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: The Radius of Us by Marie Marquardt

 

Reviewed by Elena Foulis

The Radius of Us CoverDESCRIPTION OF THE BOOK: Ninety seconds can change a life ― not just daily routine, but who you are as a person. Gretchen Asher knows this, because that’s how long a stranger held her body to the ground. When a car sped toward them and Gretchen’s attacker told her to run, she recognized a surprising terror in his eyes. And now she doesn’t even recognize herself.

Ninety seconds can change a life ― not just the place you live, but the person others think you are. Phoenix Flores Flores knows this, because months after setting off toward the U.S. / Mexico border in search of safety for his brother, he finally walked out of detention. But Phoenix didn’t just trade a perilous barrio in El Salvador for a leafy suburb in Atlanta. He became that person ― the one his new neighbors crossed the street to avoid.

Ninety seconds can change a life ― so how will the ninety seconds of Gretchen and Phoenix’s first encounter change theirs?

Told in alternating first person points of view, The Radius of Us is a story of love, sacrifice, and the journey from victim to survivor. It offers an intimate glimpse into the causes and devastating impact of Latino gang violence, both in the U.S. and in Central America, and explores the risks that victims take when they try to start over. Most importantly, Marie Marquardt’s The Radius of Us shows how people struggling to overcome trauma can find healing in love.

MY TWO CENTS: To write about unaccompanied minors fleeing to the United States from El Salvador, is to talk about violence, family separation, corruption and trauma.  The Radius of Us, written by Marie Marquardt, explores the trauma of assault, gang harassment, abandonment and diaspora in the lives of Phoenix, Ari and Gretchen. Phoenix and his young brother, Ari, flee El Salvador due to gang violence. On their journey to the States, they are kidnapped in Mexico and forced into slavery. When they finally arrived to the U.S., they are arrested and separated. Although the novel begins with Gretchen’s and Phoenix’s first person narratives, we quickly learn how their lives intersect. They both live in the same Atlanta suburb and, although they don’t know it immediately, they’ve experienced traumatic events in their lives that connect them. Indeed, they face their fear of crowds, heights, and learn that trauma cannot completely leave them, and that they cannot be who they once were, yet there is the promise of recovery.

The reader can guess that Phoenix and Gretchen will eventually end up together, but the story is not about their romance. The story centers on the impact of trauma and how each of these characters is able to help the other face their fears. The author slowly takes us through the lives of the main characters and each of the people that play a small or big part in their recovery. Phoenix lives with Sally and Amanda, a couple who takes care of Phoenix while his asylum status is determined.  Phoenix volunteers as a gardener in the “place without a soul”—as Gretchen and her friend Bree call it—a community garden for the residents of the subdivision. We learn quickly that Gretchen suffers from panic attacks. She is homeschooled as a result of this, and is finishing her high school senior year studying from home.  As Phoenix and Gretchen get closer, they both learn—as does the reader—about each other’s pasts: Phoenix’s attempt for a better life in the U.S. for himself and his little brother, his fear of heights and his current immigration status; Gretchen’s assault, which causes her to have panic attacks, and her now estranged college boyfriend. The author explores the issue of trauma slowly and carefully. We see how the characters, at different points, deal with the past by being each other’s support system. Sometimes they listen, they let the other vent, or they hold each other as they re-live or are triggered by a situation that takes them right to the place of trauma. We even see how trauma is expressed differently in different characters; for example, Ari is unable (or unwilling, the jury still out!) to speak, but can draw pictures to deal with his past. We see these drawings in the book, too. The drawings, and Phoenix interpretation of them, allow the reader to see the value of different types of expression, especially as it relates to trauma therapy.

Marquardt does not shy away from issues of xenophobia, and the misunderstanding that exists when someone is in limbo about their immigration status. However, she also shows us the kindness of people willing to lend a hand, and support and advocate for those who have been wrongly persecuted. We see this in the characters of Amanda and Sally, Sister Mary Margaret, and the couple that owns a tattoo shop. Similarly, we see how Phoenix is the person that helps Gretchen heal, while at the same time sacrifices his education and life for his brother Ari.

TEACHING TIPS: In my opinion, it is impossible to teach this novel without providing the reader with the historical context of unaccompanied minors. Whether this is novel used in high school or college classrooms, it is important to understand the devastating effects of poverty and gang violence in places like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras and the difficult decision parents (if they are still alive) must make to send their children to a safer place. Another important topic to explore is the Bestia, the train that transport thousands of Central Americans to the U.S. and about the Mexican women known as Las Patronas who feed the migrants traveling on it.

Another unique element in this novel is the intersection of drawings and tattoos to tell a story. We see Ari’s drawings as memories of his past, the traumatic events that he remembers and his nostalgia for his home country. Although we do not see the tattoos, we know they are used as markers. Gangs use them to identify each other and to mark members as cattle. This, at times, helps Phoenix and Ari survive, but it also brings shame. In the end, the reader can see how these artistic expressions prove to be transformative.

Headshot-OfficialMarie Marquardt is a Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and author of contemporary YA fiction. She has written several articles and co-authored two non-fiction books about Latin American immigration to the U.S. South. She also has written three novels for young adults, based in part on her experience working with immigrants in the South: DREAM THINGS TRUE (St. Martin’s Griffin/ September 2015), THE RADIUS OF US (St. Martin’s Griffin/ January 2017) and FLIGHT SEASON (St. Martin’s Griffin/ forthcoming February 2018). She lives in a very busy household in Decatur, Georgia, with her spouse, four children, a dog, and a bearded dragon. When not writing, teaching, or chauffeuring her children, she can be found working with El Refugio, a non-profit that serves detained immigrants and their families.

 

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.

On Fearlessness, and Writing to Change the World: A Guest Post by Author Marie Marquardt

 

By Marie Marquardt

“I am fearless, except when I’m not.”

This is how I describe myself, each time that I gather in a classroom of ESOL students to run writing workshops. It’s part of an exercise developed by Alma Flor Ada and Isabel Campoy, in their fabulous resource Authors in the Classroom: A Transformative Education Process. Each person makes a statement about who they understand themselves to be, or maybe just about how they feel at that particular moment. The statements build together to create poetry – simple, beautiful, honest poetry.

This exercise was first introduced to me by Meg Medina, who has inspired me immensely with her practice of “literary citizenship.” One way that I strive to live into the identity of a literary citizen is by gathering with nascent speakers of English – teenagers full of ideas and energy, with incredible and often heart-wrenching stories to tell, yet struggling to put them into words that are not their first language – and, in some cases, not their second or third, either. I try to be fearless as I read to them from my own stories, but sometimes I’m not.

I worry about how they will evaluate me – the middle-aged white lady whose recent book features characters like many of them – kids who have run away from some of the most dangerous communities in the world, looking for a safe place to live and maybe – just maybe – to one day call “home”.

Group shots and selfies from a recent workshop with ESOL students in a Gwinnett County, Georgia High School.

My very best days as an author are these days, when eager students come rushing up to me after our workshop, asking for selfies; when they tell me about their favorite character; when they marvel at how I learned to cuss like a Salvadoran, or how much I know about making pupusas. I want so much for my books to resonate with them — Their stories inspire me to write young adult novels in the first place.

Because of how profoundly these young adults’ experiences have shaped me, every one of my books has at least one point-of-view character who is an immigrant from Mexico or Central America. For twenty years, as an academic researcher, advocate, and service provider in Latinx immigrant communities in the South, I’ve listened to teen immigrants’ stories, and I’ve seen them unfold. I consider it an honor to create characters inspired by the teens I have had the great privilege to know. They have trusted me with their stories and I feel a great responsibility to convey their truth onto each page.

This is not a process that I take lightly, so I don’t do it alone. I rely on consultants who identify with the cultural traditions and national-origin groups I am representing. They teach me about the nuances of the culture and language, and they help me get a deeper understanding so I can build more robust and honest characters on the page (in other words, they teach me such important skills as cussing like a Salvadoran!).  I also rely on sensitivity readers, and I take their feedback very seriously.

Equally important, I consider it my responsibility to support the work of #ownvoices authors by  mentoring young authors from marginalized communities. I have worked for two years as a volunteer with We Need Diverse Books’ Walter Dean Myers Grant committee, and this year, I’ve pledged to work with ESOL students, facilitating workshops that help them build their own authorial voices and tell their own powerful stories.

I recently read a short interview with Jacqueline Woodson, when she was honored with the Lambda Literary Visionary Award. She said something that I think is damn near perfect: “Write specifically and furiously. Write to change the world.”

I aim to write specifically.

The Radius of Us CoverI can only tell the stories that I know. In the case of The Radius of Us, I felt compelled to write the story of a young asylum seeker from El Salvador because of the relationships I have built with real young adults in similar situations. It has been one of my greatest honors to help run a non-profit called El Refugio, which works with detained immigrants and their families. As part of that work, I have experienced the heartbreak of building friendships with dozens of young asylum seekers from the northern triangle of Central America. I have spent countless hours visiting with these young men in detention, sitting across the glass from them, telephones pressed to our ears. Unlike my story’s protagonist, most of these young men never have the chance to leave detention, until they are deported.

I aim to write furiously.

I am desperate for more people to know and understand the stories of these young men, and I also am, indeed, furious. I have followed some of them back to El Salvador, to see how they are faring after deportation. I have seen the dire circumstances into which our courts return them. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that, in the immigration court that determines the fate of these young men, only 5% are granted asylum. I can’t bear the thought that, like our friend Moises, some of these young people are being sent back to die.

I write to change the world.

On good days (fearless days), I remind myself that writing these stories is an act of compassion. When I allow myself to dive into the experience of Phoenix – an asylum-seeker from El Salvador, or Gretchen – a white suburban girl who was the victim of assault – I practice compassion. I hope that by telling these stories, I can model compassionate action, and I also fervently hope that, once they are out in the world, my stories will open safe, compassionate spaces. I hope that they create opportunities for teen readers to speak honestly with one another, to recognize those insidious systems (like racism and xenophobia) that aim to keep us apart, and also to affirm the beautiful, fragile humanity that we share in common.

I believe that, with more compassion, our world would be a radically different place. Compassion compels us to walk alongside people in crisis, and not to turn away. Compassion drives us to seek mutual understanding, to find those human qualities and dispositions that we share in common, while also not dismissing the profound differences that shape our experiences. Compassion changes the world.

This is what drives me to be fearless (except when I’m not).

Marie Marquardt is a Scholar-in-Residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and author of contemporary YA fiction. She has written several articles and co-authored two non-fiction books about Latin American immigration to the U.S. South. She also has written three novels for young adults, based in part on her experience working with immigrants in the South: DREAM THINGS TRUE (St. Martin’s Griffin/ September 2015), THE RADIUS OF US (St. Martin’s Griffin/ January 2017) and FLIGHT SEASON (St. Martin’s Griffin/ forthcoming February 2018). She lives in a very busy household in Decatur, Georgia, with her spouse, four children, a dog, and a bearded dragon. When not writing, teaching, or chauffeuring her children, she can be found working with El Refugio, a non-profit that serves detained immigrants and their families.

Book Review: Even if the Sky Falls by Mia García

 

Review by Troi Genders

24218983DESCRIPTION FROM THE PUBLISHER: One midsummer night. Two strangers. Three rules: No real names. No baggage. No phones. A whirlwind twenty-four-hour romance about discovering what it means to feel alive in the face of one of life’s greatest dangers: love.

Who would you be if you had one night to be anyone you want?

Volunteering in New Orleans was supposed to be a change, an escape from the total mess Julie left at home and from her brother’s losing battle with PTSD. But building houses surrounded by her super-clingy team leader and her way-too-chipper companions has Julie feeling more trapped than ever. And she’s had enough.

In a moment of daring, Julie runs away, straight into the glitter, costumes, and chaos of the Mid-Summer Mardi Gras parade—and instantly connects with Miles, an utterly irresistible musician with a captivating smile and a complicated story of his own. And for once, Julie isn’t looking back. Together Julie and Miles decide to forget their problems and live this one night in the here and now. Wandering the night, they dance on roofs, indulge in beignets, share secrets and ghost stories under the stars, and fall in love. But when a Category Two hurricane changes course and heads straight for NOLA, their adventure takes an unexpected turn. And, suddenly, pretending everything is fine is no longer an option.

MY TWO CENTS: Mia García’s debut novel, Even if the Sky Falls is a colorful, emotional book that grabbed me from the first page. Set in New Orleans, the reader feels transported to the French Quarter and Jackson Square as you follow Julie and Miles on their night of throwing caution to the wind. Both characters have intriguing backstories that I wanted more of. I found myself caring not only for Julie but also for her brother Adam, who you learn more about through the course of the novel. Miles seemed at first to be a Don Juan–slick, handsome, and a massive flirt, but throughout the novel, you discover he is much more complex.

Julie is a 16-year-old Puerto Rican girl who travels to New Orleans as part of a youth group trip to rebuild homes in New Orleans. She is doing so to get away from her family issues at home; her brother Adam recently returned from a tour of service and is not quite the same person he was before he left. While rebuilding homes, she sees a van filled with loud, happy people and decides that she is going to leave “Old Julie” behind and explore the city. She finds herself in the middle of Mid-Summer Mardi Gras, where she meets Miles, who is part of the Mid-Summer Boys band, whose music keeps Julie captivated. A New Orleans native, Miles knows the city and its history, so throughout the night, he shows Julie, who he calls Sunshine or Lila, the ins and outs of the “real” New Orleans. They agree to leave all baggage behind, just for one night. What they do not realize, however, is that they are about to fall hard for each other, and their pasts refuse to stay in the past. They also do not realize that a massive storm is heading straight their way, and it will change both of their lives. Both Julie and Miles have issues that they try to suppress, but it is not until the storm is upon them that they finally face what they have been running from.

In the beginning, I thought the storm was cliché, but it matches the character’s developments, especially with Julie and her refusal to share secrets about her past until they fully consume her. There are some religious aspects, mostly with her Abuela Julia, but it did not feel like García was beating me over the head with a Bible. It was also refreshing to have a Puerto Rican character whose heritage is referred to but not the central issue. At several points of the novel, Julie goes back to a time when she was in Puerto Rico on a trip or how her Abuela Julia helped to shape her into the person she is. I was gripping the book as I tried to figure out what the big moments were that both characters were running from, but García did not give them up easily. The big moment for each character hit me like a punch to the gut and made the characters more believable. Overall, the novel has a simple story structure: girl is unhappy with life, girl decides to be reckless, girl meets boy, they fall in love. But, García has given these characters so much depth and so much at stake that it is hard not to feel for them and want to cheer them on as they navigate both New Orleans during a storm and their pasts.

OTHER REVIEW QUOTES:

From School Library Journal: “The plot itself unravels like a hurricane, building and surging along with the storm. The story plateaus and tensions relax during the eye of the storm, but as quickly as the storm returns, so does the building action, which rages on until the final page.”

From Kirkus: “The author’s rich descriptions of New Orleans make the vibrant city come alive, from the music and ghost stories to the vampire lore and delicious beignets…A compelling 24-hour romance that’s as charged as its New Orleans setting.”

From Booklist: “García’s debut is a wrenching, high-stakes exploration of self-discovery. Readers of GayleForman, Sarah Dessen, and E. Lockhart will find themselves engaged by Julie’s quest.”

TEACHING TIPS: I would be somewhat hesitant to teach this in a class, only for some language usage, but I would definitely keep it in a classroom library so that students could check it out! If someone wanted to teach this book, I would definitely front load it with some information about New Orleans, its history, culture, and weather. It is key for the reader to understand the impact of Hurricane Katrina on this city. I was young when Katrina happened, but I know the repercussions are still felt on the city today. Also, I think it would be helpful for students to learn about what happens to soldiers after they come home from war, so they can better connect and sympathize with Adam.

FOR MORE INFORMATION about Even if the Sky Falls, check your local public library, your local bookstore or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

For a guest post from the author, about the fear and stress of writing about her culture, click here.



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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
: Mia 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. She’s a giant geek with comic book and archery addictions. Even if the Sky Falls is her debut novel. Her second novel, The Year of Everything, is expected to release in winter 2018. You can find her at www.mgarciabooks.com @MGarciaWrites on Twitter and Instagram, as well as on Tumblr at MGarciawrites.tumblr.com.

 

 

 

 

 

12119166_10204875618714252_5373585124158767944_nABOUT THE REVIEWER: Troi Genders is a senior at Ball State University studying Secondary English Education. Troi is a self-proclaimed cat-mom, YA and Contemporary enthusiast, and lifelong learner. You can reach her via email at tlgenders@bsu.edu or on twitter at @MissGendersBSU.

 

Book Review: Because of the Sun by Jenny Torres Sanchez

 

Reviewed by Nazahet Hernandez

Because of the Sun CoverDESCRIPTION FROM THE BOOK JACKET: Dani Falls learned to tolerate her existence in suburban Florida with her brash and seemingly unloving mother by embracing the philosophy Why care? It will only hurt. So when her mother is killed in a sudden and violent manner, Dani goes into an even deeper protection mode, total numbness. It’s the only way she can go on.

But when Dani chooses The Stranger by Albert Camus as summer reading for school, it feels like fate. The main character’s alienation after his mother’s death mirrors her own.

Dani’s life is thrown into further turmoil when she is sent to New Mexico to live with an aunt she never knew she had. The awkwardness between them is palpable. To escape, Dani takes long walks in the merciless heat. One day, she meets Paulo, who understands how much Dani is hurting. Although she is hesitant at first, a mutual trust and affection develop between Dani and Paulo, and Dani begins to heal. And as she and her aunt begin to connect, Dani learns about her mother’s past. Forgiving isn’t easy, but maybe it’s the only way to move forward.

MY TWO CENTS: Dani Falls has a complicated and fractured relationship with her mother, Ruby Falls, who in Dani’s eyes is a not good mother in any regard. In fact, for dozens of pages, Dani often explicitly states that she hates her mother because she has always felt unappreciated, unloved, and ignored by her. By Dani’s account, we are led to believe that Ruby is objectively a selfish and neglectful mother. It is all Dani has known, and because she is the narrator, we are inclined to empathize with her side of the story. Dani believes she knows who her mother really is deep inside, that her ugliest aspects are the real her. But what Dani doesn’t know is that she really doesn’t know her mother at all.

In the Author’s Note for Because Of The SunJenny Torres Sanchez states that Albert Camus’s The Stranger inspired her novel. In The Stranger, Meursault’s mother dies early on in the story, and his emotionless and detached reaction made Torres Sanchez curious about his mother. Was she a terrible person or simply an imperfect individual?

Like Mersault’s mother, Dani’s mother also dies early in the novel, tragically. She is inexplicably attacked by a black bear in her own backyard. The grisly story shocks the neighborhood, but readers see the aftermath play out through Dani’s perspective, which is bleak, detached, and emotionless. The way Dani deals with the trauma of her mother’s death is fascinating, though often hard to read, and readers may wonder if Dani’s cold reaction is warranted. But people cope with tragedy differently, and we don’t know all the details of her and her mother’s relationship. So it’s best to read on without passing any judgment on Dani.

As she has no family left in Florida, Dani must move to New Mexico to live with an aunt, Shelly, she never knew existed. This is only one of many secrets Dani’s mother kept from her. For weeks, Dani lives with her aunt, but seldom leaves the house and rarely speaks more than two words at a time. This part of the novel is slow and contemplative, when Dani is at her lowest. Hours, days, and weeks blur into each other and become indistinguishable. The language and mood of the book during these pages are bleak and stifling. One wonders if Dani will ever find light in her life again.

But one day, Dani wanders out into the scorching New Mexico sun and walks for miles, until she comes across a gas station. There, she meets Paulo, a young Mexican-American boy who aspires to be a filmmaker. It is after she meets Paulo and his grandmother, Doña Marcela, that the potential for hope and light enters Dani’s life.

It is important to note that Dani is not Latina, a fact that is not explicitly stated until she meets Latinx people at her new school, who make references to her whiteness almost immediately. This happens about a third of the way through the novel, after which Latinxs play a regular and important role in the story. It is Paulo, and especially Doña Marcela, who provide moral and emotional support for Dani when she needs it most. Paulo is ambitious and kind; Doña Marcela is brave and loving. Together, they provide Dani with examples of what healthy familial relationships can look like, and show her that people are allowed to care for and love each other. That Latinx characters are the most positive influence on the novel’s protagonist is worth noting. I certainly appreciated it.

Eventually, Dani connects with her aunt Shelly, who reveals the tragic secrets of her family’s past. Dani then realizes that she never really knew her mother and must face the fact that she hated a woman she only knew on a surface level. This understandably makes Dani resent Ruby even more, for shutting her daughter out all her life. But her budding romance with Paulo, the strong role model she found in Doña Marcela, and her growing bond with Shelly — these relationships teach Dani that there are things to appreciate in the world. Perhaps the trauma of her mother’s death and their lack of closure will always follow her, but Dani has met people who can help her move forward with her life, even if progress is slow.

Though it’s not without flaws, there’s much to like and commend in Because Of The Sun. Jenny Torres Sanchez writes Dani’s story in haunting, beautiful prose that creates an atmosphere that aptly approximates Dani’s bleakest moods and lowest moments. There are several dreamlike sequences in the novel reminiscent of magical realism that stand out as the strongest parts of the story. Reading Because Of The Sun is a singular and somber experience that will resonate with teens who understand the complexities of love and loss.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jenny Torres Sanchez is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children. She is the author of The Downside of Being Charlie, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, and Because of the Sun.

To find Because of the Sun, check your local public library, your local bookstore, or IndieBound. Also, check out GoodreadsAmazon, and Barnes & Noble.

 

 

Read Diverse BooksNazahet Hernandez is a book blogger who cares passionately about diversity in literature and promoting books written by and about people of color and other marginalized voices. He loves creating reading lists, recommending diverse books to people, and tweeting while at work. He lives in the wonderfully vibrant city of Austin, TX. You may contact him on Twitter (@_diversebooks) or through his blog ReadDiverseBooks.com.

Weaving Truth and the Imagined: A Guest Post by Author Jenny Torres Sanchez

 

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Top: My grandmother Elena (left) and my mother Miriam (right) Bottom: My mother in law Martha (left) and my grandmother Zoila (right)

 

By Jenny Torres Sanchez

I visited New Mexico for the first time about twelve years ago. My in-laws live right on the border of Columbus, New Mexico and Palomas, Mexico. I was there for a funeral and it was a sad, somber time. Maybe that was part of the reason why it seemed such a lonely place to me, so desolate and bare.

On our way to the graveyard, I remember much walking and dust. There were rocks on tombstones to cover graves because there is no grass. And my husband’s family members took turns, while weeping, to shovel dirt upon their loved one’s grave. I felt then that I had come to a place of great despair. But also of great beauty. And I knew I would someday write a story that took place there.

Because of the Sun CoverYears later, a story did come to me about a boy named Paulo living on that border. I tried writing it, but it never panned out and I abandoned the idea. Years later, another story came to me about an empty and unfeeling girl named Dani. Her story merged with that long ago abandoned one about Paulo. They meet as Dani is walking in the desert. He sees in her something he knows well: tragedy. And he feels drawn to her in that way we sometimes are to those who might share a similar pain. So he helps Dani and introduces her to his grandmother, who also helps her.

Paulo’s grandmother is an interesting character to me because she is someone I have always known. In her I see my mother who came to the United States all alone after her mother died. I see my grandmothers, women whose faces I have imagined in those hot, dusty countries where they were born and lived unimaginably hard lives. And I see my mother in-law, an immigrant from Mexico, with her own share of stories of a hard life. She is the one who introduced me to teas and instilled in me a belief that different ones can cure different ailments and remedy almost anything.

I’ve been raised, nurtured, and surrounded by these strong women, women who are equal parts hard and loving. They’ve had to survive great hardships, broken dreams and tragedies. But they survived, thrived even. And I’ve elevated them to goddess-like statures. To me, they are magical in that there is nothing they can’t do, nothing they can’t endure and overcome. Paulo’s grandmother is a culmination of the women I love. She is someone who has survived and helps others survive, who can bring back the dead even. She is always there, appearing even in dreams. Just like the women in my life.

I think it’s interesting how stories are woven, how truth becomes inspiration that merges with lies and the imagined. I love seeing that thin thread of the real in my stories. I love seeing the people in my life, in some way, in some form or transformation, make their way into my stories. And while their stories are not the focus of mine, their influence is never far.

 

JENNY TORRES SANCHEZ is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children. She is the author of The Downside of Being Charlie, Death, Dickinson, and the Demented Life of Frenchie Garcia, and Because of the Sun.