It started as just another New York subway ride in November 2017.
Angie Cruz remembers the train was late that day and people were angry. She spotted a woman, perhaps in her late 50s, reading what appeared to be an ESL book.
Seeing the woman triggered thoughts about the recession of 2007 and 2008, and how many Dominican women from the Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan lost good jobs and were relegated to babysitting and other similar work. What happens, Cruz thought, when you lose your job after 25 years and what would it look like to have a character speak about their life experience?
Thus was born Cara Romero, the protagonist of Cruz’s latest novel, How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water (Flatiron Books).
“Right there, on that platform, Cara Romero was, like, 'Do you want me to tell you about myself? I’ll tell you about myself. I came to this country because my husband wanted to kill me.’ It happened just like that," Cruz says. "And I said, 'Tell me more, Cara.' And for a year, I listened to this character and asked her questions."
Cruz, an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh who will appear Sept. 13 at North Side's City Asylum Books, says that she spent a year getting to know Cara.
“Now it sounds a little weird, right, because she is a very fictional character," she adds. "But she was alive in my imagination.”
How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water follows Cara, whose gay son has left home and refuses to talk to her, as she attempts to look for work after losing a longtime position at a factory. As she searches, Cara is confronted by a bureaucracy and forms that she finds inscrutable.
Cara answers the questions honestly:
Are you 18 years of age or older?
Unfortunately, yes. But I look like a teenager. Ha!
Are you a U.S. citizen or approved to work in the United States?
What do you think?
Do you have any conditions that would require job accommodations?
I have veins like rocks up and down my legs. A job that doesn’t destroy me would be nice.
Cruz, as the daughter of an immigrant mother and the sole English speaker in a Spanish-speaking household, learned at an early age how to navigate such forms for her family.
“I always thought about how, in some ways, these forms are so difficult to go through,” Cruz says. “So many of the questions are actually culturally based. I thought, what would it look like if a character could candidly just answer, from the heart or experience, these forms that are in some ways, I feel, made for us to fail – all of us, working class, uneducated, people new to this country.”
While Cara’s experiences seem to be authentic, there’s no way to prove the truth of the character unless one has lived in Washington Heights or a similar neighborhood, or is of Dominican heritage.
Cruz understands this dynamic and how difficult it is to create a character that resonates with diverse readers. She thinks that by exploring Cara’s nuances, and her humanity, the character becomes universal.
“Cara’s story is everybody’s story in some ways,” Cruz says. “A lot of people know what it’s like to not have a job and to feel totally ill-equipped to go back into the workforce. And I think a lot of people also have children who they feel estranged from because their kids are different than them, they’ve chosen different paths.”
Angie Cruz appears Sept. 13 as part of City of Asylum’s International LitFest. The event, which takes place Sept. 10-20, is free and will feature writers including Dubravka Ugrešić (Sept. 10), Morgan Talty (Sept. 12), and Gary Shteyngart (Sept. 14). Details: cityofasylum.org/events