Working to cultivate community in a time of isolation, the Bowdoin Department of English hosted novelist and essayist Jennine Capó Crucet for an essay reading and a question-and-answer session over Zoom as part of the Alpha Delta Phi Society Visiting Writer Series on Wednesday. Crucet read “Going Cowboy,” an essay from her latest collection titled “My Time Among the Whites: Notes from an Unfinished Education.” The essay collection centers around her experience teaching and living in predominantly white Nebraska as a Latinx woman from Miami.
“[The book] draws on her own experience as a first-generation college student and investigates through a personal lens concepts of race, gender, immigration and the American dream,” said Assistant Professor of English Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, who introduced Crucet and later moderated the question and answer session.
“Going Cowboy” documents Crucet’s time at a ranch in the Sandhills of rural, north-central Nebraska. Crucet explains how she developed an understanding of the vast gulf that divided the rancher’s experience of America from her own, which led her to the realization that her view of people like the rancher was just as biased and stereotyped as the rancher’s view of people like her.
“[A 13-year-old girl] tried to assuage my distress by telling me she’d been riding horses since before she learned how to walk. I was impressed. But this revelation didn’t make me feel any better, not at all,” Crucet read. “It made me feel my foreignness more… This offered-up fact of her life seemed unimaginable to me, as unimaginable as the claims made by Nebraska students and new neighbors I’d later meet that they’ve never seen the ocean in real life.”
Crucet recalls discovering an unexpected connection between herself and the rancher in the word “dale,” a Spanish word that the rancher uttered daily. While the rancher was oblivious to the word’s Spanish origins, for Crucet this connection represented the possibility, however strange, that the two sides could someday come to understand each other.
“[Our connection] might be as jarring as something I felt on my last day there, sitting on a horse, my eyes closed, the Nebraska wind rolling over the Sandhills and thrashing miles and miles of waist-high grasses, and sounding exactly like the restless, relentless wash of waves against Miami shore,” she read. “There was no denying it. There was no drowning out.”
Speaking later in the question and answer session, Crucet explained that she began to realize the necessity of “My Time Among the Whites” after moving to Lincoln to teach English at the University of Nebraska.
“I wouldn’t have written this book…if I wasn’t living in a deeply red state and seeing for myself a part of America that is often ignored,” she said. “I need to face that because now I live here and I can see the media bias, the kind of narrative that gets perpetuated about that part of the country, and a lot of it is true, but it’s also more complicated than that.”
She stated that she wants the book to feel like a peace offering to Nebraska—one that can hopefully start productive conversations and lead to more mutual understanding. In that vein, many of the book’s essays also address her own misconceptions about the people of Nebraska.
“I’m willing to show my unintentional bigotry—that I had certain ideas about rural Nebraskans, but I understood those ideas as based on not enough information,” she said. “Once you can expose an idea as coming from a place of ignorance…you can take that information, continue to ask questions. Then you’re acting in a way of compassion and empathy and justice and love.”
Crucet also shared her belief that being vulnerable and writing publicly about her own flaws and struggles has helped her come to terms with those challenges and address past trauma.
“I don’t know where to draw the line until I’ve accidentally crossed it,” she said. “Then I tell myself I don’t have to give the reader everything, and somehow telling myself that allows me to give them everything … And that’s where I feel strength, it’s that I’ve chosen it rather than feeling like I have to do this in order to make the essay good, or I have to do this in order to please my editor.”
Crucet is also the author of a short story collection, “How to Leave Hialeah,” as well as a novel, “Make Your Home Among Strangers.” Her next novel, “Say Hello to My Little Friend,” described by Crucet as “Scarface Meets Moby Dick,” is due to be published in 2021.