BY SARAH CAVAR '20
On Tuesday, Cristina Henríquez, acclaimed author of Mount Holyoke Common Read “The Book of Unknown Americans,” spoke in Chapin auditorium. Vice President for Student Life and Dean of Students Marcella Runell Hall began the evening by asking the waiting audience to consider: “What kind of community do we want to be in together?”
With Mount Holyoke’s recent induction of its first Chief Diversity Officer and new initiatives such as the Unity Center in Blanchard, the book’s themes were timely for Mount Holyoke. They were also timely on a national scale: in an age of building walls, border separations and a rise in vocal and violent xenophobia, what is the power of fiction in creating empathy and building diverse, inclusive communities? This was the question Henríquez discussed at length, and one she meditates on between the covers of her novel.
Henríquez herself was born to an “unknown American:” she is the first daughter of a Panamanian father and an American mother. Her father, she explained, attended college in the United States as an international student –– but before he could even set foot on campus, mistaken airplane tickets diverted his course, leaving him alone on his first night in the country not knowing who to ask for help. He again felt this “alone-ness” when he arrived on campus, only to find out that he was without housing –– until an American family took him in as their host student. Like the families in her novel, her father’s immigration to the United States would not have been possible without community interdependence.
Henríquez also thrived off the support of others, especially during her childhood. She moved frequently during her formative years and grew unsure of which physical space to call “home.” She, like her father, ultimately learned to find a feeling of home in people rather than geographical areas. The books to which she was introduced by a beloved teacher helped her feel at home in fantastical worlds too, no matter where she lived. Appealing to the well-represented class of 2022, adorned in their red attire, Henríquez encouraged her audience to also find home in people and stories in times of physical transition. Her readers, she hoped, would relate on some level to the characters in her story. The “highest compliment [she] ever received” came in the form of a reader saying that her novel helped her to see the “stories” inherent in all people, even strangers at a bus stop.
That, Henríquez noted, is the power of fiction. Not only does it allow readers and writers to “critically interrogate” their own views (in Henríquez’s case, her definition of “community”) but it also facilitates the choice to connect with the lived experiences of people from an array of backgrounds. Community, she said, is not the same as sameness, and storytelling is so essential precisely because it allows a deeper empathy with what is different.
No stranger to working within communities, Henríquez knows we “all want to belong.” But, as she echoed the preceding comments of new Chief Diversity Officer Kijua Sanders-McMurtry, she compelled the Mount Holyoke community to explore its own biases. This is all in an effort to, in Sanders-McMurtry’s words, “struggle and work toward our collective liberation.”