On her website, Meg Medina – who won the Pura Belpré Award for Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, and received a Belpré Honor for Mango, Abuela and Me — describes herself as a “Latina author of libros for kids of all ages.” Libros, of course, is Spanish for books, and Medina’s use of both languages speaks to her passionate belief that her books about Latinas are both specific and universal. Her new novel, Burn Baby Burn, tells the story of high school senior Nora Lopez and her struggles with family, money, love, and the question of what to do next, as well as what it was like to live in the dangerous, chaotic, and exciting New York City of 1977. From her home in Richmond, Va., Medina spoke with PW about her new YA book and how it reflects her larger writing interest, which is family as seen through the lens of Latina teenagers.
Burn Baby Burn takes place over one summer, but it covers a lot of ground in the lives of its characters, and in the life of New York City, which almost seems like a character itself.
Right. It’s the whole ajiaco, as we say in Cuba; it’s a big soup with all the vegetables.
So where did the book start for you?
I was 13 in 1977, and it was just an epic year in New York City’s collective history. It felt like everything was at the brink of disaster, and yet there was this energy, this scary yet thrilling chaotic energy. I remember the smell of urine, the graffiti, the sense that you could get mugged at any time.
As I was writing, the biggest challenge was that I didn’t want to use the Son of Sam murders in a way that would disrespect the suffering of those who were hurt and killed. And yet these murders were so much a part of the history of that year. The other challenge was that there was just so much going on. My very wise editor [Kate Fletcher] told me, ‘Keep your focus on Nora. What is it that’s happening for her?’ The rest of it is her world. It informs how she’s going to act, it limits and opens her decisions, and so on, but the book is about this young woman trying to grow up and out at a time when everything in her family and her city is imploding.
The book is described on your website as historical fiction – a term your adult readers or the parents of your teen readers might find surprising.
Yes, it’s historical fiction. Isn’t that fast?!
That brings up the question of feminism, which is all over the book – its energy, its appeal, the necessity of the struggle. Is that “historical,” given that many young women and girls today don’t consider themselves feminists? Was that something you thought about?
I think about that every day – with agony. It’s been very sad for me to see that feminism has become the “F” word for some girls. Young women may not realize that the rights they enjoy now were fought for by the women who came before them. The science class they’re taking, access to sports, maternity leave, protections against date rape—these were fought for; no one gave them to us. No movement stays stagnant, so it will be up to young women to continue to define feminism and what their issues are, but ideally with an appreciation for what was done and gifted to them.
Nora and her friend Kathleen are 17; their feminism isn’t fully conscious until they have to make decisions about their intimate relationships, about what college is going to be like, about where the boundaries are with men in their lives. I wanted to have these young women come into an awareness of what they were up against and have to push forward.
One strand in this book that perhaps relates to this is the depiction of Nora’s father. Nora and her mother and brother are really struggling while her father has made a comfortable life with a new family. Where did that come from?
It relates to my history. My parents came here from Cuba and their marriage did not survive that; he was a surgeon, and my mother worked in a factory at minimum wage. I lived the galling reality that Nora does, and that a lot of people do and did. My editor was so great because in an earlier version, I didn’t have that scene where Nora lets her father have it, and she said I needed it. I sat down to write it, and it was a very cleansing experience.
Nora also has a brother, Hector. He’s awful to Nora, but he’s physically abusive to their mother. He’s terrifying.
He is terrifying. I don’t outline, so every day I would go in and see him. What I can say about that is this: juvenile domestic violence is no joke. When we think about domestic violence, we always think of the parents, but we have violent children as well. People may be trying to get help, and they can’t get through the mental health system, and that’s made worse if you’re an immigrant family where language is an impediment or cultural understanding is an impediment. You need a health care professional with cultural competence. And there’s financial need. It’s really challenging. So there I was, writing Hector, with that feeling of being trapped with a bomb in the room.
Your last book, Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass, has faced censorship. What specifically were people upset about? And do you anticipate any issues with Burn?
They put me through the wringer for putting “ass” in the title. I guarantee that I’m going to get pushback on this one, too, because I mention birth control and Planned Parenthood. I tell people – that was the reality then. Maybe you don’t like that reality, but it what was we were thinking about. I’ve traveled a lot with Yaqui Delgado, and I’ve had people questioning whether I’m good for kids, questioning what I’m telling girls. I think they’ll have the same complaints about this novel. But I’m undeterred. Going from girlhood to womanhood is a crazy, hard, fantastic journey of figuring out what the engine of your power is, and that’s the story I want to keep offering girls.
You’ve been active in the We Need Diverse Books movement. Can you talk about that?
Yes. Initially I was on their executive board, but I couldn’t keep up that level of activity, so I’m on the advisory board now. I try to keep the issue alive and in the thinking of librarians, and teachers, and parents, and readers as they build their collections and make recommendations. And it’s never an easy conversation when you’re talking about change, when people have to notice blind spots. But we move forward if we have these conversations with grace and civility.
Are you surprised that we’re still talking about these issues in 2015 and 2016?
Yes. It’s very sad to think that decade after decade people just fold their hands and say it’s a shame, but no substantive change happens. What I love about WNDB is that instead of simply pointing out what’s happening, they turned to action. Funding internships, finding new voices, creating packets for libraries, being present in conferences – it’s all action, forward movement, rather than just a complaint.
You’re Latina –the heroine of Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass is Dominican and Cuban, and your background is Cuban. Latin America is made up of many different cultures and countries. Do you do research for characters whose backgrounds are different from yours?
Yes, and I can get it as wrong as anyone else. Because when you say Latino, you’re talking about a multitude of countries and customs. But in my own life I have friends, relatives. I’ve had ample exposure to Latino people of different cultures. I feel like I got Yaqui right, but if I were to write a character from Argentina or Chile, I’d have to put in the research like anyone else.
In Burn, Baby Burn, I had Stiller, who is Black. I love Stiller; she’s my favorite character in the book. She’s a really important ally for Nora, and I worried about writing her. I had to do a lot of research and not take for granted that I got it right. When I finished drafting the book, I sent it to writer friends who are women of color and to bookish friends who would have been about Stiller’s age at the time, and asked them to give feedback. I wanted to get her right, and I needed to make sure that it wasn’t a one-size-fits all feminism.
Perhaps that speaks to what we now call intersectionality?
Yes. The intersectionality question is really interesting to me. I love to hear the debate. And Stiller articulates this in the novel, the idea that there are many ways to be controlled, put down, discriminated against, so which lens are you looking through? For me, personally, I identify as a Latina, as a bi-cultural American, as an author, as a mother, but the one that overarches everything for me is that I see myself as a woman. That’s how I move through the world, that’s my commitment to feminism, all things girl, strong girl, voice, equality. Those are the things that matter to me. But it’s an interesting debate. It will be interesting to see in 10 years time how today’s girls are thinking about it.
What’s next for you? What are you working on now?
I’m working on a middle grade novel for Candlewick, and I’m really delighting in it. I’ve done these two YA novels about the hard things of growing up; I need an emotional rest. I need to look on the bright side before I can come back and consider what it’s like to grow up as a teenager. It does feature a girl; you can always count on that.
Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina. Candlewick, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-7636-7467-0