In “Dominicana,” a Child Bride Longs for Home
Angie Cruz fictionalizes her mother's marriage and journey to the United States at age 15
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Dominicana takes place in the 1960’s, following 15-year-old Ana Canción as she marries a man twice her age and immigrates to New York City from the Dominican Republic. Though Ana doesn’t love him, and never truly dreamt of the U.S., she knows it’s an opportunity to help her family.
In this novel, Angie Cruz follows Ana as she grows older and lonelier, as she finds freedom in her husband’s absence. Domicana is a novel about immigration, womanhood, and coming of age. It is a novel about unlearning silence but learning survival. It’s about living in a place that doesn’t love you—but loves your labor—and finding a way to love it anyways.
Arriel Vinson: What jumped out at me first were the themes of womanhood/motherhood vs. manhood in the novel. Ana was a 15 year old being prepped for marriage and taking care of a husband. Why did you want to depict this?
Angie Cruz: Before this was a novel I had started writing what I thought was a nonfiction book about my mother’s marriage as a way to answer questions that I was having around womanhood and the way women in my family sacrificed for the sake of the family. I was very inspired by Dorothy Allison’s book, Two or Three Things I Know for Sure both thematically and stylistically, where she looks into her family’s history to explore the impact of one generation to the next. So with that in mind, I interviewed numerous family members about what their life was in the ’60s and ’70s and I was struck by the evasions, silences, the inconsistency in the telling, all in an effort not to admit or say what was obvious in my eyes, that my father was an abusive man.
At first, I thought my grandmother’s ambition for a better life was prioritized over the well-being of my mother but while writing this novel I am coming around to the fact that my grandmother was probably trying to save my mother from possibly a worst fate. Women are vulnerable to sexual assault, unfair wages, abuse, femicide, all over the world, but specifically, in Dominican Republic, the Trujillo dictatorship instilled, in the fabric of the culture, the notion that women are inferior to men. And this translates into a host of legal, physical, emotional, financial, vulnerabilities for women. But the reality is that women are presumed incompetent constantly in our culture here in the United States too. And Ana’s prepping to be married is not so different from so many women who get married thinking they have to perform the role of wife. Ana’s plight, one full of agency and desire to make something for herself, despite having multiple obstacles, feels to me like so many women’s stories. She already understands the trades one makes in a marriage, what she needs to do to get what she needs or wants. For Ana she wanted to bring her family to New York.
AV: The novel is set in the 60s. How did that influence the themes in the book, and Ana’s story in general? You use historical events to ground the reader in time. Tell me more about this decision.
AC: This book has had many incarnations. A previous version was set in the 70s. But I became interested in 1965 for this particular book because the window in Ana’s living room faced the Audubon Ballroom. And in that building Malcolm X was assassinated. I was interested in what it might have been like for someone newly arrived not knowing the language or culture to be looking out her window and witnessing this historic event. Ana doesn’t yet know that as a member of the African diaspora—being that Dominican and African American ancestors both took the same trip across the middle passage—that Malcolm X’s platform, the civil rights act, the struggle for black liberation would eventually make it possible for her and her family to have access to education, employment, housing, etc.
So to write her story in the 60s made it possible for me to juxtapose the upheaval in New York and also the occupation of the Dominican Republic by the United States. To show the marches and acts of resistance out on the streets, but also to correlate this moment of revolution and multiple forms of resistance in the world that were also happening inside Ana’s apartment, inside her body too, was intentional.
AV: There’s some physical abuse in the novel as well (although sometimes it’s not explicitly stated). Why was this important to include for Ana’s story? Would you say this is a reality some immigrant women experience?
AC: I have found it interesting how difficult it has been for readers to say Ana was raped. Call it marital rape, spousal rape, but I think the book makes it clear that she did not want to have sex with Juan. Aside from the fact that she was a minor, she also did everything to avoid it, and when it happened, he choked her. He slapped her. He didn’t give her the key to the apartment. In fact, one reviewer called it unwanted sex. It’s rape. So to answer your question do I think Ana’s story is a reality for some immigrant women. No, I think it’s the reality of 1 in 5 women who will be raped at some point in their lives in the United States. 1 in 4 women will be sexually abused.
AV: This novel is also about Ana learning survival, not just Ana learning herself. She uses the pigeons who visit her window to imagine she’s at home, finds a way to make money on the side. Why was this an important balance to strike?
AC: I think all my books to some extent deal with informal economies that are born from the need to have a side hustle, especially when many jobs for the struggling class are below a living wage. For many keeping one’s head above water requires inventing ways to make money. Without her pigeon friends, her memories of what may have seemed like a more idyllic life in the country back home and her saving up for her necessities, I think the book would be unbearable to read. She was in a bad situation, but even in a bad situation, even when we don’t have resources, if we have imagination, there is a feeling of freedom.
AV: At the end of a lot of the chapters, Ana imagines different scenarios (whether with Juan, Caesar, or her family back in the D.R.). Can you talk more about her using imagination as an act of resistance?
AC: I’ve been thinking a lot about imagination and why I write fiction. Every time I dare look at the news I find myself more horrified but not because anything that is happening is that different than what has been happening in like forever but more how no matter what happens I find myself sitting with folks and they will say with certainty that Trump will get reelected again, or how nothing can be done about the climate crisis that awaits, as if a dystopic future is inevitable or all beyond our control. This I find is where we are failing to imagine another reality.
Ana is in a tough reality with very little room to move, to find moments of joy, to dream, to imagine is one way for her to potentially actualize another reality. I’ve been thinking about what it must have been like to be at the height of the Vietnam war and come across the Yoko Ono poster, The War is Over. What if we all agree the war is over, do we stop the fighting and move from destroying things to building things? Who knows?! I think that’s why I write fiction because it allows for things that may feel impossible in “real” life but in fiction anything can happen.
AV: The theme of strength is also strong in this novel. Even after having a baby, Ana is consumed with the idea of strength. Tell me more about this decision, but also what strength has meant for women around you.
AC: I grew up with women who didn’t even think they had a choice but to be strong. If it comes up in the novel it’s because it’s the expectation women I know have for themselves and each other. But being strong all the time also is exhausting. I try to be strong for everyone even when I need help. But I want to feel and believe that asking for help is also strength. It’s like that moment in the book when Ana gets help nursing the baby, sometimes letting someone help is showing strength.
AV: What are you working on now?
AC: Right this minute I am working on so many things simultaneously but mostly on my next novel tentatively titled The Immigrant Handbook about a recently unemployed middle-aged woman who is trying to find work during the great recession of 2007. At the moment the book is a long monologue of a job interview she is doing, answering the questions candidly. I am also co-editing The Ferrante Project that will be done in two parts for the journal I edit Aster(ix). We have invited sixteen established writers and visual artists to submit works anonymously, providing a space for them and us, to try something we wouldn’t do if we had to put our names on it. Often as people of color we are invited to places to perform our identity, or we feel like we must, how do we liberate ourselves from that? That’s the experiment. The submissions have been interesting for sure.
AV: Lastly, you mentioned Ana’s freedom, and one thing I loved about the novel was that freedom meant something different for each character. Can you tell me more about that decision?
AC: I think a lot about what it means to be free and the borders of freedom, imagined or very real. And through fiction I can play out the possibility of it/them. For Ana to fall in love or allow herself to fall in love, was a space of freedom. And for Juan, marriage gave him the permission and a kind of freedom to do with Ana as he wanted. For Cesar, to walk around in Harlem where he didn’t feel feared because he was black, allowed him a taste of freedom. To have a key to an apartment. To make some money. To learn English. To choose who you fuck. To chop off your hair. To feel joy. All acts of resistance, reclaiming power and space, even if momentarily.