On Jennine Capó Crucet's Course in Continuing Education, 'My Time Among the Whites'
In her memoir My Time Among the Whites, Jennine Capó Crucet demonstrates that making your home among strangers is harder than it seems.
My Time Among the Whites
Jennine Capo Crucet
Jennine Capó Crucet writes one hell of a title. Her debut novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers (2015), a coming of age story set in 1999 about a Cuban-American student at a predominately white university, managed to amalgamate the college and immigrant experience in the title's five words. Similarly, Crucet's short story collection, How to Leave Hialeah (2009), sounds like an atlas when it's really about remaining rooted in, rather than leaving, a specific cultural geography. So it's a kind of atlas after all.
As if part of a multi-genre trilogy, Crucet has now added My Time Among the Whites, a collection of personal essays, some previously published in different forms in Medium and the New York Times that, taken together, suggest that making your home among strangers is harder than the previous book's command lets on.
The opening essay, "What We Pack", transfigures Tim O'Brien's title The Things They Carried from literal to metaphorical war stories, leading with a dramatic situation: "It was a simple question, but we couldn't find the answer in any of the paperwork the college had sent: How long was my family supposed to stay for first-year student orientation?" For a family of refugees, how long one may stay is no small matter. From there, "What We Pack" goes back in time, from student orientation to how Crucet chose her unlikely college, to her childhood orthodontia, and then back to college, with the problem of decoding her first literature assignment.
Crucet's prose is conversational and largely free of flourish, imagery, or metaphor (with, however, a strong penchant for parentheticals). Her structures are looping and elliptical, seeming to go in different directions, until she pulls them together at the end, when you realize that the sentences don't need symbols, because the whole essay has been symbolic. Whether the situation is leaving orientation or understanding the assignment, Crucet's parents "didn't even know what questions to ask, which is also the quintessential condition of the first-generation college student experience." An essay about packing for school leads to what Crucet unpacks through school: her identity.
Sometimes Crucet conveys that she's steeped in symbolism. When recounting the story of her "not very Cuban" first name, we learn that her parents took "Jennine", spelled differently, from "the 1980 Miss USA runner-up". Crucet incorporates the story of her first name into an anecdote, "the first real short story [she] wrote as a college student for a fiction workshop". The class "discussed how improbable the scenario seemed to them, how pointedly symbolic it was, how totally unlikely it would be—these white classmates told me—for a Cuban couple not to want to honor their own heritage in the naming of their first child." It becomes a true story packed into a work of fiction unpacked as a personal essay. Indeed, there are layers of symbolism in an essay titled—in equal parts sincerity and irony—"¡Nothing is Impossible in America!", the inverted exclamation point doing its own share of symbolic lifting.
Other times, we can infer the symbolism. The orthodontic detour in the previous essay leads to an epiphany that Crucet's "bottom teeth are [now] almost back to where they started despite those braces. What a waste of all that metal, that pain, and that work. With that gift came the commitment to honor and maintain it, and perhaps because I was the first in my family to have such a gift, I didn't know that things never stop shifting, that getting the chance at something better doesn't automatically guarantee it." Education is like orthodontia: it's an expensive, painful, generational gift and burden, one that sometimes does not hold. Life is orthodontia, too.
Within and between the essays, then, the symbols and metaphors aggregate and proliferate. In an essay about Disney World, the now-nonoperational Great Movie Ride "was, essentially, a metaphor for my existence as the American-born daughter of Cuban refugees." In trying to hire a bilingual, multifaceted DJ for her wedding to a white man, Crucet worries "because I am a writer—that my concerns about this aspect of the wedding planning were really just a metaphor for something I wasn't yet ready to admit."
Just a metaphor? If My Time Among the Whites teaches us anything, it may be that the metaphorical experience of being first-generation American Latinx is inseparable from any supposedly non-symbolic "real" thing. Crucet's section and essay titles are just as evocative and metaphorical as her book titles. Along with "What We Pack", and "¡Nothing is Impossible in America!", Crucet adds titles like "Magic Kingdoms", "Various Immersions", and "Imagine Me Here; or, How I Became a Professor". As Marianne Moore famously wrote that poetry gives us "imaginary gardens, with real toads", so Capó Crucet's memoirs depict imaginary kingdoms, with real roads.
In its combination of realism and symbolism, the collection is also suffused with contradiction, in the best sense. Even an innocuous preposition like "among", the recurring word in Make Your Home Among Strangers and My Time Among the Whites, becomes riddled in paradox. "Among" means "being a member or members of (a larger set)", suggesting integration, but also "surrounded by", suggesting intimidation, or, if undetected, even infiltration. As Crucet, with her light skin, discusses in an essay invoking her time in rural America during the 2016 Presidential election, "I often accidently trespass into moments that are essentially displays of white power intended only for other whites."
The new book could easily have been called Make Your Home Among Dangers. The shift from " your home" in her novel to "my time" in the essays is crucial: Crucet is claiming herself, her voice, and her personal family stories. Somehow, the imaginary version of Hialeah in her life is even harder to leave than the literal one in her stories.
The collection overall evokes the essay "Imaginary Homelands", by Salman Rushdie, who explained his title this way:
It may be that writers in my position, exiles or emigrants or expatriates, are haunted by some sense of loss, some urge to reclaim, to look back, even at the risk of being mutated into pillars of salt. But if we do look back, we must also do so in the knowledge—which gives rise to profound uncertainties—that our physical alienation from India almost inevitably means that we will not be capable of reclaiming precisely the thing that was lost; that we will, in short, create fictions, not actual cities or villages, but invisible ones, imaginary homelands, Indias of the mind.
Crucet's Cuba is, of course, vastly different from Rushdie's India. For one thing, as she tells us, she has never visited it. "When non-Latinx Americans meet me and learn my family is from Cuba, they often ask me… if I've ever been to Cuba, a question so layered and fraught for me that I've learned to respond by asking, 'Why would I have ever been to Cuba?' and then just seeing what they say." Her time among the whites in Northeast and Midwest America is also vastly different from Rushdie's multiple and life-threatening exiles across different countries.
And yet, Crucet's book demonstrates that a certain kind of exile—that is, living among, but not truly being included in—may be a position of power, not weakness, a way of becoming, not just being. Now a college professor, Crucet writes that "With every class I teach or story I write or talk I prepare, I'm still becoming a professor. I still think, when I'm getting dressed to teach or for a meeting, I'm putting on my professor costume. It still feels like an act that I can't admit is my reality."
How long, she asks in the book's opening sentence, "...was my family supposed to stay for first-year student orientation?" The answer, it turns out, is Maybe Forever. In keeping, the book's subtitle is "Notes from an Unfinished Education". Crucet's time among the whites continues; so does her exile, and with it, her education. May her, and our, education be ongoing.