Jenny Torres Sanchez’s first YA novel, The Downside of Being Charlie, was published in 2012; in her timely fifth book, We Are Not from Here, she follows three teens attempting the dangerous journey from their violence-ridden village in Guatemala to the United States, on their own. Sanchez spoke with PW from her home in Orlando, Fla., about her affinity for those who feel like outsiders and the challenges of writing authentically about the experiences of Central American migrants.
In your author’s note you say you began writing this book in 2015. You also say that you’ve been “trying to write it” for five years. Can you trace the build-up of inspiration?
I can’t pinpoint exactly when I began the book. The idea came from hearing all the news about children making the journey from Central America by themselves. It was so heartbreaking to hear about such vulnerable lives being put at so much risk. My parents are from Central America; I myself am a mother—so it hit hard and it hurt. As I learned more and more about La Bestia and then thought about how kids had to figure out first how to get out of Central America and to the train, I realized I wanted to write a story that shed some light on all that. The idea was with me for a long time.
The biographical note on your website says that you have “lived on the border of two worlds” your entire life. Why do you feel this way?
I always felt like a bit of an outsider, like I didn’t quite belong anywhere. I’m the child of immigrants. My mother was born in Guatemala and my father is from El Salvador. They were very, very traditional. So growing up in American culture, I didn’t feel like my peers. My parents didn’t quite understand my American thinking. I felt very in between. As a result, I can look at two different worlds and understand both.
I was born in Brooklyn and lived there until I was three years old. We moved to the town of Uniondale on Long Island and lived there for seven years, and then moved to Orlando. Orlando is pretty diverse now, but 30 years ago, when we arrived, it was very much part of the Old South. I had never seen a Confederate flag before. We encountered racism. And I also experienced a split between the north and the south of the United States. Again, a sense of being part of two worlds. And finally, I was a kid who liked to imagine a lot and to read. So I also had a sense of the border between reality and imagination. I write fiction because I like creating imaginary worlds.
You’ve stayed in Orlando. Does it feel like home to you now?
It does feel like home. But when I go back to New York, it also oddly feels like home—especially things like the smell of pizza.
Puerto Barrios, where the book begins, is a real place, which you’ve visited many times, you write. What were your experiences there like?
My mother is from Puerto Barrios and her sister and brother still live there, although my uncle recently passed away. We often visited her family, so I set the book there because it was the first place that came to mind. I have beautiful memories of it and yet I also heard stories from my aunt about violence erupting there, although I myself never saw any violence on my visits. My mind is filled with memories of passing the day walking back and forth to the store across the way, the store that becomes Don Felicio’s store in the book And of going to Rio Dulce with my family, a place that holds an important memory for Pequeña. Of driving to and from Honduras and being awed by the beauty of the landscape. And of going to the cemetery to visit my beloved Abuelo Ramon, and now learning there’s risk in just going there to grieve. [In my book,] Pulga says every beautiful thing turns black in his world, and that’s sort of how I feel in knowing what’s happening to that beautiful place that lives in my memory.
The teenagers’ trek through Guatemala and the ride on La Bestia are all so visceral and detailed. What was your research process?
When I write, I picture things very vividly—it’s like a movie playing out in my head. I try to describe what I’m seeing. But I did research the regions so I could be as accurate as possible. And then it was about falling into the story as though I were one of the characters. I read a lot of nonfiction about La Bestia, especially a book called The Beast by Óscar Martínez, a journalist who took the trip many times, risking his life. He also wrote a book called A History of Violence—I relied a lot on that kind of journalism. Then there is Valeria Luiselli’s book Tell Me How It Ends, which is heartbreaking. She did intake for migrant children, so she wrote down the stories they told her about why they had to leave their countries.
I also read a lot of Central American history to know where all this violence stems from. What has made migrants flee didn’t happen overnight. It’s the result of decades of corruption and involvement in the region by other countries, including the United States.
You created three very distinct characters in Pulga, Chico, and Pequeña. Where did they come from and what was it like to write in those different voices? Did you write the book as the reader reads it, or did you develop one character’s journey at a time?
They were all hanging out with me at the same time! There were definitely times when I focused more on one character and spent a couple of days on his or her story, days when one character’s voice was coming out more clearly. I would jump around. I write out of sequence.
When I started writing, I actually thought I would have four voices. But one of them wasn’t really working. I was introducing him too late in the book to bring his story fully into it. I also had more characters I wanted to insert into the story—I was writing vignettes in other voices, but it was becoming distracting, so my editor, Liza Kaplan, and I decided to eliminate those.
Versions of these characters have been with me forever, before I even began writing this book.
They were always Latinx characters. I had tried writing them in different stories but when I got this idea they showed up most fully and clearly. I realized this is the story they wanted me to tell. For example, Pequeña had been a mirage-like character for a long time. I had other stories I sort of wrote with a character like Pequeña, but it wasn’t her. When I began working on this story, she stepped up to it and I realized, “Oh, this is who you were.” Pulga was always on the border between two worlds, a little like me, and Chico was always his sidekick.
This is your fifth book. How was the process of writing it different from your previous books?
I did much more research for this book than for the others. My books all deal with difficult topics, so I always do some research, but here I wondered how I could tell this story when I couldn’t get on that train. So I had to work at filling in the gaps without having the ability to actually experience everything I was writing about.
And then, your other books are written from just one point of view.
Yes, although Because of the Sun does have some inserts from the character of the aunt. The Fall of Innocence is told in third person and mostly follows one character but we get into the heads of every member of her family. We learn how the main character’s trauma has affected them all. So, here, while I was writing two first-person voices for the first time and juggling more, I’d learned how to get into different characters’ heads a bit better. Writing this book right after The Fall of Innocence made it a little easier to do the two voices.
All of your books deal with some kind of trauma. What draws you to explore tough issues?
I taught language arts in high school for several years. People make generalizations about stereotypical teens but I want to show teens are coping with heavy issues—they have things on their shoulders most adults would have trouble with. And then, because I always felt like an outsider, I want teens to know there are books about outsiders. I also wanted to foster sympathy among other readers—who might not have serious difficulties to deal with—for those teens who do.
People talk a lot nowadays about writing books that are both mirrors and windows, which is what you seem to be describing. Is that why you choose to write YA?
Yes, it’s a time of my life that I remember so well—the angst you carry at that age! It can be such a confusing time; coming out of the bubble of childhood, the curtain is pulled back and you see all the problems that exist. My teenage students were jaded and hopeful at the same time and that’s such an interesting perspective to write a story from.
Did you always want to be a writer? When did you begin to write?
In fourth grade I won a writing contest. The prompt was to write a story about what it would be like to be three inches tall. I had so much fun with it—I couldn’t believe it was a school assignment. I didn’t even realize it was a county-wide contest. My parents were so proud of me! From that moment, secretly in my heart I carried the idea that maybe I could write stories. But as I grew up, I wasn’t told stories by Latinx authors. Writers didn’t have names like mine so I thought maybe this isn’t for me.
When did that start to change?
When I was at university I began reading Latinx writers in English literature classes. But I still didn’t know how to become an author. That wasn’t something I could truly see happening for me. It seemed an out-of-reach dream I couldn’t risk pursuing. See, there’s this pressure as a child of immigrants. You live knowing the huge sacrifices your parents have made. You live knowing you can’t fail them. You have to honor those sacrifices. I majored in literature because I thought I might become a lawyer. Being an author was not the kind of thing that I saw as possible for me.
While I was teaching, though, I decided to try to get a master’s degree in creative writing. I applied four times but kept getting rejected. I was told I had a lot of potential, but the door kept getting slammed in my face. So I decided I would figure this out myself. I started researching how people get published; I learned about queries and agents and all that.
I started writing with a purpose when my second child was about 15 months old. He wasn’t developing at the same rate as my nephew, who was the same age. He had several speech delay issues and social development delay. So I left my job to take him to all his therapies—it was a very difficult time. While he was in therapy, I started going to a coffee shop nearby and writing a story about a very sensitive teenage boy. I also missed being with my teenage students and their fresh perspective. That story became The Downside of Being Charlie, my first book.
After my kids were in bed, I started querying agents. The first time somebody requested a full manuscript was the moment I knew that I could publish a book. The 13th agent I queried was Kerry Sparks, who has been my agent ever since.
Questions of authenticity in books and who gets to tell whose stories have been much under discussion in recent years. Did you worry about that in writing this book?
I do worry, even being a Latinx writer, that I’m doing as much justice to the story as I possibly can. I wanted to do right by my characters and by my community. I wanted to make them proud, and I wanted them to say, “Yes, that’s our story.” I wrote with a lot of care and a lot of love. I couldn’t shy away from violence, and I couldn’t sugarcoat it. But I didn’t want it to be gratuitous or sensationalized.
My question was, how do I tell the truth and honor these characters and their culture? I was very careful about how I wrote. I tried to make the danger and violence the backdrop, and to make the characters shine.
All my books deal with tough things. I want to have realistic endings—and that was especially true for this book. I wanted to be honest about how dangerous and terrifying the situation is.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a story that’s been with me a while. It’s about sisters and family relationships. I want to include some historical material and some magical realism. It was actually supposed to be published before this one; it was on contract but we put it on the back burner when I realized I had to write this book.
We Are Not from Here was so important to me I had to write it first. I wasn’t sure I would be able to do it. My parents are from Central America; my husband is Mexican. They have always been proud of my books but they are especially proud and most excited about this one. And when you make your parents proud, that’s the best feeling!
So your parents have read this book?
English is not their first language so they haven’t read any of my books. But I just got the wonderful news that this book is going to be my first one to be translated into Spanish! So it will be the first of my books my parents will be able to read.
We Are Not from Here by Jenny Torres Sanchez. Philomel, $18.99 May 19 ISBN 978-1-9848-1226-1