September 23, 2017

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Erika L. Sánchez On Unlikable WOC Protagonists and “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter”

While it may seem like an overnight sensation, Erika L. Sánchez’s success has been a longtime coming. Only months after the publication of her first collection of poetry, her YA debut I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter (Knopf, 2017) is publishing on October 17, and has already been long listed for the 2017 National Book Awards. In our starred review, SLJ called the contemporary novel “a timely and must-have account of survival in a culturally contentious world.” Sánchez, who will be featured at SLJ’s first-ever Day of Dialog Brooklyn on Friday, September 15, talks about her path to publication, feminism, and why characters of color should be allowed to mess up just like anyone else.

Photo by Robyn Lindemann

Congrats on publishing your young adult debut and your first book of poetry for adults (Lessons on Expulsion: Poems; Graywolf) in the same year! Did you work on these two projects simultaneously? Do you approach your prose writing for teens differently than your poetry for older readers?

It’s been wonderful and overwhelming. From the outside it must seem like it all happened overnight, but I worked on these books for years. My poetry collection is a culmination of over a decade of work, and I began working on my novel more than five years ago. There was definitely overlap with the projects, but as I worked on the bulk of my novel, I was a little bit obsessed and couldn’t focus on anything else. Writing it felt like an emergency. The poems were born so, so slowly. The process is definitely very different. With poetry, I never think about the reader until the poem is almost finished. I write poems that are asking me to be written. With prose, I can be more intentional. I can outline and plan. I do hope that teens can enjoy both books, however.

Your novel focuses on Julia’s relationship with her recently deceased sister Olga—two seemingly opposite young women in a Mexican American family who had more in common than Julia realized. What inspired you to write this family saga and exploration of female roles?

I grew up feeling at odds with my environment. I was a weird kid and I perplexed my parents with my very American ways, so that’s where the idea for Julia came from. (We have a lot in common, but it’s definitely a work of fiction.) I wanted to contrast Julia with her sister, who on the outside appears to be perfect—family oriented, obedient, and selfless—and show how they were both rebelling against the repressive parts of their culture. It’s tough growing up bicultural. It often feels like you don’t belong anywhere. It was important for me to portray this identity because it’s a very common experience for young people, and it’s rarely depicted in mainstream literature. I’m very much a feminist, so nearly all of my writing is about women and the ways in which they fight against patriarchy.

These characters are so well-realized, from Julia’s best friend Lorena to the protagonist’s love interest Connor. Which character was your favorite to write? Which one was the most difficult to write?

Delving into the different minds and lives of these characters was so fun. I think that literature can be powerful in creating empathy for others, so that that was my guide. I wanted to show how complicated people’s experiences can be; things are rarely what they appear. Not surprisingly, Julia was my favorite to write because she was the character I needed when I was young. She doesn’t have much of a filter and sometimes what she says is simultaneously cruel and funny. The most difficult character to write was Julia’s mother, which in some ways is the antagonist of the story. It was really important for me to create a nuanced character who, despite loving her children so fiercely, makes a lot of mistakes. In the course of the novel we see how she survives her grief, and we get to understand the reasons behind her socially conservative worldviews.

Julia herself isn’t the most likable protagonist. Why did you think it was important to create a female character who was authentic and realistic but not always nice?

So glad you bring this up! I think there is a dearth of portrayals of complex girls of color. I’m not sure why we’re not allowed to mess up like everyone else. I rarely see men criticized for their unlikable characters. In fact, they’re often praised for being so flawed and authentic. Holden Caulfield, for instance, wasn’t exactly a great dude, but no one seems to complain about that. Being human means we’re going to make mistakes and at times say or do unkind things. Women and girls are too often expected to be pleasing, but that’s not realistic. Sometimes good people make bad choices and hurt others, particularly when they are in pain. I wanted teenage girls to relate to Julia, and I didn’t believe that they’d see themselves in someone who always said and did the right thing. That would be an incredibly boring story, in my opinion.

We’re currently living in a time where many young people of Mexican descent might have to forcibly leave the only country they’ve ever known. What can the YA community and librarians do to inform and change the current administration’s efforts to deport these young people?

This administration is openly hostile to people of color and immigrants. I’m saddened by what’s happening to people in my community and I will do my best to use my voice. Everyone who has a public platform should be speaking out, including writers. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but there is a lot we can do. First, we should all be contacting our senators and representatives to voice our concerns and demand that they protect DACA. Post on all social media platforms to inform your networks of the steps they can take. I’m also a big proponent of old-fashioned protesting. It’s important to show with our bodies that we’re in opposition to what is happening. Also, those who have the means should donate to organizations that protect immigrant rights. And this is not an immediate solution, but librarians can make a difference by recommending books about immigrants. Again, books have the power to foster empathy, and if children can understand the realities of these communities, they will influence the attitudes and politics of future generations. Lastly, librarians should push back against policies that require government issued identification to obtain library cards.

What advice would you give other young writers of color who are trying to publish their first books for young people?

Be persistent! Your voice matters. There are kids out there who need your story. A career in writing is full of rejection, so the sooner you make peace with that, the better. If someone turns you down, keep going. Also, support other writers, make genuine connections, and build a community. Always be generous and kind.

What are you working on next?

In addition to teaching Creative Writing at Princeton, I’m finishing up a collection of personal essays titled Crying in the Bathroom, writing new poems, and working on a top secret creative project that I will announce as soon as I can.

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Shelley Diaz About Shelley Diaz

Shelley M. Diaz (sdiaz@mediasourceinc.com) is School Library Journal's Reviews Team Manager and SLJTeen newsletter editor. She has her MLIS in Public Librarianship with a Certificate in Children’s & YA Services from Queens College, and can be found on Twitter @sdiaz101.

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