I’m so excited to share the newest Las Musas debut, Tehlor Kay Mejia’s We Set The Dark on Fire. Tehlor and I met on social media as querying writers. We both live in Oregon and have become great friends. For this post, we decided to do a version of what we do most days—chat about books and life and politics and writing. As a starting point, I pulled a tarot card, concentrating on Tehlor’s amazing journey with this amazing book.
TEHLOR: Hi. I’m so excited
MICHELLE: Me too!!! I'm thinking about your book and I can't believe it's really out in the world.
TEHLOR: I honestly can't believe it either, it's so surreal.
MICHELLE: So I drew a card for you and it's the Queen of Wands! Which is kind of on the nose but really amazing!
TEHLOR: Right?? Very on the nose but also I'm so glad. It feels pretty optimistic…
MICHELLE: YES! She’s one of my favorite cards. So, the wands to me are about instinct and will. How does that resonate with you when you think about your journey with We Set The Dark on Fire?
TEHLOR: I feel like this journey has been almost PURE instinct and will for me, which is why I'm laughing about this card. There was kind of no indication in my life leading up to writing this book that what's happening now was possible, so a lot of it was based on trusting my instincts and having faith in myself and my work and being willing to push forward despite overwhelming odds and obstacles.
MICHELLE: If you look back, can you find the seed of that in your life before you became a writer? Where does that come from in you?
TEHLOR: I think I've always been a really determined person. I don't think it comes from a place of confidence necessarily, because that's something I've always struggled with, so it's probably more akin to stubbornness. The more the world seems set up to block me from doing something, the more determined I become to do it. In that sense, I guess this is the perfect business for me.
MICHELLE: That makes sense! Another aspect of the Queen is that she's an icon of personal power and sexuality, which is so perfect for We Set The Dark of Fire. What was it like to write a character like Dani, who is so reserved?
TEHLOR: I think a lot of writing Dani was based on my experience as a teen. I was really insecure about how I looked, but I got a lot of positive validation from the people around me for being smart and focused, so I traded one thing for the other. I thought if I could be smart enough and driven enough and perform well enough, I could somehow make up for needing to be validated in those other ways, and society was all-too eager to reinforce that by putting me in the "smart girl" box where you're kind of weirdly desexualized. Obviously, Dani's categorization is much more external because of the way Medio's society is set up, but I think there's the same sense of leaning into one set of expectations to try to shut down your desire to be seen as a sexual being. That can't last forever though, as Dani and I both eventually found out.
MICHELLE: I love how that binary shows up in the Primera/Segunda roles of the wife pairs in We Set the Dark on Fire. Externalizing that dichotomy into two wives who ultimately fall in love was a beautiful example of both how fractured we are by the patriarchy and how we can begin to move past it. Did you know right away that this book was going to be a love story as well as a speculative novel about patriarchy and class?
TEHLOR: Thank you! I did always know it was going to be a romance, but the players changed a little from the first conception of the story to the way it is now. I knew that a sexual and romantic awakening was going to be a big part of Dani's journey, but initially (I'll blame it on heteronormative socialization) I thought it would be her and her husband who fell in love. It took almost no time at all once I started developing Carmen as a character for me to realize she and Dani were the real love story, which left me free to explore toxic masculinity with Mateo without having to find a way to redeem him. I do love that you picked up on Dani and Carmen as two fractured parts of the feminine whole destroyed by the patriarchy, though. I hope their love story shows that even if you don't have a lover to show you the other side, we can bring those disparate parts of ourselves together and heal what a patriarchal society has broken in us.
MICHELLE: I love that! That’s totally the way I see it, too—as a story about finding wholeness. So finally, circling back to the Queen of Wands, when this card shows up in a reading, I'm excited because it shows someone really coming into their power. I've been thinking about the idea of personal sovereignty a lot lately and this regal image in connection with both the story of We Set The Dark on Fire and your journey as a writer feels perfect to me. During the time I've known you, you've had an explosion of personal growth and professional accomplishment. Was there something specifically empowering about becoming an author and writing this book? And what do you hope readers will take away?
TEHLOR: I think I've spent a lot of my life feeling small, as a result of other people diminishing me, and as a result of diminishing myself to fit into dynamics and relationships that didn't allow me the space to be fully myself. There was something about the process of writing this particular book, and the life stuff that was happening to me at the time -- divorce, moving, family stuff -- that made it sort of impossible to stay small anymore. I resisted it at first, as I think a lot of people do. It felt scary to step into it all and embrace it. But I do think exploring this story on the page and bringing these girls through their own transformations was really personal for me in a way I'm just now starting to understand.
As far as what I hope readers will take away, I hope people see that young women are too nuanced and fierce and complex to be reduced to the stereotypes they're so commonly associated with. I hope they see the power in being a girl when you really embrace all that it means to be one. But honestly, I really just hope every young woman who reads and enjoys this book finds one little thing she needs. Something that makes her feel braver or stronger or more seen. That's the best outcome I could possibly hope for.
MICHELLE: Thank you for doing this, Tehlor! I’m so excited for the world to meet Dani and Carmen and can’t wait to see what other adventures are ahead for you. Congratulations on your debut!
You can buy your copy of WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE at your local bookstore or online!
We are so excited to present our next Musa book, THE RESOLUTIONS, by Mia Garcia, which is a YA story about friendship and community, and which received a starred review from School Library Journal!
From hiking trips to four-person birthday parties to never-ending group texts, Jess, Lee, Ryan, and Nora have always been inseparable. But now, with senior year on the horizon, they’ve been growing apart. And so, as always, Jess makes a plan.
Reinstating their usual tradition of making resolutions together on New Year’s Eve, Jess adds a new twist: instead of making their own resolutions, the four friends assign them to one another—dares like kiss someone you know is wrong for you, find your calling outside your mom’s Puerto Rican restaurant, finally learn Spanish, and say yes to everything.
But as the year unfolds, Jess, Lee, Ryan, and Nora test the bonds that hold them together. And amid first loves, heartbreaks, and life-changing decisions, beginning again is never as simple as it seems.
In celebration of the release of her second book, Mia made her infamous quesitos and sat down to chat with fellow Musas Hilda Burgos, Nina Moreno, Aida Salazar, Natasha Diaz, Michelle Ruiz Keil, Yamile Said Mendez, Nonieqa Ramos, Claribel Ortega, Jen Cervantes, and Ann Davila Cardinal.
Hilda: Mia, tell us about these delicious quesitos. Can you share your recipe with us?
YES! I found this super easy recipe from The Kitchen Gidget and so far they’ve been great. I play a little bit with the vanilla and sugar until I like the flavor, but it’s a really good recipe. And of course don’t be afraid to add guava paste (best ingredient in the world and I always have a can squirreled away for baking).
Hilda: We are all so thrilled that your second book is out now! I’m wondering what insights you have as a sophomore writer that you did not have the first time around. Is there anything you know now that you wish you had known as you wrote your debut novel?
I wish I did have more insights- haha! You always hear writers say with each new project that they’ve forgotten how to write and it’s absolutely true. I’m writing my third book now and it feels like I’ve never completed a novel in my life! The tricks that work with one may not work with others. For me it’s more about reminders as opposed to insights. Reminder that I can do this, that I did this, and not to give up.
I do have some post-writing insight! With The Resolutions I understood that I had to become my own publicist and not rely on anyone else, including my publisher. Not to say they weren’t wonderful, but hundreds of books are published a year and they can’t all have marketing’s time and budget.
I set aside a budget for myself, a timeline, a list of bloggers to reach out to, festivals to research, and commissioned my own promo. I’m exhausted but really proud of what I’ve accomplished and what’s still to come.
Nina: What resolution would you give your teen self?
Care less. WAIT, that sounds horrible, but what I mean is that as a teen I stopped myself from liking a lot of the stuff I liked (comics, horror movies, etc) or hid it very well, because I was worried about what others thought of me. I wanted everyone to like me all the time. ALL THE TIME. I would tell my teen self to take deep breaths and love what I love.
Nina & Michelle: Which of the four friends did you relate to the most? Were any POV’s easier to write?
All four! I hid a little of myself in each one like a horcrux. Jess got my anxiety (I’M SORRY, JESS), Ryan got my worries about validation, Nora has my love of baking and family obligations, Lee has my attitude and stress about not being Latinx enough. They are all my babies and I will protect them, while also messing with theirs lives a bit...
I’m not sure if any specific POV was easier to write but I will say (and this is a trigger warning for the book) Jess’s two panic attacks in the book were the easiest to write and required the least editing. I pulled them from my own experience and there’s just something about those moments that you don’t forget; they were right there when I needed them.
Michelle: When was the first time you saw yourself represented in a book?
I’m not sure I have yet, but I haven’t been specifically looking (don’t ask me what that means psychologically), and it hasn’t stopped me from loving characters in books or connecting to one specific storyline. I’m not sure I will ever see myself 100% in a novel, but seeing the growing list of Latinx characters in books and media warms my cold heart.
Natasha: Why was it important for you to tell a biracial Latinx narrative for one of the characters? How did you prepare for that?
I’m beyond excited that this book has FOUR Latinx leads. The Latinx community is such a diverse one, it’s not tied to one specific race, and we rarely see many of the people represented in it.
Take for example the Asian-Latinx community. Did you know that there are large populations of Japanese in Brazil and Peru? Many communities in the Caribbean (including the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico) have Chinese ancestry, but we rarely hear about it.
Because not only is the Latinx community a minority in media overall, but we are rarely represented outside of the mixed/passing or white-latinx identities. What about Afro-Latinxs? What about Indigenous-Latinx and those relationships with colonization and violence? Where are those narratives?
We have to move away from this one type of Latinx image. In The Resolutions Ryan is Taiwanese-Puerto Rican and incredibly proud of his heritage. He doesn’t feel divided, he loves his family and his culture. It’s only one book, but I hope it adds to the growing diversity of voices that will eventually widen the breath of Latinx lit and representation.
Aida: This story depicts the journeys of such different characters and each in a prominent way. How did you organize and then so seamlessly fold their journey into a collective story?
Excellent question. Each character had their way to see the world. I made sure they each had a trait or an outlook that colored their narrative. As a painter Ryan often broke things down to paint colors and techniques, Jess’s stress means her sentences run a bit long and tumble into each other at time, and so on.
Once the voices were tuned (or maybe the instruments if we continue with this metaphor) their rhythms had to work together to make the song (the novel). Because of this I didn’t edit the stories separately (meaning I didn’t look at only Jess’s and only Ryan’s individually) but adjusted and edited as one went into the other.
Aida: The queerness of some of the characters was beautifully portrayed. It was easily integrated and unquestioned which was so refreshing. How did you come to make this choice?
Thank you so much for asking this question! As someone who is still questioning this part of my identity I think that in order to work towards seeing/accepting the spectrum of sexuality in a positive/normal light is to show it in that light.
To show the happiness and the possibilities and not just the pain and struggle, which I feel is a point often brought up in stories focusing on marginalized communities. There’s more than just pain (that’s there, yes) but we can’t disregard the influence/effect of seeing LGBTQ characters (both POC and non-POC) who are happy and thriving in their identities with support from loved ones. It should not be as radical as it is!
Aida! I feel like I have so much to say about this, but I’ll sound super cheesy, and lovely dovey.
NoNieqa: How can your book be used in the classroom to engage both Latinx and non-Latinx students? What questions would you like to see arise?
So far I’ve been floored at how much people connect to each character’s struggle with anxiety and cultural expectations. I hope it’s another step forward in exploring the diverse Latinx experience, but overall this is a book about friendship - strong friendships - and I think there’s something really important about identifying and working on the positive relationships in your life.
Yamile: How would you cast a The Resolutions movie?
I AM OLD AND KNOW NO TEEN ACTORS. Every actor I know is either in their 20s (*cough* CW network) or Doc Mcstuffins...I have 8-year-old nieces.
Apologies, I’ve been reminded that Doc is a cartoon, but still she does a lot of good work. Oh wait, now that I think about it, I think Isabella Gomez (One Day at a Time) would make a good Nora.
Claribel: What’s been the hardest and the most rewarding part of your journey to publication so far?
The most rewarding has been getting to meet and know new authors (like Las Musas!) and knowing I can push myself more than I think. Hardest is always reconciling expectations with reality.
Jen: What is your writing Kryptonite?
I’m deathly afraid of series - I can’t imagine keeping all that in my head! But I must say plotting is my weakness. It takes me several drafts before I find the thread that links them all together. Before that it’s just a bunch of people talking and eating good food.
Ann: If you could go back and whisper to the who you were at the very beginning of writing this book, what would you tell yourself?
Run. (I’m kidding.) I would say, you don’t think you need a more detailed outline BUT YOU DO, go back and do it again before you start.
Claribel: Can you tell us about any other projects you have in the works?
If I talk about it I have to finish it right? At the moment it’s a historical fantasy about love, loss, depression, isolation, and friendship. It’s demanding a lot from me so it’s going slow.
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