In honor of Latinx Heritage Month, Bloomsbury hosted a virtual panel featuring four acclaimed YA authors on September 24. Adriana Herrera, an Afro-Dominicana romance author, moderated the conversation among Ibi Zoboi (Punching the Air, with Yusef Salaam, HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray), Lilliam Rivera (Never Look Back, Bloomsbury), Zoraida Córdova (Wayward Witch, Sourcebooks Fire), and Mark Oshiro (Each of Us a Desert, Tor Teen). Tickets were available with the purchase of one of those novels through six independent Latinx bookshops across the country—Mil Mundos, Brooklyn, N.Y.; Third House Books, Gainesville, Fla.; Epilogue Books, Chapel Hill, N.C.; Booklandia, Oakland, Calif.; Kew & Willow Books, Queens, N.Y.; and Palabras Bilingual Bookstore, Phoenix.
The panel, facilitated via Crowdcast, started off with introductions as Herrera asked each panelist what being Latinx meant to them.
Born in Haiti, Zoboi began by clarifying that she doesn’t identify as Latinx or Afro-Latinx because she is “visibly Black.” While Punching the Air is about a Black Muslim boy, she said the book tangentially relates to Latinx identity because Zoboi met co-author Salaam at Hunter College in New York in 1999, taking a class on Black studies that was part of the Black and Puerto Rican Studies department. Zoboi stated her thanks for being included in these spaces because she is multilingual and not from an Anglophone country.
Bronx-raised Rivera praised the inclusivity of the word “Latinx” and said she wants to have conversations about colorism and anti-Blackness in Latinx communities, which she broaches in Never Look Back.
Born in Ecuador and raised in Queens, Córdova was up next, speaking about the difference in young adult literature from 2008–2012, wherein publishing still used coded language to say, “We already have a Latinx book this season.” She hopes for further diversification and wants to continue expanding the speculative fiction landscape.
Last but not least, Oshiro first said they were happy to “represent transracial adoptees,” as their last name is a traditional Japanese surname. Growing up in Southern California and attempting to connect to their Mexican biological father’s heritage, Oshiro learned and used the term “Chicano,” which they speculated is not used in New York. Oshiro aims to center queer Latinx characters in their work.
For the first question, Herrera asked about overburdened teen characters finding their power in each of the novels, and what the authors meant to convey.
Zoboi revealed the context behind Punching the Air: Salaam is one of the Exonerated Five (formerly called the Central Park Five), one of whom is Puerto Rican. “We just grew up in a New York City that lumped Black and Puerto Ricans [together],” Zoboi said, before speculating on the amount of racially violent incidents during the ’80s and ’90s. “There was so much violence in my New York City that I absorbed it all, and the only thing that I could do was become a writer.” Ultimately, the novel features Zoboi and Salaam reflecting on and processing childhood during that time, reminding teens that “their voice and their power is their art.”
Rivera concurred with Zoboi, saying that, growing up in the New York City projects, the only way she could deal with trauma was through writing. Never Look Back is about her family’s experiences in Puerto Rico during Hurricane Maria. The film Black Orpheus helped her structure her pain, as the book became a retelling of the “Orpheus and Eurydice” myth set in the Bronx.
Córdova admitted she was “terrified to write” her Brooklyn Brujas series, because of pushback she’d received before on her narratives being too Latinx or foreign. “The whole metaphor for the magic is culture—how we identify with it, how we want to see it,” Córdova explained, so each of the three sisters in the series had to have a different journey. She continued by discussing how growing up, she had been handed books like The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan, when what she’d sought, and what she writes today, is fantasy. “I always write from a place of exploring the themes of the things we inherit as immigrants, as second-generation kids,” Córdova concluded.
Oshiro spoke about the pushback they had received against novels with teenage characters in adult situations. By saying that gatekeepers don’t want to expose kids to that kind of negativity, “it erases all of the children who are experiencing those things, who are going through it,” Oshiro pointed out. They continued by talking about how ex-Catholic guilt featured prominently in their book; they observed that doubt can actually strengthen one’s faith, but that they had not received encouragement to question any sort of authority figure as a child.
Herrera next asked about setting, how each author selected where to situate their books and how they did research.
Zoboi went first, speaking about the jail in lockdown setting, which Salaam had experienced for six years. Her conversations with Salaam were mostly philosophical, and of course she did some research, she explained, but she knew so many people growing up in New York City who had spent time in jail. “Jail culture was just part of New York City youth culture,” Zoboi said. “In our language, in our dress, in our outlook.”
Rivera discussed setting Never Look Back in the Bronx and Puerto Rico, specifically the mountain and lake regions as opposed to the island’s more commonly spotlighted beaches. Rivera and Bloomsbury hired sensitivity readers for every aspect, she revealed, as “it’s all about double-checking your work.” Rivera, who now lives in Los Angeles, said, “I love writing about the Bronx because I miss it.”
“Setting is important to me as a fantasy writer,” Córdova stated. While she knew the reality of the New York City setting, establishing the fantasy islands was more difficult. “I put my characters through journeys where they have to walk a lot, so I research by going hiking and backpacking,” Córdova said. She also did a lot of research on plants that grow in the Caribbean. There are not that many Latinx-coded fantasy worlds that have been published, Córdova observed, so there is more legwork to do with fewer comps.
That was a difficulty for Oshiro as well in writing fantasy, they said. Their creatures were not featured in anyone else’s fantasy, so not only did they have to onboard readers to the culture, they also had to introduce a whole world that bore few similarities to other works. “That being said, like everyone else, you go with what’s personal,” Oshiro said, mentioning how they lived in Oakland as an adult, which was the setting of their debut novel Anger Is a Gift, but grew up in Riverside, Calif., “out toward Satan’s armpit,” a 20-minute drive from the desert, which inspired Each of Us a Desert. “Don’t give yourself heat exhaustion; it’s terrible,” Oshiro said of their research process, which included traveling through the desert.
“There is a versatility, a resilience to teenage characters,” Córdova said, answering the perennial “why YA?” question during the closing q&a. “It is the very first time of your life that you are leaving the identity of your family and coming into your own.”