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Thursday, April 24 2014 @ 09:33 AM EDT

Hinsdale author's debut novel set in Panama

Books & Reading By AMY GAIL HANSEN - Panama is a lush, tropical country at the southern tip of Central America. Mention it, and Americans conjure the notorious Panama Canal, Panama Jack, Panama hats and even the 1984 Van Halen hit about a race car called "Panama." But for award-winning writer Cristina Henriquez of Hinsdale, Panama is a second home. Her father is a native, and she's been visiting his family there since she was just eight months old. "My experiences in Panama are not as a tourist," explained Henriquez. "I do normal things there, like pick up prescriptions at the drugstore with my grandmother." But for award-winning writer Cristina Henriquez of Hinsdale, Panama is a second home. Her father is a native, and she's been visiting his family there since she was just eight months old. "My experiences in Panama are not as a tourist," explained Henriquez. "I do normal things there, like pick up prescriptions at the drugstore with my grandmother." (more)

This lesser-known Panama is the setting for her debut novel "The World in Half" (Riverhead), which Henriquez will read from, discuss and sign Wednesday at the Hinsdale Public Library. It's the story of Miraflores "Mira" Reid, a young woman who travels to Panama to find the father she never knew. Off the page, it's a testament to the power of revision and a stepping-stone on Henriquez's already distinguished journey as a writer.

Memories: In "The World in Half," Mira Reid knows little about her biological father. He's the man her mother had an extramarital affair with while stationed in Panama; the man who let her pregnant mother walk out of his life. But Mira's ideas about her father are challenged when she comes home to care for her ailing mother. While her mother's memories slip due to Alzheimer's, Mira's recollections of the past take shape. Through discovered letters, she learns her father not only loved and wanted her mother, but the child growing inside her. So Mira secretly travels to Panama to locate her father and what follows is a poignant story about identity, family and ultimately, forgiveness.

Henriquez filled the novel with her cherished memories of Panama. She wrote about Tobago Island, where her grandmother was born, and a shopping mall with a tin roof that gives a cacophonous concert when it rains.

She also captured Panama's untamed landscape, an exotic backdrop for Mira's journey. "In the U.S., nature is contained, manicured," Henriquez explained. "In Panama, everything exists around nature, and not the other way around."

Novel makeover: Henriquez wanted to illustrate this unknown side of Panama, a country she's already written about with acclaim. A graduate of Northwestern University and the prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop, Henriquez has published short stories in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, TriQuarterly and Virginia Quarterly Review. In 2003, she published "Come Together, Fall Apart," a collection of short stories.

But perhaps her biggest challenge as an author came in revising "The World in Half." Her first draft was a historical, multi-generational tale in which the character Mira appears late in the story. With her editor's guidance, Henriquez made a daunting decision: ditch 300 pages of text and write the story again from Mira's perspective.

It was well worth the fours years she spent writing and revising the novel. "It came alive in ways it didn't the first time," she said.

She noted similarities with her protagonist; they're both half Panamanian, after all. But unlike Mira, Henriquez enjoys very close relationships with both of her parents.

Although Henriquez admits her story is "not a cultural criticism of Panama, but a simple story about a character dealing with something in her life," it's rich with metaphor. She said the title literally refers to how the Panama Canal cuts the world in half. But on a deeper level, it relates to Mira being caught between two worlds and even the halves of the brain associated with Alzheimer's.

Ultimately, readers create their own meaning, and Henriquez will remain cognizant of that as she tours Arkansas, New York, Texas and Washington before returning to Illinois. The hometown appearance will be meaningful; her husband, Ryan Kowalczyk, grew up in Hinsdale.

'The World in Half' - Reading, discussion and signing by author Cristina Henriquez at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 29 at Hinsdale Public Library, 20 E. Maple St., Hinsdale. (630) 986-1976.

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Hinsdale author's debut novel set in Panama
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, April 23 2009 @ 02:05 PM EDT

With all respect, I will pass.

Yawn.