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.
“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.
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.
I remember it like it was yesterday- the huge blue sky, the sun beating on my skin, and trees as far as the eye can see. I was on a family vacation in one of the most beautiful cities in the midwest. At only ten-years-old, I hadn’t traveled much outside of California so I was overly excited about driving from city to city in an RV with my family and some family friends.
After over a day of driving, we finally arrived at one of our destinations and I couldn’t have been more eager to explore the stunning grounds. We came across a small ice cream shop and all the parents agreed it was the perfect place to stop for a snack.
I was obsessed with mint chocolate chip at the moment, so naturally, I didn’t protest.
The shop was adorable with white windows and a light blue trim. With my friend right behind me, I opened the door to the shop and suddenly, the store went quiet. I’m talking, quiet to the point where you could literally hear a pin drop. To my surprise, everyone in the shop was staring at me and I remember quickly looking down.
I made my way up to the counter where there was a tall, blonde woman standing behind it, who looked to be in her forties. Her face was cold as stone, and she looked rather unhappy for a woman who was working in a ice cream shop.
“What are you going to get?” I whispered to my friend.
“Rocky road,” she quickly said, which wasn’t surprising because this was always her flavor of choice.
I nodded and inched closer to the counter, figuring I would take the initiative and order first. “Could I please have two scoops of mint chocolate chip in a cone?“ I said. I was always taught to say please and thank you to everyone, so ordering ice cream was no exception.
The woman immediately turned away, as though I was not even speaking to her. I tried again. “Excuse me miss? Could I please get two scoops of the mint chip ice cream in a cone?” Again nothing.
I looked around the store and everyone had their faces down. No one would look at me.
As my confusion began to grow, the ice cream clerk brushed over me and looked at my friend (who also had blonde hair and blue eyes) and asked her what kind of ice cream she wanted. My friend was quiet and before she could say a word, her mother walked through the door.
“Girls, have you ordered?” my friend’s mom asked.
“Um. I did, but I don’t think she heard me,” I reasoned before trying again. “May I have two scoops of mint chocolate chip please?” Again, no response from the woman who still wouldn’t look at me.
“Ma’am,” my friend’s mom said. “Can you please get her some mint chocolate chip?” Now, the woman ignored her.
“Excuse me, why won’t you get her ice cream?”
The ice cream clerk huffed. “Look. We don’t serve her kind here,” she snapped.
My friend’s mom literally took a step back. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Latinos or Indians.”
What she said hit me like a ton of bricks. Growing up in a family with mixed ethnicities was just a normal part of life living in Southern California. I’m half Latina, and also North African and Jewish and luckily, living in Los Angeles I never really experienced much racism because the city was so diverse.
But this incident in the midwest stuck with me, and I remember getting home from that vacation and wanting to lose myself in books, TV, and movies, desperately looking for characters like me. But the thing was, I couldn’t find any, and after being treated poorly on vacation, this lack of representation made me feel like something was wrong with me.
Everything sort of spiraled downhill from there. I remember many nights crying to my mom, asking her, “Why don’t I have blonde hair and blue eyes?” She would always tell me that my dark hair and dark eyes made me beautiful, but I didn’t believe her.
I remember spending many of my early teen years trying to get my hair lighter by spraying on lemon juice and laying out in the sun. My hair ended up turning a dreadful color of orange but as long as it wasn’t dark brown I was happy. I also made sure to put on the highest SPF when I did spend time in the sun, to make sure my skin did not become any darker. I even started to tell people I was “Italian, not Latina,” whenever anyone would ask me.
But after all those years of not being able to accept who I was, something truly amazing happened – Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, Eva Longoria, and Shakira all started to make waves in entertainment. Believe it or not, seeing these Latinas killing it in the entertainment industry helped me to become more confident in who I was. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder, if I would’ve seen diverse characters in books after the incident on vacation, would it have affected me as much?
When I started to write my debut novel Hollywood With Hunter it was a no-brainer to have diverse characters from all walks of life and to have my main character Latina. This was non-negotiable for me.
The whole reason I stuck to my guns and fought so hard for diversity is because I wrote the character that I believe I needed as a child and teenager, especially after getting treated like a nobody on vacation.
The need for diverse books is vital, and this is why I will always keep writing them.
Valerie Tejeda is an entertainment journalist and author who spends her days reporting on books, television, and all things pertaining to pop culture, and spends her nights writing novels for teens. Her stories have appeared on a variety of different publications, including: Vanity Fair, MTV, The Huffington Post, Teen Vogue, Latina, Yahoo! Shine, Cosmopolitan, and more. Hollywood Witch Hunter is her YA debut.
Here’s a phrase you’ll hear often in conversations about gentrification: “First, the artists moved in.” It’s a tiny, complicated sentence amidst a gigantic, complicated topic (which I wrote more about here). But embedded in it, you’ll find one of the central acts of erasure at the heart of gentrification itself. When people say this, they really mean the white artists came first, but the white goes unmentioned because, like whiteness itself, it’s presumed, normalized: the fallback category. (See also: writers only pointing out a character’s race when they’re not white.) The problem with saying “First, the artists moved in,” is that it’s not true. There have always been artists in the America’s low-income neighborhoods, and hopefully there always will be. But they haven’t always been white and their art hasn’t always been the kind that galleries and art critics deem worthy of a pedestal.
The pages of Shadowshaper, my first YA novel, are filled with musicians and rappers, poets, painters, storytellers, journalists — all folks who get erased when we talk about a glorified first wave of white artists entering the hood like they’re some kind of daring explorers in the wilderness.
Sierra Santiago is just trying to pain a mural on the wall of one of those brand new, wildly out of place looking buildings on a block otherwise full of brownstones. A tear drips down the face of a fading mural adjacent to the one she’s painting, a memorial to a friend of her family’s. Then chaos erupts when a guy that was supposed to be dead shows up at the first party of the summer while Sierra’s trying to recruit her friend Robbie to help her unravel the mystery of the crying painting and her grandfather’s connection to a mysterious group called the shadowshapers.
Shadowshaper is about artists and the power of art. Amidst rapidly changing neighborhoods, police violence, and literary erasure, the painting a face on a wall, the act of remembrance, is truly a form of resistance. In the struggle to reclaim her own heritage, Sierra must find her voice. This is the first great adventure of every artist, but it’s an adventure that society glorifies or demonizes differently along coded race and gender lines. We find our voices as individuals and collectively, and once we find them, we must learn how to lift them — over the din and tangle of oppression and the industry and the market and bad advice about what will sell and what won’t sell — and say something difficult and true. In writing Sierra’s journey to finding her voice, I ended up finding my own.
Daniel José Older is the author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series from Penguin’s Roc Books and the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper (Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015). His first collection of short stories, Salsa Nocturna and the anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, which he co-edited, are available from Crossed Genres Publications. You can find Daniel’s thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at ghoststar.net/ and @djolder on twitter and youtube.
Usually here at Diversity in YA we ask authors to guest blog about their own books, but today I’m doing something different for a special reason. My friend C. J. Omololu, author of the new book The Third Twin, is currently fighting stage four cancer. I’m not going to sugarcoat this: It’s serious. That’s why many of her friends and fans have banded together to help Cynthia (that’s C. J.) with the launch of The Third Twin, and that’s why I’m blogging about the novel here.
The Third Twin is the kind of diverse book I am always looking for: one in which the main character is of color (in this case she’s Latina) and yet the story doesn’t revolve around a racial or ethnic identity crisis. What’s even cooler in this case is that The Third Twin is a thriller that is totally about identity, but it’s not about someone struggling with racism or coming to terms with their ethnic background. It turns the identity tale inside out — as a good thriller should do. Let me tell you more about it.
In The Third Twin, identical twin sisters Lexi and Ava are totally different from one another: Lexi is an academic star and hopes to go to Stanford, while Ava’s all about having a good time with the right kind of guy. And then there’s Alicia — the sisters’ childhood imaginary friend who has turned into something much more dangerous … and fun. Lexi and Ava have been taking turns pretending to be carefree and self-confident Alicia, dating cute guys and never getting hurt, but one night while Lexi is on a date as Alicia, something goes really wrong. The next day, the boy “Alicia” went out with is discovered dead — murdered — and “Alicia” is the prime suspect.
Lexi and Ava start to notice some pretty odd things. “Alicia,” for example, seems to be doing things without either of their knowledge, and someone seems to be following and spying on them. It soon becomes clear that Lexi is going to have to figure out who killed Alicia’s last date, or else she’s going to end up taking the fall for her imaginary triplet sister.
Early on in the book you learn something that might make you wonder if Lexi and Ava really are Latina, but don’t worry — they are. I wouldn’t be blogging about this book on Diversity in YA if they weren’t. One thing I enjoyed about the way ethnicity is represented in The Third Twin is that it’s simply present, the way it is in reality. It’s not a big issue; it simply exists in everyday details that underscore the characters’ reality. This is the kind of “casual diversity” that is so important, because even though we need books that talk about race and racism, we also need books where characters of color can simply have the same kind of plot-driven adventures that white characters have all the time.
And The Third Twin was such a fun read: the kind you want to tear through in one sitting because the surprises just keep coming. It’s a story about the love between sisters despite their differences; it’s a story about finding romantic love in an unexpected place. It’s also chock full of page-turning reveals.
Several years ago I had brunch with Cynthia and several of our local young adult author friends, and at this brunch, Cynthia told us about the premise behind The Third Twin. (It takes a looong time for books to become reality!) I thought the twists she had come up with back then were fantastic, and I was so excited to read the finished product. Those twists? Still fantastic.
My first teaching job was as an 8th grade English Language Arts teacher in a small Connecticut town. I was the only Latin@ teacher in the middle school, quite possibly in the district. I had a single student who was an English Language Learner, and the entire school contained only a handful of students who identified with racial, cultural, or ethnic minority groups.
Meanwhile, next door was a city whose residents were majority minority. This is Connecticut’s reality; drive a few miles in any direction and the landscape changes significantly.
Fast forward many years later to when I was drafting When Reason Breaks. While writing, I envisioned the setting as a similarly small, not-so-diverse New England town. Drawing on my experience, the English teacher, Ms. Diaz, was the only Latina in the story. Ms. Diaz being the lone representation of diversity in the original manuscript wasn’t a case of me white-washing my novel intentionally or accidentally. Instead, Ms. Diaz’s situation represented a reality for people of color who live in states like Connecticut where racial and ethnic diversity varies tremendously town to town. Sometimes there’s only one of us in the room.
I was okay with Ms. Diaz being the lone Latina in the story because it was a conscious decision, but then my editor asked if I’d consider making one of the main characters Latina. Huh. I didn’t see that coming. So much has been said and written about the lack of diversity in children’s books and publishers’ general tendencies not to push for, seek out, or champion diverse stories. In worst case scenarios, we’ve heard about the white-washing of novel covers, even when characters are explicitly stated to be people of color, or authors being asked by editors to revise characters the other way—to make them white or heterosexual.
And here was my editor asking for more diversity.
Okay, then. I could have created an angry Latina Goth—which would have been cool because how often do we see that character—or a reserved, depressed Latina who slowly unravels. After a bit of research, I decided on the latter because, according to the CDC, significantly more Hispanic females in grades 9-12 reported attempting suicide than their non-Hispanic female classmates. So, Emily Daniels became Emily Delgado after much revision and consideration about what it means to be a depressed Puerto Rican teen struggling to manage a politically ambitious father and socially ambitious friends.
Then my editor wanted to know more about Tommy Bowles and why he and Elizabeth Davis, the other main character, spend time in cemeteries, beyond Elizabeth’s general curiosity about death. After much thought, I revised Tommy’s character to be half-Mexican. When he and Elizabeth first meet, Tommy is in the cemetery with his mother, honoring the dead during El Día de los Muertos. Years later, Elizabeth joins Tommy’s family as they decorate sugar skulls. This change not only provides meaning for Tommy and Elizabeth’s visits to the cemetery, but also shows the survival of a holiday in a bicultural family.
When my editor wanted to know more about Kevin outside of school, I decided right away that he’d have two dads, one of whom was Chinese. Here’s why: as each of the teen characters was fleshed out by introducing their home lives, I didn’t want all of the adult relationships to be the same. So, the Delgados are married and dysfunctional, the Davis household is divorced, and the Bowles and Wen-Massey homes have differently bicultural, happily married couples.
Interestingly, as diverse as it is, my novel is not about being Latina or bicultural or the child of same-sex parents. It’s about teen depression and attempted suicide. It always has been. The heart of the story didn’t change even though the manuscript went through multiple revisions.
And when the revision notes specifically asked for more diversity, I didn’t want to just swap last names and declare, “Voila, diversity!” The changes needed to have purpose—to make sense for the characters and the plot—and I needed to approach them with thoughtful intention. Otherwise, the changes would have felt hollow to me—diversity for diversity’s sake—and I would never want to do that.
All of this made me wonder about all of the novels I’ve read without a single character representing a racial, ethnic, cultural, or religious minority, a disabled person, or a member of the LGBTQIA community. Was that intentional as well? Or was it a case of “default” writing? Or perhaps the writer didn’t want these “issues” to alter the story? My advice to writers is to reconsider this. You can diversify your cast of characters, with purposeful intention, and not drastically alter your story. I did, and I’m glad for it.
In the end, Ms. Diaz was no longer the sole representation of diversity in the story, no longer the only person of color in the room. They represent a different reality, someplace between the almost all-white town I previously worked in and the almost all-minority city that bordered it. It’s a place I’d love to live in, actually, a place that represents a richly diverse happy medium.
Cindy L. Rodriguez was a reporter for the Hartford Courant and a researcher for the Boston Globe before becoming a public school teacher. She now works as a middle school reading specialist and community college adjunct professor. She is also a founding member of Latinos in Kid Lit. She lives in Connecticut with her young daughter and rescue mutt. Her debut novel, When Reason Breaks, releases February 10, 2015 from Bloomsbury Children’s Books. For more information, visit cindylrodriguez.com.
When Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas was originally published in 1989, the Hispanic population of Texas numbered some four and a half million people and represented thirty-two percent of the state’s population. Now, a quarter of a century later, when a 25th anniversary edition of Poli is, happily, being issued, the Hispanic population numbers more than ten million and represents nearly forty percent of the state’s population.
Poli: A Mexican Boy in Early Texas is based on the memoirs of José Policarpo Rodriguez, a Mexican-American—and Texas Téjano—who was central to Texas history during its formative years in the nineteenth century. With his father, José Policarpo Rodriguez—the “Poli” of our story—came north from Zaragosa, Mexico, to the Republic of Texas in 1839 when he was ten years old, and he and his father settled in the Hill Country near San Antonio. Poli grew up with Comanches, surveyed territory for the Republic of Texas and the United States Army, fought against warring Indians, and mapped settlements for nineteenth-century German settlers in Texas.
He was the first non-Indian to discover the Big Bend Country and Cascades Caverns, and during the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, he was Captain of the San Antonio Home Guard. Caught between the three main elements that made up early Texas—Mexicans, Indians, and Anglos—and often shown contempt both for his age and his Mexican origins, Poli struggled to decide where his true loyalties lay, and his decisions—which, among other elements in his life and character, inspired me to turn his memoirs into a book—showed a kind of courage that was rare in those days, and remains rare.
The memoirs were given to me by a teacher I worked with at the Saddle River Country Day School in New Jersey, Gladys Spann Matthews, who had taught Poli’s grandchildren in Austin, Texas. One of his grandchildren wrote a composition titled, “The Most Famous Guide in Texas History.” One day while Gladys Matthews and I were having lunch together in the kitchen of the estate that served as the school’s makeshift cafeteria—it was the school’s first year of existence—she plunked a fat brown envelope onto the table next to me. “I once tried to make a book out of this and couldn’t do it,” she said. Along with a copy of the memoirs, Gladys Matthews gave me drafts of the book she had tried to write, transcriptions of anecdotes she’d heard from his grandchildren, and a loving admonition: that I use the materials as the basis for a fictionalized biography of Poli.
And so I did, and I trust that Poli and his story will inform and enchant readers in the way I was when, once upon a time, I came to know this extraordinary TexasTéjano.
Jay Neugeboren is the author of 21 books, including award-winning books of fiction and non-fiction, along with four collections of prize-winning stories. A new novel, Max Baer and the Star of David, will be published in the fall of this year.
As a kid, I had more dreams than could fit in my head—the biggest was to be an author. My school didn’t have money for new books, let alone an author to ask for advice, and Skype hadn’t been invented yet. But here is some of what I wish someone had shared, some of what I’ve learned about writing so far:
Dear Young Author,
1. Read everything you can get your hands on. Reading teaches us what we like and don’t like, what works and doesn’t work. A great piece of writing can be mirror, window, door, roadmap or all. Reading shaped me even when it was hard to find more than a handful of protagonists that looked or sounded like me. I found other ways of identifying. Reading Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I imagined I was poor Huck. Likewise, I imagined myself the immigrant subject of Willa Cather’s My Antonia. That was the beauty of reading books at that age. That said, it was the writing of Sandra Cisneros that encouraged me to pursue publication, that showed me that people read stories about Chicano kids too. As readers and writers we have the power to change books as the world around us changes too.
2. Look for stories everywhere. My first book, The Smell of Old Lady Perfume, started from a short story I wrote for a class. I used it as a skeleton and attached words like chunks of flesh until my book took shape. Conversations with my family helped a great deal because the story was based on real events they took part in. Chela, my protagonist, struggles through the sixth grade. Her life doesn’t exactly happen like mine did. Nevertheless, writing allowed me to remember many things about that time in my own life. Some were painful. Some were great, like the rumble of my father’s laughter. With Pig Park, my characters started out as strangers that I slowly got to know. The idea came to me while reading an old article about the plump delicious bread at my favorite bakery. I grabbed ideas from all around me.
3.Work out problems through writing. During middle school, I hated everyone and everything. My dad had just passed away, and I lashed out. But, experimenting with poetry finally allowed me to express myself in a way that didn’t get me in trouble. It wasn’t just a matter of venting or professing emotion. Writing became a problem-solving tool. The thing about written words is that they have a permanence that requires careful consideration. They allow us to get down the facts and sort out events so we don’t get carried away in the moment. Simply put, writing slowed down the thinking process, helping me to see more clearly before I opened my mouth.
4.Don’t worry too much about what others think. It’s understandable that you should feel some apprehension about sharing your work. However, don’t let that dictate what you write. One day, I poured my soul onto a piece of paper and turned it into my ninth grade English teacher. She took me aside after class and asked if I’d copied it. I ground my teeth and blinked back tears that she thought so little of me. “She must’ve thought the poem was that good,” my sister said. This is a humble brag, of course. But if you’re serious about writing, you have to learn to take the criticism. When I have a new piece, I share it in a safe place like my writing group. Once your work is published, you don’t have this luxury. Editors, publishers, reviewers, teachers, librarians, and all sorts of other people have something to say — good and bad. Of course, these are individual opinions. You can grow from them, or decide they offer you nothing and move on. A friend used to say, “I don’t believe there is such a thing as an ugly girl, just girls who aren’t of my taste.” Writing is exactly the same. Writing that one person hates, can find another person to love it.
5.Don’t just talk about writing, write. If you have a story in you, sit down and go at it. Write and don’t stop until you’ve told it. Writing is hard work in many ways. Baring our souls isn’t always easy, but I suppose it’s the nature of the creative process. Developing your ideas will require effort and commitment. When I found out my first book would be published, my editor called me on the phone and said, “You know it won’t be glamorous. You still have a lot of work do.” And, that’s the truth.
Claudia Guadalupe Martinez is the author of The Smell of Old Lady Perfume (Cinco Puntos, 2008) and Pig Park (Cinco Puntos, 2014). She grew up in sunny El Paso, Texas where she learned that letters form words from reading the subtitles of old westerns with my father. At age six, she already knew she wanted to create stories. She now lives and writes in Chicago. For more updates follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook.