Books | Interview with Meg Medina
Latino Literature is where it's at - here's why you should read it!
If you haven’t picked up a good book in a while, now’s your chance. At Latin é we’re always looking for new books that feature a diverse cast of characters. We believe that our literature should reflect who we are as a nation, and it’s always a pleasure to find books featuring strong Latino heros and heroines. So when I picked up a copy of The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind I was determined to speak with the woman behind it. Then, after a fantastic interview with Leslye Walton about The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, I had the chance to read another YA book from Candlewick Press, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. So when I got a chance to sit down with Meg Medina, author-extraordinaire, I couldn’t wait to talk with her about diverse books.
It was a great conversation, and we’re so proud to share it with all of you!
é: I have to say, Sonia’s my favorite – I love her – and I love magical realism. Whenever I find it in a book, and it’s creeping back in to YA literature it seems like, I’m very happy.
Meg: It is. I think it is creeping back in. I write magical realism in English, because I really want to introduce it to young readers. First of all, I love it too, for the same reason you love it, because I grew up with the stories. But it’s such a signature device of Latino literature. And I feel like the bicultural kids, or the Latino kids, being raised here, I want to make sure that they get this experience – that they get to experience what Magical Realism has to offer, in books about their culture, but in their dominant language. Because that’s really what happens when you’re raised here as a Latino kid, you might speak Spanish, but often you speak English as your primary language. So I just want to make sure that I close that loop for them. That they have that exposure, so that they can be really proud of our proud contribution to literature.
é: It is, far and away, the biggest Latino genre, and it’s a beautiful one. I’m a little biased, maybe; I read Bless Me Ultima when I was a kid, and just fell in love with it. Of course, at Latin é that’s what we’re all about. We do all of our news in English because predominately the American Latino, second and third generation, they don’t speak Spanish primarily. They want their news in English, and I think that it’s nice that you bring the whole culture together. I loved that, in Yaqui Delgado, Piddy is such an anti-stereotypical Latina girl. She’s light-skinned, she speaks proper English, she’s good in school.
Meg: She likes science…
é: Exactly. And I was going to ask you, though I don’t even need to as you’ve got your beautiful pin, but I was going to ask you if you participated in the We Need Diverse Books movement that recently exploded.
Meg: Oh I did! The We Need Diverse Books campaign, well, Ellen Oh and I were at an event together – the NOVA teen books festival – anyway, we were there and just bemoaning the same statistic that comes out every year. And Ellen looked and me and said, “I am so sick of this.” She said, “If we’re going to do something, we’ve got to do something big. Are you in?” And typical, to me, I said, “Yeah sure! Why not?” Well, she did go big. She designed this campaign. I am not as active as Ellen is, surely, but my promise to the group is when I’m at these events I speak about the campaign, I talk about the need for books that represent everybody. It’s not about wanting “minority books” instead of “white books” – the whole idea is just having a collection of books that represent everyone, so we all get to learn together about each other.
é: The thing is, we get the same exact book again and again, and I have nothing against books with white heroines, I love them as much as I love anything else. But it’s so counter to everything you grow up with. The fact that we’re still classifying minority literature and white literature – I grew up in Texas, where we’re not even the majority so it doesn’t make any sense – is silly.
Meg: Well we’re not the minority anywhere. This is the first year where minority students in public schools in the US will be the majority. So if you put together all of the minority students they make up a bigger chunk of the student body than white students. It scares people though, and some people find the conversation about diverse books “anti-American.” That’s a hard conversation to have with someone. Despite how we like to look at ourselves as this welcoming melting pot country, the race conversation here gets very heated very quickly. It’s a strange conversation. But I’ll tell you, to the extent that my books can help push that along, my books have no other agenda than to show the story of growing up under a slightly different lens. And Piddy is a teenager in the United States growing up, who’s from Latino heritage. It’s just the lens, but I think that kids from all backgrounds have ended up connecting with her. In the end, her story is about the universal horror of growing up and finding yourself in the crosshairs of a bully. With regards to Sonia, that’s more of a classic tale – very different styles.
é: Yes they are. What was it like, making that transition from the two?
Meg: I love Magical Realism; that’s the voice of my very first novel. But in this novel – The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind – I was starting to think about and grapple with current day problems of undocumented immigrants and why people migrate. And I was really trying to answer that question for myself –why do people migrate? Why does it matter? And it kept distilling in my mind down to I think young people these days, they need hope. They want to put their eyes on a future point for themselves, and when that point doesn’t exist it’s like air being sucked out of a room. Young people need hope to thrive and grow. So even though it’s magical realism, I’m writing about migration which is a very current and modern problem. When I wrote Yaqui Delgado, it was a short story that was supposed to be in an anthology. It was Latinas at a turning point, and wonderful Latina authors were going to be in this anthology, and I was so honored to be a part of it. But then the author went to a different publishing house, and the book got orphaned and it didn’t happen. I was heartbroken, and my editor, Kate, said, “Let me just see what you’ve done with the contemporary voice,” and the first line of the book comes from real life. I did have a similar experience myself in the eight grade- I was younger than Piddy was – having somebody come up to you and say, “So-and-so’s going to kick your ass,” is terrifying. And so her voice is very dear to me.
é: That’s terrifying no matter how old you are.
Meg: And what I really tried to do was give Piddy a neighborhood, a community, a family, a group of friends who really showcase all the different kinds of Latinas in her life. But also, kids in her school of different ethnic backgrounds – they’re all there. And that’s the world that Latino kids are inhabiting. That’s the world that all kids in the United States are inhabiting.
é: So, you won the Pura Belpre award. What was that like?
Meg: It was a huge honor – I’m not even sure what to say about it. It’s shocking and also really gratifying. When you write a book that’s based on something that’s meaningful personally, sometimes you have to go in and mine things you would rather forget. You have to have the courage to go in there and face it and dig it up – who you were then, what you experienced, etc. There were days when I wrote this book that I was crying for Piddy too, and the kid I was at fifteen in this situation. You feel very naked doing that. So to have it connect in the way that it did, and to have it win awards, that’s very gratifying. It gave me a lot of courage, to keep writing, to keep trying to share this message.
é: I think it’s very telling that people want these kinds of books – they’re buying them.
Meg: Well, I would like to see more sales. I would love to see more Latino families buying these books. There are so few books out there that cover Latinos, and you know, Latino families cover all the different economic and social categories, and it’s important for our kids to have these books on their shelves. We need to all step forward together and say, “this is the literature of our country.” And we need to support it.
é: At Latin é, the thing that I love most about working here, is that we’re all about supporting cultural learning. Now, the other thing that I loved when I picked up Yaqui Delgado was that the title – Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass – struck me as being very masculine. I was expecting it to be a boys book, but then there’s this incredibly diverse cast of strong, unique, female characters. It was very surprising, but awesome. Did you always know you wanted this to be a female-centered story?
Meg: The tag that I like to have in all of my work, the tag I use to describe all of the things I write, is tough circumstances, strong girls, and the connecting power of culture. I’m fascinated by strong girls. I’m a strong feminist, I also am just fascinated by how girls remain resilient and stay true to themselves when there’s so much to push against them. In the end I think tapping into what makes you you, which is very hard to do when you’re a teenager, is what fosters that resilience.
é: I saw this same thing in The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind; not just in Sonia, but in her mother, in Dalia. And I love when I read a book so outside of my own experiences – I cannot silence the wind, literally at least – and find myself reflected in them. I saw my own mother, letting me go to DC for college, which was very difficult for her to let me go. But you know, that sense that it’s not just the young girls that we can learn from, but it’s the entire surrounding cast of characters.
Meg: Sometimes in YA literature we make all the adults either really stupid or dead. And that’s just not the case. There are stupid parents and idiotic teachers, but that’s not all of them. You will also, largely have, many people in your life of many different ages who can help you. I try very hard to put them in my stories. Family can be a source of pain for some people, but they can also be a huge sense of support. They can help you figure it out, and if they can’t help you figure it out they can at least stand by you while you figure it out.
é: Now I’m thinking back on all the YA literature I’ve read over the years, and you’re right.
Meg: They’re all dead or dumb.
é: Yeah. It’s like children’s cartoons – as a kid you see nothing wrong with there being no parents in any of the shows you watch, but as an adult I see those shows and I think, “Where are the parents? Who’s signing the field trip forms and paying for everything?”
Meg: Exactly. I think kids like to be at the center of their stories, and that’s a very healthy thing, but we shouldn’t ignore the reality that it takes many people to help shape who you are and how you see yourself.
é: It’s a perfectly normal thing to fight with your parents, just like it’s a perfectly normal thing for them to still love you afterwards. One of the things, in both your stories, that I liked, is that they don’t end in this idyllic “Happily Ever After.” That’s not to say that they don’t have happy endings, but it’s very honest, very bittersweet. I think that’s something that I wish I had read more of when I was younger, because life is so much more bittersweet than we imagine as children. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really come to appreciate a satisfying ending over a traditionally happy one. I think it’s so important for young people to see, that their lives don’t have to end or be this perfect episode that can just be completely summed up at the end with a soliloquy – but they can still be satisfied.
Meg: Like, there is something after this. Which I think is an important message for teens in general. Because growing up, let’s face it, it’s not for the weak. It’s really hard, and I like when books don’t wrap it up, because you’re problems don’t wrap up nicely. But there’s something after this, there’s something after this time of being a teenager when everything is so hard and so painful. There’s something more.
é: That’s a great note to end on, but I have just a couple more questions. First, can you give us some hint about what’s coming next for you?
Meg: Well, because I write for kids of all ages, my next book is a picture book called Mango, Abuela, and Me. It’s about a girl who doesn’t speak Spanish, her grandmother who doesn’t speak English, and a bird they buy to help them. And the next novel I’m working out will be out in early 2016, and it’s called Burn, Baby, Burn – it’s set in Queens, but it’s historical fiction, set in the summer of 1977. I’m in edits for that right now and I’m loving it.
é: My last question is just for you – do you have anything you’d like to tell your fans, or anything to say to those who haven’t picked up one of your books yet, but hopefully will now?
Meg: I would say is that I invite them to read my books. I invite them to step forward and read Latino books. There’s so much great material out there now. I’ll write them if they read them.
é: Thank you so much, this has been a pleasure.
There you have it Folks, the incredible Meg Medina – check her out here and get yourself a copy of her books.