Latinxs and the MFA: A Chat with Emerging Writer Yamile Saied Méndez

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Writer Yamile Saied Méndez, surrounded by her family

Many aspiring writers look to MFA programs as the surest path to refining their writing skills. Yamile Saied Méndez, a native of Argentina who resides in Utah, is a recent graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing program (VCFA). We were delighted to chat with her about her experiences.

LKL: Let’s get some background. When and how did you catch the writing bug?

Yamile: I’ve always loved stories and books. It wasn’t until my grandfather died, when I was six years old, that I wanted to tell my own stories. True to my writing process (which I recognized much later in life), the story simmered in my mind for a couple of years. I finally put my experiences and feelings on paper when the story had taken total possession of me, and I couldn’t go one more day without telling it.

So I wrote about a princess named Joanna who went out to find a cure for her grandfather’s cancer.

From my beginnings, my writing has been a tool to explore what’s happening in my life and the world around me, although my stories aren’t technically autobiographical. I write about third-culture children, sports, my beloved city of Rosario, life in small-town Utah, spirituality, etc.

Writing has always been a part of my life, but I never thought I could one day be a writer. I left Argentina at age nineteen to attend Brigham Young University, where I majored in International Economy. But during those years, I learned Portuguese and eventually became a translator. I devoured books from the library. When my children were born, I savored the books I didn’t have in my childhood (like Where the Wild Things Are, Ferdinand, and Good Night Moon, among others).

When my own stories started taking full possession of me, and I couldn’t go another day without telling them, I started writing. After the birth of my fourth child, I decided that I wanted to share my writing with the world. I rolled up my literal sleeves and started my writing apprenticeship.

LKL: Before VCFA, what types of self-directed activities or writing classes did you utilize to develop your craft?

Yamile: NaNoWriMo was the catalyst that sent the proverbial writing stone rolling for me. I was very active in the blogging community, and on November 6th, 2007, I read a casual comment about a novel-writing challenge. I headed over to the NaNoWriMo website, signed up, and started writing a story that had been germinating in my mind for a while and I hadn’t even noticed. The euphoria of typing The End is addictive, and after the first time, I couldn’t stop.

I wrote every day and learned there was much more to writing than pouring words on the page. I found books on self-editing, story structure, character development, and eventually, the publishing industry. With the help of my critique group (the Sharks and Pebbles, whose name originated from this spoof), finished a manuscript and queried it without apparent success. Some agents who rejected my piece were very encouraging, and that was all I needed to stay motivated.

I attended my first writers conference, LDS Storymakers, which is the largest writing conference in Utah, and entered the first-chapter contest. My entry won the first place in the Young Adult category, which told me I was on the right track.

I also attended the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers conference and workshop, organized and directed by VCFA alumna and award-winning author Carol Lynch Williams, and my life changed forever. At WIFYR I workshopped with Ann Dee Ellis, Martine Leavitt, and Cynthia Leitich-Smith. After savoring this yearly feast on craft and art, I wanted more. I knew Martine and Cynthia taught at VCFA, and when my fifth child was one-year-old (and in my mind, capable of surviving without me during the ten-day residency periods), I applied to the program.

LKL: Please share about your experiences with your MFA, starting with the decision to apply. How did you choose VCFA? What are some of the factors you would recommend for other writers to consider?

Yamile: I had looked into VCFA for years, but my four children were very young, my husband had (and still has) a very demanding job, and I didn’t think I had the skills required for such an intensive program. I perused the website nightly, and when I turned to the Acknowledgements page of a favorite book and read the author’s dedication and/or gratitude to VCFA, and its faculty and student body, my desire to apply intensified.

One day I realized that time kept going, and that my children were growing up quickly. If I wanted to pursue advanced education, now was the time. Fortunately, my husband was very encouraging. After all, I had supported him when he pursued his MBA degree and as he advanced in his career. Armed with my family’s support, I applied. When the acceptance letter arrived, I was thrilled.

LKL: Take us into the world of an MFA student. What were some of the turning points or eureka moments for you as a writer?

Yamile: In my first semester, I learned to be a flexible writer. I’d already written two MG novels before VCFA, and I was determined to write YA during my two years as a student. With my first advisor, I wrote YA, but I also wrote poetry, picture books, early readers, and my favorite surprise: short stories. Exploring with the format allowed me to study plot and story structure. It taught me to make my words count. Two of my YA projects were born of short stories. The experience was illuminating in regards to my own writing process. Another thing I valued from the beginning was being open to critique, but also trusting my writerly instincts. In our graduation ceremony, VCFA Thomas Christopher Greene told us graduates that we had earned a Master’s degree over our own writing. To trust this authority. I remind myself of this lesson daily.

yamile-daughterLKL: During your enrollment, you were also busy with family life. Could you share some tips for getting the most from classwork while also meeting everyday demands?

Yamile: As I flew back home from my first residency, I considered the work load for each of the five packets ahead of me that semester (40 pages of creative writing, 2 critical essays, an annotated bibliography of ten to fifteen books, and a detailed letter to my advisor), and I was overwhelmed.

How in the world was I ever going to do it all?

I learned to prioritize. I put myself on a schedule that started much earlier than my children’s so I could have uninterrupted writing time. With my kids in school, I had almost three hours of sacred morning writing time (I still do most of my writing during the morning when the kids are at school). Still, my obligations didn’t fit into 24 hours.

I learned to say no. I didn’t volunteer at the kids’ schools as much (or at all during my third semester). I gave up TV.

I also had obligations to my agent, my freelance writing job, and my church. I reached a point in which I put my writing, my family, my obligations ahead of my health. I started learning (I’m still learning this) to maximize my time so I could sleep a full night. I learned simple recipes, and my children helped with household chores. When they saw my dedication to my school work, my family teamed up to help me meet my deadlines. We read my “homework” before bedtime. We listened to audiobooks in the car. The kids brought me books from their school libraries to help with essays or research. Again, I also learned how to be a flexible writer. I wrote or read during halftime at soccer matches or long dance competitions. I did “character studies” during carpool (15 year-old boys will say the funniest things when they believe the driver can’t hear them). I learned to let go of things I couldn’t control, like the sea of Legos in the playroom. These habits prepared me for the writing life after the MFA. Nowadays, although I don’t have an advisor waiting for my packet, I have an agent waiting for my revision. A VCFA friend and I became accountability partners. It helps to have someone cheering for me and celebrating accomplishments at the end of a busy week.

The MFA was a family affair, and I couldn’t have done it without the support of so many friends and family.

LKL: A few years ago, Junot Díaz wrote a stinging essay about the experiences of people of color at various MFA programs. On its website, VCFA makes a strong commitment to diversity. In your view, how well do they honor this promise?

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Yamile with fellow Latinas at VCFA

Yamile: I’m embarrassed to confess I didn’t know Junot Díaz until my first semester advisor assigned me one of his short stories. The beauty, honesty, and clarity of Junot’s words stunned me. My perception of my world, my writing, my country, and myself changed dramatically. I measured all I learned against my new perception of what it means to be a POC in a graduate program.

At VCFA, the student body is still not diverse enough. The staggering price of tuition and room/board is a deterrent to many POC applicants. VCFA is trying to mitigate the financial burden by granting scholarships (The Angela Johnson Scholarship for New Students of Color or Ethnic Minority established by literary agent Barry Goldblatt).

As far as the faculty goes, VCFA boasts an incredible roll of award-winning stars with ties to diverse communities: Cynthia Leitich-Smith, Uma Krishnaswami, An Na, Will Alexander, Daniel José Older, Kekla Magoon, and Shelley Tanaka, among others.

The rest of the faculty is invested in diversity and the promotion of writers from marginalized communities. Workshops and lectures are sensitive to the importance of inclusion and supporting marginalized voices. Alumni POC are wonderful role models and mentors. In the admissions department, prospective, current, and past students have a super champion in Ann Cardinal, a self-declared Gringa-Rican.

To summarize my answer, yes, VCFA honors their commitment to diversity, and they continue to strive to better serve the interests of all students, especially writers of color.

LKL: What advice would you give to aspiring Latinx writers about considering a creative writing program or preparing to enroll in one?

Yamile: I’m a strong advocate for education. However, I’d advise people to consider the motivations for pursuing a MFA.

Is it to take a shortcut on publication or success?

Keep in mind that there aren’t any promises for either publication or success even for VCFA MFA holders.

Is it to teach?

An MFA will provide the writer with better opportunities to teach at a university level, since it’s a terminal degree.

Is it to improve their craft?

You could also acquire these tools on your own, or by attending conferences and workshops. But during a structured program, you will be committed to do your work every day, no matter what.

Is it for the community?

At VCFA, I made personal connections with fellow students, faculty, and alumni, some of whom graduated years before I even started. The VCFA family is a tight-knit group, and I’m honored to be part of it.

Also, consider your financial situation.

Lastly, look into your heart. I always wanted to be a writer, but I felt I needed to study something practical, and that’s how I ended up studying economics. My love for writing and reading never waned though, so when I had the chance, I chose VCFA. I wonder how my story would have been different if I’d gone with my heart years ago.

If a writing program is what you want to do, then go for it.

LKL: Now that you’re an MFA grad, what’s next? What are you working on?

Yamile: I finished VCFA with a portfolio of exciting material. I’m revising an MG story about a girl, the star of an all-boy fútbol team. When she gets her period and gets kicked off the team, she goes on to earn a spot in a girls’ team, and to fight for the National Championship. For my critical thesis, I wrote on the importance of portraying girls’ puberty in middle grade, and following on the heels of that, this story has been fun and empowering to write. Eleven-year-old me would have loved it.

I’m also working on a story I call it my gender-bender Hamilton meets Joan D’Arc–my love letter to refugees and immigrants everywhere.

Next spring, I’m teaching a diversity class at Storymakers, and I applied to Junot Díaz’s VONA workshop, because education never ends.

LKL: Finally, permit us to show off a little on your behalf. You had an amazing 2015: You were named a finalist in Lee and Low’s New Voices Award. You secured a literary agent. You enrolled at VCFA. At some point, We Need Diverse Books named you a recipient of its inaugural Walter Deans Myers Grant. Wow! What has the Walter Dean Myers grant meant to your writing career? Tell us how 2015 fits into the story of where you’ve come from—and where you see yourself going—as a writer.

Yamile: The validation I felt after winning the New Voices Honor, and being chosen as an inaugural Walter Dean Myers Grant recipient was the fuel I needed to keep me motivated and engaged in learning as much as I could at VCFA. To think that I taught myself how to read and write English with a bilingual dictionary! I’m inspired to keep working towards publication, to tell the stories that I wanted to read as a child and that also reflect the reality of a large portion of the population of our country. My dream is to visit schools to tell children like my own that their voices matter. I’m excited for the future generation and the stories they’ll produce.

Keep up with Yamile on her website, where she blogs about the writing life, or on Twitter: @yamilesmendez. 

 

 

Poeta Rebelde: A Guest Post by Author Guadalupe Garcia McCall

 

By Guadalupe Garcia McCall

Poetry is where I live. It is where I go when I am most wounded. Poetry is the place I hide when I am most vulnerable, but it is also the cloak I wrap around myself when I know I have to speak up because I have something important to say. Poetry gives voice to my fears. It allows me to express my concerns with bold and powerful words. I can say more with one line of poetry than I can with a paragraph because poetry lets me cut to the core.

Shame the Stars CoverPoetry is my corazón, my coraje, my fuerza. So it came as no surprise to me that when the child of my heart, my beloved Joaquín del Toro, the embodiment of the men in my life, my courageous father, my brave husband, and my own three daring sons, first spoke to me, he spoke to me in verse.

The night I read Dr. Benjamin Johnson’s book, Revolution in Texas, I heard Joaquín’s voice for the first time. The first poem I wrote that night, among many others, was “Tejano,” which is the poem that opens my third novel, Shame the Stars. It is a poem that speaks to the anger and frustration the people of south Texas must have felt as they watched their families and friends being subjugated, suppressed, and supplanted.

It also came as no surprise to me when the first draft of the original manuscript developed in verse. Poetry was the best way I could express myself as I tried to tell the story of Joaquín and Dulceña. It was the only way I could deal with the atrocities committed against our community the summer of 1915, when Texas lawmen declared war against Mexicans and Tejanos, summarily rounding up, lynching, and fusillading them without the benefit of legal proceedings, a dark time that is now referred to as La Matanza (The Slaughter).

As I did more research, the things I learned helped expand and shape the storyline. My editor at Tu Books, Stacy Whitman, believed Joaquín’s voice was trying to break free of the constraints of the formatting. She was right about that. Poetry had created what my esteemed MFA professor at UTEP, Sasha Pimentel, calls “a very tight corset,” which I think is appropriate for a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet, but which I have to admit, had become too restrictive for the novel.

As I revised Shame the Stars and Joaquín got wiser, as he became more outspoken, I had to cut him loose. Over a long period of months, I rewrote the entire novel-in-verse, turning the main narrative into prose. I let Joaquín breathe by allowing him access to the rest of the page. However, I just couldn’t let his poetic heart go unheard. So I left Joaquín’s most passionate poems intact and even created new, more rebellious poems to express his pain, his sorrow, his heartbreak.

I hope Joaquín’s poems live on for many years to come. I hope they enlighten, embolden, and emphasize just how important our voices are and let everyone know we must stand up and speak up if we want to be heard.

Poetry can be beautiful. It can be lyrical and magical and romantic, and that’s wonderful, but I hope my fans understand that poetry must also be strong and firm and sturdy if it is to bring us to light and to sight. A poem must have grit; it must push and shove and grind if it is going to propel us to change, to persist, to strive.

 

author2ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Guadalupe Garcia McCall is the author of Under the Mesquite (Lee & Low Books), a novel in verse. Under the Mesquite received the prestigious Pura Belpre Author Award, was a William C. Morris Finalist, received the Lee Bennett Hopkins/International Literacy Promising Poet Award, the Tomas Rivera Children’s Book Award, and was included in Kirkus Review’s Best Teen Books of 2011, among many other accolades. Her second novel, Summer of the Mariposas (Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low Books), won a Westchester Young Adult Fiction award, was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, was included in the 2013 Amelia Bloomer Project List, the Texas Lone Star Reading List, and the 2012 School Library Journal’s Best Books of the Year. Her poems for children have appeared in The Poetry Friday Anthology, The Poetry Friday Anthology for Middle School, and The Poetry Friday Anthology for Science. Ms. Garcia McCall was born in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico. She immigrated with her family to the United States when she was six years old and grew up in Eagle Pass, Texas (the setting of both her novels and most of her poems). She is currently a high school English teacher in San Antonio.

January 2017 Latinx Book Deals

 

By Cecilia Cackley

This is a new, monthly post I’ll be writing to keep track of the book deals announced by Latinx writers and illustrators. There are two reasons why I am beginning this series. The first is simply to celebrate the accomplishments of our community and to (hopefully) put these titles on people’s TBR and purchasing lists, even if the books won’t be out for a few years. The other reason is to document whether or not publishers are listening to us when we ask for more book about Latinx communities, written by Latinx writers. Publishers Weekly puts out a digital Rights Report each week, listing around 15 different book deals. How many of them are by Latinx authors? Not enough, in our opinion. Obviously, not all book deals are announced by Publishers Weekly. In addition, I am defining authors as Latinx based on names and the information the Internet gives me.

If I make a mistake or leave someone out, please let me know in the comments.

If you are an agent and you have a Latinx client who just announced a deal, you can let me know on Twitter, @citymousedc.

If you are a Latinx author or illustrator writing for children or young adults, and you just got a book deal, send me a message and we will celebrate with you! Here’s to many more wonderful books in the years to come.

January 31

None.

January 26

Brittany Rubiano at Disney Press has signed Newbery Medalist Matt de la Peña to write an original picture book entitled Miguel and the Grand Harmony, inspired by Disney*Pixar’s forthcoming film, Coco, to be illustrated by Pixar artist Ana Ramírez. A Spanish edition will also be available. Publication is scheduled for October 2017.

Erin Clarke at Knopf has bought world rights to Andrea J. Loney‘s Double Bass Blues, illustrated by Rudy Gutierrez, a picture book celebrating music and family in which a black boy shoulders his beloved double bass from his suburban school to his city neighborhood. Publication is slated for spring 2019.

January 19

T.S. Ferguson at Harlequin Teen has acquired two more novels from YA author Adi Alsaid. The first, Brief Chronicle of Another Stupid Heartbreak, follows a teen relationship columnist as she struggles with writers’ block in the wake of a devastating breakup, and her decision to chronicle the planned breakup of another couple in the summer after they graduate from high school. Publication is slated for summer 2018.

January 12

Claudia Gabel at HC’s Katherine Tegen Books has bought When We Set the Dark on Fire, a debut novel by Tehlor Kay Mejia set at the Medio School for Girls, where young women are trained to become one of two wives assigned to high society men. With revolution brewing in the streets, star student Dani Vargas fights to protect a destructive secret, sending her into the arms of the most dangerous person possible – the second wife of her husband-to-be. It’s slated for winter 2019.

January 10

Tamar Mays at HarperCollins has bought world rights to Bunny’s Book Club author Annie Silvestro‘s (l.) The Christmas Tree Who Loved Trains, the tale of a train-loving tree who, with the help of a little holiday magic, learns to love much more. Paola Zakimi (Secrets I Know) will illustrate; publication is set for fall 2018.

January 5

None.

 

Cackley_headshotCecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington, DC, where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.

How Do I Keep My History? How Do I Honor It? A Guest Post by Author Mia García

 

By Mia García

Okay, here’s the thing, I’m a rambler. I tend to talk in circles until I figure out what I need to say, which usually boils down to a sentence.

So bear with me if you can – if not I totally understand; I’m sure there are many things you could be watching on Netflix right now. I’ve been thinking a lot about stress and fear, particularly in relation to family and history, which sounds horrible and insulting, but it will make sense. At least I hope so.

For years, I’ve been that person who wanted to do that Ancestry DNA thing, but never had the time or the money or the motivation (most likely these last two). Plus as a Puerto Rican born and raised in PR, I’ve always been taught that my ancestry boiled down to Spanish, African, and Taíno. (Which is a crazy simplification of the diversity of people who lived on the island, which include the above and Chinese, Irish, Scottish, French, German…Okay, I should stop here before I go into a full history of the island and this parenthesis gets crazy long.)

But in terms of actual knowledge, I only know a little bit about my Spanish side, like which city my great-grandparents came from and a whole lot of nothing about the rest of it, which after the test (I finally did it!) turns out to be about eight different things, half of which made my parents go: “Where did that come from?”

For those interested, it included Spanish, African, Italian, Native American, Middle Eastern, Great Britain, and a few small traces in Caucasus and Ireland. My parents’ “WTF?” reactions came from the Great Britain, Caucasus, Middle East, and Ireland revelations.

The test itself didn’t cause the anxious thoughts, but rather sparked interest in my past. The fear and stress came from the links to my past that are slowly disappearing. It’s sad to think about the family history and stories I know nothing about and will, most likely, never know anything about because as time passes there are fewer connections to it.

Not long ago, my dad was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, which after a few years of paralyzing sadness made me realize that I needed to safeguard as many of his memories as I could. And recently, I almost lost my mom due to a serious medical issue, but we were blessed enough to get the news we needed in time. Because of these events, I re-ignited my plan to sit my parents and family members down to talk about, well, anything they can remember while I record them on my computer (this is something that truly annoys my mother because I never give her enough time to fix her hair and make-up, but I digress), which doesn’t always happen, which then leads to the stress, the worry, and fear.

Even If the Sky Falls CoverHow much do we lose with each generation? What will I remember for my children? (I don’t have any at the moment, but that doesn’t stop my mind from going there.) But that’s only where it starts, because it’s not only about how do I keep this history, but how do I honor it? Then I start spiraling into thoughts about my book. A sweet romance about a Puerto Rican in New Orleans hanging out with a musician for a night…but maybe it should’ve been a book about my parent’s history? What have I done to represent and document my family, my people, or my culture?

I should’ve done it all in one book. Clearly, I am a failure.

And there it is.

That tangle of thoughts that many of us face each time we pick up a pen and write our stories, trying to capture every moment that has made up our lives (but not too much, because then it’s a memoir, right?), holding on tightly to the past because if we don’t who will do it? Wondering if it’s okay to just tell a story about a young Puerto Rican girl falling in love without a history lesson or maybe just a small one. Feeling like your culture flows in your veins, but you haven’t quite honored it yet…

I realize now this is not just a blog post but a conversation. That I don’t want to talk into the void, but I want to hear from my fellow Latinx community. So if you are reading this, I want to hear from you!

Have you had similar thoughts? Do you feel like you need to represent every part of your culture when you write? Tell me about yourself, your family, the stories you write!

What do you think?

If you are a Latinx creator and want to discuss the “tangle of thoughts that many of us face each time we pick up a pen and write our stories,” please email us at latinosinkidlit@gmail.com with your blog post idea. We’d love to keep this conversation going.

 

5pv_6utvxrzzwbjesfqoku0ic1kqe1dzq1c5cnsydmyM. García was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She moved to New York where she studied creative writing at The New School, worked in publishing, and now lives under a pile of to-be-read books. Her debut novel, Even If the Sky Falls, from Katherine Tegen books (an imprint of Harper Collins) is out now. Visit her at MGarciaBooks.com

Crossing Borders: A Guest Post by Author Reyna Grande

dsc_0205In my memoir, The Distance Between Us, I write about my experience as a border crosser. Borders have always been a part of my life. It saddens me to see that the world—instead of tearing down border walls—is actually building more of them. There are more border barriers today than ever before. In 1989 there were only 15 border walls in the world. Today there are more than 63, and counting.

my-childhood-home

The author’s childhood home

My first experience with borders came at the age of two when my father left Mexico to seek a better life in the U.S. Two years later, my mother also left to the land across the border, leaving me and my siblings behind. By the time I was five, I had no mother and no father with me, and a border stood between us, separating us. I was left behind to yearn for the day when my family would be reunited.

reyna-and-siblings

Reyna (center) and siblings Carlos & Mago

At the age of nine I found myself face to face with that border. I had to run across it, become a ‘criminal’, break U.S. law for a chance to have a father again. I succeeded on my third attempt and began my new life in Los Angeles at my father’s house. I thought I was done with borders; I didn’t know there would be more to be crossed—cultural borders, language borders, legal borders, gender and career borders, and more.

As a Mexican immigrant, as a woman of color, as a Latina writer I’ve fought to break down the barriers American society puts up for the groups I belong to. It’s always been a struggle to be Mexican in this country, and especially so in these dark times. For over a year Mexican immigrants had been under attack, blatantly demeaned and vilified by Donald Trump, who began his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, drug dealers, criminals. He said he would literally build more border walls, and now that he’s been elected president, we will bear witness to his hatred of my people. But he’s wrong about many things—especially when he said that Mexico doesn’t send its best. Like most Mexican immigrants, I have given nothing but my best to this country since the moment I crossed the U.S. border. I’ve worked hard at learning the language, understanding the American way of life, at pursuing my education, honing my writing craft, so that one day I could be a contributing member of this society and use my skills and passion to keep this country great. This is what most immigrants do. Our work ethic, our drive, our perseverance, our passion, our commitment to succeed and to give our best is undeniable.

reyna-at-pasadena

Reyna in her college years

Being a woman has never been easy. In the U.S. we might have it better than other countries, but still, women here have always struggled to overcome the borders put before us. We’ve had a long battle to redefine our place in the home and the workplace, our right to earn equal pay to what men receive. To be seen as more than someone’s daughter, wife, or mother. We had a long fight for our right to vote and to have a political voice, and for the past year we were fighting for our right to lead. For the first time we could have had our first female president since the birth of this nation, but despite her qualifications, since the very beginning of her campaign, Hillary Clinton was held to a double-standard because of her gender. Because she was a woman. We let that man get away with saying the most insulting, offensive, and ridiculous things. But Clinton? We let her get away with nothing. We elected a man who has absolutely no experience in running a country, instead of the woman who was more than qualified to do that and more.

We witnessed, at a national level, what happens on a daily basis to women in the workplace—we lose to men who are less qualified than us.

Last week we bore witness to a white woman failing to tear down the wall put before her by a sexist, patriarchal society. The fight is even harder for women of color who struggle not just against gender inequality but racial inequality. Since race impacts our feminism, we’ve always fought two battles at the same time. As a woman of color, I fight for equality but I also fight for justice. For us women of color, it isn’t enough to integrate ourselves into the existing system. We seek to transform the system and end injustices.

As a Latina writer, I’ve been dealing with other kinds of borders throughout my career. Latinos are 17.4 % of U.S. population, around 55 million of us, but we’re only around 4% of working professionals— including artists, writers, actors. We’re often kept on the periphery of the arts—and we fight on a daily basis for the right to contribute our stories, our talent, our creativity to American identity and culture. Through our art, we aim to fight against the barrier of invisibility. If we aren’t in books, in film, in TV, in art galleries, in music, does that mean we don’t exist?

The publishing industry lacks diversity at every level. The majority of books are written by, and are about, white people. Eighty-two percent of editors are white. Eighty-nine percent of book reviewers are white. They’re la migra of the publishing industry, the border patrol. They decide who gets in and who doesn’t, who gets published, whose books get attention. Latino writers have often struggled to get across the border of the mainstream publishing industry, often ending up with tiny presses (who lack the resources to do right by them) or self-publishing.

But having successfully run across the U.S. border at the age of nine taught me one thing—I can cross any border. This is the biggest reason why I wrote The Distance Between Us. I want to inspire others to believe in themselves and to find the strength to overcome. It is this belief that has helped me succeed in ways I never dreamed of. I want to encourage our youth, immigrant and non-immigrant alike, to keep giving their best and continue striving toward their dreams, despite the obstacles they find along the way.

Now more than ever, let us continue fighting for social justice, for a world without borders, for our right to create art, for our voices to be heard. It is through our stories that we will build bridges and tear down walls.

Reyna Grande is the award-winning author of two novels and a memoir, The Distance Between Us, which was recently published as a young readers edition. See our review here, where you may also learn more about Reyna’s story and watch video interviews. Her official website offers additional information about her published works, speaking schedule, and career news.

(Left) The original version of The Distance Between Us; (right) the young readers edition.

the-distance-between-us the-distance-between-us

 

A Studio Visit with Author-Illustrator Juana Medina

img_4567by Cecilia Cackley

Juana Medina’s latest book is Juana and Lucas, published this September by Candlewick Books. An illustrated early chapter book, it is narrated by Juana, a little girl living with her dog Lucas in Bogotá, Colombia, who gives the reader a tour of her city and her life. Juana loves her family, her friends and her school, but she does not like having to learn English. Only when her family reminds her that they have a trip planned to the theme park Astroland in the United States, does Juana admit that maybe English has its uses after all.

Medina was born in Colombia and now lives in Washington, DC, where she works out of a shared studio space on the northwest side of the city. I spent an afternoon with her there, looking at the tools she used to create the illustrations for Juana and Lucas and talking about the process of creating the book.

Medina started out working in graphic design. She originally came to the United States from Colombia to study at the Corcoran School in DC, but found that the program there didn’t fit her needs and instead she moved to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). Her study of graphic design prepared Medina to write and illustrate this story. “It gave me great structure to understand books,” she says, adding that studying alongside undergrad students “made it more fun, gave it a sense of exploration.”

img_4574That sense of exploration is on full display in Juana and Lucas, which features a loose, sketchy quality to the ink drawings. Medina points to the British illustrator Quentin Blake as a key influence, noting that he draws with both hands, and she often does too, or sometimes draws with one hand and colors with the other. Another favorite artist is Joaquin Salvador Lavado, better known by his pen name Quino, who created the iconic comic strip Mafalda for the Argentine newspaper El Mundo. Medina gushes about Quino’s “level of expressiveness.” She points out: “He includes wit in such simple traces and achieves complexity and an incredible level of detail in just a few lines.”

Medina likes the ability to switch between different artistic media from book to book. For her, it’s about what the story asks for.  Juana and Lucas is illustrated in pen and ink, and colored with watercolor, which is a very personal medium for Medina, as it reminds her of childhood and illustrations by favorites such as Quentin Blake. The personal components of the story of Juana and Lucas meant that watercolor felt right for the book, because it gives it a sense of nostalgia. Other illustration projects that Medina has worked on, such as Smick, written by Doreen Cronin, and the counting book 1 Big Salad combine found objects with digital drawings.

img_4573For Juana and Lucas, Medina experimented with sketches in pencil first, then used a light box to draw the final version of each illustration in ink. Watercolor came next and the drawing was then scanned so that the colors could be adjusted digitally. This process also allowed Medina to correct small errors without having to redraw an entire composition. She showed me one spread containing an airplane that hadn’t been in the original sketch. Later in the process, it was added digitally to cover up an unruly inkblot!img_4571

For Juana and Lucas, her first chapter book, Medina wrote the story first, and then went back to draw. Through writing and rewriting, she found the balance between word and image. She says “It’s important to make a book where even if a kid can’t read yet, they can still get a sense of the story.” The relationship between Juana and Lucas, in particular, is mostly visual, so even if Juana isn’t talking about him very much in the text, you see them interacting in the illustrations. Medina points out that this is more realistic, as our interactions with our pets are mostly visual and tactile. Having narrative both in the text and in the illustrations makes this a great choice for readers still transitioning from picture books to chapter books.

img_4570 The dynamic presentation of text (words that curve, get bigger or in other ways deviate from the standard type) featured throughout the story was Medina’s idea. Her thinking is that typography is part of language, explored, and it can cue certain meanings of words that may be unfamiliar to young readers.

Medina says about her writing process: “I was telling a story that was personal in my second language, so that was hard. I was lucky to be working with an editor who got it—figuring out the exact language to make it understandable without imposing too much. Candlewick has been great at not treating the text as precious, but instead seeing what is working and what isn’t.”

The book was written first in English, and she says it was almost like writing lyrics, choosing places where Spanish could be inserted in a way that made sense. Medina wanted to avoid echoing the English words in Spanish. She felt it was important to be respectful of readers and give them a chance to figure out the meanings of the Spanish words on their own. Its inclusion adds richness and reminds the reader that English isn’t Juana’s first language. The mix of the two languages feels very genuine, because mixing languages happens with all multilingual children. Their brains are trying to figure it out, and it’s natural for them to begin a sentence in one language and end it in another. The Spanish hasn’t deterred young readers who aren’t already familiar with the language. According to Medina, “I gave it to my niece, who was the first kid to ever read it. She doesn’t speak Spanish, but as soon as she finished the book, she went to the computer and pulled up Google Translate. After a moment she turned to me and said, ‘Me encantó tu libro,’ which was just…I was crying.”

img_4572For readers in the United States used to seeing European cities such as London or Paris in children’s literature, it’s a breath of fresh air to get such a detailed, child’s-eye view of a major South American city. Medina went back to Bogotá after writing several versions, and says the trip was bittersweet. “It was the first time there without my grandparents, without having a place there to call home. It was a difficult trip, but it was sweet to see the mountains and smell the eucalyptus, and it was validating to see everything. I took some license in the book. I’m not tying myself to fact-checking everything, which was liberating in a way. There was a lot I left out, especially surrounding the conflict and civil war I grew up with. That’s something I’ll maybe address in another book. The hardest illustration was my grandparents’ house, which no longer exists. It was a safe haven, so no illustration could truly do it justice.”

Readers will be happy to learn that Medina is already working on a second book in the Juana and Lucas series. In addition, her follow up to 1 Big Salad, an ABC book called ABC Pasta, will be out in the spring from Penguin Random House. Medina’s advice to other Latinx artists looking to break into illustration is to be persistent and disciplined about their work. “Tell your own stories,” she says “Not the ones that will simply please an audience, but the ones that are meaningful.” And like her character Juana, struggling to balance her two languages, Medina advises artists to “find the language for the story you want to tell.”img_4568

Juana Medina is a native of Colombia, who studied and taught at the Rhode Island School of Design. Her illustration and animation work have appeared in U.S. and international media. Currently, she lives in Washington, DC, and teaches at George Washington University. See more of Juana’s work at her official website.

Cackley_headshotCecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington, DC, where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.