Resistance, Radical Empathy, and the Responsibilities of Privilege: An Interview with Tehlor Kay Mejia on “We Set the Dark on Fire”

Tehlor Kay Mejia’s debut novel We Set the Dark on Fire is a fantasy based in contemporary issues: political turmoil, sexual identity, class inequality, immigration, even a border wall. She tells SLJ about world-building, revolution, and how rage inspired her first novel.

Tehlor Kay Mejia’s debut novel We Set the Dark on Fire is a fantasy based in contemporary issues: political turmoil, sexual identity, class inequality, immigration, even a border wall. Dani is the top student at the Medio School for Girls, preparing to marry into an influential political family…as long as no one finds out that the identification papers that got her to the prestigious academy are forged. When she’s asked to spy for a rebel group that aims to bring equality to Medio, she must decide whether to risk her status for the cause, while navigating the forbidden feelings she’s developing for her longtime enemy. Mejia tells SLJ about world-building, revolution, and how rage inspired her first novel.

Congrats on publishing your YA debut! What was your path to publication like? Mejia headshot
Thank you so much! It’s been quite a journey so far. I wrote the first draft of this book almost four years ago, and it was a very, very different story then. I revised and resubmitted it twice with my now-agent, and did two almost complete rewrites after we signed.

I thought for a long time that I was crazy to keep hacking at it and coming at it from different angles, but the characters and the world really stuck with me in a way that made me want to find the right way to tell their story, and I’m so thrilled that I’ll finally be able to share it with the world.

What inspired you to write this Latinx and feminist dystopian fantasy?
Most of my inspiration for this book has just been rage. Rage at the way women are belittled and underestimated and placed in boxes in our society. Rage at the way arbitrary borders are glorified to benefit the powerful and dehumanize anyone from the “wrong” side. Rage at the fact that allies with privilege are more comfortable sitting neutral on the sidelines than joining the fight.

It’s been a long process, though. For instance, when I came up with Medio’s border wall, Obama was still president and there had been no talk yet of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, so it’s been deeply disturbing to see things I intended as metaphor and political commentary actually come to pass as I’ve been working on the manuscript. My anger and helplessness and desire for justice for those wrongs have definitely influenced the story in a huge way.

Do you have a favorite protagonist? Is there a character you especially identify with?
It’s hard to choose a favorite, but I’d say Dani is closest to the kind of teen I was, and some of her battle with her own privilege and alienation from her culture and family comes from my personal experience. There’s this particular diaspora struggle of feeling like you’re a little out of place no matter where you go. Dani is a girl who was raised in a privileged environment, but who carries the weight of intergenerational trauma and struggle, so it’s hard for her to decide where she fits into the world. That was a struggle I was so conscious of as a teen, and one I’m just now starting to make sense of as an adult.

If I could choose which character I wanted to be though, it’d be Carmen, no question.

The world-building in this novel is so layered and complex. How did you go about crafting the setting and mythology of Medio?

First and foremost, I wanted to write a world where Latinx readers felt at home. A place that had rhythm and sun and music and bright colors and loud, overlapping languages. A place where mythology and faith bled together and felt like living, breathing things. But of course, those are the nostalgic, romantic aspects of my cultural inspiration, and alone they don’t tell the whole story.

Medio is set up as a contrast between the beauty of the culture I drew from and the harsh realities that can change the way you view that beauty. The harsh, patriarchal structure of the government and the way the powers that be have interpreted its rich history and mythology to suit their own malicious purposes, are unfortunately not unique to this book. I wanted to take a look at a deep, rich, beautiful culture without ignoring the places it can breed toxicity.

We Set the Dark on Fire coverDani’s story is one of rebellion and revolution—lots of spies and secrets. How did you keep track of all of the red herrings and who was double-crossing whom?
To be perfectly honest, not without a lot of help from some very talented editors! My agent and my editorial team at Katherine Tegen were instrumental in keeping my million plot threads from being overwhelming or tangled, and I’m so grateful to them for all their meticulous work.

I had a really solid sense of who my characters were, and where their loyalties truly were versus where they seemed to be. But knowing and executing are two very different things, and it was definitely a delicate dance trying to figure out what to reveal and when!

There are themes of classism, gender and identity, and immigration threaded throughout. Why did you think it was important to explore these timely topics through this speculative genre?
I think it’s so important, especially right now, to see that action, and resistance, and even radical empathy and joy, aren’t just things we can escape to in books. They’re things we need to find in ourselves, and things we need to act on in every way, big or small, that we know how.

Dani isn’t a chosen hero. She’s a scared girl who feels powerless and boxed in and doesn’t know what her responsibility is to the world around her. She doesn’t have a magical weapon or a wise mentor or a team of scrappy misfits and a prophecy. What I hope people get from her, and from this book, is that you don’t need to have or be anything remarkable to resist. You just need to do the inner work to find out who you are, and then make a choice. To fight back. Not to be silent. To use what you have, even if it doesn’t seem like much, to do the most good you can.

The “Enemies to Lovers” romance was especially steamy and well-done here, especially as Dani discovered a part of her identity that she wasn’t aware of. Why did you think it was so important to include this in the book?
Dani grew up hiding and scared and afraid to let anyone get too close to her secret, which has understandably stunted her ability to be emotionally close to anyone. She’s not a girl who has friends, and she’s cut off from her family, but I definitely wanted to give her a love story, and an awakening to the parts of herself that were so restricted as a Primera student.

As a result of her upbringing and training, Dani’s only inroad to those kinds of intense emotions is through feeling negative ones first. She hasn’t yet learned that hatred carries the same kind of passion as love, so hating Carmen doesn’t register to her as something dangerous until it’s too late.

What are you working on next? The sequel, of course. But anything else that you can talk about?

Yes! The sequel will be out in the winter of 2020, and I have two other upcoming books as well. Meteor is a YA magical realism I was lucky enough to work on with the immensely talented Anna Marie McLemore, and my middle grade debut, Paola Santiago and the River of Tears, will be out in May 2020 from Rick Riordan Presents.

Photo courtesy of Tehlor Kay Mejia
Shelley Diaz is a supervising librarian at BookOps, the shared technical services organization that serves the Brooklyn Public Library and New York Public Library. She is also a former SLJ editor. Her work has appeared in numerous outlets, including the New York Times.

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