To celebrate Latinx/Hispanic Heritage month, we got the opportunity to talk to five incredible fantasy Latinx authors to bring a spotlight on them, their work, and the genre that they excel in. We spoke to Destiny Soria, Tehlor Kay Mejia, Daniel José Older, Lilliam Rivera and Romina Garber.
Destiny Soria’s debut novel, Iron Cast, a historical fantasy novel, was more than well received with amazing reviews in 2016. Her highly anticipated newest novel, Fire With Fire will comes out next year.
Dani and Eden Rivera were both born to kill dragons, but the sisters couldn’t be more different. For Dani, dragon slaying takes a back seat to normal high school life, while Eden prioritizes training above everything else. Yet they both agree on one thing: it’s kill or be killed where dragons are concerned.
At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run her husband’s household or raise his children, but both wives are promised a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class.
Daniel José Older’s The Shadowshaper Cypher series is made up of dynamic, urban fantasy novels that share the Brooklyn we may know but with a fantastical twist.
Sierra Santiago planned an easy summer of making art and hanging out with her friends. But then a corpse crashes their first party. Her stroke-ridden grandfather starts apologizing over and over. And when the murals in her neighborhood begin to weep tears… Well, something more sinister than the usual Brooklyn ruckus is going on.
Eury comes to the Bronx as a girl haunted. Haunted by losing everything in Hurricane Maria–and by an evil spirit, Ato. She fully expects the tragedy that befell her and her family in Puerto Rico to catch up with her in New York. Yet, for a time, she can almost set this fear aside, because there’s this boy . . .
Romina Garber, a.k.a Romina Russell’s, Zodiac series is or rather should be in your science fiction, fantasy arsenal. But her newest novels, Lobizona and Cazadora, in the series, Wolves of No World blend Argentina folklore with the real world issues surrounding undocumented immigrants.
Some people ARE illegal.
Lobizonas do NOT exist.
Both of these statements are false.
Manuela Azul has been crammed into an existence that feels too small for her. As an undocumented immigrant who’s on the run from her father’s Argentine crime-family, Manu is confined to a small apartment and a small life in Miami, Florida. Until Manu’s protective bubble is shattered.
1. What’s the significance of being an author of fantasy; a genre often criticized for lacking diversity and proper representation?
Destiny Soria– When I was a kid/teen, I would have given anything to read epic and engaging fantasy stories with characters that looked like me. It was really a low bar, and yet those books were few and far between. Now that I’m an author, I write for the young readers today who have that same desire.
Tehlor Kay Mejia– Even though I agree that fantasy on the whole has had problems with lacking or problematic representation, I think young adult fantasy is a genre that’s really pushing to change that narrative. Some of the most creative, radical, culturally celebratory work in all of literature is happening in young adult right now, and while we have a long way to go before non-Eurocentric fantasy is as prevalent as it could be, if anything, I’m really proud to be part of a genre with so many authors committed to giving kids the stories I so wanted growing up.
Daniel José Older– You know, I often talk about what it was like growing up loving a genre with the increasing awareness that it doesn’t love you back. It’s heartbreaking, in a way that’s hard to understand if you haven’t felt it. But what do you do? You take the heartbreak eventually and turn it into art. Turn it into something that will change the world. If you are so inclined, you turn the genre into something that does see you, value you, love you. You do it for your younger self and you do it for all the little yous running around out there so they don’t have to feel that heartbreak.
Lilliam Rivera– I grew up reading all the great authors of fantasy (Ray Bradbury, Tolkien, George Orwell.) Those books helped shape my imagination but even as I read them, with their lack of diversity, I always envisioned Black and Brown characters inhabiting those worlds. Now I get to write those characters and create the worlds myself. I no longer have to imagine another person’s vision. I can imagine my own.
Romina Garber–There’s a moment in Lobizona when Manu asks Perla, her surrogate grandmother, why so many Latin American authors employ magic in their stories. Perla says, “Sometimes reality strays so far from what’s rational that we can only explain it through fantasy.” That sums up what I attempted to do with this book.
I think fantasy is the ideal medium for communicating controversial or politically charged ideas. In my debut series, ZODIAC, I wanted to explore the role that ancestral memory plays in our lives, while questioning why our birthplace is inextricably linked to our sense of identity.
So I built out a universe of planetary systems, or Houses, where one’s Zodiac sign is determined by where they’re born, not when. It’s more like their nationality/race. Fantasy/SF allows us to allegorize the world so we can tackle sensitive subjects by removing their charge.
I based Lobizona on an Argentinian law—ley de padrinazgo presidencial 20.843—that declares the President of Argentina godparent to the seventh consecutive son or daughter in a family.
My parents met at the end of the Guerra Sucia, a violent dictatorship during which dissidents disappeared overnight and children were ripped from their families. To this day, the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo continue to search for their lost grandchildren. So I hoped to draw a parallel between human and supernatural law enforcement to remind the reader that this fantasy tale isn’t just escapist fun.
Rather, this is a book about worlds and who gets to live in them—and the border between fantasy and reality is as thin as the edge of the page you’re turning.
2. What was the first film or book that made you feel seen?
Destiny Soria– Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan meant a lot to me when I was a kid. I probably read it two dozen times, because of how connected it made me feel to parts of my heritage.
Tehlor Kay Mejia–I’m honestly still not sure I have been fully seen—not in all my intersections anyway. It’s part of the reason I’m out here doing what I do. I’m so grateful to authors that are pushing for more visibility for stories like ours, but Latinx identity (so to speak) is made up of so many specific nationalities, skin color experiences, and levels of privilege across multiple intersections that it’s sort of impossible for any one specific story to truly represent another’s experience.
Daniel José Older- Actually, one of my early favorites- a show that was way ahead of its time and in some way still is- is Sesame Street. They were always assertive about telling the truth, showing the city for what it really is: a multicultural crossroads. Sonia Manzano’s groundbreaking work as Maria was really a gift to so many of us; she has always reminded me of my mom in that she was always unabashedly herself, explicitly Latina, proud, brilliant. It’s perfect that she’s gone on to become an excellent children’s book writer, and I got to tell her all this a few years ago when we sat down for a joint conversation about our work.
Lilliam Rivera –The first book I read was Esmeralda Santiago’s 1993 memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican. Although Santiago writes mostly of her life on the island, I was able to piece my parent’s own life growing up there through her writing.
Romina Garber- This, for me, was the hardest question of the interview. I thought hard about it for days. I even asked my mom and sister what they thought, and they didn’t have any answers. I think the bottom line is I don’t feel seen, and that’s why I wrote Lobizona. This is the story that teen me-needed; a fantasy tale that combines both my languages, features familiar folklore, and stars supernatural creatures who share my traditions and make me swoon.
3. Who inspires you?
Destiny Soria– Teens today who aren’t afraid to be authentically themselves, who are determined to not only fight for a better world, but to thrive along the way.
Tehlor Kay Mejia– My daughter. My grandmother. Mutual aid organizers. Anyone who’s willing to reject the toxic individualism that plagues our society and dares to take care of their community, even when it costs instead of profiting. People who are still out here stubbornly creating art as the world burns around us. Especially them.
Daniel José Older-Ah, one of the great things about being a writer right now is how many amazing inspiring voices there are all around. From the people who were already well into their publishing careers when I was coming up, like Tananarive Due, Sheree Thomas, Andrea Hairston, Nalo Hopkinson, Jacqueline Woodson, to the folks publishing now like Akwaeke Emezi, Elizabeth Acevedo, Jason Reynolds, Lilliam Rivera, Leigh Bardugo, Claribel Ortega, Kwame Mbalia, and Tracy Deon, to folks with great books on the way like J. Elle—there’s just so much greatness out there and I’m inspired by all of them.
Lilliam Rivera-I’m inspired by my mother who has always been such a strong woman, who left Puerto Rico at a young age to build a new home in New York. She’s this petite, thin woman who might be overlooked by her small frame but she’s fearless.
Romina Garber- My greatest inspiration is my maternal grandfather. He was an immigrant too, and he came to Argentina from Poland with his family, escaping the Nazis at the brink of World War II. He was only ten when he sailed across the Atlantic, and within a couple of years, his father needed him to help with the household expenses, so my grandfather dropped out of school. He grew up to become a self-educated businessman who started his own company, learning everything he needed to know from books. He accrued a collection of texts that numbered in the thousands, and he read every single one of them.
He died just a few months shy of reading the Spanish translation of Zodiac. But after he passed, we found dozens upon dozens of journals he’d written throughout his life. My sister found a particular line that sums him up, and it now opens the Spanish version of Zodíaco: “Gracias a mis lecturas conseguí cultivarme y aceptar muchas cosas y desgracias, mundiales y familiares. Esta es mi Universidad y sigo convencido que la major política es educar y enseñar a leer al pueblo.”
4. Any advice to aspiring authors of color who crave to create more diverse storytelling? What should they avoid?
Destiny Soria-Your story matters, even when you feel like it’s not authentic enough. Be wary of “allies” who treat diversity like a trend rather than reality.
Tehlor Kay Meija–Don’t listen to the people who say you shouldn’t, or the people who call your identity a trend, or the people who say you’re only getting ahead because “diversity is hot right now.” Don’t let them make you perform your pain. Don’t let them change your gaze. If they want to reject you or change your story, go inward. Improve your craft until they can’t deny you. Avoid people who only want your tragedy. Avoid simplifying and flattening the nuance of who you are to make your story easier for others to digest. You are glorious and necessary.
Daniel José Older- Avoid writing for the white gaze. I get that that’s a complicated thing in so many ways, not the least of which being that publishing is still almost 90% white and those are the actual people deciding whether your book gets out into the world. But my hope is that in reading some of the truly brilliant work out there now, and some of the work that’s been out for years, up and coming writers see that they can be their true selves on the page, let their radical hearts shine, and tell the stories they need to tell with nuance and bravery and brilliance. Stories change the world. It’s both life-giving and exhausting work. Rest. Be gentle with yourself. Take breaks. Don’t give up.
Lilliam Rivera–They should avoid writing to what they think will sell. A novel you write may not get published until two to five years from your finished draft. You should write the story you want to live with, the one you want to carve out and finesse for a while because it’s a long journey.
Romina Garber- The only thing I think aspiring authors of marginalized backgrounds should avoid is giving up. Before landing my first contract, I wrote five complete novels that were all rejected. It took me eight and a half years to get published. One of those rejections happened to be for the precursor to Lobizona.
In 2008, I wrote a book called Yellow Eyes that was based on the same Argentine folklore, but when I tried to land representation, I was told that teens in the US didn’t care about Argentine immigrants. In other words, they didn’t care about me. So I let the idea go.
Yet when this new administration took power, the situation for people coming to this country in search of a safer future became so harrowing that I realized I’d made a mistake giving up on this story and these characters. I should have fought harder for their right to exist.
So my advice is don’t let anyone silence your voice. Only you can tell your story, and if you give up, no one will ever hear it.
5. Describe the necessity for proper Lantinx/Hispanic representation in 2020.
Destiny Soria-We deserve to see our stories, as told by us, honored and celebrated—and that means ALL our stories, not just the tales of immigration or suffering that the publishing industry tends to seek out. We deserve fantasy and romance and laughter and fantastic adventures as well.
Tehlor Kay Mejia– It’s literally life and death. It’s that important. Seeing yourself reflected, seeing people like you succeed, these are the conditions that create dreams and the self-esteem to follow them. By excluding us from these narratives, they’ve stolen our dreams and made us fight to earn them back. So we fight. And the results of that fight are unfolding all around us. Some of us have been deemed worthy, some of us have become the face of all of us. This is just as dangerous as not being represented at all. The fight now is to change our perspective from “Latinx/Hispanic representation” to acknowledging the specificity and nuance of the identities within that framework. Making room for ALL of us, and not just the ones that fit the narrative they’ve allowed us.
Daniel José Older–Lack of representation is a human rights issue. If culture and literature don’t show us what it looks like for us to be heroes, for us to be anything more than doomed sidekicks, clowns, or villains, it becomes that much harder for us to imagine ourselves as protagonists in our own life stories. The ultimate message it sends is that we are disposable, and a whole lot of American history is built around that notion as well. But it’s not true, we are not disposable, and for those of us who create culture, who are part of the ongoing tapestry of mythmaking, it’s on us to tell the truth, to shine a light on that lie so that it dies. We are here, alive, courageous, complicated, hilarious, often at war with ourselves, and most of all, full of stories. We must not only make sure that Latinx people show up in literature; we must confront antiblackness and transphobia within our communities, anti-Indigenous behavior and homophobia in our communities. No, not every book will do all those things. This is less about individual books and more about how we move, how we lift our voices, how we make decisions at the many crossroads that a writing career presents. And there are so many.
Ultimately, this is a conversation about healing. To heal, we bear witness, reckon with the past and present and world we’ve built for what it is, not for what we wish it was, not for what we fear it to be. We have to be able Destiny Soria-We deserve to see our stories, as told by us, honored and celebrated—and that means ALL our stories, not just the tales of immigration or suffering that the publishing industry tends to seek out. We deserve fantasy and romance and laughter and fantastic adventures as well.
Lilliam Rivera– I think it’s tiring to have to explain the importance of Latinx representation, to have to prove my existence. Yes, it’s important for readers to see themselves, to be mirrors, but also the stories are just good! It’s past due for gatekeepers to move beyond the sameness and invest in stories that reflect the world we are living in and to invest in a future where Brown and Black people are not regulated to sidekicks but are leading the way. It’s why I wrote Never Look Back and it’s why I’ll continue writing these stories.
Romina Garber- I believe the conversations we’re having now are everything. From the covers to the characters, there is so much more nuance in Latinx and #ownvoices stories.
I remember when Zodiac came out, teens would come up to me after my events to ask about my experiences learning English and tips for handling the anxiety that comes with writing in one’s second language. Yet I wasn’t included in talks about diversity and inclusivity in publishing, even when I asked to participate. It’s disappointing that I had to write a book about being Latinx for my personal journey and immigrant identity to become relevant—and I think the only way to move away from that sort of narrow thinking is to celebrate our diversity.
Latinx is not a monolith. The more nuanced our characters and stories, the closer we’ll get to accurate representations of our culture.
I hope we’ll reach a point where marginalized authors can write about subjects other than their own marginalization and still be able to contribute to the conversation about being marginalized.