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Author Cristina Henriquez Shares Her 'Book of Unknown Americans'

ChinLin Pan/KUT
Author Cristina Henriquez appears at BookPeople tonight in support of her novel "The Book of Unknown Americans."

People across the nation – especially here in Texas – have been riveted this past month by the crisis unfolding at the border as thousands of children arrive on their own. So desperate to flee their home countries in Latin America, children set off on a perilous journey, unsure of how they’ll be received once they get here.

It's amid this news that author Cristina Henriquez' new novel, "The Book of Unknown Americans," was released. Nestled between the chapters of an age-old story of teenage love float brief, first-hand accounts from men and women who have their own tales to tell of crossing into the US.

Henriquez stopped by KUT to speak with The Texas Standard's Emily Donahue prior to her appearance at BookPeople tonight at 7 p.m. She says she spent five years working on the novel.

"I've been holed away in the library across the street ... meticulously putting it together and it just happened to be ready at the same time," Henriquez says. "Although there were times along the way as I was writing it, I thought, 'This is the right time for the book to come out,' so in a way this is always the story, it's not just now, there's new dimensions to the story."

"It's a continuing story all over the world as I see it," she continues. "It's the same story repeated over an over with different groups. So this is just part of our national history and this is the part we live in right now, but in many ways it's not that different from different chapters of the story that have happened in the past." 

Some of the most compelling voices in the book are not those of the main characters, who are two teenagers whose actions have grave consequences. They are the interstitial chorus of voices, each with a different perspective of what it means to be an immigrant, that are interspersed throughout the narrative. 

"I hoped by the end of it, that the reader would have the sense that there was this collective chorus of voices that had gotten louder and by the end of it was almost kind of roaring into the reader's ears ... I really wanted to show that [immigrants] are not all one group of people. They are individuals and that from different countries they have their own prejudices against each other, their own biases toward each other and that they had their own preconceived notions - the way we all do as humans - about each other and I wanted all that to bubble to the surface," she says. 

Although the voices in the book are fiction, her inspiration was real. Cristina Henriquez' father is an immigrant from Panama. He came to the US  in 1971 to study chemical engineering at the University of Delaware. "So his is one story of a student coming to get an education," she says. "He thought he would go back after he got his degree but he ended up meeting my mom who basically changed the course of his life ... But my mom and I were talking one day just about they way that immigrants are portrayed in the media and she said something along the lines of, 'You know no one from the newspaper ever calls Pop to ask his story.' And I thought that's true, and also a shame and as a writer I had the power to tell his story."

"His story not exactly is in the book," she continues. "But stories inspired by his are in the book. Which is to say that stories of people uprooting their life and coming here for something else are all throughout the book, and I wanted to give voice to those stories that people don't usually hear or maybe aren't paying attention to."

You can hear the interview, including a reading from "The Book of Unknown Americans" by clicking the link.

Emily Donahue is a former grants writer for KUT. She previously served as news director and helped launch KUT’s news department in 2001.