Updated: Sep 23, 2022
By Amaris Castillo
Angie Cruz’s forthcoming novel, How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, was born out of despair.
It was 2017 and the celebrated Dominican-American author of Soledad and Let It Rain Coffee had been at the receiving end of multiple rejections from publishers for her third novel, Dominicana. Cruz was on the subway when she noticed an older woman teaching herself English from a small handbook. That's when the writer’s mind began churning. The older woman reminded Cruz so much of women in her family. From there came Cara Romero, the fallible and lovable main character in How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, out on Sept. 13 from Flatiron Books.
Set in 2009, the novel centers on Cara, a 56-year-old dominicana and longtime resident of the heavily-Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, New York. She has been unemployed for two years since her job at the factory of little lamps was outsourced because of the Great Recession. In order to continue receiving her unemployment benefits, Cara must participate in NYC’s Senior Workforce Program. Over the next 12 sessions, Cara and the counselor – a younger Dominican American woman – are to work together to find a job that matches Cara’s skills and interests. A final report will assess whether or not Cara is job-ready.
How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water -- which we recently reviewed -- pulsates with Cara’s unforgettable voice, contradictions, worries, joy – a poignant portrait of one woman who refuses to let life’s circumstances keep her down. Cruz spoke with the Dominican Writers Association about her new book, its themes, and the deliciousness of oral storytelling.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Congratulations on the upcoming release of How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water! This novel is unlike anything I’ve read. How do you feel about your book being out in the world soon?
I’m excited to see the novel out in the world. It’s different than my other books in how I tell the story, but similar in that I continue to tell stories about working-class Dominican women. There were many different versions of this book before I settled on the one that is being published and this is because it took me a minute to trust my initial vision of the book.
Cara Romero started speaking to me back in 2017 when I was feeling despair. At the time I was trying to sell Dominicana and I was receiving rejection after rejection. Dominicana was my third book, but back then I thought I would never get published again. Even smaller presses that usually take risks on works like ours weren’t interested in publishing the book.
In this moment of despair, while I was waiting on a crowded subway platform – I saw this woman in her late 50s teaching herself English. She held this kind of handbook and reminded me so much of my tías, my grandmother – all these women in my life who were laid off during the Great Recession in 2007. After working in the same factory for over 25 years, they were supposed to start over again. They had a lot to offer, but to go on a job interview is something they’d never done before. Thinking about this compelled me to go online and look up the most popular interview questions. I downloaded interview questions, and Cara Romero came to life. I heard her say, “You want to know something about my life? I’ll tell you about my life. I came to this country because my husband wanted to kill me.”
I opened a new Google Doc and wrote the first session of the book on my commute downtown. And she didn’t stop speaking to me. For a year, when I got on a train, a plane, or a bus, Cara Romero answered a question. I did this not knowing if what I was writing was going to be a book. I simply wanted to get to know this character. I mean, in the end even if no one will publish your work, writers write. So I wrote. I was Cara Romero’s captive listener.
There was something about that woman you saw on the subway that jogged something in you. What is it about the older Dominican immigrant women demographic that interests you?
I grew up in New York with a lot of freedom. When I think about the women in my family who are older than me, they didn’t always have the freedom to marry who they loved, or pursue jobs around their passions and interests. They didn’t always have the freedom to quit things when it wasn't working for them. For the elders in my family, their priority was to work and sacrifice for the next generation. They needed to get food on the table. To make sure their kids went to college. To make sure that they don’t get killed on the streets. I marvel at how women in my family, despite all the challenges they continually face, how they get up every morning to put food on the table, and laugh, and love, and care about people.
I wanted to spend time with Cara Romero and listen to her, sustain a conversation with someone who thinks very differently than me. Maybe because I remember when I stopped listening to older family members in my younger years when they said things I thought were problematic. In retrospect, I see I could have been more generous. In some ways this book is a love letter to these women who I struggled with, but who also sacrificed a lot so I could study, write and live the freedoms I do.
I want to talk about the structure of How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water. You chose to tell the story through the job counseling sessions Cara must undergo, and the voice is all hers. To me it read like an unedited interview transcript. How did you decide to tell the story this way?
The first draft was just Cara answering interview questions like, “Tell me something about yourself. What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? What’s your dream job?” And because Cara Romero has a mind of her own, she would go on tangents.
Afterwards, I was like, What is this mess? You can’t write a novel about a person’s entire life. I had to make choices. So I created this frame of 12 sessions with this job counselor. As I was writing it, I laughed out loud thinking how people I know would answer questions who are not used to being asked such things. The truth is a lot of people don’t ask questions. They just tell you what to do. They’re like, “You know what you should do…” people give so much unsolicited advice and opinions. What if, before we talked at people, we took a breath and listened to them, and then say, “These are some ways we can help.” The monologues allowed Cara to tell her story, make connections about her life and choices and receive help. Cara Romero lucked out because she found a really great listener.
She found the most patient woman because I found myself at times wanting to shake Cara and tell her to focus on her job search! She is far from perfect, and you don’t shy away from that. There’s her estrangement from her son, Fernando, and how Cara – according to her sister, Angela – pushed him away. And there’s the difficult relationship Cara had with her own mother, who feels to me like a shadowy figure who still lurks in Cara’s consciousness. Tell us about your approach to motherhood in your book.
I think a lot about motherhood because I’m a mother to a 14-year-old, so I think a lot about the choices I make as a mother and also watching how other people mother my child. The way my mother mothers my son is very different from the way that I mother. And it’s because we come from very different cultures. My mother grew up with a mother who didn’t encourage her to speak and who had very specific rules. I encourage my child to speak his feelings and I think about his agency in certain contexts. I hope to have written a book that grapples with the complicated ways that we must mother right now, especially kids of color who are traversing so many challenges in this world.
You address a lot of themes in the book, one of which is queerness. And, of course, queerness as one older Dominican woman sees it. Why was it important for you to explore this subject, and what message does it send about where the immigrant community is in how it treats the queer community?
The emotional and physical abuse many suffer because of homophobia is painful and confounding, and that’s why I wrote Cara Romero’s story. What her story reveals is that while she struggles with her son’s sexuality, she loves him very much. I wanted to write her in conversation with a younger generation because I feel there is a lot the different generations can learn from each other, but for change to happen we have to listen to each other and be open to transformation.
We owe so much to queer community who have given us the freedom to non conform to all the trappings of what a family should look like. What love should look like. For me, queer culture pushes back on these conventions, the nuclear family, the patriarch, the hetero relationship. Who made these rules? Who designed how we love, how we live, etc? Cara is someone who estranges her son because she was afraid he would suffer as a gay man, but at the same time she is taking care of her queer neighbors. When I am writing I never think about the message my books are sending out into the world, but if this book can help the Caras of the world see themselves and their contradictions, that would be amazing.
I totally understand what you’re saying. I’ve encountered that in my family.
The Cara Romeros of the world don’t always see themselves. They are taught to suck it up and not feel anything. But this sucking it up and showing up to work even when one hurts is also, I think, why nothing changes. For Cara to have the interviewer asking her how something made her feel – imagine that – this is dangerous territory for someone who has tried to live a life not thinking about how something made her feel. She’s just trying to survive. But accessing one’s feelings is also an opportunity for healing. I was trying to explore all that in the book, where you have this Cara character who is grappling with all the ways that she raised her son and feeling really right about the way she is, and then discovering maybe she was wrong and that she should change.
For me, the delight in reading How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water was how you leaned into the deliciousness of oral storytelling. How fun was it to stitch all this together?
As a writer, revising is my pleasure space. Every time I revise, I find more love for each character. For me, revision is all about opening up something in a character and finding the right language to say it exactly the way I want to say it. Doing the forms and documents and weaving it all together is my pleasure space, because it’s like I’m making a map of Cara’s life. Structurally, this was really fun. The challenge was “killing my darlings” so I can maintain this monologue but also craft a novel. Even the monologue, as a form, is very restrictive. Some people only have so much patience to listen to someone talk. Ha!
I understand what you're saying. I know you said very few people have read the book so far, but I checked some of the reviews and there was one person who said they wished it was longer. What do you hope people will feel after reading?
Books are so surprising. You put something out there and you don’t know what the response is going to be. Recently Lupita Aquino – a Latina Bookstagrammer – jokingly put in a TikTok, “I’m suing Angie for emotional damage.” She felt that my book brought up these issues. She said that, as a queer woman, reading a person that was so much like her mother made her feel like there’s a lot she might not know about her mother. It opened up just a little bit of space for her to figure out how to reach her.
There are a lot of us that are estranged from our mothers, or fathers. Definitely our fathers. Education estranges us. Politics estranges us. Different ways of living estrange us. Definitely being queer in a really homophobic culture estranges us.
Cara is a frustrated character, but I wanted her to also be lovable and generous. How many of us are not doing social service, teaching, all this stuff? And we’re faced with people that are not like us. How much space can we make to listen, so we can get to know who they really are? This book is an invitation for conversation.
About the Author:
Angie Cruz is a novelist and editor. Her fourth novel, How Not To Drown in A Glass of Water is forthcoming Fall 2022. Her novel, Dominicana, was the inaugural book pick for GMA book club and chosen as the 2019/2020 Word Up Uptown Reads. It was shortlisted for The Women’s Prize, longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction, The Aspen Words Literary Prize, a RUSA Notable book and the winner of the ALA/YALSA Alex Award in fiction. It was named most anticipated/ best book in 2019 by Time, Newsweek, People, Oprah Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Esquire. Cruz is the author of two other novels, Soledad and Let It Rain Coffee, and the recipient of numerous fellowships and residencies including the Lighthouse Fellowship, Siena Art Institute, and the CUNY Dominican Studies Institute Fellowship. She's published shorter works in The Paris Review, VQR, Callaloo, Gulf Coast and other journals. She's the founder and Editor-in-chief of the award-winning literary journal, Aster(ix), and is currently an Associate Professor at University of Pittsburgh. She divides her time between Pittsburgh, New York and Turin.
Pre-order How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water (release date Sept. 13).
Amaris Castillo is a journalist, writer, and the creator of Bodega Stories, a series featuring real stories from the corner store. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times, the Lowell Sun, the Bradenton Herald, Remezcla, Latina Magazine, Parents Latina Magazine, and elsewhere. Her creative writing has appeared in La Galería Magazine, Spanglish Voces, PALABRITAS, Dominican Moms be Like..., and is forthcoming in Quislaona: A Dominican Fantasy Anthology. Her short story, "El Don," was shortlisted for the 2022 Elizabeth Nunez Caribbean-American Writers’ Prize by the Brooklyn Caribbean Literary Festival.