Las Musas is excited to celebrate the book birthday of Anika Fajardo’s What if a Fish!
About What if a Fish
A whimsical and unflinchingly honest generational story of family and identity where hats turn into leeches, ghosts blow kisses from lemon trees, and the things you find at the end of your fishing line might not be a fish at all.
"Poetic and believable. Multilayered and convincing, the book will have readers rooting for its sweet and smart protagonist." -- Kirkus
"Fajardo’s honest, heartfelt text evokes sorrow and grief but also understanding, navigating the many complexities of identity, friendship, family, loss, and death." -- Booklist
Half-Colombian Eddie Aguado has never really felt Colombian. Especially after Papa died. And since Mama keeps her memories of Papa locked up where Eddie can’t get to them, he only has Papa’s third-place fishing tournament medal to remember him by. He’ll have to figure out how to be more Colombian on his own.
As if by magic, the perfect opportunity arises. Eddie—who’s never left Minnesota—is invited to spend the summer in Colombia with his older half-brother. But as his adventure unfolds, he feels more and more like a fish out of water.
Figuring out how to be a true colombiano might be more difficult than he thought.
Alexandra Alessandri interviews Anika Fajardo on her debut middle grade novel, What if a Fish.
AA: I want to start by just sharing how much I love this beautiful and heartfelt story about family, grief, and self. Your writing is lovely and evocative of the magical realism of our Colombia. I found myself rooting for Little Eddie as he navigated the fishing contest, friendships, family relationships, and Colombia.
Something I’m always curious about is a book’s origin story. How did What if a Fish come to be? Who or what inspired it? Did you start with a character or the theme or the setting?
AF: Thank you so much! I'm so glad Colombia felt represented. The story started with two things:
First of all, I live by a lake in Minneapolis, and one day I saw a young man catch an enormous (I mean HUGE) fish. And then the fish bit the guy and it was so surreal...I didn't know fish could bite! It was a crazy scene and I just kept thinking about it. So there was that.
The other piece is about my own brother. I met my half-brother when I was 25, and he has the same name as my dad, cousin, nephew, and great-uncle. So, I started thinking that if I had been born a boy, I might have had the same name as my brother. Two siblings with the same name. It just got me thinking...I put those two elements together to get Little Eddie and his big brother Big Eddie. I wanted to know all about them.
I love this! I found it so charming that Little Eddie, Big Eddie, and their dad shared names. With Little Eddie’s name, especially, I loved how it echoed the diminutive we Colombians (and many Latinx) tend to use. I also found that the echo in the names connected the family theme quite nicely. Names are important in our families, and here we have a protagonist who shares a name with his late father (whom he barely remembers) and his brother (whose attention he craves), and it seems this sharing of names functions as a lifeline for Little Eddie as he navigates his place among his father's family.
Yes, the names give them this undeniable familial link that I think we all crave, especially those of us from nontraditional families (my parents divorced when I was young).
Absolutely. Was Little Eddie inspired by one particular person or was he a mashup of different people and characteristics? You’ve created such a sweet, sensitive, and real character in him that's really going to resonate with kids. I remember telling you how my son snatched the ARC away from me and devoured the story, feeling a vivid connection to Little Eddie and going so far as feeling immensely protective of him.
I love how protective your son was of Little Eddie!
Little Eddie is sensitive like me and my daughter. I also wanted to show his worries because I wanted to normalize or give a model for kids coping with anxiety. Little Eddie worries, but he doesn't let his worries stop him.
I love that about him. And I love how the "what ifs" frame his journey.
This is actually a nice shift to the title and the fish motif, which is strong throughout the novel—from the fishing contest that’s symbolically a link to his dad, to the title of the novel that echoes the “what if’s” that are part of Little Eddie's reality and his feeling “like a fish out of water.” What made you decide to develop the image this way and what does it mean to you, personally? I know you mentioned the fish as a very literal start, but it feels like this went beyond the literal.
It was my editor who first used the saying "fish out of water" and I hadn't thought of that when I was writing. To me, the contest was more about the anticipation of trying at something, working toward something. I know very little about fishing, to tell the truth, but I've spent much of my life near water. What I find interesting is that you can't see what's beneath the surface, and that mystery is part of life, right? The exciting parts and the scary parts. They're all hidden and you don't really know which it is until later. That mystery is also part of the magical realism of Colombia, too, and ultimately the magic of family, too.
That's so true--on all counts! I think sometimes that mystery tends to result in a lot of anxiety, so I love that we get to see Little Eddie navigate these mysteries and uncertainties, while trying to remain hopeful.
Of course, once I had the fish motif, it was super fun to play with, especially in Colombia, figuring out how to repeat it.
It worked really well! Once I caught the pattern, I loved trying to find clues as I read.
Big Eddie tells Little Eddie at one point, “It takes sorrow and a little imagination to see a ghost.” While perhaps that was meant in a bit more of a literal sense within the context of the scene, I think figuratively, we can see how sorrow is connected to the ghosts of those we’ve lost. You explore multiple layers of grief throughout the story, and you do so in such a tender and honoring manner. What was the hardest part of writing this?
My own grandmother died while I was writing this book. I was actually sitting in her hospital room when I was working on the part when Eddie meets Abuela. When my grandmother died the next day, I knew that Abuela was going to have to die. Partly because I wanted to honor my grandmother and partly because books need big events, big emotions, and the characters, sadly (sometimes) have to face difficult times so that the reader can see how they handle them. My grandmother was a voracious reader and she would have loved that I became a writer for kids. She always wanted me to go back to teaching (my first career was as a fifth-grade teacher). Writing the section about Abuela gave me a way to process my own grief.
Ghosts are everywhere, too. I saw a ghost in Colombia (I write about it in my memoir). My grandmother, who was white from Minnesota, saw a ghost when she was a little girl. I think about ghosts the way Big Eddie thinks about them.
I'm so sorry for your loss. I can see how writing those scenes would've been both incredibly hard but also cathartic. And it comes across in the story and Little Eddie and Big Eddie's pain.
I'm so intrigued about the ghosts. They fit in very well with magical realism and Colombia. Speaking of your memoir, how did your writing process differ between the two?
What If a Fish has the same "emotional core" as my memoir. In fact, I wrote it when I was having trouble getting my memoir published. Writing it was so much easier than writing the memoir. It was so freeing to write fiction! It took me a while to get used to the idea that I could just make things up. My editor had to push me to add scenes (the scene with the fish at the fountain in Cartagena was added later) because I felt weird about inserting action that didn't happen in the first draft. The novel was much more straightforward, structure-wise. The chronology was much simpler because it only spans one summer.
I definitely saw thematic similarities between the two. That's interesting about the structure and chronology, but it makes sense.
You created such vivid settings in both the US and in Colombia, but I admit that I was particularly smitten by your descriptions of Cartagena. I loved reliving my time in Cartagena through Little Eddie’s eyes as Big Eddie and Abuela show him around. I think Abuela perfectly captures how I feel about Colombia when she says, “Colombia is magical, isn’t it mijito?” Yes, yes, it is. What made you decide to set these scenes in Cartagena, as opposed to other Colombian cities? And what was your favorite part of writing the scenes in Colombia?
I was just being self-indulgent!
My whole extended family had a wonderful vacation in Cartagena a few years ago and I fell in love with the city. I wanted to set the story there just so I could revisit it in my head. Cartagena, to me, captures the "ideal" of Colombia. (It has the added benefit of not being my birthplace/dad's hometown so there's not personal baggage.) So much history coincides in that place. Plus, it's about as different from Minnesota as you could get. And I wanted there to be a clear differentiation for Eddie, a way to emphasize his "fish out of water" experience.
I love the ocean, so my favorite scenes were the ones at the beach, particularly when the brothers take Abuela to the beach at night.
I definitely loved how each setting affected Little Eddie's journey.
Finally, can you tell us a little about what you’re working on next? And, if you could give an aspiring author one piece of advice, what would it be?
I'm working on another middle-grade book right now that I'm really excited about.
A piece of advice? Write. The writing is the part that an aspiring author should love. The other part, the publishing part, is the part that requires the writer to have intense perseverance. My other piece of advice is to get involved in the writing community whether that means joining social media groups, reviewing books, joining book clubs or writing groups, and attending readings (virtual or someday in person).
Volunteer, judge contests, show up for other writers. These help you grow as a writer and also develop connections. And we need readers!
Yay for more middle grade from you! This is wonderful and important advice, and I think they’re important reminders even when you’ve been writing for a while: write, persevere, and get involved.
Thank you so much for talking with me about What if a Fish! I really loved seeing Colombia represented in such a beautiful way. Above all, I loved Little Eddie, his family, and his journey. I'm a sucker for stories about family, and I hope readers love it as much as my son and I did!
Anika Fajardo was born in Colombia and raised in Minnesota. She is the author of a book about that experience, Magical Realism for Non-Believers: A Memoir of Finding Family (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), which was a 2020 finalist for the Minnesota Book Awards and awarded Best Book (Nonfiction) of 2020 from City Pages. Her debut novel for young readers is What If a Fish (Simon & Schuster, 2020). A writer, editor, and teacher, she lives with her family in the very literary city of Minneapolis.
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