Spend enough time in the YA book world, and you’ll hear a writer—or several—speak with a stricken look about the stumbling process of writing a second book. Sometimes it happens on second published books. Sometimes it happens on second manuscripts, whether those books become agented or published or not. I wish I could tell you what it is about the second book that catches so many of us. I can’t.
But I can tell what it was for me.
Writing my second book, I told myself to be patient. Well, one part of myself: the queer part. I was already writing about characters of color, including Latinx characters that reflected my own experience. But I told myself this wasn’t the time to go further and include LGBTQ characters. I could do that on my third, or fourth book, when I’d earned it. Yes, this was how I thought, that incorporating two aspects of my identity into one book was something I had to earn.
So I wrote a very straight book…and, well, considering how I started this post, you can guess how it went. My critique partners patiently gave notes on different versions. My agent tried to shepherd me toward a better direction. My editor shared what was working and what wasn’t. But despite the help and advice of everyone I had in my corner, I kept turning out one forced, bloodless draft after another.
When my fear of writing a book I couldn’t stand behind overcame my fear of writing LGBTQ characters, I surrendered to this story. I gave in to its wishes. I made this book the queer, of-color book it wanted to be. A story about a Latina girl who grows roses from her wrist, and a transgender Pakistani-American boy who paints a hundred versions of the moon. A story in which they understand and love each other’s bodies, and in which they have sex on the page.
I turned in the book that had now become When the Moon was Ours, ready for someone to say, “We can’t publish this.” But what I heard instead was, “Yes, this is what this book was supposed to be.”
Until then, I hadn’t let this story be what it wanted to be, because I had been afraid of what I was. In the same way I sometimes feared there wasn’t space in the world for queer girls of color, I worried there wasn’t a place for this story I had in me.
This is what I’ve learned, not to resist what a story wants to be, especially if it’s because I’m afraid there is too much different about me for the world to accept. What’s at the heart of us is who we are. These are our stories. And when our stories ask us to speak from our hearts, from everything we are, they won’t let us go until we answer.
Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, raised in the same town as the world’s largest wisteria vine, and taught by her family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. Her debut novel, THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS (out now from Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press), was a Junior Library Guild Selection, named to YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults list, and a finalist for the William C. Morris Debut Award. Her second novel, WHEN THE MOON WAS OURS, will be released on October 4, 2016, and WILD BEAUTY is forthcoming in 2017. You can find Anna-Marie at annamariemclemore.com or on Twitter @LaAnnaMarie.
As a writer, I always feel like my second books are stronger than my first. My stories naturally seem to be told in duologies, and with the sequel, it might be that I’m more comfortable with the characters, their motivations, and worlds. As someone who does not outline, my process is pretty intuitive. I knew that Sacrifice would be told from dual narrations (as Fury of the Phoenix was told): Skybright’s and Zhen Ni’s. It wasn’t until I finished the first draft that I realized that I needed to include Kai Sen as a main point of view. This allowed me to expand the lens into this world, and I enjoyed it as much as it challenged me as a writer. I love this story, and I’m so happy it’s finally out in the world! I share an excerpt from Sacrifice below and ordering information for personalized and/or signed copies with pre-order gift!
Someone opened the panel of her room quietly. “Zhen Ni?” a male voice whispered.
She smothered a scream. No man had ever been within her bedchamber, except for the doctor on rare occasions, and even then, she had been hidden behind silk drapes on her bed, offering her arm so the man could examine her pulse. No common man had ever been allowed within the inner quarters, unchaperoned much less, and in the dead of night. Blood pounded in her ears, and Zhen Ni gripped her dagger tighter, prepared to use it if she had to.
“It’s me. Kai Sen.”
Recognition dawned. She had thought the voice sounded familiar, but she hadn’t seen Kai Sen since they parted ways over half a year ago, after he had escorted her home from visiting Lan one last time. What in the goddess’s name was he doing here, breaking all rules of decorum? Her reputation could be compromised if he were caught.
Zhen Ni smiled in the dark then. It was a wonder anyone would take her as a wife at all. She was notoriously known as a stubborn runaway and truly didn’t give a donkey’s ass about decorum now, but she had behaved perfectly to please her parents since returning home. She held still in her dark corner, waiting to see what Kai Sen would do.
A bright flame ignited within the bedchamber. She squinted, thinking he had lit a lantern, but it appeared as if he cradled a ball of blue fire in his very palm. Astounded, Zhen Ni stared as Kai Sen drew to her empty bedside, peering down at the rumpled coverlet, then turned to survey the room.
Dressed in a black sleeveless tunic, he seemed taller than she remembered and definitely bigger. Kai Sen had been all wiry muscle when they had traveled together but thin, still boyish in some ways. His time in the monastery since had filled his frame, as if he’d finally grown into his adult physique. He had looked strong before; now he looked powerful. She watched while the flickering flame danced across his face. Kai Sen’s dark eyebrows were knitted together as his alert eyes swept the large bedchamber. Zhen Ni could see why Skybright had been drawn to him—he was handsome. He exuded masculinity. Assuming a girl appreciated that sort of thing: rough hands and deep voice, the odd metallic tang of sweat. She knew from their travels together that he even smelled different.
Zhen Ni wasn’t attracted to these things.
For a brief moment, she remembered the soft curve of Lan’s neck bent over her embroidery, smelled the rose perfume she used to dab at the hollow of Lan’s throat, the scent sweet and mellow when she would kiss the same spot hours later … Zhen Ni blinked the memories away and whispered, “What are you doing here?”
Buy the Book:
Order from Mysterious Galaxy Books to get signed and personalized copies of Serpentine or Sacrifice, and choose a pre-order gift of your choice! Grace Fong’s gorgeous art of my girls Zhen Ni and Skybright magnet, or my hummingbird Chinese brush art card. You receive a gift for every book purchased AND you’re supporting my favorite indie book store!
Serpentine is also currently on sale across all ebook platforms for 99c. If you haven’t had a chance to read the first book yet, here’s the perfect opportunity for less than a buck! #nook#kindle#kobo#ibook#googleplay
Every book I have written is a book of my heart, but WANT is especially dear to me. A near-future thriller set in Taipei, it is an ode to my birth city, the vibrancy of which is deeply rooted in me. The feel of the air, the smells, these colors shaped my childhood and who I am today. I tried to capture that in WANT. This book is also special because it is the first non-fantasy novel I have ever written and challenged me in so many ways as a writer. But I loved my characters in this book, especially my hero and heroine, and I loved portraying this city I adore, a character in itself, so close to my heart. It is the first YA speculative fiction I’m aware of published by a big US publisher set in Taipei, if not the first young adult set there. So many fantastic firsts!
The WANT cover is stunning and amazing and everything I could have hoped for as an author. I hope you love it too!
Jason Zhou survives in a divided society where the elite use their wealth to buy longer lives. The rich wear special suits, protecting them from the pollution and viruses that plague the city, while those without suffer illness and early deaths. Frustrated by his city’s corruption and still grieving the loss of his mother who died as a result of it, Zhou is determined to change things, no matter the cost.
With the help of his friends, Zhou infiltrates the lives of the wealthy in hopes of destroying the international Jin Corporation from within. Jin Corp not only manufactures the special suits the rich rely on, but they may also be manufacturing the pollution that makes them necessary.
Yet the deeper Zhou delves into this new world of excess and wealth, the more muddled his plans become. And against his better judgment, Zhou finds himself falling for Daiyu, the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO. Can Zhou save his city without compromising who he is, or destroying his own heart?
Following is a conversation I had with Jen Ung, my Simon Pulse editor, on our thoughts about this cover!
Cindy: I wasn’t expecting it at all when WANT’s first cover iteration dropped into my email. It came as a complete surprise! My reaction? *screaming* and *lying face down* ha! WANT is the first non-fantasy novel I’d ever written, and one of its draws for me was my #cuteasianboy hero Jason Zhou. To see him rendered so wonderfully and featured and centered on the cover, with the lights of Taipei reflected on his helmet—I honestly cannot describe all my feels. I know everyone has a different preference and opinion for book covers. But personally for me, the more Asian faces I can get onto my novels, the better!!
Jen: WANT’s original editor, Michael Strother, and I were also all for showing a #cuteasianboy on the cover! When the designer for the project, Karina Granda, read the first draft of WANT, she described the read as feeling atmospheric and “wet,” and wanted to evoke this with the cover art style. She decided to hire artist Jason Chan, who does a lot of work in the video game space. He also regularly illustrates MG/YA book covers, so she knew he could do a fantastic job applying his video game art style to a YA book cover. The cover you see here is one of Jason’s original concepts, and I think it’s stunning.
Cindy: I feel so so lucky because Jason Chan is an amazing artist, and he really captured the feel of the novel so well. I also love that Karina described the atmosphere of WANT as “wet”. This novel was truly an ode to my birth city, Taipei, which is a very humid city with many rain showers (and typhoons!), and I wrote all that into the book. I’m just so pleased that she picked up on that as a perceptive designer! When I saw the original cover, with Jason’s white blonde hair and eyes closed, I was already blown away. Michael was kind enough to ask if I had any feedback. I did. My main concern was that readers might not see with this first cover iteration that Jason is indeed Asian. I don’t think it’s an unfounded fear, as there are so few Asians featured in young adult novels today, much less Asian boy leads. In fact, I’m certain that WANT will likely be the only YA cover with an Asian hero so prominently shown in 2017. This representation mattered to me. I really appreciated the dream-like quality of having Jason’s eyes closed, but he is such an active hero in the novel, I felt opened eyes and a direct look from him was more suitable. And although he starts with blond hair in the novel, the majority of the story he wears it black. Jason Chan was able to incorporate both suggestions, and I truly feel so happy and fortunate. I don’t think there is any room for doubt that my hero is an Asian boy on the WANT cover. I adore this cover so much.
Jen: We loved Cindy’s suggested changes, and I agree that the tweaks ultimately made for a stronger, more active image. Representation in YA—in terms of both covers and content—is something near and dear to my heart, and I just know that WANT is going to mean so much to so many readers, for so many different reasons. I’m very grateful to the designer and artist for so perfectly capturing the essence of the book, and to Cindy for writing such a fantastic story!
Cindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow Books), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. Serpentine (Month9Books), the first title in another Chinese-inspired fantasy duology, is a Junior Library Guild Selection and received starred reviews from School Library Journal and VOYA. Sacrifice, the sequel, is also a Junior Library Guild Selection and received a starred review from Kirkus Reviews. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Learn more about her books and art at http://cindypon.com. Chat with her on twitter: @cindypon or follow her on instagram: @cindyponauthor
I’ve lived with depression and suicidal ideation since I was a teenager, much of it stemming from an overwhelming need to live up to my parents and my own expectations, along with never feeling I was good enough, and never feeling like I fit in. I was ashamed of myself, ashamed that I was a burden on my family, ashamed that I had failed in every way: school, career, relationships, and more.
It was a long road to recovery with my depression, and it’s still a work in progress. There’s a huge stigma surrounding mental health, especially in the Asian American community where we were raised to “save face.” Learning the patience to work out what I needed emotionally from my family and friends and being able to voice it has been a long journey.
I escaped into books, devouring anything and everything, disappearing into endless possibilities of worlds, delighted in travelling alongside my favorite heroes as they saved the universe.
And yet at the same time I was always a spectator; I felt wrong and broken for being attracted to more than one gender, because I hardly ever saw it portrayed in novels, especially in speculative fiction. I wasn’t white or straight like the heroes of renown, and I had internalized that adventures and saving the world and falling in love and happy-ever-afters were not for people like me.
I started writing because I wanted to write the books I wish I could have read as a teenager. I want romance and adventure and fantasy and science fiction and horror and every genre imaginable.
My novel Not Your Sidekick began as a project that was born out of frustration. I was tired. I was tired of characters of color being sidelined in supporting roles, I was tired of stories where girls who fell in love with other girls were met with tragedy at every front.
I’ve always loved the superhero genre because there are so many ways you can talk about identity, super or otherwise. One of the things Jess struggles with in Not Your Sidekick is living up to expectations. Since she doesn’t think she’s going to get superpowers, she’s struggling to prove herself. Her parents are immigrants, and she and her siblings are the first born in this new country— similar to my own experience growing up, albeit Jess lives in the year 2132. This theme of redefining success really hits close to home for me, and I wanted to show how first-generation children really feel that pressure.
Not Your Sidekick is lighthearted and and often skirts the line of ridiculous. I don’t take myself too seriously, and the novel doesn’t either; I poke lots of fun at superhero tropes and secret identity shenanigans. While I touch on issues that are important to me, like the theme of expectations and defining your own success— I want most of all to bring joy and laughter and silliness and light. I want readers to have fun.
I hope readers will find joy in the novel, as I have bringing it to the world.
C.B. Lee is a bisexual writer, rock climber and hiking enthusiast based in California. She is a first-generation Asian American and has a BA in Sociology and Environmental Science, which occasionally comes in handy in her chosen career, but not usually. Lee enjoys reading, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. Her first novel, Seven Tears at High Tide, was published by Duet Books (Interlude Press) in 2015 and named a finalist for two Bisexual Book of the Year Awards. Ms. Lee is also a Lambda Literary Emerging LGBTQ Voices Fellow.
When I was in college, I started work on a novel about about a boy who travels into the afterlife to find his dead sister. It was set in a small mountain town similar to my own–it had the same smell of pine, the same dry heat, the same graveyards–and I poured into that manuscript so much of what I loved: beautiful prose, paragraphs that reverberated like the tolling of brass bells, magic (of course), grief, wonderfully twisty formatting.
But when I met with my creative writing professor, a Japanese-American author, her main comments were these:
Why are you writing about a white boy? White boys write about themselves all the time.
Why don’t you write about a Chinese girl? A Japanese girl?
And my reaction was this:
I can write about whoever I want! This is the story I have to tell. The one about this small white town, the one about this white boy grappling with death.
You see, I’d been reading about white boys for years. I studied them in school. I joined them on their adventures in Narnia and Middle Earth and Hogwarts. I watched them battle super villains on TV. I knew white boy stories–perhaps, I think, even better than I knew my own. I could write white boy stories.
However, as with many first novels, it went nowhere. I didn’t even finish it. Didn’t know how. Didn’t feel that driving need to get to the end. As soon as I graduated, I let that story go.
Years later, I decided to give myself a real shot at being an author, and I thought about the stories I had to tell. The stories that I wouldn’t let go, no matter how difficult or challenging they got. The stories that were a part of me, at my glowing molten core, and wouldn’t let me go.
And I wrote The Reader.
There’s a lot of what I love in this book too: beautiful prose, cowboy-pirates and adventurers, magic (of course), loss, interesting formatting, long hikes through the forest and vast open spaces.
And a main character, Sefia, who looks like me.
To be clear, The Reader isn’t an Asian-inspired fantasy. If anything, the world is more like a heavily romanticized American wild west (which is also near and dear to my heart), and because it’s all made up, our categories of race don’t apply. I can’t say Sefia is Asian or Asian-American because Asia and America don’t exist. But she has straight black hair and teardrop-shaped eyes, and she’s small but mighty, which is generally how I feel about my own stature. She looks like me. (Although if you look closely, you’ll see some hints that in our world, she’d actually be biracial.)
I wrote her this way for a very specific reason.
Because ten years after my creative writing professor suggested I stop writing about white boys, I finally understood why.
When I was a kid, I clung to Trini the Yellow Ranger and Tina Nguyen from Ghostwriter and Mulan and Cho Chang because they were the only sci-fi/fantasy characters, out of all the books and comic books and TV shows and movies, who looked like me. And that made it nearly impossible to imagine myself in these stories. Because among the Goldilockses, Red Riding Hoods, Belles, Auroras, Wolverines, Raphaels, Susan Pevensies, Striders, Samwise Gamgees, Harry Potters, Hermiones, Lyras, and Wills, I–effectively–didn’t exist.
I had no story. I couldn’t even imagine having a story.
So when I set out to find the story I had to tell, I discovered that I needed to write a main character for me, and for girls like me–Asian and Asian-American girls who need more heroes who look like them, heroes whose image they could step into.
I wrote The Reader in 18 months, and not once did I feel like I wouldn’t finish it. I spent another 12 months revising it with my editor, and not once did I feel like I’d run out of power.
This story, with this character, was too important, too much a part of me, to let go.
I’m not sure if this will happen, but if there are readers out there who need this story the way I needed it when I was younger, I hope they find it. I hope it helps them, in some small way, to embrace their own stories, the ones they have at their glowing molten cores. The ones they have to tell.
Traci Chee is an author of speculative fiction for teens. An all-around word geek, she loves book arts and art books, poetry and paper crafts. She studied literature and creative writing at UC Santa Cruz and earned a master of arts degree from San Francisco State University. The Reader is her YA debut.
“Write what you know” is one of the most overused and debatable pieces of writing advice out there. When you’re from a marginalized community this becomes increasingly hard for a few reasons. First, if you write about your own communities (#Ownvoices), you face the burden of representing everyone all at once. The next challenge is more brutal. You wrote what you knew, or thought you knew. You did the thing. Now, your work is suddenly too much your own. Too diverse. Too much of everything. Too unrelatable because, at the end of the day, no one knows you.
Being an Author of Color in the fantasy space is hard. You have to constantly wait for the market to be ready for you as a person. But more importantly, fantasy often borrows from other cultures to make something “new,” and the cultural appropriation line is blurred. Can you appropriate your own culture? What stories are you allowed to tell? Whatever your answer is, you don’t get a pass when you offend a group of people, even if it’s your people.
When I was writing Labyrinth Lost, I knew I wanted to write about witches with a Latin American background, but I also wanted it to completely fictional. So, I went back to basics and trusted my instincts. This is what I know:
Bruja is the Spanish word for “witch.” The word itself has both negative and empowering connotations. In Latin American countries, like where I’m from in Ecuador, the neighborhood “bruja” might be someone to be feared, but always the person you go to when you think you’re “ojeado” or have the Evil Eye. Brujeria is a faith for many, but it is not the faith in my book. In Labyrinth Lost, I chose to call Alex and her family “brujas” and “brujos” because their origins do not come from European traditions. Alex’s magic is like Latin America, a combination of the old world and new.
I never had a quinceañera. I had friends who went all out. They were like mini-weddings. My mother was a single parent and, in my once introverted mind (really, I was), I didn’t want one. But it’s an important part of coming of age for some Latinas. It’s the representation of womanhood and familial responsibilities all at once. I knew I wanted to give my witches something similar because this book, above all, is about family. So I created the Deathday ceremony. A bruja’s Deathday is a magical coming of age, like a Bat Mizvah or a Sweet 16. Even though the Deathday ceremony was created for the world of Labyrinth Lost, aspects of it are inspired by the Day of the Dead and Santeria. The respect for the dead and family comes from the Day of the Dead. The use of singing, shells, small animal sacrifice, and drums comes from Santeria.
While I believe that Latinxs are not a monolith, the one thing we share across the board is family. The opinion that matters the most in my house is our grandmother’s. From tattoos to dating to haircuts; however big or small a decision, what our grandmother says is a big deal! For Alex in Labyrinth Lost, her connection to her sisters, mom, and deceased grandma is the same as her hope. My matriarchy of witches is based on my own experiences of having a close-knit family.
“What’s real in Labyrinth Lost?” I’ve been answering a form of this question a lot lately. I think because my background is from South America, there’s an assumption that the stories in Labyrinth Lost are real/taken from stories I heard as a child. Don’t get me wrong; I’m super flattered that my world feels real. It is exactly what I aim for as a fantasy author, and I thank my readers for that.
Let’s unpack Latin America. Latin America has many superstitions, despite the deep roots of Catholicism. There is no all-encompassing Latin American mythology. It’s not real. It doesn’t exist. My brief childhood in Ecuador doesn’t come with all the superstitions of all the other countries in South America. The UN recognizes 33 Latin American countries. That includes U.S. territories, former Spanish colonies, Portuguese and French speaking countries. What we think of Latin America is a U.S. media portrayal of white Mexicans and sexy Colombians and Italian-looking Puerto Ricans. We think of the parts that Spain conquered and colonized. At the end of the day, Latin America is extremely complicated because we are all so different and individual, but also united under region and language.
So what’s real and what isn’t?
We tend to paint Latinos as these magical and superstitious beings, and some of us are. The Native American community knows all to well what that’s like to a much worse extent. In hopes of stepping outside myths associated with Latinos, I decided to make up my own superstitions and my own stories and gods. It was so hard to take out the Llorona myth that everyone knows because even we have that story in Ecuador.
The gods of Labyrinth Lost are all made up. The other realms of Los Lagos is entirely made up. The Meadow is more inspired by Alice in Wonderland than any other culture. One of my favorite parts of writing this book was writing the cantos (spells) and epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter. Writing creation myths is something I love, and the story of La Mama and El Papa (the major gods) was a lot of fun.
There is one monster in particular that is inspired by my childhood in Ecuador. When you’re a kid, everyone scares you with monsters. Duendes are evil elves that can steal you away. The Duendes in Labyrinth Lost are a little different, and hopefully I’ll get to bring them back in another book. But the one that’s stuck with me for a long time is the Cuco. In Mexico, there’s the Cucuy, which is a demon. For us (Ecuadorians), we scare kids with the “Cuco.” It’s a demon that eats children who behave badly. I always pictured a black beast with sharp teeth and claws. So, naturally, I turned it into the Maloscuros in Labyrinth Lost.
It is my sincere hope that readers from all ages and backgrounds find themselves in Labyrinth Lost, whether it’s the search for identity, strong family ties, or a pure love of quests and fantasy.
Zoraida Córdova is the author of The Vicious Deep trilogy, the On the Verge series, and the Brooklyn Brujas series. She loves black coffee, snark, and still believes in magic. She is a New Yorker at heart and is currently working on her next novel. Send her a tweet @Zlikeinzorro.
I guess I’ve always been a writer. Such labels become important when you’re an aspiring writer, then a writing student, then a published writer (in some literary magazine, let’s say, print or online—they put your words on their page!), or even an unpublished graduate of a writing program, then as an author when the book your words are in only has your name on it. These distinctions are important among writers, because we wait for so long to be able to call ourselves “author” or, hopefully, “award-winning author” or “best-selling author”. They’re important because, when we are out in the world, punching a clock or pulling down a salary (often correcting or re-writing the words of other people when we want to write our own), or raising a family, we have to be able to tell ourselves at the end of the day, when we know there’s a word document that’s been untouched for days or weeks because of our paying work’s exhausting toll, when we’ve sent out a story and not received word back regarding our submission well past the 8 weeks by which a publication’s submission guidelines say we’ll receive a joyous “yes” or a merciful “no”, when we feel the cold pangs in our core at the hint of the fact that maybe, just maybe, our dream won’t be realized, when we have these dark nights of the soul, we can always tell ourselves, we’re writers. We write. It’s what we do. If we can’t do it every day, if we don’t get paid for it, we write. We are writers.
I’ve been a writer since long before I was a published author—since before I even knew my writing could or would ever be published. I would write in notebooks. Notebook after notebook. Loose-leaf page after loose-leaf page—to be folded or stapled or transcribed into my notebooks. I wrote mostly poems, some stream of consciousness reportage on the things around me—the this-and-that of a life in my shoes. I wrote what I know now were character sketches, but which I called stories at the time. I wrote in middle school. I wrote in high school. I wrote in college. But I never thought to become a writer. This was mostly, I believe, because what I’d read to that point was inaccessible to me. It was all just a bunch of dead white guys, and what did I care about them outside of needing to take tests and write essays about what they’d written. Do I now see the beauty of a fiery passion that had to be repressed for so, so many pages only to ever be expressed in the touch of gloved hands and a beautiful night traipsing in the snow? Of course I do. Do I now see the poignancy in a farmhand pulling himself up by his bootstraps and a willingness to bootleg all so he could build this palace as a setting for a party where maybe, just maybe, the girl who personified all that he was not, all that he pretended to be, could see him? Sure. But Ethan Frome and James Gatz were aliens to me. They were from places and circumstances that, when I first encountered them, kept me from understanding them as characters in stories—art—that represented feelings and states of being that were and are universal. In these vaunted tomes of American letters, I was presented with cultural barriers to access—just like many students are presented with such barriers in trying to access education at large.
It wasn’t until I was at college, a pre-law student by default, as the path that had previously been laid out for me—I was going to be an engineer—had been blown apart by a calculus class in high school that made me think twice about pursuing a career with those math-minded types, that I found an appreciation for literature. Having tested out of 3 sections of English, I was allowed to take upper-division English classes. I enrolled in a Chicano Literature class, almost certainly because it’s what was left to register for when I finally did. I’ve already forgotten some of the books we read. I know that we did end up reading And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, Tunomás Honey, Pocho, The Road to Tamazunchale, and Woman Hollering Creek. I remember Anna Nogar teaching these texts with vigor and an urgency to have her students understand their (ambiguity intended) potential. I remember my classmates, all also Latino, mostly Chicano, seemed to be having similar experiences to the one I was having—a light bulb was turning on for us; the dark of our exclusion from the books we’d read and the classes we’d taken was illuminated by the light of our torch-bearing forebearers, by Rivera and by Sagel, by Villarreal and Arias, by, of course, Cisneros. We could see ourselves in literature.
I decided then that, while I always wrote, I would become a writer. I know now that I’d always been a writer, that I had hoped, then, to someday become an author like those who had shown me it was possible to become one.
That’s when, already back then, I had to define the space between the art I wanted to create and the activism I wanted that art to accomplish. How political were my stories going to be? How loudly was I going to shout to the masses that, “We are here! We’ve always been here! This land was ours before it was yours, and this country is just as much ours as it is yours even now that we’re relegated to underclass status!”? How much Spanish were my characters going to speak? Was I going to Italicize?
These questions all overwhelmed me. So I did the only thing I could: I wrote from as true and real a place as I could. I determined that, no matter what, I would not write anything phony. I made that decision when I wrote my first short story, “Last Trip North”, and wanted to set it in my father’s hometown. While I’d lived in that town myself for a short period of my young childhood and travelled there from Corpus Christi, where I was raised, I was not really from Hebbronville, TX. So I named the town Greenton. It’s the same town in which my newest novel, Seeing Off the Johns, takes place.
I made this choice with one thing in mind: the authenticity of my art. Back when I wrote that first story, I would not have even known to call this impulse that. I just knew that the truth would set me free in my writing. It would allow me to create fictions that could be believed and characters who my readers could live with, experience the plot points with. The truth gave me permission to create the lies.
In that moment of truth, when I decided to name my town Greenton, all of the other questions about my responsibility to the cultural aspect of my writing were answered. If I would create stories and let my characters, mostly all Chicano characters, live and be there as truly and realistically as possible, I would be creating impactful Chicano literature. There’s no checklist of what a story or book does or doesn’t have to have in order to be sufficiently Chicano. There’s only the authentic and the not. Hewn closely to my own experience of the culture—to what else can literature be hewn but a writer’s experience—I know that my writing might just resonate well enough with young readers to flip the “on” switch in their minds, to reflect, in my work, something close to their realities.
With Seeing Off the Johns, I never reached out at young readers with my writing. I never had those readers or that section of the bookstore in mind when I wrote my novel. I wrote the story to play out as truly as possible within the situation it created. Sure, my protagonist is a high school senior, but I didn’t write this for high schoolers. That said, I did write his thoughts and actions to be as close as possible to those someone his age, in his situation, would have. In aiming to maintain the integrity of the art, I created something that I am already seeing resonates with young readers.
I am a teacher. I teach in a school that is made up of mostly minority students, among that majority, most students are Latino. It has been my great pleasure to point students in the direction of texts that I know will resonate with them. I try, particularly with my reluctant readers, to chip away at those barriers to entry to literature. Sometimes those barriers are language (And the Earth Did Not Devour Him is in both English and Spanish); sometimes it’s length and lexile level of texts (David Rice’s Crazy Loco has worked wonders with students who are daunted by a book’s size); sometimes it’s that “books are for nerds” (seriously, put a copy of Junot Diaz’s Drown in the hands of one of these kids, preferably if they’re older, and watch them at least have to respect that that notion is wrong if not then fully dive into that book’s stories).
On the teaching end of my professional existence, I am an advocate, a cheerleader, and an activist for getting the right books into the hands of kids who might not otherwise connect to literature. As a writer, though, I have to remain true to my art. I have to, or I wouldn’t be able to make it. Just like I wasn’t able to stain that first blank page with my stories until I could do it from a truthful place, I still can’t. Regardless of who my audience might end up being, the art I’ll create if I create it just for the sake of its authenticity will resound with more readers if they can flip through a few pages, realize I’m not full of it, and hop on for the ride.
Minority writers, particularly YA writers, often feel pressure to carry on the tradition of those who came before them and inspired them to create. I am a Chicano writer. I know that the word Chicano has historical and political underpinnings. I know that by simply being who I am, from where I’m from, there are expectations placed on me and what I write. Some of these expectations, sure, are ignorant and dismissive. Many others, however, are well-meaning. Outlets urging writers to write work to reflect the history and dignity of a whole community do so in order that such work can be available, so that it can be held up as exemplary both to youth within the community and to outsiders looking in from the dominant culture.
We are expected to be cheerleaders and role models, flag-bearers for movements gone by and struggles still being fought. We are the voices of diversity, so we had better be saying the big things, the important things. We better be writing positive characters. We better be showing that young Chican@s can be cool and smart and interesting. It’s all too much.
All we owe readers is our writing. If we make it as good and real as it can be, nothing else needs to be considered. Art without an agenda outside aesthetic and truth is more impactful than any propaganda or motivational speechwriting. If we forget, or at least ignore, the pushes from without and from within toward creating the “right kind” of diverse YA, if we aim only to make it as impactful and engaging as possible, the work we end up doing will serve to continue the revelation to young people of color that they have a place in literature, that their stories and their lives matter just as much any Frome or Gatsby or Caulfield, any Wharton or Fitzgerald or Salinger to come before them.
Rene S. Perez II was born in Kingsville, Texas, and raised in Corpus Christi. He received a BA from the University of Texas and an MFA from Texas State University. He is the winner of the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award and the 2013 NACCS Tejas Award for Fiction for his 2012 short story collection, Along These Highways. His latest book, Seeing Off the Johns, was named BookPage’s Top Teen Pick for July. He currently teaches high school in Austin.
Anna-Marie McLemore’s debut novel, The Weight of Feathers, tells the story of two rival families of traveling performers. In the midst of a bitter feud between the Palomas, who swim in a mermaid show, and the Corbeaus, who wear wings while dancing in the tallest trees, Lace Paloma and Cluck Corbeau confront not only their feelings for each other, but the truth about their families and themselves.
Right after “What made you tell a story about mermaids and winged tightrope walkers?” this is probably the book question I get asked most. And understandably so. Category classifications are hard enough, and magical realism defies labeling. It’s both a genre and not one. It’s as much a worldview as a category.
Magical realism is a literary and cultural language. I might be able to tell you its name, and its origins. But it’s hard for me to say what it sounds like because I grew up speaking it. I hesitate to give a brief, one-sentence definition of magical realism for the same reasons I hesitate to give a short definition of what it means to be Latina. I know what it feels like, but because it’s what I am, it’s hard for me to say how it differs from being something else. When the moon speaks in Lorca’s Blood Wedding, or when Tita turns to fire in Like Water for Chocolate, I take a deeper breath not because these things seem impossible, but because the moon’s words, and Tita’s desire, stay with me.
Okay, Anna-Marie, so you’re saying you can’t tell us what magical realism is?
Let’s look at this through the lens of a different question: How does magical realism differ from realistic fiction with supernatural elements, realistic fiction with fantastical elements, or even realistic fiction with touches of magic?
Though the distinctions can be as subtle and various as the differences between two cultures, here are the two main ones that come to mind: how the idea of the magical is handled, and the fact that magical realism has roots in oppression.
How the sense of the magical is handled
Magical realism isn’t just about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. In a culture of oppression, seeing the magical in the midst of the tragic, the unjust, the heartbreaking is a way of survival, for people, for communities, for cultures. We must find our magic where it lives, or we will lose it. Our spirits depend on not overlooking that which might be dismissed or ignored.
In magical realism, that sense of magic belongs not to individuals, but to communities. Characters may be worried over extraordinary events, but they’re not shocked or incredulous about them. The other side of this coin is the knowledge that oppression is a force that waits, and hovers. The world is more brutal than so many people believe, and more beautiful they than imagine.
Magical realism has roots in oppression
Take Lorca, one of my favorite authors of magical realism, who I mention above. In his late thirties, in the midst of the start of a war, he was executed for motives related to his politics and his sexual orientation. The pain and beauty threading through his work comes from the same places that made him a threat to those who ultimately ended his life. And this, heartbreakingly, is not an unfamiliar story. Some of the most transcendent art—magical realism and otherwise, literature and other forms—comes from artists all too familiar with oppression.
Am I saying that white/straight/cis writers can’t write magical realism? Absolutely not, no more than I’d say that a writer from one culture can’t write a character from another culture. (I recently swooned with joy when a white writer told me she’d taken special care to be respectful of the origins of magical realism when she wrote her novel.) Like a language, magical realism can be learned.
But like a language, it takes work. And though there are no limits to who can enjoy reading or who can write magical realism, it’s a language that might sometimes come a little quicker to those from marginalized groups. Being familiar with oppression, of any kind, can leave you more open to the idea that the magical belongs to everyone, and that trying to possess it is often an insidious incarnation of privilege.
Where Our Magic Lives
I’m blessed not to have grown up during the times of unrest that bore so many beautiful works of magical realism. But I come from cultures of oppression that taught me this world. It’s a world where magic is more heartening or frightening than it is surprising. Where you are always both yourself, and a single facet of your jagged, shimmering community. Magical realism is a place where magic spreads, and endures, and refuses to fit in any single set of hands.
A few book recommendations
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. Traditional magical realism against the landscape of familial closeness and conflict. Not technically YA, but I read it as a teen, and it was one of the books that made me a reader. It shares themes of becoming your own and making your own choices with many of my favorite YA books.
Summer of the Mariposas by Guadalupe Garcia McCall. For an example of classical magical realism, play special attention to how the girls in this sister-story interact with la llorona, a mythical figure who takes on a different persona than how she’s historically cast.
The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma. Nova Ren Suma’s novels defy genre; it’s one of many reasons she’s one of my favorite authors. In her latest, you’ll find hints of magical realism mixed in with other elements that are uniquely her own.
Thank you to Diversity in YA for having me, and thank you to everyone for stopping by and reading one queer Latina’s take on magical realism. Un abrazo fuerte, and happy reading!
Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, raised in the same town as the world’s largest wisteria vine, and taught by her family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. She is a Lambda Literary fellow, and her work has been featured by The Portland Review, Camera Obscura, and the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press) is her first novel. You can find Anna-Marie at annamariemclemore.com or on Twitter @LaAnnaMarie.
Maybe the title of this post is a little tongue-in-cheek, but not entirely.
When I was pitching my debut novel, Silver Phoenix, in 2008, one of the first editors I met at a local conference read twelve pages and said two things that stuck with me. First: This reads like Crouching Tiger crossed with The Joy Luck Club. Why is it fantasy? Second: Asian fantasy doesn’t sell.
My internal thought to the first was: But doesn’t Crouching Tiger have fantastical elements? And why is he saying it like this is a bad thing? My thought to the second was: Oh.
I immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when I was six years old, which means I learned English as a second language. I remember vividly my first grade teacher having to write my name onto the chalkboard because I didn’t know the alphabet. I remember staying home to work on my English while I watched the neighborhood kids play outside. So, when sometime in the third grade I began reading—and reading a lot—it seemed as if magical worlds had been opened to me. I had worked so hard to gain access to these story treasures!
I fell in love with books, and fantasy was one of my favorite genres. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized I had never seen a character who looked like me in any of the fantasy novels I had read. That’s why I wrote Silver Phoenix.
It was incredibly disheartening to be told by the first professional editor I’d met as a budding writer: Don’t bother. No one wants this.
Well, Silver Phoenix did sell to Greenwillow Books, and it was published in 2009, a difficult time in publishing, and an even more challenging one for debut authors. That year, my novel was the only Asian-inspired YA fantasy released by a major publisher, and now, six years later, I can still count on one hand the number that are released any given year. There have been strides, but not many.
When I began writing Serpentine, which was published on Sept. 8, I knew it was a risk. I was writing another fantasy set in my fictitious Kingdom of Xia when the sales numbers for my other books had not been strong. But if you know me personally, you know that no one tells me what to or not to do, and I am a stubborn-headed goat. When I do find a story idea, I always write that novel. Serpentine was on submission for two years, with a handful of editors giving very positive feedback, but asking to see something “entirely different” from me instead.
I was ready to self-publish when Serpentine and its sequel were acquired by Month9Books, and it has been a fantastic journey with this amazing small press. But those two years on submission gave me time to realize all the things that made Serpentine “not commercial” by the standards of what is popular in YA fantasy’s current market.
1. “Too many Asians”
My novels feature casts that are almost entirely Asian, which is very rarely seen in YA books. I’ve also come to realize that the setting itself, inspired by ancient China, is severely othered by the average Western reader, even those who are enthusiastic fantasy readers. Ancient China is more foreign and seen as less commercial than Mars or the moon.
2. “Always the handmaid, never the princess”
I’m very familiar with fantasy’s love for royalty, the princes and princesses who must be smart, brave, and persevere to save their kingdoms. I have read and loved many of these fantasy stories, but have never been drawn to writing them myself. My heroines have always been underdogs, and it is no different in Serpentine. Orphaned at birth, the main character Skybright has been a handmaid and companion to her mistress her entire life. She is pragmatic and hardworking, until one night she wakes to find the lower half of her body has morphed into a long serpentine coil. This changes what she thought she knew about herself and her life forever.
3. “Sisters before misters”
I knew from the outset that I wanted a strong female friendship to be the focus of Serpentine. It was something that was lacking in my Phoenix novels, but also, it was a tribute to all the fabulous women friends I have in my own life, who have boosted and encouraged me in my writing career. And although there is a strong romance between Skybright and a boy she meets, I do believe the core of the story is the friendship between Skybright and Zhen Ni.
4. “Different but not that different”
I think the true irony is that I always think I am writing to market. Shapeshifters are a popular staple in fantasy, both urban and traditional, and are part of the mythos and lore of many cultures worldwide. But one of my critique readers found the idea of a serpent demon heroine “gross”, and an editor said that despite my beautiful storytelling, a half serpent with a forked tongue would be a “tough sell” to the YA readership. Well, damn. Why can I never just fit nicely in the YA Fantasy Expectations Box? I blame my fascination with the idea of monstrous beauties, as well as the Greek mythology of Medusa, who was a beautiful woman herself before she was changed into a monster.
As for whether or not Asian fantasy sells, I think that it can, if these titles are given the same strong publicity and marketing push as other Western-inspired YA fantasies. I have yet to see this happen, and when there is strong buzz from the big publishers, it has often been for an Asian-inspired fantasy written by a white author.
So I’m especially grateful that Serpentine has had the chance to enter the world—and that the reception, so far, has been so welcoming. And if you decide to take a chance with a non-commercial YA fantasy, reader, I hope you enjoy Serpentine.
Cindy Pon is the author of Silver Phoenix (Greenwillow, 2009), which was named one of the Top Ten Fantasy and Science Fiction Books for Youth by the American Library Association’s Booklist, and one of 2009′s best Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror by VOYA. The sequel to Silver Phoenix, titled Fury of the Phoenix, was released in April 2011. Serpentine, the first title in her next Xia duology, is a Junior Library Guild selection for Fall 2015. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA with Malinda Lo and on the advisory board of We Need Diverse Books. Cindy is also a Chinese brush painting student of over a decade. Visit her website at www.cindypon.com.
Signed/personalized copies of Serpentine may be purchased from Mysterious Galaxy Books, and if you do so by Sept. 12, you will receive a brush art card (with art by Cindy Pon) with the book.
My third novel Out of Darkness takes the 1937 New London, Texas, school explosion as the backdrop for a secret romance between an African American boy and a Mexican American girl. It’s a book about segregation, love, family, and the forces that destroy people.
When I began Out of Darkness, my goal was to write a historical novel that would capture the imagination of even my toughest, most reluctant readers and expose them to experiences largely excluded from the sanitized historical accounts in Texas history books. I wanted to approach the past in a way that would also prompt my readers to engage in a fuller consideration of the present and the shape of the world around us.
Growing up one county over from New London, I heard powerful stories of loss and of survival related to the explosion, and I felt that a school disaster offered considerable dramatic possibilities for a YA novel. But the most important reason for choosing this particular period, community, and event was what I didn’t know, the stories I didn’t find collected in the archival materials on the disaster. Because New London school was intended to serve white children, historical accounts of the explosion focused on the tragedy as the white community experienced it; no one had recorded how people of color in the area had responded or how they viewed the disaster.
Still, I wondered, for example, what the event meant for African American teens who were spared from the explosion precisely because they’d been denied access to the better-funded white school in the first place. Because I wanted to explore this question, I knew from the start that there would be an important African American character in my novel. Then, early in my research for the novel, while reading through a list of the children who had died in the explosion, I came across a name that surprised me: Juanita Herron. I found a photograph of Juanita and studied it. I imagined her name as it would have been written in Spanish: Juanita Herrón. I wondered, could a Mexican American child have attended the school?
It was possible, at least. Larger cities in Texas with established Latino populations had three-fold segregation: white schools for white children, “colored” schools for black children, and “Mexican” schools for Mexican Americans and other Latinos. In New London, however, there were only white and “colored” schools. This made it more plausible that light skinned Mexican American families—likely new arrivals attracted by jobs related to the oil boom—could have enrolled their children in the New London school. And it would have been an attractive option, especially in comparison to the grossly underfunded and overcrowded “Mexican” schools in other parts of Texas. From there, I began to imagine what it would be like for a Mexican American teenager to enter the black-and-white community of New London.
The gaps in the historical record on the New London school explosion catalyzed my imaginings of the two characters whose fictional story is at the center of Out of Darkness: Washington Fuller and Naomi Vargas. Having always lived in East Texas, seventeen-year-old Wash prides himself on knowing his way around both the woods and the prettiest girls from Egypt Town, where most of the black community lives. Wash’s days as a womanizer come to an end when he meets Naomi Vargas, a beautiful and painfully shy high school senior who has just moved to New London with her younger twin half-siblings, Beto and Cari (short for Roberto and Caridad). Until the opening of the novel, the three of them have lived in San Antonio, but Naomi’s white stepfather convinces the children’s grandparents to send them to live with him in East Texas so that the gifted twins can attend the New London School. The light-skinned twins quickly settle into their new life in New London, but Naomi encounters hostility because of her darker skin and struggles with the demands of living with a stepfather whose own needs trump any concern for his children. Time spent with the twins and Wash is a welcome relief, and Naomi and Wash fall in love through secret meetings in the East Texas woods. They know that they can’t hide forever. What they don’t know, though, is that the worst school disaster in U.S. history awaits, threatening to shatter the school, the community, and their hopes for a future where they can be together.
Given that Out of Darkness is set in the South during the 1930s, it will come as little surprise that racism shapes the direction of the story. In San Antonio, for example, Naomi and the twins are forced to attend “Mexican” schools with overcrowded classrooms and low-quality teachers. Almost invariably white (as college education was very difficult for Mexican Americans to access), many of these teachers found theirs an “undesirable” placement and were quick to underestimate the abilities of their students. Naomi may be able to attend a better school in East Texas, but in the absence of stores that cater to Mexican Americans, she faces blatant hostility when she tries to buy groceries at the one New London general store. Wash attends a “colored” school with a shorter school day and year, not to mention the absence of critical materials and resources.
Although forced segregation of schools may be a thing of the past, the effects—and reality—of segregation linger on. Unfortunately, racism is not just an unfortunate artifact from our past. The deaths of Trayvon Martin and Renisha McBride—to cite just two examples—make plain the continued relationship between racism and violence in America. In both cases, attackers claimed to feel threatened by unarmed teens. The rationale for that “threat” seems to hinge on the notion that black bodies should not be in (what the killers consider) white spaces. Those who defend the aggressors in these situations tend to focus on the shortcomings of the victims, as if to suggest that their poor decisions were responsible for putting them “in the wrong place at the wrong time” (note the scare quotes).
Readers of Out of Darkness will recognize that the same logic behind the actions of angry white men who feel threatened by Wash’s very presence at the site of the New London explosion. He’s there because the superintendent has hired him to do an afternoon’s work on the grounds, and he rushes into the school, saving several children from being crushed when the building collapses. Instead of being met with gratitude, though, he encounters the suspicion of those who think he has no business being near the white school—or their children.
Factual details influenced how I imagined the fictional events in Out of Darkness, especially Wash’s experiences after the explosion. For example, during my research I learned that an angry mob converged on the school superintendent’s house, hungry for someone to blame for the deaths of their children. In real life, they were turned away by mounted Texas Rangers charged with protecting the school board members from vigilante violence. The crowd dissipated, and no one was harmed. In the fictional world of Out of Darkness, however, this is the point when the mob turns its energies against a scapegoat not granted such protection.
As a black American, Wash experiences the heightened vulnerability that still characterizes the lives of many today. This vulnerability and its terrible consequences have deep roots in our history. Upwards of four thousand people were lynched between 1882 and 1968, and of that number, 3,445 were black. In contrast to the long-overdue mainstream media attention to killings of unarmed African Americans in recent years, news coverage of lynchings—as well as other discrimination endured by African Americans—was either altogether absent or sensationalized and justified the violence against black community members. According to Dr. Richard Perloff, prior to the Civil Rights Movement, news accounts of violence against black Americans generally assumed without question that the victim was guilty of a crime. Newspaper stories often used dehumanizing terms like “wretch,” “fiend,” and “desperado” to refer to the victims.
This historical pattern informs how Wash Fuller’s mistreatment is portrayed in newspaper stories within the world of Out of Darkness. But if I’ve done my job as a writer in Out of Darkness, the whole of the novel refutes the racist narratives perpetuated in the white press, both in how it details Wash’s encounter with those who seek to harm him and in how it portrays his beautifully imperfect and perfectly valuable life.
James Baldwin once noted that, in the U.S., “words are mostly used to cover the sleeper, not wake him up.” Reading fiction is no substitute for engagement with the world around us. I hope, nevertheless, that Out of Darkness confronts readers with words that wake them to the need for change. Perhaps knowing Wash—knowing his brilliance, his sense of humor, his human character, and the tremendous love he has for the people in his life—will lead readers to consider more deeply the human cost of violence against African Americans.
In addition to Out of Darkness (September 2015), Ashley Hope Pérez is the author of two other YA novels: What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly. Out of Darkness has earned starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, and both What Can’t Wait and The Knife and the Butterfly appear on YALSA reading lists. She has a PhD in comparative literature and is currently a visiting assistant professor of comparative studies at The Ohio State University. She teaches topics that range from global youth narratives to Latin American and Latina/o fiction. She lives in Ohio with her husband, Arnulfo, and their sons, Liam Miguel and Ethan Andrés. Visit her online at http://ift.tt/1hryVm1 or find her on Twitter at @ashleyhopeperez.