by Mel Wells
On the morning before her lecture at the Schnitz, Everybody Reads 2016 author Cristina Henríquez visited Centennial High School in Gresham for a Q&A with 82 students who were reading her novel, The Book of Unknown Americans.
Students filed in whispering with one another, glancing at the author, many of them carrying copies of her book with dog-eared pages. When Henríquez began taking their questions, many of them focused on her characters: Who were they based on? Who was her favorite? What would she say to them if she could meet them? Would she apologize?
It was clear that these students were invested in these characters, and Henríquez answered each of their questions thoughtfully and thoroughly. Her characters were not based on specific, real people. Her favorite character was probably Mayor, because he was who she started with. As for whether she would apologize to her characters, Henríquez said she would not.
“When I read, I don’t want to escape life—I want to see it more clearly and deeply,” she explained. “I want to feel connected and invested. I want to feel heartbroken.”
Henríquez also answered questions about her writing process, saying that it had taken her five years and twenty drafts to write her novel. “I write thirty to fifty pages without knowing what it is, then look at it,” she said. “I begin sentence by sentence, with no outline and no map.” Also, an early editor wanted to cut several of the chapters that aren’t about the central love story, but she wanted to keep them, saying that all the stories create the heart and soul of the book.
“This book isn’t about immigration but immigrants. It’s about people. What is most interesting to me is the real, everyday lives.” As she explained, the students listened with rapt attention. “I wrote to honor people, not to talk about an issue.”
At the end, a few students approached her to tell her how much her book meant to them. One admitted that she never liked the books she was assigned to read, but that she loved this one.
Literary Arts wants to thank the staff at Centennial High School who helped organize this visit, and all the attentive students who read the book and came and asked thoughtful questions.