Today, Las Musas celebrates the book birthday of Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From by Jennifer De Leon! This YA contemporary has received some amazing reviews and blurbs. Here are just a few:
“A thought-provoking tale about navigating race and immigration issues.” – Kirkus Reviews
“A funny, perceptive, and much-needed book telling a much-needed story.” —Celeste Ng, author of the New York Times bestseller Little Fires Everywhere
“Written with humor and grace, with intimacy and empathy, Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From is the perfect coming of age novel for our time.” —Matt Mendez, author of Barely Missing Everything and Twitching Heart
First generation American Latinx Liliana Cruz does what it takes to fit in at her new nearly all-white school. But when family secrets come out and racism at school hits a fever pitch, she must decide what she believes in and take a stand.
Fifteen-year-old Liliana is fine, thank you very much. It’s fine that her best friend, Jade, is all caught up in her new boyfriend lately. It’s fine that her inner-city high school is disorganized and underfunded. It’s fine that her father took off again—okay, maybe that isn’t fine, but what is Liliana supposed to do? She’s fifteen! Being left with her increasingly crazy mom? Fine. Her heathen little brothers? Fine, fine, fine. But it turns out Dad did leave one thing behind besides her crazy family. Before he left, he signed Liliana up for a school desegregation program called METCO. And she’s been accepted.
Being accepted into METCO, however, isn’t the same as being accepted at her new school. In her old school, Liliana—half-Guatemalan and half-El Salvadorian—was part of the majority where almost everyone was a person of color. But now at Westburg, where almost everyone is white, the struggles of being a minority are unavoidable. It becomes clear that the only way to survive is to lighten up--whiten up. And if Dad signed her up for this program, he wouldn’t have just wanted Liliana to survive, he would have wanted her to thrive. So what if Liliana is now going by Lili? So what if she’s acting like she thinks she’s better than her old friends? It’s not a big deal. It’s fine.
But then she discovers the gutting truth about her father: He’s not on one of his side trips. And it isn’t that he doesn’t want to come home…he can’t. He’s undocumented and he’s being deported back to Guatemala. Soon, nothing is fine, and Lili has to make a choice: She’s done trying to make her white classmates and teachers feel more comfortable. Done changing who she is, denying her culture and where she came from. They want to know where she’s from, what she’s about? Liliana is ready to tell them.
And now, the Las Musas interview with author Jennifer De Leon, arranged by Nikki Barthelmess:
Raquel: How did you choose the characters' names?
What a unique question! Sometimes the names just come to me—like, she’s definitely Jade. Yup. She’s Jade. But other times I Google Latinx baby names from different years. And other times I go through a list of family members and that may spark some ideas.
Mia: There are so many walls that Liliana goes up against. As a writer how did you decide on which struggles would shape your character and their ecosystem? How do you build up the stress in order to move through it?
I knew that the main character, Liliana, would face many challenges as she tries to fit in at her new predominantly white high school in Westburg. There are the physical and practical challenges of getting to the school (an hour outside the city) and then the invisible or unspoken challenges. So there was a lot there in terms of potential conflict, but at the same time, I didn’t want to have every scene become one about “the struggle.” I also wanted to show her making friends and finding parts about Westburg and METCO that she actually likes, too. I guess I was aiming to show the complexity of this experience, the ecosystem as you say. And having micro-aggressions and “smaller” incidents eventually built up to the climax of the story in a way that (I hope!) was organic to the overall narrative.
Romina: Did you incorporate Spanish &/or Spanglish into Liliana’s story? What was your approach like & how did you strike a balance between staying true to how your characters would organically speak & also remaining accessible to non-Spanish speakers?
I did! It was important to me to show Liliana’s true world, and that definitely included speaking Spanish and Spanglish at different times, especially with her mother. A question I kept asking myself was—how would she really say this in real life? And that often helped me make choices on the page. That said, as you point out, I also wanted to remain accessible to non-Spanish speakers, so sometimes I would use an appositive or I would find a way to incorporate the meaning (not always a direct translation, but the meaning, the attitude, the energy, of a word or phrase) via an action or something similar in the next sentence or two.
Mia: What role does code-switching play in your novel?
Code-switching is a huge part of Liliana’s overall experience in the novel. She’s never really had to do that before the ‘now’ of the book, when she begins attending a new school in Westburg as part of the METCO program—a desegregation program that buses students from Boston to wealthier suburban schools on a daily basis. At first, she is overwhelmed by the mere notion of it. But as she grows and her character develops, she begins to understand the power in being able to speak more than one language, and the ways she can use language and her voice and yes, even code-switching, to her advantage. It’s a tricky balance because ultimately we must ask why there is a need to code-switch at all, but it is a reality and I wanted to depict that on the page.
Raquel: Does Liliana face internalized racism in her story arc? And if so, how did you approach this?
She does. Other characters in the book constantly make assumptions about her, her family, etc. Teachers, even well meaning ones, ask her if she needs a laptop. Her new friend’s mother asks her about her mother and mentions that her mother must be an excellent cook. Kids at school ask questions about gangs in Boston and things like that, so, yes, lots of micro-aggressions that result from internalized racism.
Mia: What was the hardest to write, but made you most proud in the end?
Great question. It was hard to write a scene where Liliana shares some backstory about her best friend in Boston named Jade. Jade’s father was physically and verbally abusive and in this particular scene he hits Jade and she accidentally falls onto a glass coffee table and it shatters. The girls are little at this point, and they were playing with Barbies, and the clothes and little plastic shoes fly everywhere. It was hard to write in the sense that it was emotionally draining. But I guess I am proud of having written it as a creative essay/prompt that Liliana writes in her English class at school. In this way, Liliana was clearly processing part of the past, in the present.
Raquel: How was the editing process of DON'T ASK ME WHERE I'M FROM?
Like running a marathon, then another, and another! No, really, it was a blessing to work with my editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy. She is a genius. A GENIUS. I learned so much about the craft of writing and the writing process throughout the many months we worked on revisions. It felt never-ending at times, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that much time when you think about it. The book will live on the shelf for a long time (I hope, forever!) and so it’s something you want to work hard on, to get it to be the best it can be.
Nikki: You have a background in publishing, as the editor of Wise Latinas (University of Nebraska Press), as well as contributing to literary journals. What has surprised you most about the publication process of DON’T ASK ME WHERE I’M FROM?
Because this is my YA debut, I really haven’t had any experience in the world of YA prior to the publication of this novel. I was a public school teacher for ten years and taught English Language Arts to teens, so I had experience in that way, and I taught Creative Writing to teens in various programs at the GrubStreet Creative Writing center in Boston over the years, but as far as the marketing and publicity and the specific conferences and social media channels for YA—wow. It was a crash course in learning about all things YA. But I began attending conferences and following authors and of course, reading a ton-ton-ton, and so in general I would say that what has surprised me is that YA can really cover anything and everything and it is really a space where conversations can continue to push topics and questions that are sometimes silenced in other arenas. In terms of my own specific publication process? I’ve been surprised—and so grateful—at the enthusiasm and support in the YA world, but of course specifically with my publisher.
Nikki: What question did we not ask that you wish we had? Do you have anything else you’d like readers to know?
This is the book I wish I could hand to my younger self.
And thank you for these amazing questions and the opportunity to be a part of Las Musas community!
You can order Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon. Please add the book to Goodreads here!
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