedly, I love so many bookstores and libraries. They have been havens throughout my life. But three bookstores I would like to say I have a special place for in my heart are Word Up Community Bookshop (Washington Heights), City of Asylum Bookstore (Pittsburgh), and Strand Book Store (NYC).
7. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
I just read the poetry collection While They Sleep (Under the Bed Is Another Country) by Raquel Salas Rivera. So moving and gorgeously done. The book I am about to read is The Shadow King by the great Maaza Mengiste. I already read the first few pages, and I am hooked.
“Stories do a lot of work to help us understand how and where we live, and they also can help us to step back and find a way to see again the things we take for granted. Or to help open our hearts to things we resist knowing. This is one of the many reasons for stories.“
8. How does your identity shape your writing? How does the history of where you are from affect your identity, and, in turn, your writing?
I was born and raised in Washington Heights, NYC. What shapes my writing to some degree is the many ways the community I was born into, Dominican immigrants, are largely underrepresented in the mainstream media. My most recent book, which depicts my character witnessing the assassination of Malcolm X, was inspired by the fact that even if I grew up right across from the Audubon Ballroom, I had no awareness of this significant history. So I am writing into what I don’t know and what I want to know as much as where I am from.
9. Why do you think people need stories?
As we face a climate crisis that requires immediate action from all of us, writing sometimes feels too slow as an effort toward change. And for years I wondered if writing was how I should be spending my time when we have so much work to do to mobilize our communities. But the most satisfying aspect of publishing Dominicana is how the novel has facilitated countless conversations across generations in families who use the book as a way to address the silence around domestic violence, abuse, etc. I think stories do a lot of work to help us understand how and where we live, and they also can help us to step back and find a way to see again the things we take for granted. Or to help open our hearts to things we resist knowing. This is one of the many reasons for stories.
10. What excites you most about the literary moment you are writing in?
I think there is a lot of opportunity in this literary moment for writers of color to liberate themselves from the identity trappings or kinds of performance of our identity in our works. Finally, because of the hard work of the many grassroots activists pressuring publishers to publish a wider range of writers or highlighting the dearth of works by POC being published, there is a lot more space for us to play, take risks, and show the breadth and range of what writers of color can offer to the literary conversation.
Angie Cruz is the author of the novels, Dominicana, the inaugural Good Morning America book club pick, Soledad, and Let It Rain Coffee, a finalist in 2007 for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. She has published work in The New York Times, VQR, Gulf Coast Literary Journal, and other publications, and has received fellowships from the New York Foundation of the Arts, Yaddo, and the MacDowell Colony. She is founder and editor in chief of Aster(ix), a literary and arts journal, and is an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh.