Dominican-American novelist Angie Cruz received widespread acclaim for her novel Dominicana. Her newest and fourth novel How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water follows Cara Romero as she loses her factory job during the Great Recession and returns back into the job market. Over twelve sessions, she tells the story of her life to the job counselor–affairs, relationships, struggles, secrets, and joys-revealing a powerful portrait of a fierce, complex woman.
Sofía Aguilar and Angie Cruz hopped on the phone to discuss How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, her creative practice, and the importance of storytelling.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Was there a moment when you realized you wanted to be a writer?
ANGIE CRUZ: Except for the encyclopedia, I didn’t grow up with books or reading. The books I read were for school. I never imagined myself as a writer because it’s hard when you don’t have writers in your family, when all the writers you’re reading are dead, white, and male. Being that I wasn’t, writing wasn’t the first thing that came to me. But when I went to study at SUNY Binghamton, I took an African American literature class where I started reading books by Black writers. I saw a lot of my experiences inside those books and I found myself more thinking about storytelling. Now that I’ve been writing and teaching for so long, I’ve realized that I was actually training to be a writer from a very young age because my grandmother was an incredible storyteller. That wasn’t validated in my education but in retrospect, I see the value of that training in my work.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What do you love about books and storytelling?
ANGIE CRUZ: In difficult and challenging moments, books gave me language for what could have made me a very angry person or a negative person. As someone who was conflict-avoidant for most of my life, I had a lot of rage from injustices. I worked for 12 years of my life on Madison Avenue in the retail business where I was one of the few women of color. I had to bite my tongue in a store where customers were buying 300 socks when I knew my grandmother was making $300 a week at a factory. I didn’t have the language to understand that that was systemic violence. I just thought this was the way the world worked.
People telling their stories helps you understand that there’s something completely unjust about the world, that we’re not lazy, that there’s not something wrong with us. It’s the system that is working against our progress. Also, there are possibilities in the novel to help us see something that we have yet to see in the world. The stories we tell each other, the stories we read, the stories we’re able to write, all of this starts adding to the imagination. The media is training us to not see ourselves in the world because we’re invisible, so our telling of stories re-enters us into the narrative. That’s power.
The media is training us to not see ourselves in the world because we’re invisible, so our telling of stories re-enters us into the narrative. That’s power.Angie Cruz
SOFÍA AGUILAR: How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water is your fourth novel. Do you feel like your novel writing process has changed?
ANGIE CRUZ: It definitely doesn’t get easier. I’m working on a new novel right now and I feel like I forgot what a novel is supposed to do. But what’s exciting about literature is innovation. I don’t want to do the same thing I did before. If you look at my four books, they’re very different in style because I wanted to try something new, right? I wanted to play the game a little differently. For How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, I thought, ‘How am I going to tell the story of Cara Romero in a way that feels true to this character, but also in a way that’s new even to me?’ I didn’t fall back on things I learned from Dominicana, which is written in a straightforward three-act structure. Did I want to make this a novel? A set of monologues? The exciting part is doing something I don’t totally understand and hoping something magical will happen. And I do think a great novel has to have something magical happen like that, that’s beyond comprehension.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Since you brought up monologues, we follow Carla through twelve sessions of her telling us about her life in an almost play-like format. Do you agree with that interpretation?
ANGIE CRUZ: I’ll tell you why it’s not a play. Toward the end of writing the book, a dear friend of mine who’s an ESL speaker and performer came over and read it out loud to me so I could hear it. While she was reading it, I realized I didn’t need so much of the text. So I cut 25,000 words and it went down to 30,000 words. Then it got even smaller. I sent it to my editor, who was like, ‘Where did the novel go? You have to bring everything back. This is a novel, not theater.’ You’re not in the theater with a set watching an actress move to cross the stage. It made me think a lot about form because even though I’m using monologues, I’m still working within the mechanics of a novel. There’s no tension between what’s happening on the stage and in the audience. A novel is intimate and one-on-one with a person who might’ve never seen the area, these buildings, these streets. They might not understand some of the Spanish words, so you have to contextualize. If it’s ever adapted into a play, I would be really curious about what stays.
What I encourage is to read widely and show up for each other.Angie Cruz
SOFÍA AGUILAR: Was there a session that you particularly loved writing?
ANGIE CRUZ: This book was so fun to write because I didn’t know it was going to get published. I’d spent ten years working on Dominicana and four years trying to find a publisher. By the time I was working on How Not to Drown in 2017, I thought I was going to quit writing, study something else, or go into immigration law. Trump was President and I was full of despair about what was going on at the border and in our country.
And then on November 17, 2017, I was on a train ride and Cara’s voice came to me. She said, ‘My name is Cara Romero. I came to this country because my husband wanted to kill me.’ It happened like that. And I said, ‘Holy shit. I love you.’ So I got on my phone and listened to her for the entire 40-minute train ride. I put down 500 words, a lot of which made it into the book. Then every time I got on a train or a plane or a bus, I created a little game for myself where I summoned Cara. She came so embodied and her voice was so clear to me, just going on about her life. So writing the monologues was very fun. I laughed out loud writing them. I wondered if anyone was going to think it was as funny as me but I really wrote the book for me. I wanted to honor all the invisible labor that all the women in my life have done and continue to do.
SOFÍA AGUILAR: What advice would you give to the next generation of Latina writers?
ANGIE CRUZ: This is such an exciting time. There are so many books by Latina writers coming out right now in every genre for every age group. So go to the readings, support Latina writers, make sure that your bookstores and libraries are carrying those books, read those books, send love notes. The more books we have published in our community, the more possibilities there are for the ways we want to write and opportunities for writers to be experimental and courageous. What I encourage is to read widely and show up for each other.