Hello Mixed-Up Readers,
I recently I had the privilege of interviewing Colombian-American author Anika Fajardo, author of What if a Fish. Anika’s story is sure to speak to diverse middle grade readers who might see themselves in some of the experiences and uncertainties that are faced by her protagonist.
APP: Tell me a little bit about yourself as a Latinx storyteller. What makes you, you?
AF: I was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota after my parents divorced when I was two. From the time my family began reading to me, I wanted to be a writer. My memoir, Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family, was released last year after almost a decade of work. Even though it took me a while to become a writer, I have always worked with words in some way. I’ve been a fifth-grade teacher, a librarian, a communications manager, an editor, and a professor. My debut middle-grade book is called What If a Fish.
APP: I really enjoyed What if a Fish! Tell us a little bit about your story.
AF: What If a Fish features 11-year-old, half-Colombian Eddie Aguado. When his older half-brother’s trip to visit Eddie in Minnesota is canceled, Eddie is sent to spend the summer in Colombia instead. What follows is a generational story of family, identity, and all the things you might find at the end of a fishing line.
AF: This book started with names. Eddie, known as Little Eddie, and his older brother, known as Big Eddie. I have a half-brother who is named after our father and nearly all the men in our family. I suppose that if I had been born a boy, my brother and I would have had the same name. And I wanted to know what that would be like. How do you separate yourself from someone else who has the same name? How does what we call ourselves inform who we are?
APP: That is so interesting, but this story is not only about identity, it is also about perseverance and grief.
AF: I didn’t set out to tell a story about grief, but my grandmother passed away while I was writing this book. I had already created the character of Abuela. And I felt like the best way to honor my grandmother, while also processing my own grief, was to write it into the story. I think the idea of letting go turned out to be an important theme whether talking about letting go of a loved one or letting go of a fish.
APP: Abuelas are so important in so many of our lives as Latinx people! Water is another important element in your story. Tell me about that.
AF: Water is both necessary to life and yet dangerous. It can reveal and it can hide. I wanted to center the story on water in order to contrast Minnesota—land of 10,000 lakes—with coastal Colombia. The two places that Eddie calls home are very distinct, but they have commonalities, much like people from different places might.
APP: So true! There is something magical about water and about all of the female characters in this story, don’t you think?
AF: I love this idea of the females in the story being magical. The women and girls around Eddie help to ground him, make him brave, help him to see love, and connect him to family. It takes all of them to help Eddie fulfill his destiny.
APP: I was particularly fascinated by the character of Cameron. I want a whole book about her. Tell me about how you decided on the role she would play in the story.
AF: I read somewhere that Kate DiCamillo was told to add more kid characters to Because of Winn-Dixie, that a child protagonist can’t spend all their time with adults. So I knew that, because Eddie’s brother is 19, I needed another child character. Cameron is partly based on my own daughter (who started campaigning to dye her hair purple after I wrote that part). In many ways, Cameron is the opposite of Eddie. She’s brave, fierce, and doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks of her. It’s nice to see the two of them interact and learn from each other.
APP: Team Cameron, love her! And I support your daughter’s quest for purple hair. But I’m wondering why you chose to have your main character be a boy?
AF: Eddie was a character that came to me many years before I started writing this book. For some reason, the idea of this boy wandering the neighborhood in search of something took hold. I think that a girl character might have required more dialogue, more interior complexities. In some ways, a boy character is a stripped-down story with action at its center. But I also wanted the character to be a boy because I wanted to show that boys can be introspective and quiet and vulnerable. There isn’t one way to be a boy or a girl.
APP: Absolutely, and as the mother of many daughters and several sons, I agree. I feel that you perfectly captured the feeling of child immigrants like me, as well as children of immigrants. We can feel like we don’t really belong anywhere. Did that come from your own childhood experience?
AF: Although I’m not technically a child of immigrants (my Colombian father never immigrated to the US and lives in Colombia still), I definitely felt the pull from coming from two cultures, two countries. Now it’s hard to believe, but when I was a child in Minnesota in the 1980s, my Colombian background was extremely unusual. Where I grew up, there were hardly any non-whites. I was constantly asked where I was from or what I was. I never had a good answer for that. When I was a young adult, I went to Colombia and found that I also felt out of place there. For anyone straddling two cultures, it’s as if you don’t fit in either place. The number of children in the US that come from mixed backgrounds or from immigrant families is going to continue to increase and those children need to see themselves reflected in stories.
APP: Yes! Another way that I connected with this story is as a person who only has half siblings myself. I was annoyed at first when Little Eddie kept referring to Big Eddie as his half-brother. I wanted him to just say ‘brother’ like I do to my own brother. He will never have a full sibling and I wanted him to just embrace the one he had. Did you do that intentionally? If so, why?
AF: I have a half-brother and it’s true that, too, generally refer to him as my “brother.” But I think Eddie calls his brother his “half-brother” because he’s trying to make sense of the relationship. He’s trying to name things. Obviously, names play an important role in Eddie’s world. He also loves facts (he reads his encyclopedia regularly), so I also think it’s important to him to be factual. And the fact is that his brother is, technically, his half-brother.
APP: Yes, I love the way he took an encyclopedia with him on the trip! I was surprised that Little Eddie had never visited Colombia before. Why would he not have visited as a small child, and why did he speak no Spanish at all? I wanted to complain about that.
AF: Your complaint has been registered! The truth is, the reason is simply because I modeled Eddie’s experiences on my own life. Colombia was always quite mysterious and distant to me as a child. I didn’t visit Colombia until I was an adult. Part of the reason for that divide in my own was personal and familial. But part of it was also that Colombia was, and in many ways still is, a dangerous place for visitors. So I used that as my excuse.
APP: That explains it! On another topic, I really hated those bullies who were rude to Little Eddie. Do you feel that it is important for Latinx writers to portray how kids can be treated at schools and in neighborhoods?
AF: I often felt like an outsider, like I was different. And when you’re a kid, being different is often seen as a bad thing. While I never had an experience like the one of the bullies in the book, I’ve felt the sting of people’s prejudice. Outside of my own experience, I also wanted to reflect my brother’s experiences growing up. Based on the stories he’s told me, I think it can be harder for boys in terms of outright bullying.
APP: What do you feel are some of the most important challenges for Latinx writers trying to get published today?
There is a perception that “everyone” wants to publish diverse books by diverse authors. But that can manifest itself in a call for a specific type of story—stories that perpetuate the stereotypes of racial/ethnic groups. For Latinx authors, that often means stories that reflect certain, specific aspects of the Latinx experience (immigration, assimilation, language, etc). Although the industry is changing, I still think it’s a challenge for Latinx writers who want to write about other topics.
APP: Yes, it is a challenge. What advice do you have for authors interested in writing magical realism for middle grade audiences?
Magical realism is sometimes confused with fantasy. But magical realism is about magical things happening in otherwise realistic fiction. It has its roots in Latin American literature and is a reflection of colonization and diverse representations of reality. Middle-grade readers demand that stories make sense, so I think that magical realism in books for this age group needs to be thoroughly woven into the reality of the narrative. In What If a Fish, I used magical realism elements sparingly to make them pop. I also made them a little dream-like so that a reader who isn’t sure they believe in the magic can imagine an alternate reason behind the magic.
APP: Thank you so much for this interview Anika!
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