Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Wednesday, June 19, 2019: Maximum Shelf: Dominicana

Flatiron Books: Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Flatiron Books: Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Flatiron Books: Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Flatiron Books: Dominicana by Angie Cruz


by Angie Cruz

In Dominicana, Angie Cruz presents a heart-wrenching story of immigration, womanhood and what it means to be American, set against the backdrop of 1965 Washington Heights.

Teenager Ana wants to stay with her family in the Dominican countryside and fall in love someday. But when Juan Ruiz, a man twice her age, with "pockets full of dollars" from his business enterprises in New York, proposes to her, her family obliges her to marry him and leave for America. There, they reason, she will be able to send money back home and eventually have the whole family join her in the United States. "Do I really have a choice?" she wonders, "What kind of future waits for me or my brothers if I stay?"

Overnight, 15-year-old Ana is transformed with falsified papers into the 19-year-old Ana Ruiz, and bound for a small apartment in Washington Heights, in upper Manhattan. In her new life, she is trapped in a loveless marriage with a man who becomes increasingly abusive, confined to their apartment and cut off from the neighborhood around her by both her husband's strict rules and her inability to speak English. But when Juan returns to the Dominican Republic to protect his assets there in the face of increasingly violent political turmoil, Ana discovers a new side to American life: English classes, visits with neighbors, trips to Coney Island and maybe even love.

Across the pages of Dominicana, Cruz (Soledad; Let It Rain Coffee) expertly unpacks the world of 1965 Washington Heights, a neighborhood on the brink of change as Dominicans settle in a historically Jewish, German, Irish neighborhood. But inside this multicultural world is the close-knit Dominican community that Ana catches occasional glimpses of. While New York bustles on, letters and updates from Juan and family members back home provide stark contrast between a land of opportunity--albeit with its own set of challenges--and the increasingly politically charged and dangerous atmosphere in 1965 Dominican Republic.

Most persistent, though, is the contrast inherent in Ana herself, whose character develops with care and nuance as Dominicana unfolds. The novel is a coming-of-age story, though not a typical one. Ana is just 15 when she is thrust unceremoniously into an adult life in another country, the "ravenous world" that waits for her, cut off from her family and friends and everything she knew as a child. She is naive and unsure of herself in a way that only teenage girls can be. But she is also mature in many ways, in part because she is forced to be, handling her new situation with a poise that many adults would find impossible.

Cruz captures the balance between this naivety and maturity, the tension between a young girl and a grown woman, as Ana develops over the course of the novel. She wonders to herself what she could possibly know about loving a man while lying to her husband that, yes, of course she loves him; her surprise over finding herself pregnant contrasts with her understanding of the kind of power that will give her over her abusive husband; a young girl's giddiness over an opportunity to shop for new clothes couples with a chance to prove a point to herself and to Juan in the process. All her life, Ana has been taught to pretend: pretend to be strong, pretend to be happy, pretend to be interested, pretend to be in love with her husband or face the consequences. "If I pretend enough, maybe it will feel true," she tells herself, until she tires of pretending and her real world, her interior world, bursts out into the open. 

Though Ana's story is far from uplifting, it is this transformation, the fusing of the naive young girl and the powerful woman visible within her, that keeps Dominicana from wallowing in despair. As Ana finds the strength to soldier on against what many would consider unspeakable odds, Cruz finds hope to share with readers amidst the bleakest of circumstances. Dominicana evolves to become a story about what it means to be a strong woman in a world that would prefer a quiet girl; a story about balancing duty to one's family with a duty to one's self; a story about crafting a life of opportunity against a backdrop of foreign entities and an unknown language. It is not a universal story about immigration--indeed, it the novel is particular to the Dominican immigration of the 1960s, as suggested by its title. But despite its specificity, Dominicana is a story that can speak to the experience of immigrant women across culture, time and place. --Kerry McHugh

Flatiron Books, $26.99, hardcover, 336p., 9781250205933, September 3, 2019

Flatiron Books: Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Angie Cruz: Writing Through Injustice

(photo: Erika Morillo)

Angie Cruz is the founder and editor of Aster(ix), a feminist literary arts journal committed to social justice and works in translation. Cruz is the author of several short stories and the novels Soledad and Let It Rain Coffee. Her third novel, Dominicana (coming from Flatiron Books in September), is the story of Ana, a 15-year-old Dominican girl who is married to a man twice her age and immigrates to New York in the 1960s.

How would you describe Dominicana?

This book is a valentine to my mom and all the unsung Dominicanas like her, for their quiet heroism in making a better life for their families, often at a hefty cost to themselves. It's a document of what it's like to be an immigrant in New York City in the 1960s, and it's also a novel that brings up issues around the challenges that women face, about a young woman who finds herself in an abusive marriage and is faced with the challenges of not being documented, not speaking the language, of being in a new city, and how she resists, asserting her agency even when she is in a situation that is incredibly oppressive. Even if Dominicana is a Dominican story, it's also a New York story, and an immigrant story. 

You grew up in Washington Heights, where most of Dominicana is set. What was it like for you to revisit these places from your childhood?

Although I lived in Texas and Pittsburgh for the past 12 years, I have and continue to call Washington Heights home, where my family still lives. So I didn't have to revisit as much as take a critical look at a place I thought I knew, but only began to see after researching and interviewing community members about what it was like to live in Washington Heights in 1965.

I grew up in Washington Heights in the 1980s during the crack "epidemic." The neighborhood housed one of the largest drug markets in the U.S. It was a time when the largest wave of Dominicans immigrated to NYC and Spanish was the dominant language. Because my novel was set decades earlier, when the first Dominicans arrived, I had to research a lot. It was a very different neighborhood than the one I grew up in, and very different than the gentrified one it is now.

When I visit my mother I can still look out my childhood window and see the Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm X was assassinated in 1965. But this fact about Malcolm X was a history I didn't learn until I went away to college. All my life I was looking at that building, and I had no idea of its rich history. It was the same building that housed one of the few Spanish-language movie theaters in NYC, and in the basement there was a Jewish community space. I imagined all these communities having a very different narrative of this one building. This inspired me to write.

How did the current narrative around immigration to the United States shape your experience of writing this novel?

I am always thinking about immigration because I am the daughter of immigrants. When I watch the news I think about access, opportunity, language, code switching and all the sacrifices women in particular make to survive. All of this informed the novel. When we think about why people immigrate, often we think about opportunity. With Dominicana, I want Ana's story to show how domestic violence, patriarchy, capitalism and racism intersect, and how the United States has always had hands in Latin America and the Caribbean and that its presence abroad has destabilized economies, changed the climate and fueled violence that has made living in certain parts of Latin American untenable.

I also think that Ana's experience as an immigrant woman and in a domestic violence situation will resonate with a lot of readers who have had this experience or know of a woman who has. Novels are bridge builders. Stories about women like Ana are few and far between in literature or mainstream media. Many of these subjects are taboo and we carry them but never speak them. I hope that by reading Ana's story, every time you see someone on the news that is an "immigrant" or saying "me too" they think of a woman like Ana.

How much of Dominicana is shaped by your mother's story, or other stories coming out of your family?

Like the character, Ana, my mother was married to a man twice her age by my grandmother who dreamt of having all the family eventually come to America. But beyond that fact, the story itself is largely fiction. My family immigrated to the United States in the '70s. My book is set in the '60s. I chose to change the time period because I wanted to gain distance and have more space to invent. When I was stuck with the plot, I did ask my mother, "What is something in your life that you can't imagine ever happening?" And she said, "I don't think I'm ever going to fall in love."

That's when I realized that maybe we take falling in love for granted. Not everyone has the access, ability or freedom to fall in love. In this case, it was the most radical choice I could make for Ana. So even though it was inspired by my mother's story, the novel ends up being a wish-fulfillment.

In Dominicana, Ana's husband, Juan, is loosely based on my father, who I saw as a villain when I was a teen. With Juan I wanted to work through some of the youthful rage I had against my father. It was an opportunity to complicate him as a villain and see why he was so loved by so many people in my community. So I guess I was writing toward forgiveness as well.

You've said in the past that you were fueled by anger to become a writer.

When I was a teenager and working at a high-end cashmere store where my customers were buying $300 socks the way I would buy candy, while my grandmother was making $300 a week at a factory in Jersey, I had a lot of feelings. Big feelings. I was commuting from Washington Heights to Madison Avenue where spending thousands of dollars whimsically was the norm, and I just couldn't figure out the justice of it.

This led me to getting an education in literature and fueled a desire to understand inequality and become an activist. I realized then, too, that there weren't that many books written by and about people of color. Instead of complaining about the lack of stories, I decided I should write them. I understood that if someone didn't write the stories of my grandmother, the stories of my mother, the stories of my community and their humanity, the importance of their stories would go unseen, unheard. Reading books by African American and Latinx writers during my formative years as a writer gave me the permission and drive to write my own stories too. I write with this urgency, to tell stories that are not being told, but also to work through injustice. --Kerry McHugh

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