Activist, composer, and former paramedic Daniel José Older’s YA debut Shadowshaper (Scholastic, 2015) has already garnered stellar reviews and buzz. This urban fantasy set in modern-day Brooklyn features a magnetic Afro-Latina teen protagonist, Sierra, whose murals begin to take a life of their own—literally. SLJ caught up with Older and discussed the topics of race, mythologies, and community in his first novel for young people.
Shadowshaper is a lyrical urban fantasy with a strong Afro-Latina protagonist that touches on important themes, such as the power of art and family, religion, class, and even racism within the Latino culture. How did you work in all of those topics without bogging down the narrative?
A lot of my strategy was to use world-building—I was trying to be intentional about how I painted this world around Sierra so that I wouldn’t have to bend the narrative around [those topics]. So that themes of truth, injustice, discomfort, and empowerment could shine through the context of the story itself.
In Brooklyn, a lot of young women get harassed in the streets. Many of us have to deal with the patriarchy of our forefathers and foremothers. All of those things are woven together into the world that Sierra’s in. Most Latinos have complexes in our families because of our different shades, and with that comes otherism and antiblackness. It was really about building up what her social atmosphere looks like and being honest about that. Gentrification is a truth in Brooklyn. So when she’s going from point A to point B during the course of the larger story, it was just a question of telling the truth of what she encounters.
There’s long been a cry for more genre fiction about and by people of color, and Shadowshaper certainly fits that bill. Just what genre do you think it is?
I didn’t sit down to write urban fantasy. But it fits in that genre. There are elements of magical realism, and I’m inspired by the magical realists. I think of Shadowshaper as a truly honest depiction of a spiritual version of Brooklyn. It’s a city that speaks to me on a spiritual and storyteller level.
Why do you think there’s been such a dearth of diverse books for teens in the more “fun” genres?
We have to understand that the makeup of the publishing industry and the gatekeepers is hugely white. It’s very easy to talk about racism in the past tense. It’s very difficult to talk about racism in the future, because as we can see in most dystopians on our bookshelves, the future is whitewashed and there are no people of color. If there’s a character of color, it’s usually a sidekick or punchline. Racism is never discussed.
Fantasy is supposed to be “apolitical”—which really means “Toeing the line of mainstream white culture.” There’s no apolitical book. And fantasy especially has always been a deeply political genre. It’s been entrenched in white power, colonialism, and defending this idea of empire instead of telling counter-narratives. But kids deal with racism all the time, which means that children’s and YA literature needs to deal with racism in all levels, not just the segregation of the south.
Brooklyn itself feels like a character in this book.
I really believe that the details and the minutiae of city or setting are what bring it to life. There’s a deeper, political, emotional meaning behind that. People in Brooklyn are walking around and understanding that the streets are being fixed now because of gentrification. They know the history behind that. In talking about that and working it into the setting, I was invoking something that is alive and in crisis with itself. The crisis of Brooklyn is the backdrop of Shadowshaper. I also just love Prospect Park.
You’ve written several essays, short stories, and novels for adult audiences. What inspired you to write this book for teens?
I was really inspired by “Harry Potter,” but also felt a deep disconnect. I wanted a Harry Potter who would speak to my people and to other people that weren’t white. I was reading a lot of Junot Diaz, Octavia Butler, and Walter Mosely, wanting to bring something into the world that was like Harry Potter. I was also working with kids and young people in the community, doing theater and activist projects. I was seeing what they were reading and getting them excited and the need was so clear. They needed a mythology that spoke to our mythology, a literature that speaks to our own truth.
You totally nailed the voice and sensibilities of a teenage girl. Was that a challenge? Why did you think it was important to make her such a self-assured protagonist?
She’s also vulnerable. She struggles with her self-image. I struggled between finding that balance of her confidence and trying not to take in the message that society is telling her. To write characters that are not us, we have to listen, and listen from a humble place.
A year after you wrote “Diversity Is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing” in Buzzfeed, do you think anything has moved the needle in discussions of race and power in publishing?
Yes. Definitely, the WNDB movement—the excellent organization itself, and the multitude of voices that have risen since. I think it has because that caught so much momentum and the people who are doing it are staying steady and working to make sure that it’s not just a trend but a real change. That’s been really powerful. A lot of this is because of social media. Before, we were prey to those headlines. Now, we can post the headlines. I think that ultimately, what we’re talking about is a really revolutionary movement. These are wounds that are going to back the foundation of American literature. It’s really about turning things upside down. This is connected also with the larger movements happening socially, such as #BlackLivesMatter.
As the violence against people of color has continued to escalate this past year, you’ve been very active on social media, speaking out against it. How do you think books fit in this conversation?
When we’re writing for young people, our job is to tell the truth and to be honest about crisis. For YA lit, the crisis is usually about moving towards adulthood. But childhood is different in different cultures. Even in Brooklyn, block by block, there are some childhoods that are more privileged than others. If we’re talking about a more equitable children’s literature, that has to be taken into account.
Right now, children’s lit hasn’t responded in any institutionalized way to this crisis in American history that is happening to young people of color. A month after Ferguson, the music industry put out albums and responded in a powerful way. It’s on literature to be there too, asking those questions and standing up for what we believe in.
You’ve been a paramedic and you’re a musician. How has those careers informed your writing?
I became a paramedic in 2003 when I first started out, because it paid the bills, right before I came to New York. It’s a fantastic artist job. You can’t be a passive witness. Artists sometime become so enamored with our own mythology that we forget that we’re artists and not scribes. Paramedics are knee-deep in the mud. It’s the same reason I ended up organizing. When you’re watching the news on TV, you end up feeling depressed, but when you’re marching down streets, you know that you might not get justice that day, but the important thing is that you showed up.
I started learning music in college. I love the fact that there are things that you can’t say in words. Now, I try to imbue music into my prose. Fiction and prose writers have a lot to learn from musicians. Gravity, style, silence, tension all important in music, can also function to bring words to life.
Which is your favorite character? Which one do you identify most with?
I put a lot of myself into Sierra and Robbie [a fellow artist]. When I was kid, I loved to draw. I see a lot of myself in Sierra and in the way that she walks through the world. I love Uncle Neville. I know a lot of people like him and there needs to be more people like him in literature—mischief makers, real and badass.
Nydia the librarian is also one of my favorites. She’s very outspoken and opinionated but also unsure of herself and cautious. She wants to help Sierra and doesn’t want Sierra to get hurt. That tension of an adult trying to help is so real.
There’s a scene in which she talks to Sierra about who gets to ask the questions in anthropology and history, and that was something that I really wanted to come across in the book—the question of autonomy. Shadowshaper is so much more than a diverse book.
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