An Interview with Author Anna-Marie McLemore about Wild Beauty

 

By Cecilia Cackley

Anna-Marie McLemore‘s lush, sensory YA fiction has been a finalist for the William C. Morris Award and won a Stonewall Honor from the American Library Association. Her new book Wild Beauty (releases tomorrow!) takes place in a magical, predatory garden tended by the women of the Nomeolvides family, so it seemed fitting to have our interview about the book take place in a garden. I met up with McLemore at the National Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C. to look at the various themed rooms (tropical, desert, poisonous plants etc.) and discuss the plants, characters, and world of Wild Beauty. Here is our conversation, edited for clarity.

Anna-Marie McLemore

Q: Can you talk a little about your inspiration for the character Fel and his story?

Anna-Marie McLemore: Without giving too much away, I’ll say this: I started with his history, where he comes from, his family. And the fact that we sometimes don’t hear the stories of what happens when the farms fail, when the harvest dies, what you do when you’re trying to take care of your loved ones. So that’s one side of it. Another is that there’s a brutal history of child immigrants doing dangerous jobs, jobs that are already dangerous if you’re a grown man, and either the people doing the hiring don’t care or they look the other way. But amid that kind of brutality, there’s also family; I wanted to write characters who were looking out for each other even in a place that doesn’t really want them.

Q: It’s a feature of stories categorized as magical realism that the characters accept magic as simply part of regular life. In what way do the characters in Wild Beauty, both from the family that lives in La Pradera and the surrounding town accept magic as part of their world?

AMM: The way the Nomeolvides women tend these gardens, the ways that they and their loves are cursed, that’s accepted as part of the lore of this town. But this book is also about what you get made into by rumor; there’s so much talk about these women, everybody else trying to decide what the truth of them is. In response to all that, the Nomeolvides women become their own community. They make their own space. And I think that’s threatening to many watching them from the outside. But it’s how the women push back against the way people see them as a sideshow attraction, how visitors expect them to perform, to entertain.

Q: And we see that a lot in the real world.

AMM: We do.

Anna-Marie and Cecilia at a poisonous plants exhibit at the National Botanic Garden in Washington, D.C.

Q: That people who are from marginalized populations—that happens to them more, that if you are not the majority you’re accepted but only in as much as you provide entertainment or only in as much as you can be exploited.

AMM: Exactly, you have a role that you’re expected to play.

Q: How did you choose the flower names for each of the girls?

AMM:  I chose the flowers based on how I pictured these women. Maybe it would have been easier to go for the flower names first and then build the character but I started the other way around. I imagined each girl and then thought, “What is her flower? What is she growing?”

Q: Does the family ever repeat flower names?

AMM: They probably can have the same flower as a relative, but I think, unfortunately, things go so badly for so many of these women that they’re reluctant to repeat names. In this family, repeating a name is, in a sense, to pass on that woman’s legacy.

Q: La Pradera, the magical garden setting is so vivid and distinct. If it had a soundtrack, what sort of music would be on it?

AMM: Because the women living on La Pradera are so different, the gardens’ soundtrack would cover a range—some Lila Downs, Iron & Wine, Poe, Madi Diaz, Wailin Jennys, and some contemporary classical like Einaudi.

Q: If you had a flower name like the characters in this book, which would you choose?

AMM: I love the name Rosa, but in a family of women who grow flowers, I’m not sure I’d want the pressure of being the one who grows roses! I also love lilacs, so I might choose Lila. Then again, after our trip through the dangerous plants exhibit, maybe something like Belladona…

Q: What kind of flower books did you use in your research? Are there books that you would recommend (fiction or non-fiction) to readers who also love flowers?

AMM: Though La Pradera is very much fictional, I based the botany of the estate on a botanical garden in western Canada, so my go-to books were twin volumes called Annuals of British Columbia and Perennials of British Columbia. Both were invaluable references. To readers who love flowers, I recommend checking out a book about the botany of where you live. If you live in a place that has drought, you can learn which plants survive, which are drought-resistant. If you live somewhere with heavy rain, you learn which plants anchor into hillsides so they’re not washed away. Having that kind of interaction with your own landscape, learning the incredible things that are happening under the ground, there’s magic in that.

Q: I know you’ve talked about how you love to visit botanical gardens, which inspired La Pradera. Which gardens would you recommend people try and visit?

AMM: Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia was a huge inspiration, both in its scope and its beautiful detail. Huntington Library in Los Angeles, in addition to being a museum of books and paintings, has spectacular gardens based on different landscapes. For something closer to home, I recommend local parks, which often have gardens ranging from small and meticulous to wide and sprawling. And the grounds around capitol buildings. The capitol in California, for instance, I think has one of every tree that grows in the state.

I also really like this one [National Botanic Garden in DC] because it’s part garden and part museum; the plants are carefully labeled and there’s so much information posted. And I loved getting to meet up with you here! Thanks for taking me through the orchids and desert gardens and all the gorgeous plants here!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and grew up in a Mexican-American family. She attended University of Southern California on a Trustee Scholarship. A Lambda Literary Fellow, she has had work featured by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, CRATE Literary Magazine’s cratelitCamera Obscura’s Bridge the Gap Series, and The Portland Review. She is the author of The Weight of Featherswhich was a Morris Award finalist, When the Moon was Oursa 2017 Stonewall Honor book, and Wild Beauty, which has earned starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and School Library Journal.

 

Cecilia 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.

Book Review: When the Moon Was Ours by Anna-Marie McLemore

 

28220826Reviewed by Elena Foulis

DESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: To everyone who knows them, best friends Miel and Sam are as strange as they are inseparable. Roses grow out of Miel’s wrist, and rumors say that she spilled out of a water tower when she was five. Sam is known for the moons he paints and hangs in the trees, and for how little anyone knows about his life before he and his mother moved to town. But as odd as everyone considers Miel and Sam, even they stay away from the Bonner girls, four beautiful sisters rumored to be witches. Now they want the roses that grow from Miel’s skin, convinced that their scent can make anyone fall in love. And they’re willing to use every secret Miel has fought to protect to make sure she gives them up.

MY TWO CENTS: When the Moon Was Ours, captures a beautiful love story full of colors, scents, musical prose, and magical realism. Miel and Samir are peculiar children; Miel grows roses from her wrists and Sam paints moons and hangs them in trees around town. Anna-Marie McLemore’s rich narrative walks us through the lives of Miel and Sam, two teenagers with complicated histories. Miel’s fear of water, ghosts, pumpkins, and tormented memories of her mother, are intensified when the town’s rusted water tower falls and water rushes out over the fields and her. It is at this moment that she appears in the town, at the age of five, alone, in a thin nightgown, and bathed in rusted water.  No one knows her or approaches her, except for Moon (Sam), who talks to her and covers her with his jacket. Miel goes home with Sam, but Aracely, the town’s curandera, offers to bring her home and look after her.

This town, like the novel, is full of mystery. There are four beautiful sisters, known as the Bonner sisters, who are thought to be witches. They usually get people to do what they want, and get boys to fall in love with them. They seemingly accept and care for Miel, but are manipulative and cruel to her when they think her flowers can help them get their powers back. The Bonner sisters are not free from gossip, envy, unexpected pregnancies, and secret sexual desires. The readers slowly begin to discover that what makes everyone mysterious—aside  from the growing roses from Miel’s skin—is the world of secrets, half-truths, and distorted memories that each character holds. Hanging throughout the novel is the theme of gender fluidity. The story follows the blooming romance between Miel and Sam, who seem to tend to each other’s pains, desires, and bodily discoveries of unexpected peculiarities. Both Miel and Sam are foreign to the town, but it is Sam who is sometimes the target of discrimination because of the color of his skin and feminine features. Sam tells Miel the story his mother told him about bacha posh, a cultural practice in which families with no sons, dress a daughter as a son, and as an adult, the daughter returns to live as woman. Eventually, we discover how this tradition has impacted Sam’s life. Similarly, we learn about the connection between Sam’s life and Aracely, the town’s healer.

It is clear that the Bonner sisters are white, Miel is Latina, and Sam is Italian-Pakistani, and, although minimal, we can see how they experience life in this town. Las gringas bonitas, as Miel refers to them, are privileged and powerful, while Sam works the Bonner family’s fields. The theme of racial experiences or discrimination is not central to the novel, but it does point us to different lived experiences.

In the end, the novel is about acceptance and love. It is also about the complexity and danger of strict gender roles, and the freedom to live outside of that. For Sam, his assigned name and gender at birth did not match who he had become. The man he had become is the man who Miel loved. It is important to note the author’s personal story at the end of the book. Although she tells us at the beginning that this is a work of fiction, in the end, she explains her personal connection to Miel and Sam’s story. The author grew up listening to La Llorona stories, the weeping woman who, the legend tells, tried to drown her children by the river, and later learned about the story of the bacha posh, a cultural practice in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She also tells us about her marriage to a transgender male.

TEACHING TIPS: Teaching this novel opens up the opportunity to research different legends, traditions, and cultural practices in relation to gender plurality and sexuality. For example, recent stories from India and Mexico about cultures that have embraced a third gender have come to light.  The author’s page offers several links on interviews, music, and essays written about transgender awareness. As a pre-reading activity, teachers can also hold discussions about legends like La Llorona, children’s folk ghost stories, and the differences and similarities between curanderos/healers and witches. Further research into McLemore’s use of colors, scents, and other sensory descriptions can open up discussions about culture, mood, place, and magical realism.

Anna-Marie McLemoreABOUT THE AUTHOR: Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, raised in the same town as the world’s largest wisteria vine, and taught by her family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. She is a Lambda Literary Fellow, and her work has been featured by The Portland Review, Camara Oscura, and the Huntington—USC Institute on California and the West. Her debut novel The Weight of Feathers was a Junior Library Guild Selection, a YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults book, and a William C. Morris YA Debut Award Finalist. When the Moon Was Ours is her second novel. 

 

 

 

headshot2016ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Elena Foulis has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of Arkansas. Her research and teaching interests include U.S. Latina/o literature, and Digital Oral History. She is currently working on a digital oral history collection about Latin@s in Ohio, which has been published as an eBook titled, Latin@ Stories Across Ohio. She currently lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

Author Samantha Mabry on her Debut Novel, a Student’s Shrug, and Straddling Two Cultures

 

By Samantha Mabry

I teach English at a community college in downtown Dallas. Currently, some of my students are reading a book entitled Midnight in Mexico: A Reporter’s Journey Through a Country’s Descent Into Darkness by Alfredo Corchado. In his book, Corchado, who was born in the Mexican state of Durango and raised in California and El Paso, Texas, writes mostly about his own reporting on the drug trade and corruption in Mexico, but there’s also an interesting, underlying theme he explores regarding identity: what it means to straddle two worlds, to have a foot on each side of the border, but to never feel fully rooted, truly at home in either place. As he puts it, he can sometimes feel too American when he’s in Mexico and too Mexican when he’s in America.

Among my students, discussions have taken place regarding what it means to be a part of two cultures. When I ask if they’re able to relate to Corchado, many nod their heads, and one girl said, “Absolutely.” She then elaborated: “At home, I’m Mexican. At school, I’m American.” Then she shrugged. Like, obviously. She made it seem like it was pretty easy to understand what the different expectations are in different spheres of her life and that it took little effort and not a whole lot of thought to navigate those spheres.

I keep thinking about this student –in particular, that shrug. Like, what’s in that shrug? What does that shrug mean? I want there to be something deep in that shrug because I am critical by nature and like for things like shrugs to mean something, to be symbolic, to say something about what it means to be a Mexican-American young woman living in Texas right this minute. I keep thinking about all the comments I could have followed up with: Okay, so you’re Mexican in one place and American in another. Is there an identity that feels more true to you? Are you more Mexican than American? Would you say you are Mexican-American? Would you call yourself Chicana? Latina? Hispanic? Do these words, these markers of identity, matter to you, or am I just really wanting them to matter??

My mother is Mexican-American, though I think she would say she’s just American. Or Hispanic. My dad’s mother was from Puerto Rico, and his dad was white. I’m light olive-skinned with brown hair and brown eyes, but my last name, Mabry, is European. I first heard Spanish at my grandmother’s house but learned it properly in a classroom. I call myself mestiza because that’s what really rings true for me. I think that identity matters, and I think that –particularly for those from mixed backgrounds or with migrations or diaspora in their histories –identity can be fluid. I think that many Latinx people, like Alfredo Corchado, are standing with one foot here and one foot there. Some of them may be standing with an imbalance: one foot rooted in one place more heavily than the other. Some may feel as if they have many limbs, all which are reaching across geography and back into time. Some may feel, however, like they’re not straddling at all. It is not my place, of course, to tell another Latinx person how to be or how to feel.

In my book, A Fierce and Subtle Poison, both of the main characters are of mixed backgrounds, racially and culturally. They are a mix of white and non-white. Lucas, the narrator looks white, has a white kid’s name, but there’s something else there, tugging in his blood. Isabel is the product of an English father and native Puerto Rican mother, and sides with her mother when it comes to her identity. I specifically tried to make their histories and their identities complex. They are influenced –haunted and inspired, inspired or haunted –by their past. They are trying to fix centuries-old errors and clear new paths.

So…after all that, we’re back to the shrug. Is it simple, or is it complex? Is it a small gesture that signifies nothing, or something brimming with meaning? Maybe it’s simple: with these people, I am this one thing; with those people, I am this other thing. It’s easy to figure out. Simple, simple. Or maybe it’s complex: a gesture so full that words pale. It’s obvious that I want it to be the latter, but who cares what I want? I wrote a book about complex identities, one that I hoped explored nuance, but of course that’s not the only way to write about identity.  Someone –maybe me, maybe not –needs to write the story about the Mexican-American girl who is Mexican at home and American everywhere else. And maybe she is wildly complicated but not because of that, but because of all the other things that go on in a young woman’s life.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about A Fierce and Subtle Poison, which releases April 12, 2016 with Algonquin Young Readers, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

Samanth Mabry author photo

Samantha Mabry grew up in Texas playing bass guitar along to vinyl records, writing fan letters to rock stars, and reading big, big books, and credits her tendency toward magical thinking to her Grandmother Garcia, who would wash money in the kitchen sink to rinse off any bad spirits. She teaches writing and Latino literature at a community college in Dallas, Texas, where she lives with her husband, a historian, and her pets, including a cat named Mouse. A Fierce and Subtle Poison is her first novel.