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Rubric for Readers: Attention, Sympathy, & Ethical Witnessing

How much does perspective and narration really affect a reader’s interpretation of a character’s actions and the novel’s story more generally? Can reading a story from the perspective of a Latina migrant influence a reader’s understanding of the immigrant experience? The questions of migration and family are intertwined in the narrative How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water (2022) by Angie Cruz. The form of the novel is extremely important for its interpretation, but the treatment of the reader is the most important aspect of this novel overall. It is through migration that the main character Cara Romero’s family thrives, and the narrative thus demands the reader’s attention and sympathy toward the main character and her story. These demands on the reader, when combined with the format, create a space for the reader to deliberate the ethicality of Cara’s actions, therefore making the reader an ethical witness.[1]

The presentation, or structure, of the narrative of How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water is similar to a transcript of what the main character Cara Romero says in her job counseling sessions, which implies and demands the reader’s attention. Due to the transcript-like presentation, the story is therefore almost exclusively from Cara’s perspective, with the person on the receiving end of her discussions being the job counselor. With this in mind, the reader is inherently put in the position of the ‘job counselor’ and therefore takes on the responsibility of listening to Cara’s experiences–of giving their attention to the main character and the overarching story. The reader’s attention is demanded from the very start of the novel, with the first lines being “My name is Cara Romero, and I came to this country because my husband wanted to kill me. Don’t look so shocked. You’re the one who asked me to say something about myself” (Cruz 3). By having Cara say “Don’t look so shocked. You’re the one who asked me to say something about myself,” it is clear that the reader does not only embody the job counselor’s position of listener to a story requiring the reader’s attention (3). By emphasizing “you’re the one who asked me” that attention also puts the reader in a position where they have to deliberate the reliability and perspective of the narrator and main character throughout the novel (3). Through this lens of attention and constant interpretation, the novel is able to authentically create a space for the discussion of topics like migration, family, and parenting in a way that pushes readers to deliberate more than just the narrator’s reliability in the information and circumstances she presents herself in. Cara’s bluntness when sharing her experiences in these spaces (as personified by “Don’t look so shocked”), particularly when discussing her family (especially her relationship with her son Fernando and her sister Ángela) and her migration, opens up the reader to deliberate the problematic sides of her trauma, poverty, and parenting style. The demand of attention from the reader therefore is the gateway for how they can view Cara as being either a strong, hyper-individualist who is reactionary to her surroundings, or as a woman who is the product of her circumstances both past and present.

Furthermore, Cara’s demand for the reader’s attention is her plea for sympathy and connectedness. In many cases, whether it is unspoken or not, for someone to demand another person’s attention is to request their sympathy as well. Like the narrative’s structure demanding attention, it also asks for the readers’ sympathy for Cara. A clear example of this is the interjection of documents that show evaluations and some of Cara’s financial documents. Between Sessions Three and Four, the documents include the “Rights and Obligations of Tenants and Landlords Under the Rent Stabilization Law” and her rent invoice. These documents are particularly important for creating sympathy for Cara because the “Rights and Obligations” document states that the neighborhood her apartment building is in is the “Most dangerous area to live in,” and shows that she is only able to pay small portions of her rent (causing her total amount due to accumulate) (Cruz 52-55). These documents bring to life the reality of Cara’s struggle beyond what she narrates. By including documents like these and the job application documents, the author effectively demands the reader to sympathize with Cara’s predicament. Another example is when Cara goes to visit Fernando, but instead talks to Alexis, and she says “But at least then I knew he had something to eat, that he was not homeless, and that he had the protection of a Pisces” (50-51). Although this is narrated significantly before the moment when Cara reveals that Fernando filed a restraining order against her due to her own actions against him (which reflected her parenting style more generally), that sentence appeals to the reader’s emotions effectively through showing her motherly concern and care, and without the context of the restraining order document shown after Session Seven, the reader would be remiss to find no sympathy for Cara at this moment in the book. Due to the fact that she is the first-person narrator of the story, the reader can easily deliberate the reliability of the information provided, especially with the structure of the novel being a transcript followed by legal documents that often contrast Cara’s transcript(s). With that in mind, her unreliability as a narrator and demand for sympathy can prompt a reader to deliberate how ethical her behaviors were, but more importantly her approach to parenting and family.

Together the structure, with the stipulated attention and sympathy, creates a different kind of space than the ones discussed previously, one that is for the deliberation of the ethicality of Cara’s actions throughout the novel. For the reader to be an ethical witness intrinsically means that they can recognize the deeper unethical aspects of a character and/or story. A reader can deliberate the ethics of Cara’s actions on many levels, whether those be on the topics of migration, family, or parenting, but ultimately because of the fact that Cara is the narrator of the novel, readers’ deliberation regarding any topic puts them in the position of being Cara’s ethical witness. For example, the space created by including the restraining order legal document after Session Seven, compared to how Cara discusses her actions with “What is wrong with this country? So cold. With a document, they ruin a life” (Cruz 115). By contrasting “So cold. With a document, they ruin a life” with the restraining order document, the clarity of her misdeeds and mishandling of the situation with Fernando becomes clearer. What can be revealed to a reader is how this reflects the trauma of her past and how that has shaped how she views the world; therefore, inviting readers to contemplate the influences of cultural and familial trauma in a person’s behavior.

Ultimately, the novel How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water by Angie Cruz is a testament to how form can equal function in the telling of stories. The narrative style used with interspersed formal documentation to clarify Cara’s ‘transcript’ was an interesting way to engage the reader into being part of the story itself. By doing this, the narrative has the reader’s attention, which then puts the reader in the position of the listener, further creating a sense of sympathy for the main character. Through the reader being the listener of the narration, they become the observer of Cara’s actions in a way that enables ethical witnessing, from the beginning of the story to its final report of the job counselor. By creating spaces for the reader to observe these actions and circumstances, the author allows for the exploration of the topics of migration, family and parenting, which is significant for the consideration of the narrator’s perspective and how that affects the story more broadly. And, in doing so, the author brings attention to the way that Latinx lives are often interpreted based on the viewer’s own perspectives.

Works Cited

Photo Credit: “Listen” by Ky. December 24, 2008. CC BY 2.0

Cruz, Angie. How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water. Flatiron Books, 2022.

[1] For discussion of ethical witnessing see Angela Ards, Words of Witness: Black Women’s Autobiography in the Post-Brown Era (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2016), 118.


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