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YA Novelist Nina Moreno’s First Book Satiates ODAAT Fans

Nina Moreno’s debut novel Don’t Date Rosa Santosis set to be released May 14 but she’s already  working on her next Latina love story cause she’s “here to fill up that shelf.” The 33-year-old writer who was born and raised in Miami in a Cuban-Colombian home loves the sea, Cuban coffee, and rom-coms. A self-proclaimed Southern Bruja, she was inspired by the folklore passed down from her family and in her down time she enjoys tending to altars and reading tarot cards. Her protagonist, Rosa Santos, is, in a sense, an extension of  Moreno, spiritual and alternating between two cultures as a young Latina in America.

The novel tells the story of teenager named Rosa Santos who is allegedly cursed by the sea and has no luck when it comes to dating. She’s caught between her Cuban abuela who is a beloved healer and her mom, an artist who comes in and out of her life in their hometown of Port Coral in South Florida. On the cusp of deciding where to go to college she meets Alex Aquino, whose family owns the marina and he become a part of what sets her on a path to potentially breaking the curse.

Read on to learn about how her family and culture inspired the book, why she chose to tell a Latinx love story, and how the book portrays the inherited trauma of exile.

In your bio you state that you write “about Latinas chasing their dreams, falling in love, and navigating life in the hyphen,” can you tell me where you draw your inspiration from?

My goal as a writer is to tell stories that not only include us but star us. I love romantic comedies and coming-of-age stories, and I want Latinx readers to have whole shelves of those books featuring them front and center.

You’re a self-proclaimed Southern Bruja, in what ways do you identify as a bruja and does that influence your writings at all?

How I interact with my faith and spirituality shapes how I carry myself through life. The ways my father taught me to honor my ancestors and guides, is how I talk to him now that he’s gone. It’s about being present and listening and from that energy is how I tell stories.

Your book has been described as a mix of Gilmore Girls and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before how did romantic comedies or romantic literature influence the making of this book?

@ninamoreno / Instagram

I love romance and this book is a love letter to a lot of things, including romantic comedies. I wanted to explore the love and longing of the Latinx diaspora experience while hitting those rom-com beats.

How did your Cuban and Colombian roots influence you growing up? How does your Latinx background play out in the story and characters?

My cultures influenced everything at home. Even when we lived in a small town in Georgia we were that family roasting a whole pig outside while Celia Cruz blasted on the speakers. For this book, I wanted a community that knew, understood, and found comfort in that rhythm. American Latinx teens bring their cultures with them as they explore all these other aspects of their identity, so it was important for me to offer space for that.  

When did you start writing the book and what was the writing process like?

I started and stopped writing this story for over four years. I doubted myself every step of the way. Could a story about a Latina do this? Was it Latinx enough? Was it too much? I was terrified to tell a story about Cuba as a next-generation daughter and let all of my influences shape the story. Writing Rosa was about making peace with all the things that make me me.

You personally have a love for the sea and the protagonist in your book is cursed by it, can you talk about the reasoning behind that?

Rosa’s relationship to the sea is about the inherited trauma of exile and also the complicated relationships we have with family, home, and our legacies. Rosa is fascinated by the feeling she gets when she gets close to the sea, but she knows that it’s a mystery that holds so many of her family’s tragedies. And yet, like anyone, she wants to know and understand, because it’s part of her story.

How would you describe Rosa Santos and what inspired the character?

@ninamoreno / Instagram

Rosa is a Type A Latina just doing her best. She’s warm, thoughtful, loyal, and a bit anxious. Raised by her abuela, her tastes and style lean a bit retro. She was inspired a bit by my own abuela, and also different bookish rom-com characters I’ve loved.

How did you go about deciding how to portray a Latinx love story with magical elements and cultural influences?

I knew there was no other way for me to write a Latinx love story, and all those elements became stronger when I stopped questioning myself so much.

What was the most challenging aspect of writing your first book?

Writing it! And then believing in myself and this book even while dealing with rejections. Especially while dealing with rejections.

What was the most rewarding aspect?

I wrote a book! I did the thing I’d always dreamed about and got to see it actually happen after a lot of hard work. I hope my ancestors are proud.

Who have been some of the YA Latina novelists that have influenced you?

I’m a huge fangirl of Zoraida Córdova and Lilliam Rivera who are both incredibly supportive to up-and-coming writers. That energy inspired a group of us to form Las Musas Books where it’s all about making space for each other and not letting publishing turn us into each other’s competition for that one seat at the table. We’re building more.

Do you have any advice for aspiring YA Latina writers?

Trust your voice, work on your craft, listen to your gut, and know you’re the only one who can tell that story, so tell it. It’s going to be hard, but your community is here, and we want your story, too.

How would you describe the book to someone unsure about YA novels?

First, I would give them a huge list of amazing YA novels, because honestly, this is such an incredible moment for the category. This particular one is about a young Latina dealing with college, the family curse, and a doomed crush on a really cute boy.

What would you like readers to take away from this book?

@ninamoreno / Instagram

I would love readers to see that a specific story can be universal, too. Rosa loves her culture and it shapes so much of her story, but she isn’t trying to teach you anything. And I hope readers swoon a little, try Cuban food if they haven’t, and maybe remember to call their grandmother.

YA Novelist Michelle Ruiz Keil’s Debut Book is About Surviving Trauma and Finding Love as a Queer Latinx

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YA Novelist Michelle Ruiz Keil’s Debut Book is About Surviving Trauma and Finding Love as a Queer Latinx

Amazon | literary-arts.org

Michelle Ruiz Keil is about to release her first book June 18 but considering the hype surrounding All of Us with Wings is already receiving it’s easy to assume she’s an established novelist.  It was selected as one of Barnes & Noble’s most anticipated #OwnVoices YA books and a Book Riot must-read debut book and most anticipated LGBTQ book of 2019. This YA fantasy debut is about love, family, and healing set in a post-punk San Francisco and following the story of a 17-year-old Mexican-American girl named Xochi, She was living alone in San Francisco until she met 12-year-old Pallas and her pagan rockstar family who live in one of the city’s famous Victorian homes. She takes on the role of live-in governess for Pallas and together they accidentally summon a pair of ancient creatures set on avenging the wrongs of Xochi’s past.  

Keil is an only child who was born to a teen mom and a father who later passed away at the age of 30, both parents instilled a love of reading in her. She grew up in the Bay area and at 17 dropped out of high school and moved to San Francisco to study acting. She found a passion for theatre writing plays and her first play Pure Gold Baby produced in Oregon. She’s the founder/former director of The Portland Teen Actor’s Workshop and Milk & Honey Community Studio. She’s been reading tarot cards since she was 16 and, like the lead characters in her book, spirituality plays a big role in her life. She dedicated the book to her grandma, Luciana Ruiz Dudley, the matriarch of her Mexican family and her husband, whom she has two daughters with. She lives in a house in the woods above downtown Portland, Oregon and has a “coyote familiar” named Stella and is a self-proclaimed coyote whisperer and mythpunk word witch.

Here she talks about the post-punk music subculture and its role in the book, finding community as a mixed-race queer Latinx, and how this book is a love letter to those who overcame their traumas.

This is a magical coming of age story with a Latinx protagonist, what was the writing process like for your first book and why was this the story you chose to tell?

Writing this book was the result of a dare. Some of the teenagers at my daughters’ Free School decided they wanted to try NaNoWriMo [an
internet-based creative writing project]. Since I was a playwright, their teacher asked me to co-facilitate the class. I did it mainly to dare the kids into finishing their books—basically, if I can do it, you can do it. I also let them pick the story I’d write out of four possible plots. The one they chose eventually became All of Us with Wings.

Xochi is a bisexual and biracial Mexican-American girl trying to build a new life in San Francisco, can you explain how you decided on each of those elements to develop her character?

Like Xochi, I ran away to San Francisco at seventeen and fell in love with the city. I’m also mixed-race and bisexual. A bookseller once told me they were excited for my book because so many punk and post punk stories are centered on white people, but black and brown kids were there as well, playing in the bands as well as dancing to them. I wanted to write about a subculture where everyone is mixed and queer and making art and practicing magic and riding around on motorcycles. I wanted to capture the joy and relief of finding a community where, for the first time, all the parts of you are seen and accepted.

The friendship between Pallas and Xochi is key in the story and though they differ in age, sometimes Pallas is the wiser character. Can you talk a little about their friendship and how you developed the character of Pallas? 

I’m very interested in a certain kind of hero that we don’t often talk about. There’s a book I read in college, Global Woman: Nannies, Maids, and Sex Workers in the New Economy, [it] was the first place I encountered the term “emotional labor” and it really resonated with me, describing a skillset that includes empathy, conscientiousness, creativity, and endurance. These characteristics often show up in a trusty sidekick, but I wanted to see them shining out in a main character.

I also love governess stories—so many of my early literary heroines came of age working as teachers or caretakers-Anne Shirley, Jo March, Sara Crewe, Jane Eyre. The nanny/governess aspect of All of Us with Wings comes out of that.

Pallas’s character allowed me to explore another literary love—the story of the very precocious child. Pallas’s personality and personal style, cat hat and sharp tongue included, are mostly an homage to my two amazing daughters at that age.

There are elements of brujeria especially in the development of the Waterbabies, can you explain why this was important to you and what research went into it?

@michelleruizkeil / Instagram

I encountered stories of the Waterbabies at a Pacific Northwest hot spring and became deeply fascinated by the idea of creatures who appear as children but are actually ancient beings with extraordinarily power. I went down a research rabbit hole and read about such creatures worldwide. It was important to me to not re-write any of the stories I read but rather to find my own manifestation of that energy. There was an eco-horror element to many of the stories, the juxtaposition of innocence and an ancient understanding of natural law not centered around the lives of humans that was particularly compelling. And there was definitely an element of wish-fulfillment present as I imagined creatures that would avenge the wrongs of an abused child.

The elements of brujeria came from my own writing and spiritual practices– lighting candles and drawing cards, spaying charged water. When I wrote the Waterbabies, I did it from that space, but was hard to find the correct tone for them. Finally, I decided to try writing their POV chapters in verse. I had a deadline for my editor and also a high fever. That combination seemed to create enough heat and pressure to find their voices.

You feature multiple narrators and develop their distinct point of views, what was it like developing and writing these different perspectives and characters? Do you have a favorite? 

It’s so hard to pick a favorite! I loved writing Peasblossom, who is based on a real life bookstore cat with the same name. I also really enjoyed writing Kylen, the snarky bass player. He is very different from me, but his voice was so clear and easy to write—and, I thought, pretty dark and hilarious.  

Filling All of Us with Wings with multiple voices seemed like the only way to really tell the story. I think that, because of my background is in theater, voice comes pretty naturally to me. My very favorite scenes are the ones where the whole household is together in the kitchen. I just imagine it’s a play I’m directing and use the characters movements to keep the dialogue flowing.

You incorporate magical realism into the book which is huge in Latin American literature, can you talk about why that was important to you?

Magical realism is really just regular Tuesday to me. It’s how I see the world– full of life and purpose and magic. A few stories I’ve written are straight up contemporary, but even then, there is magic around the edges.

This is geared toward young adult readers but the book deals with serious issues including rape, underage romance, domestic violence, and drug use. What was the writing process like with such difficult subjects involving young protagonists? 

@michelleruizkeil / Instagram

I wanted to write a coming of age story for the girl I used to be. As an abuse survivor and mixed-race Latinx, I’ve struggled with empowerment and identity. Although promising and bright, I found myself unable to follow the prescribed path of

high school, college, and career as the effects of my childhood trauma became too obvious to ignore. I had to find my own rites of passage, my own path to becoming an adult. In practice, it was a hard story to write. There were many elements of the plot, many decisions Xochi makes in the story, that I tried to prevent or change. As a parent, I wanted to protect Xochi the way I’d protect my own girls. The way I wish I was protected. Eventually, I had to tell a story consistent with the character I’d created and true to my own experience as a young adult. I had to remind myself that it’s possible to feel empowered by something at seventeen that we see very differently a few years later. I also reminded myself that every choice I made, even the most perilous, was an honest attempt at finding myself that eventually led to the sweet life I have now. I had to trust Xochi to walk that path, too.

What message do you have for young readers who can relate to some of the trauma you write about?

In the beginning of the book, Xochi sees a movie called Wings Of Desire, an 80s art film about an angel who falls in love with a trapeze artist from a low-rent travelling circus. In the film, there is a character playing an actor visiting Berlin with a knack for recognizing angels—because he used to be one himself. He senses the lovelorn angel’s presence and holds out his hand in the empty air. “I can’t see you, but I know you’re there.” He touches his chest and smiles. “Friend,” he says. “Compañero”.

That’s what I hope All of Us with Wings is—my hand out to people who are struggling through the darkest part of the forest. My love letter to those who’ve made it out.

Can you explain the significance of the title and why you chose the family to be a part of a rock band and how that plays into the story?

The title comes from the song “Three Days” by Jane’s Addiction and is an ode to found family and complicated love, just like my book. As for Lady Frieda, the All of Us with Wings, I wanted a way to weave in some of the less known but, to me, more interesting parts of the late 80s indie music scene–the way certain bands were using magic, body modification through piercing and tattoos, and experimenting with communal living as part of their creative practice.

As a Latinx writer, how did you approach these Latinx characters and elements to represent the culture?

I knew I wanted to write about a character that struggles with finding her place in her culture. Personally, I’ve struggled with feeling Mexican at home with my family and rootless when I’m out in the world because it’s hard to place my ethnicity visually and because previous generations of our family have really valued assimilation so my Spanish isn’t great. I’ve had no connection with my Colombian side of the family which was disrupted by trauma. It’s a diaspora story I wanted to tell, this sense of rootlessness and loss of connection and hunger to be seen. It’s also an element that draws Xochi and Leviticus, Pallas’s father, to one another– even though their getting close is a very bad idea.

@michelleruizkeil / Instagram

What was the most challenging part of writing your first book and what has been the most rewarding so far?

The most challenging part of writing All of Us with Wings was teaching myself to write a book! Many people I know have several practice novels in the drawer, but my practice novel was just five versions of this same story. It took years, but I never could put it down.

The most rewarding thing had been connecting with so many kindred spirits through the writing and publication process, from my agent and publishing team to other writers and readers. It’s been pretty amazing!

Who were some of the Latinx writers that influenced you during the making of this book?

Anna-Marie MacLemore’s debut The Weight of Feathers made me believe there was a place for my kind of story in the world. Tehlor Kay Mejia, who is my critique partner and dear friend, has taught me so much about trusting my voice. Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes is a book I return to often. Estes is a Latinx storyteller and Jungian analyst who uses fairytale as a map for women’s stages of life. Her work helped me ground the experiences of Xochi, Pallas and Gina, Xochi’s mother, in story arcs that made organic sense.  

I’d also love to mention the support I’ve gotten during my debut year from Las Musas, a collective of Latinx YA and MG (Middle Grade) authors. From organizing panels and twitter chats to boosting each other’s work and crying and celebrating together, Las Musas has been the gift of my debut year.

YA fantasy by Latinx writers is becoming more popular and it continues to grow, how does it feel to join the ranks with your first book? 

Like joining the coolest possible coven!

What would you like readers to take away from this book?

My favorite books make me feel seen and known and accompanied—less alone. My deepest hope is that All of Us with Wings will be that kind of company for its readers.

YA Novel by Elizabeth Acevedo is About Family, Food, and Embracing Big Dreams

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YA Novel by Elizabeth Acevedo is About Family, Food, and Embracing Big Dreams

www.acevedowrites.com

When you turn the pages of Elizabeth Acevedo’s books you need to do so quickly cause the fire from the passion she puts into every word heats up the pages. The Dominican writer/poet’s third book, With the Fire on High, comes out May 7 about Afro-Boricua teenager Emoni as she embarks on her senior year of high school being a single mom with a big dream.

Her YA debut, The Poet X, follows  Xiomara Batista as she discovers slam poetry and uses it as a way of express herself when she has no other outlet. The book won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and the Pura Belpré Award for a work that affirms the Latinx cultural experience, it quickly became a bestseller.

Acevedo began making a name for herself in the world of slam poetry, using language to paint a picture of her truths and triumphs. From “Afro-Latina,” where she dissects what this blended identity means while embracing its beauty, to “Hair” where she confronts the stigma of pelo malo and proudly exclaims “you can’t fix what was never broken.” She’s made it a point in her career to uplift the Latinx community and through her work carve a space where there aren’t many people of color telling these stories.

From the cover featuring a curly-haired Afro-Latina to Emoni’s exploration of her bi-cultural roots, With the Fire on High is a glimpse into the everyday existence of a young girl of color. Here Acevedo talks about exploring that feeling of living in-between two worlds, the bonds between women and its empowering effects, and why she wanted to address the complexities of Afro-Latinidad.

Q: The book is broken up into three parts and each part starts off with a recipe that includes casual instructions like cooking something for the duration of a music album, how did you decide which to use for each part?

@acevedowrites / Instagram

The sections and recipes were an attempt to flip common phrases “When life gives you lemons,” “Don’t Cry over Spilled Milk,” and “Breaking Bread”—Because Emoni is someone  who can’t follow a recipe to the letter I decided to remix the phrases and show how she takes what life gives her and makes the best of it based on what will work for her.

Q: Emoni is a mom but she’s also a high school senior and from the slang she uses to the pop culture references you can tell she’s a product of this day and age, how did you go about developing this character?

Emoni was one of those characters that showed up one day and began talking in my ear. I knew who she was, what music she listened to, what television shows she loved to watch, and her relationship with her family. I wanted her to feel fresh and current but also timeless.

Q: Emoni’s mixed ethnic background comes into play during an interaction where she’s faced with some ignorant remarks and she’s quick to educate those who say someone of a certain race or ethnicity should look a certain way, being that there is so much more awareness of Afro-Latinidad but still so much ignorance involved, why was this an important interaction to include for you?

I think it’s important to use fiction to speak to the current climate and I wanted to address the complexity behind Afro-Latinidad and the ways that manifests within my main character, Emoni; there are so many assumptions people make about her that aren’t based in fact but are a myth of their own making.  Emoni is a character that contemplates colorism, blackness, afro-latinidad and all that those pieces of her identity bring in ways I hope are nuanced.

Q: The romance between Emoni and Malachi touches on serious topics including the loss of a loved one and sex, how did you decide to develop their relationship and the character of Malachi?

I wanted Malachi to be a sweet love interest; a departure from the ways that black boys are often depicted in fictions. He’s kind, he’s smart, he loves his community and he cares about Emoni. He also has had his own share of violence and heartbreak and struggles with never really having a place to heal some of those wounds.  It was important for me to show a relationship that had clear boundaries and open conversation. I wish when I was a teen I had seen more examples of what young women could ask of their partners.  

Q: From her relationship with her abuela to her daughter to her best friend, the power of female relationships is evident throughout the book, can you talk more about that and what inspired you to create such strong female characters?

This book really is about the community of women that it takes to raise a child. I wanted to show the strong fem bonds that support us, free us, and launch us forward. Emoni cannot always see herself and her talents clearly but the women around her believe in her even when she doesn’t.

You take on serious topics including the loss of a loved one, street violence, economic burdens, colonialism, privilege, and race, what was the writing process like balancing such heavy content with the more light-hearted moments?

@acevedowrites / Instagram

I had to work really hard to make sure that I didn’t only depict moments of hardship and grief; even when we as real people are going through difficult moments we still laugh, and love, and hang out with our homegirls, and eat good meals with our families; I wanted my characters to be afforded this same bandwidth of humanity.  

Q: While her father’s love for Puerto Rico plays an important role in the story, Emoni also shows a love for her hometown of Philadelphia and sometimes struggles with her dual backgrounds in ways like not speaking Spanish well or not knowing as much about her African American roots and for young people of color this is very much a part of their reality. What was the inspiration behind you including this feeling like you live in between two worlds?

 I’m really into exploring what it means to be raised in an overlap of culture, ethnicities, expectations, etc. Emoni offered me an opportunity to dive into some of those dynamics. Especially teens I think feel stuck in the middle: they are not quite adults, but they also aren’t fully children either.  There’s a lot of fodder for literature in looking at the in between-ness that people occupy.

Q: You repeatedly make it a point to show how Emoni’s emotions come through in her food which is, of course, reminiscent of the classic Like Water for Chocolate, how did this book play a role in developing With the Fire on High and were there any other writers or stories that inspired you as you wrote this book?

I was definitely channeling Laura Esquivel when I wrote With the Fire on High, and also the author Sarah Addison Allen. They both write fiction that centers women and use food and magical realism as a way to show how the strengths and passions of their characters. I took what I loved about their books and brought it to a hood in Philadelphia and to a character with big dreams and talents she doesn’t know how to channel.

Q: As a prominent and award-winning writer and Dominicana, it’s clear from your works that you aim to uplift the voices of POC and highlight that experience, how much of it is inspired by your life and what other sources do you use for inspiration? 

@acevedowrites / Instagram

I definitely walk through the world with a sensitivity as to what would make an interesting story, or a personality quirk I might want to give to a character, or a with a watchful eye of a setting I think is unusual. So, consciously and subconsciously I am mindful of storytelling; many of my writings are inspired by people I know, students I’ve worked with, memories I have from my own childhood, and current events I see on the news.

Q: What would you like readers to take away from this book?

That young people of color deserve stories where they triumph, where they follow their dreams, where live and love and are allowed to be kids. They deserve to see themselves as chefs, and doctors, and artists and all their other wild imaginings.