By Jeremy Porter, Contributing Writer
Over the summer, all incoming students of the Class of 2020 were assigned to read Cristina Henriquez’s “The Book of Unknown Americans” as part of the First-Year Common Reading Program. This program, which is sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the Division of College Life, was established in 2014 with the goal of fostering a greater sense of community within the first-year class and promoting discussions about issues of today’s world.
Henriquez’s novel primarily focuses on the struggle of Latino immigrants to balance assimilation within American society with the retention of their own culture. She came to Gettysburg College on Tuesday, September 13, to discuss the book and speak about both her intentions for the novel and the personal stories that guided her towards a career in writing. She began with an anecdote about a high school crush, explaining how writing down her feelings for him prompted her to embrace the “sheer act of writing” at the end of each day.
Her journal was a place for her to speak openly and genuinely about her personal interests and passions. While her feelings towards her crush dwindled, her love of writing remained a constant. Henriquez later discussed her inspirations for “The Book of Unknown Americans” and the message that she wished to convey. Her own background played a significant role in her telling of the story, as her father had left Panama as a teenager to attend college in the United States.
Henriquez was born and raised in Delaware, which is the setting of her novel. Due to her upbringing, she has had a lifelong consciousness of the personal ambitions and struggles that travel with immigrants to the U.S. She believes that these immigrants are too often thought of as culturally alienated. They generally experience the same daily trials and tribulations that most Americans do and believe in the concept of the American dream just as anyone else would. Her own father spent his first night in the U.S. sleeping on the floor of Penn Station in New York City, all in an effort to receive a good American education at the University of Delaware.
She told students that the lack of awareness about the true Latino immigrant is what led her to call the characters “unknown Americans.” In her closing remarks, Henriquez encouraged the class of 2020 to use their imaginations (and she was not referring to embarking on careers in fictional writing). She challenged students to look beyond sameness; they should imagine the lives of others who have different backgrounds and to embrace the fundamental qualities that make us all human. This was her ultimate purpose in writing the novel.
During her presentation, Henriquez answered questions from first-year students in the audience. When asked about her literary inspirations, Henriquez explained that after college she had the opportunity to explore literature on her own. It was during this time when she discovered a number of stories that portrayed the perspectives of Latino-Americans. She realized that literature does not have to be aimed towards a specific audience but should be used to broaden the minds and cultural understandings of readers. Henriquez was also asked to provide advice to budding novelists.
She explained how important it is that writers be honest with themselves and avoid appeasing critics who may differ in opinion. Henriquez made it clear that writing a novel can prove extremely difficult at times–she almost gave up twice–but that in the end it is an incredibly rewarding experience. She said that her proudest moments were when readers told her how her story has shaped the way in which they see the world. She hopes this story has the same effect on students here at Gettysburg College.