Cristina Henríquez on setting stories in Panamá

Before the appearance of her debut short story collection, Come Together, Fall Apart, Cristina Henríquez was probably best known for “Ashes,” which appeared in The New Yorker. But the story of hers that stays with me is “Drive,” first published in the Summer 2004 issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review. If you’ve read it — and you should if you haven’t — it’ll come as no surprise that Henríquez finds her hands shaking when she reads Junot Diaz.

She writes below about setting her short stories in her father’s homeland. (And don’t miss her soundtrack for the collection.)

People ask all the time why I write fiction set in Panamá. I usually reply by saying something about how I do it as a way to discover an entire half of myself. I’m Panamanian-American, and although I’ve never lived in Panamá, I’ve visited my relatives there for a few weeks every year since I was born.

On the surface, it might make more sense for me to write stories set in the United States, since it’s the landscape with which I’m most familiar. But familiarity breeds inattention; I’m so busy living my life in the United States that I hardly see what’s here. I hardly notice things around me that might spark my imagination.

By contrast, when I visit Panamá, my awareness of everything is heightened because I’m only in the country for at most two weeks each year. Which means I’m attuned to the way the salt water smells in the evening; to the tinny quality of car horns every time someone honks; to how the popsicle vendor walking down the street wears the wrong size sandals so that his toes hang out over the front; to how my grandmother puts rice in her salt shaker to keep the salt from clumping together; to how loudly the birds outside start squawking in the half-light of morning; to how people use their ovens for storage, not for cooking; to how runny the ketchup is; to how straws in one store come in a box labeled American Sip Stix; to how sweet the coconut that we cut down from the tree in front of my aunt’s house tastes; and to how the clothes stiffen on the line after they’ve dried in the sun. I’m attuned to these things in a way I doubt I would be if I lived there. Everything would blend into a day-to-day reality where I was more concerned about how traffic meant I might not get to work on time, or about whether it was going to rain before I could gather up all the clothes I had laboriously hung out to dry that morning.

I know fiction writers are supposed to be the great observers, the people who stand in the corner at a party and just watch everyone else, quietly amassing material based on interesting human behaviors and noteworthy details. I should be able to do that anywhere, I suppose. And I can do it here. It’s just that, for now, I do it much better in Panamá.

I’m getting to know half of myself by getting to know the place to which that half belongs. While working on the stories in this book, I was constantly picking up the phone and peppering my parents with questions. I asked them to tell me the story of when my grandfather had been exiled for plotting to overthrow the president in the 1950s (my father has his own version in which he insists that my grandfather hid out on a farm in Costa Rica after planting an explosive at the president’s mailbox; my grandmother claims she can’t remember anything). I wanted to hear where my father had gone to school (IPA). Didn’t he say that he had learned to drive when he was only fourteen (my grandfather used to let him when my father asked)?

I grilled my cousin.

“Who are the biggest celebrities in Panamá?” I expected her to say Mariano Rivera or Ruben Blades.

“Politicians,” she said.

“Would you ever live by yourself?”

“No. The first reason is money. And we are comfortable at home.”

“Who did you vote for for President?” I asked.

“Endara. But all politicians are corrupt.”

It was incredible to me, suddenly, how little I felt I knew about them. They, who were part of me. Part of my history, part of my present. How little I knew about myself.

The most gratifying thing is when my cousin (who speaks English) reads a story I’m working on and says that it sounds true. I might have written mile instead of kilometer by accident, or I might have misspelled a street name, but the larger things — the social norms, the ingrained belief systems — come through in the characters. She’ll say, I’m friends with someone just like that character, or only a Panamanian would say something like that, and I know I’m getting it right.

I don’t know everything about Panamá. But I know enough to get myself going. I know as much as I need to know to set my imagination on fire, watching it burn down the right path, a flicker blooming into a full story.


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