A Conversation with Dr. Frederick Aldama, Author and Scholar

Frederick Aldama’s Latino/a Children’s and Young Adult Writers on the Art of Storytelling is a compilation of creator interviews. Its table of contents includes many names familiar to readers of Latinxs in Kid Lit, such as Malín Alegria, Lulu Delacre, Margarita Engle, Maya Christina Gonzalez, Pat Mora, Daniel José Older and 27 others. The following post, an interview with Dr. Aldama, is a conversation about his conversations with writers and illustrators, illuminating the joys and challenges encountered by Latinx creators who work in young people’s literary arts. 

 

Cristina Raquel Rivera: First things first, this book is a major and undeniable milestone to larger communities that include not only the publishing and academic world, but also anyone who reads as and to children and young adults. Yet, through all the interviews a reoccurring topic came up suggesting a much-needed conversation regarding the lack of Latinx representation the publishing world. Can you speak to this theme? Did it play a role in the compilation of the book? How would you outline modes for changing the underrepresentation of Latinx in children’s and young adult literature after speaking with the authors in your book? Do you think that a greater Latinx representation in the children’s and young adult publishing community could change the political arena of today?

Frederick Luis Aldama: In many ways, you and the Latinxs in Kid Lit community are the ideal readers of my book. By this I mean, as Latinx parents, guardians, aunties and uncles, older siblings and so many others, we all think about and put into practice on a daily basis the use of Latinx children’s and young adult fiction and nonfiction. It’s the heart that beats in our chest. It’s a central part of the development of the many growing minds around us.

However, much work needs to be done not only to open eyes to many more and to show the world that this is a serious area of pedagogical practice and scholarly inquiry. And along with this, there needs to continue this conversation around issues of Latinx representation. By this I don’t mean that we become prescriptive, telling Latinx authors and artists what they should or shouldn’t do. In all Latinx art there should be total freedom. This said, from our local libraries all the way up to those pearly gates of the titans of the publishing world, there remain blinders to the resplendent ways that Latinx children’s literature and YA fiction can and does guide minds to wondrous new places. In this sense, they prove to be less an edifying device as a set of puentes or bridges that carry us into newly imagined storyworlds packed with characters who experience all sorts of emotions, thoughts, and feelings that make new our sense of self in the world.

With our Latinx community increasingly hunted and imprisoned, along with the ripping of children from families, there’s so much deep traumatic scarring happening today. We must fight not only to be sure that our fellow creators have the space and freedom to create literature for all ages, but also fight with our boots on the street to bandage this bleeding out of Latinx youth. This is not only happening in the most brutal way along the US/Mexico border with the US sanctioned concentration camps being set up that allow for the abuse of Latinx children. It’s happening in our schools where Latinx youth are disproportionately punished and suspended in ways that lead to a push-out then lock-out system. It’s happening all across the country with the underfunding of public schools that disallow teachers to have the adequate resources for growing Latinx minds to realize their full potentialities. It’s happening dramatically in Puerto Rico with a quarter of its schools permanently shuttered. It’s happening in higher education that’s becoming more and more expensive for Latinx and other working families in this country.

What I’m getting at is that our work as scholars is important. To put it bluntly, it’s a way to legitimize what you and I know to be a significant space of exploration of our past, present, and future. And, it’s important to keep in mind that historically we know that the only way to prevent further hemorrhaging of Latinx youth is to take a stand. One way or another, you’ll see this echoed by the Latinx creators I had the great fortune to interview for this book. It’s why my students choose not only to pursue PhDs, but to also work with LASER/Latinx Space for Enrichment Research. As a LASER Hub Co-coordinator, you meet weekly with Latinx students at Centennial High, working with them to ensure that they have as full an access as possible to knowledge and creativity—and the tools for further refining and shaping for a better tomorrow. You see clearly that it’s a two-pronged approach: your own scholarly work to further solidify and enrich Latinx children’s literature as an important area of study; and, to be working in the community in ways that materially and directly impact new generations of Latinx youth.

CRR: Throughout your interviews you touch on the narrative elements and devices that change when authors incorporate Latinidad in works for children and young adults. These conversations described narratives attempting to depict more than just youth culture but also what a Latinx childhood feels like. Looking back at these interviews, do you find that there are particular structures of narrative that are more useful or successful in the creation of works for the Latinx community? Do you find that these differ between literature for adult and children/YA? How do you see the narrative structures these authors spoke of addressing layers of experience? In other words, are these emerging experiences changing the publishing community or do you find them at any risk when being separated into its own category?

FLA: I’ve approached this question of narrative shaping device both as a scholar and creator. As a scholar, I dedicated my first theory books (a trilogy of sorts) to grappling with whether there are specific techniques used by Latinx authors—and not other authors. In my Postethnic Narrative Criticism (2003), Brown on Brown (2005), and A User’s Guide to Postcolonial and Borderland Fiction (2009), I sleuth out the narrative devices used by Latinx authors and poets to give shape to their respective images, characters, and storyworlds. (Later in my career I also consider the question of shaping device with regards to poetry in the book, Formal Matters in Latino Poetry.) And, like the children’s and YA fictions I discuss in this recent work of mine, I’m deeply interested in what these Latinx creators who have been historically pushed to the margins are interested in shaping for their audiences. At the same time, I’m careful not to collapse what I see as a shaping device or tool (whether a choice of meter in poetry or use of free indirect discourse in prose) with ideology. This doesn’t mean that Latinx children’s and YA fiction can’t transform. It does, and even radically. But it’s a transformation that takes place in its recalibration of our planetary periodic table of narrative fiction. Let me use the example of magical realism—something that I focus on in Postethnic Narrative Criticism. I distinguish between a Latinx author’s reconstruction of reality in magical realist fictional format and that of everyday material reality. I do so to remind myself and others that while narrative fiction is referential, there is a difference between it and everyday lived reality. So, while magical realism opens our eyes to new ways of perceiving, thinking, and feeling about the world, actual material transformation of our reality requires additional intellectual, interpretive, and material work that goes beyond the narrative fiction. Just as realism is an available shaping device for Latinx creators, so too is magical realism. We will leave it to the individual creator to decide how best they want to shape their story.

I have recently completed my first children’s book, With Papá. Together with artist Jason “Gonzo” Gonzalez (of La Mano del Destino fame) we worked together to slice into the building blocks of reality and reconstruct the synesthetic sensory education of a Latinx child with her papá. We worked long and hard to find then use specific storytelling devices that would convey the way children’s experience of the world is synesthetic and polymorphous: they smell tastes, touch sounds, visualize sounds. . . Choices of color and point of view proved important, too, as we wanted to create a story that celebrated Latinoness. And, I’m in the middle of a YA novel that gravitates around a set of Latinx teens living in Columbus, Ohio. I decided not to give shape to the story through the perspective of one character. Instead, I decided that each chapter would be told from the point of view of the respective character that makes up this storyworld. This allowed me to immerse readers in the subjectivity of all the different ways that Latinxs are in the world in terms of gender, sexuality, and class.

In my scholarship, discussions with Latinx children’s and YA authors, and my own creative work it’s clear to me that we are free to choose any and all shaping devices to tell reconstruct those building blocks of reality that make up our respective storyworlds.

CRR: Noticeably, breaking into the publishing industry has always held obstacles created by “gatekeepers.” Considering that most author’s in your book speak to the complicated nature of publishing in general, what are some ways of battling these gatekeepers to create greater representation of Latinx as consistently called for in your book? How do you see the work of these authors and the work you do in your book changing the academic field as a whole? How might Latinx studies in combination with children’s literature/young adult scholars improve the gap between “traditional” academic literature and children’s and young adult conversations? What challenges do you see the Latinx publishing community face in the current moment and upcoming future?

FLA: Unfortunately, Latinx authors continue to run up against road-blocks deliberately built by industry gatekeepers. We can and do create our fictions and nonfictions, but once we push these out into literary marketplace we face obstacles of all kinds.

The wonderful creators I interviewed for this book have all had a certain amount of struggle getting their work into the hands of readers—of all kinds. For this reason, we have been creating our own venues for getting Latinx children’s and YA literature into the world, from internet distribution to book series and grassroots grown publishing houses like Arte Publíco, Floricanto, Cinco Punto, Groundwood Books, Cedar Grove, and others. This fall I will launch a Latinx children’s and young adult tread-press series with University of Pittsburgh Press. And, internet venues like Latinx Kids Lit offer much needed forums for identifying all of our resplendent talent. This fall I will launch The Latinx Book Club through LASER, with an especial focus on children’s and young adult fiction. This will largely be an online forum moderated by myself and LASER Coordinator, Carlos Kelly. The Latinx Book Club will provide books to read and topics to consider as well as guide online discussions that will likely touch on all aspects concerning life for us Latinxs in the US.

CRR: Most the authors you interviewed in your book were college educated. Due to the lack of Latinx student who don’t even make it out of high school, do you find that publishing for Latinx youth a privileged position? Can you speak to how this level of education plays a role in publishing works about Latinx children/adolescents and childhood in general? Do you see the education level of the authors interviewed playing a viable role against the “gatekeepers” in the publishing world? Do you think this attribute may also deter aspiring Latinx authors who haven’t graduated high school? Or do you see the education level of so many Latinx authors influencing Latinx communities in a different way?

FLA: Education is becoming a scarce resource—no, commodity. So, growing a mind in a soil-rich learning environment where one can not only learn to read literature and undertake scientific discovery is becoming more and more for the Haves—and in this country, this remains steadfastly held by race (white) and gender (male) privilege. Until there’s a level playing field where all have access to the resplendent wonders of reading, writing, creating, making science and all else, this will be the case.

Latinx creators don’t have it easy by any means. Most of the Latinx authors interviewed in the book make huge sacrifices on a daily basis to be able to create their children’s and YA fictions. By this I mean, even the most, say, commercially successful authors work other jobs; the more fortunate find jobs attached to universities where they can teach (creative writing courses, for instance) that doesn’t intrude quite as much as jobs in completely unrelated areas.

CRR: Given that the literary academic community often belittles the study of children’s and young adult literature (or better put—doesn’t take it seriously), how do you think your book might change the way we talk about this issue? In other words, what role do you see Latinx children’s and young adult literature playing in the grand scheme of things?

FLA: Unfortunately, people confuse the seeming simplicity of children’s and YA fiction with simplemindedness. The scholarly work that you and I do along with our colleagues here at OSU like Michelle Abate and others across the country like Mary Pat Brady, Jamie Naidoo, and Philip Serrato, to name a few, not only reveals, say, the complexity of children’s and YA literature, in the long run and by accretion it legitimizes further, deeper study. Today you are writing a dissertation dedicated to Latinx children’s literature. This wasn’t possible when I was writing my dissertation—and not by a long shot.

CRR: What was your favorite part of publishing this collection of interviews? What other work are you considering pursuing on the topic of children’s and young adult Latinx themes?

FLA: As you can imagine, my favorite parts were: re-reading and reading anew all the fiction created by the many authors interviewed; and, learning deeply from the creators themselves. We know intuitively and even through our scholarly study a lot about how this literature works. However, it’s not until you speak with the creators that this knowledge comes alive—and is even radically revised.

As far as new work in this area, I’m singularly focused on creating a space for reading seriously (the LASER Latinx Book Club) and publishing (University of Pittsburgh Press trade-book series) Latinx children’s and YA fiction. As I mentioned already, I’ve just finished my children’s book, With Papá, and amcompleting a YA novel that’s filled with all variety of teen Latinxs.

CRR: Lastly, what advice would you give to anyone in the Latinx community who wants to pursue a career in the publishing world or artistic world—in and outside of academia?

FLA: My simple and brief advice: write and learn what you are passionate about and don’t take no for an answer.

For ordering information, visit University of Pittsburgh Press.

Author: Frederick Luis Aldama is Arts & Humanities Distinguished Professor and University Distinguished Scholar at The Ohio State University. In addition to Latino/a Children’s and Young Adult Writers on the Art of Storytelling, Dr. Aldama has published over 30 works of scholarship and fiction, including Your Brain on Latino Comics: From Gus Arriola to Los Bros Hernandez, and Long Stories Cut Short: Fictions from the Borderlands. He is creator of the first documentary on the history of Latinx comics and editor of numerous book series, including Latinographix—a trade-press series that publishes Latinx graphic fiction and nonfiction. Learn more at ProfessorLatinX.

Interviewer: Cristina Raquel Rivera is a Ph.D. candidate at The Ohio State University. She has published numerous articles on Latino/a children’s literature and animation, including recently “Branding ‘Latinohood,’ Juan Bobo, and the Commodification of Dora the Explorer” in The Routledge Companion to Latino/a Pop Culture. She works as a Hub Co-Cordinator for OSU’s LASER/Latinx Space for Enrichment Research to create higher education pipelines for Columbus’s Latinx youth.