As a long-time admirer of award winning Mexican American author, teacher, translator and academic, David Bowles, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to interview him for the MUF blog. David is a wealth of knowledge on writing for children, representation in publishing, and the myths of Mexico.
Storytelling, Culture & Community
APP: Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview David! Let’s start with the rich, diverse characters in your books. Who do you imagine as a reader when you’re writing them? Who do you see reading your stories?
DB: I imagine myself as a storyteller, kind of like my uncle Joe Casas, who owned a ranch where my cousins and I would work and hang out as kids. At night, Joe would build a little fire and sit on a mesquite stump to tell us stories. We would sit in a semi-circle on the other side of the flames, there in the circle of firelight. That’s how I see my readers. First, there are the Mexican American kids, the ones I’m directly addressing, sitting close to the fire. Behind them are other Latinx kids, whose lives intersect with ours in special ways. And in the third circle, at the edge of the flickering illumination, are all the other kids, who will benefit from the specific story of fictional Mexican American kids, seeing our culture as amazingly cool, seeing us as fully human.
APP: I love that idea of sitting around a fire and seeing our own cultures, and other’s cultures, as amazingly cool! How much of your amazingly cool childhood memories and experiences influenced your stories?
DB: I definitely draw upon my childhood and the feelings associated with it to craft characters from my community. That doesn’t at all mean that they are just copies of me, because I also draw on the lives of my own children, my nieces/nephews, kids I taught as a teacher, etc. But my first-hand experience as a Mexican American and as a human being will always undergird the work that I do, because I can’t have direct access to anyone else’s interior life. Because novels-in-verse (and poetry in general) are so compressed and emotionally charged, accessing my emotions (through “text-to-self” connections with my own work) is vital.
On Güero & Writing
APP: I agree, and based on your vast repetoire, I can tell you had an interesting childhood to work with. Tell me, which of your MGs is your favorite?
DB: LOL, that’s like asking which of my children is my favorite. As is the case with most authors, the book I’m working on right now is my favorite. So I’d say They Call Her Fregona, the sequel to They Call Me Güero. Look for an announcement about it very soon.
APP: I can’t wait! Johanna is such a fun, strong character. I fell hard for her in They Call Me Güero, your novel in verse. How much is Güero based on your own story? Do you think that writing in verse allows for more vulnerability from a writer? Is it riskier? Scarier?
DB: About 30 percent of it is drawn from my own life, just brought forward into the present and fictionalized. Verse does require / allow a writer to plug more directly into their emotions, which can definitely feel risky and scary, especially if they haven’t come to terms with who they are as a person. There’s a need for deep self-understanding and honesty that (if I’m frank) most people take a lifetime to reach. So it’s an especially complex thing to write.
APP: No doubt. Writing really does feel like putting our hearts out for all to see sometimes. Speaking of the craft of writing, I’m wondering about problems you see in MGs today. Since you teach writing workshops, can you share some pitfalls that aspiring authors should watch out for?
DB: It’s the same problem I see with YA—a tendency for authors (often pressured by editors and agents) to limit themselves to what is “accepted by the marketplace” in terms of content, structure, audience and voice, as well as a tendency to mimic the most popular works of any given moment. Tell your own stories the way only you can tell them, folks.
APP: I feel exactly the same way, but sometimes things get tricky. Specifically, can we talk about #OwnVoices?
DB: Yup, because I’m really annoyed about how that useful hashtag is being turned against writers from under-represented groups. One mistake publishers and some authors make is to imagine that an #OwnVoices story must represent an entire community. That’s impossible. I can’t tell a story that is universally representative of every Mexican American, much less every Latinx person. But I can draw on my identity, my experience and my community to construct a story about a very specific character or group of characters, putting in the work required—even if these fictional people come from a fictional version of my own community—to craft fully realized human beings whose actions, speech and interior lives resonate as real.
Windows, Mirrors & Sliding Glass Doors
DB: Another is the inverse of this, the fear or conviction that a writer can ONLY write a protagonist that ALMOST COMPLETELY mirrors their own identity. But #OwnVoices fiction IS NOT autobiography, y’all. It’s meant to underscore the greater cultural accuracy (and smaller potential for harm to readers) that comes from the intersection of a writer’s lived experiences with the setting and characters in a book. Through those more accurate and respectful details, often invisible to outsiders, readers of all backgrounds can recognize the universal truths that emerge from that specificity. And readers from the under-represented community can see themselves reflected, but not in a perfect mirror, no. Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop never suggested such an impossible thing. It’s worth revisiting her words:
“Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created and recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books
We’ve all looked at ourselves in windows. We can see through that ghostly image at the world on the other side of the glass. We are superimposed upon it, tenuous, temporary. For most of us, seeing our transparent selves floating on a vibrant fictional depiction of our community is enough. For others, it’s not satisfying. They want a mirror that shows them as they are, solid and whole. Yet no such mirror exists, even in the real world. Mirrors show us inverted, flipped right to left. Only photos get this right. And books are not photos of the reader, friends, no matter how much we might want or need them to be.
Equity & Literary Dignity
DB: The publishing community has begun using #OwnVoices to cudgel writers from under-represented groups. Queer authors who are not out publicly yet have been forced to prove they have a right to write about queer characters. Black authors have been subjected to scrutiny about how “Black” they really are. And so on. The situation is frankly gross.
Yes, bad representation exists. It can come from both outsider perspectives or #OwnVoices as well—usually either a failure of craft or of self-knowledge. It can also be deliberate, of course, born of greed or outright cruelty.
But what makes bad representation hurt as much as it does is the lack of equity and literary dignity for communities of color in publishing. If 50 percent of books for kids and teens were written by BIPOC authors (BIPOC make up 50 percent of school age children), then readers wouldn’t need to comb the stacks carefully with #OwnVoices lists in order to find the accurate, good representation.
APP: Everything you are saying is essential knowledge for those involved in publishing, I hope people out there are listening, especially gatekeepers. Including gatekeepers who are, themselves, from marginalized communities. I have encountered Latinx gatekeepers making some Latinx writers feel like they are not POC or Latinx enough. This can be a very disheartening experience. In my case, I felt like my identity was being challenged, and that felt awful.
DB: This is also an outgrowth of the lack of literary dignity. But it needs to stop. There are as many ways of being Mexican American, for example, as there are Mexican Americans. No Latinx person should be policing the identity of any other Latinx person or trying to dictate the sort of story they ought to be telling. My own children, for example, have a Chicano dad and a Mexican immigrant mom (both with working class backgrounds). They grew up in a lower middle-class family on the border, but also spent a lot of time with family in Mexico, so they are pretty bilingual. Their parents aren’t religious, so they didn’t attend church and have none of the traditionally Catholic experiences that some see as essential for being Mexican. But their parents emphasized the need to de-center European heritage and explore Indigenous roots.
Their lives are unique, yet worthy of being represented, not judged by someone’s biased view of what makes a person Mexican American.
APP: I appreciate you sharing that insight. I feel some frustration as a white looking Latinx person with so many Latinx characters I see in books described and pictured a certain way that I would characterize as a stereotype. I want to see a diversity of skin tones, hair types, and eye color all represented in Latinx-centered kidlit – but I usually don’t.
DB: Latinx identity (in our respective cases, Mexican American and Argentinean) is ethnic. Cultural. We come in multiple “races” and blends of them. Certainly it is important that Indigenous and Black Latinx folks be represented in kid lit, especially given the historical colorism in our communities that has attempted to erase and marginalize them. But there are Asian Latinx folks and white ones, too. To say that a Latinx character must be a Brown person is wrongheaded and unfair. Heck, in my own family, there are multiple skin tones among siblings. I have an Afro-Mexican brother and one with green eyes. That’s just how it is, friends.
The Garza Twins
APP: That is so true, and so lovely. Speaking of family, let’s talk about the family in your Garza Twins Series: The Smoking Mirror, A Kingdom Beneath the Waves, and Hidden City. In volume one, I was frustrated by the father. I wondered why he didn’t communicate with his kids, and why the mother hadn’t mentioned some very important information (I’m not going to give it away, read the books!). Latinx parents are usually hard to sideline in my experience.
DB: I promise the parents are much more involved in the rest of the series, heh. And the father has a character arc that requires him to be broken by the absence of the mother at the beginning of book one. The mother, Verónica, is the one who is usually all “up in” the children’s business (she’s an immigrant from Mexico), while Oscar (the father, a Chicano with a white mother and a doctorate in archeology)
Myth & Magic
APP: I can’t wait to read more about that family and the magical worlds they discover and navigate. I was captivated by the Mexican mythology that is woven into the series. How important do you think the idea of myth and magic is for kids to have in literature? How about in real life?
DB: I was raised in a community that believes magic is a part of the actual world we live in (which is why Latinx realism is often called magical realism). I think it was a boon to my own mental health and creativity to live that way and see magic in books.
APP: I totally agree. Can you explain the difference between magical realism and fantasy for an MG audience?
DB: To me it’s pretty simple. Magical realism just accepts that there are moments when the supernatural or magical just pops up in otherwise mundane lives. People know that it will happen, and there is no surprise or shock or commentary about the oddness of it. Fantasy worlds either have magic imbedded in all aspects of life (so that it’s ever-present rather than showing up from time to time) or magic hidden from most people’s view but that can be learned and wielded by a special few.
APP: Great explanation! You seem to seamlessly incorporate the magical into your writing. I’m wondering what your advice is for writers who want to integrate their cultural heritage, mythology, family dynamics etc. into their writing but still reach a large audience not limited to their own cultural or linguistic group?
DB: Frankly, don’t worry about the whole “reaching a large audience” thing when you’re writing the first draft. Write the story you need to tell the way only you can tell it for the people that deserve to have it told. That courage and integrity will make your story resonate for all people, regardless of their backgrounds, because universal human truths always emerge from honest, culturally and geographically specific writing. Even the beloved Classics of the Ancient World like the Odyssey are very specific to time, place, people. When revising, you can enhance others access by maybe sanding down some of the thicker, more opaque texture a tad.
APP: Great advice, for me that’s often about access to language because I like to mix languages in my stories. How do you feel about language mixing within texts without translation? Is it rude to non-bilinguals? Is it othering?
DB: I write dialogue the way my characters speak. That usually means that Spanish words and phrases will crop up. I don’t think this is rude at all, any more so than it’s rude for a British writer or a Bostonian one to include words from their dialect that don’t occur in mine. I just add a glossary at the end. Readers can consult it if they want.
What would truly be othering would be to flatten all use of language into a homogeneous, white-sounding universal dialect of English. No, thanks.
APP: On the topic of language use, how do you feel about certain words being avoided or considered taboo because of their connotations?
DB: Obviously, words that are hurtful and insulting toward a class of people, meant to denigrate and marginalize them, should be avoided by all folks who want to be humane, caring allies. For a writer, however the issue gets complicated because they are depicting worlds in which not everyone is a humane, caring ally (or woke enough to see their own use of language as problematic).
APP: Thank you so much for your time David! Now I can’t wait to delve into more of your books!
Wow, talking to David really is like receiving a class in creativity, dignity and representation in the world of kidlit. His wide variety of books, awards and honors is too long to mention, so check out David’s website for more invaluable information, essays and events!
David has generously offered to send a copy of They Call Me Güero to one lucky winner, US only. To enter rafflecopter giveaway like, retweet, comment and follow!