Cari Luna Discusses Poverty, Gentrification, and the Craft of Writing

By Helen Yoshida — April 14, 2014 3 min read
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In her debut novel The Revolution of Every Day (Tin House Books, 2013), Cari Luna envisions the lives of five squatters living in abandoned tenement buildings in New York City during the 1990s. These 20- to 40-somethings are part of a large group of squatters who have renovated apartments and maintained the plumbing, walls, and stairwells within three fictional tenement buildings. For 10 years they have called these “squats” home, but when gentrification knocks at their door they are forced to delay eviction or lose it all to the wrecking ball.

Ms. Luna’s book was one of several that I included in a January post on books about poverty as part of Education Week‘s continuing coverage of the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty. Favorably reviewed by the website Brooklyn Based, Kirkus Magazine, and the Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Revolution of Every Day was cited repeatedly as being well-crafted. What drew me to the novel was how Ms. Luna’s raw and realistic prose captures the intertwined lives and poignant moments shared by the five squatters. She renders them not as characters traversing the book’s pages, but as complex and flawed people making the most of what they have, while they have it. I recommend this book for high school students who are studying poverty, urban housing development, and gentrification in the United States, as well as creative writing for Ms. Luna’s powerful voice.

I caught up with Ms. Luna over email to discuss the craft of writing and the role that poverty and gentrification play in her new novel.

You shine a light on a community that thrives in the shadows of the tenements. What compelled you to write about this community?

I conceived of The Revolution of Every Day as a love letter to a New York [City] I felt I’d lost to gentrification and as an exploration of how New York had changed and why. The Lower East Side squats were, in part, a reaction to the process of gentrification that began in the 1980s. I would argue that the massive, militaristic eviction of two squatted buildings on East 13th Street in May 1995--an event that inspired the political storyline of the novel--marked the tipping point when gentrification won.

The threat of gentrification by former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s New York City looms over the residents of two of the tenement houses throughout the book. How did you develop the fear, worry, and hope of your five main characters as they fought this battle?

My characters’ emotional lives grow from my empathy for them. I imagined myself into each of their lives and felt what they would have felt and wrote them from that place. It’s absolutely possible to write an experience you’ve never had, but it’s not possible to write an emotion you haven’t felt. I’ve never faced eviction from my home, but I’ve certainly felt fear and uncertainty. I’ve never been a teen runaway, but I’ve felt alone and in danger, desperately wanting someone to take me under their wing and tell me what to do next.

You created a strong sense of place in your novel. Each tenement has a set of unique characteristics and people living within them. How did you create this world, and what resources did you use while writing?

I mostly drew on my memories of the neighborhood at the time [during the early 1990s], and my imagination. I gleaned historical facts from newspaper articles and the few books available on the topic: War in the Neighborhood by Seth Tobocman, Glass House by Margaret Morton, and Resistance: A Radical Social and Political History of the Lower East Side edited by Clayton Patterson.

While fixing the tiles in a tenant’s apartment, one of the main characters reflects on the dream he once had of earning a Ph.D. in literature and the low expectations his parents had of him. How do schools help young people growing up in impoverished communities realize their dreams of earning higher education degrees?

By saddling them with massive debt for degrees that don’t necessarily lead to jobs? I’m not sure that schools do help nearly as much as one would like to believe. Our system of higher education in the United States--or rather, the cost of it--gravely needs an overhaul.

What books can you recommend for parents and educators to teach students about poverty and gentrification happening today?

The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman, and any of the books I mentioned earlier.

A version of this news article first appeared in the BookMarks blog.