A story of midlife transition lands Angie Cruz on Aspen Words Literary Prize shortlist
Author Angie Cruz was nearly ready to quit her writing career when an idea struck for a character named Cara Romero, an immigrant woman going through an unexpected midlife transition.
Romero’s story of secrets, regrets and relationships became the novel “How Not To Drown in In a Glass of Water,” published last year as several conversations-turned-confessionals with a job counselor.
Now, the book has landed Cruz on the shortlist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize, a $35,000 award for fiction with a social impact.
Aspen Words, a local literary hub with programs tied to the Aspen Institute, will announce the winner at an award ceremony in New York City on April 19. The Pitkin County Library will livestream the ceremony at a watch party that night from 4 to 6 p.m.
Cruz spoke with Aspen Public Radio about his book and the prize earlier this month; interviews with all five Aspen Words Literary Prize finalists will be broadcast and shared online in the days leading up to Wednesday’s ceremony.
Kaya Williams: When you found out you were even on the [Aspen Words Literary Prize] longlist and then on the shortlist, how did you feel? Were you surprised, excited, a little bit of everything?
Angie Cruz: Oh, I was so surprised. You know, I feel like this book I wrote out of despair. It kind of saved my life. To see this precious little book that has been a godsend to me personally on a shortlist, it's just almost unbelievable.
Williams: You just mentioned that this book seems like a ‘godsend’ to you. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? What is the significance of this work to you personally?
Cruz: Well, you know, in 2017, when I started it, I had been trying to sell my last book, ‘Dominicana,’ for over four years, and I was just receiving numerous rejections. I had to make a decision, as a single mother, to think about my financial security and my life, and I didn't really imagine ever getting published again.
As I was thinking about getting a new career, I was waiting for the train, and I saw this woman who was a little older than me studying some handbook. And I thought, ‘Wow. What could it be like to start over at a moment of your life where you think that you're almost close to retirement?’
And I thought about all the women in my family during the Great Recession who had lost their jobs. In some ways that gave me courage to imagine a different life outside of being a writer. But of course, we make a plan, and God laughs.
And I thought, you know, one of the first questions an interviewer will ask a person is, ‘Tell me something about yourself.’ And in that moment, Cara Romero came to me, and she says, ‘You want to know something about myself? I will tell you something about myself. My name is Cara Romero. And I came to this country because my husband wanted to kill me.’
I immediately took up my phone, and I pulled up a Google Doc, and on that train ride downtown that day, I wrote the first 500 words of the book, and I basically was having her tell me stories in a moment that I was thinking to transition to another job.
Williams: Now, it seems like things have worked out favorably for you staying in writing. You've been in this game for a very long time — your first book, ‘Soledad,’ came out in 2001. So how does it feel to be getting this acclaim, both for ‘Dominicana’ [released in 2019], and then ‘How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water’ [released in 2022] at this point in your career, especially at a time when you were so close to pivoting to something else?
Cruz: Well, I think that this is a good reason or a good lesson for those of us who think to give up to keep at it, and continue to pursue our passions.
I feel like in some ways, I never made a choice to be a writer. I felt an urgency to tell stories about the community that I grew up in, which is Washington Heights. I've been quite committed in my past books to tell stories about working class people, specifically women, and to feel that that's being seen, or rewarded in a way, just already feels like such a privilege and an honor for sure.
One of the ways how I've survived within my community, even though we've struggled through a system in a country that wasn't always welcoming, is laughter. You know, laughter, in a moment of tragedy, is a release.Angie Cruz, on weaving humor into stories of struggle and transition
Williams: You mentioned earlier, this is a book that navigates life transitions and unemployment late in life. There's some heavy stuff in here, but there's also a lot of humor and a lot of funny comments and pithy turns of phrase. How do you balance that between the humor of the book and the weight of the themes that it's dealing with?
Cruz: I mean, I think that one of the ways how I've survived within my community, even though we've struggled through a system in a country that wasn't always welcoming, is laughter. You know, laughter, in a moment of tragedy, is a release.
But it's also a way where we sort of look at each other and we say, ‘OK, we're in this together, we see each other.’ So for me writing a character like Cara Romero, it's not like I decided for the book to be funny. But in her telling her story of all the ways that she's struggling, to laugh together is also for us to say, ‘We see each other.’
Williams: In the process of writing this book, was there anything that you learned about yourself, as you were exploring the character of Cara Romero?
Cruz: Oh my God, I learned so much. You know, when I first started the book, I think that I was even a little judgmental of — maybe a lot judgmental of a character like Cara Romero. I mean, she's a mother who is really hard on her son, she estranges him due to her homophobia. She's not making the best choices in her life.
I started the book feeling judgment, and what I realized as I kept listening to her — and I guess this is in some ways a lesson even for me — [is] that we need to take more time listening to each other, so we could work through conflict, and difference, and have more empathy for each other, but also understand the nuances of some of the things we say.
And those are the things that I learned while writing Cara, right? So in some ways, I say I'm right ‘writing’ her, but I'm also listening to her, and it taught me how to listen.
In order to write the book, I interviewed many, many, many people who told me their stories and in listening, I became a lot more generous. That definitely was something that I learned, how to be more generous and a better listener.
Williams: To that point, this Aspen Words Literary Prize honors books that have a social impact — they're exploring vital, contemporary social issues. In your writing process, are you going in saying, ‘I want to write a book with a social impact’? Or is that incidental to writing a story about a character that you really connect to?
Cruz: I first always prioritize a character that I am just interested in. I don't know if I connect to them, but I'm definitely curious and interested in them. And I do think that all my work is speaking to social issues, just because I think that it's impossible to ignore them.
As a Latinx writer, as a woman, as someone who's part of the queer community, as someone who grew up in an immigrant family with working class conditions, in every which way, because I'm writing about these characters — even when the characters are not clear themselves about their position politically, or how they care about any particular social issue — they are very much in that world. So my books do reflect that.
Williams: And are there any messages or lessons that you really hope that the reader picks up from this book?
Cruz: You know, I never enter a book with that agenda. But what has been really wonderful is to receive all the letters I'm receiving from readers, in particular queer youth, who have read the book and have found it quite healing in the way that, when we are estranged from our parents because we don't understand each other, to have a character that could somehow embody a shift in thinking, I think has been really special for a lot of the readers. And I'm really happy for that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.