IT HAS BEEN quite a literary year for Erika L. Sánchez, a daughter of Mexican immigrants. In July, Graywolf Press published her debut poetry collection, Lessons on Expulsion, which has garnered glowing reviews including from The New York Times Book Review (“Lush and formidable”) and The Washington Post (“[A] fierce, assertive debut”).
And if that were not enough, on October 17, Knopf Books for Young Readers will release Sánchez’s debut YA novel, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, which is a finalist for the National Book Award. The novel has earned praise, including a starred review from School Library Journal, which called it “a timely and must-have account of survival in a culturally contentious world.”
I agree. This is an engrossing and important work of literature that brings a much-needed perspective to YA fiction by offering a contemporary, complex, young woman of color at its center. Sánchez’s protagonist, Julia, is a teenager from a working-class Chicago neighborhood who struggles with the constraints of the more traditional elements of her Mexican culture while struggling with her older sister’s death, a first romance with a young man from a different culture and economic status, and a desire to attend college and become a writer.
But Sánchez was no stranger to the literary world before the publication of her two books. She had published nonfiction with Al Jazeera, Cosmopolitan, ESPN.com, the Guardian, NBC News, Rolling Stone, Salon, and elsewhere. Sánchez has been the recipient of a CantoMundo Fellowship, a Fulbright Scholarship to Madrid, a “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize, and a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation. Currently, Sánchez is a 2017-2019 Princeton Arts Fellow.
Despite a dizzying schedule, Sánchez agreed to sit down with me for LARB to answer three questions about I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.
DANIEL A. OLIVAS: You begin your novel with a powerful and daring scene where your main character, Julia, is viewing her late sister’s body laid out in a casket. How did you decide to start your narrative in this way?
ERIKA L. SÁNCHEZ: The novel didn’t always begin that way. It’s seen several versions. But I ultimately decided to begin with Olga’s wake because I wanted the reader to be immediately placed in the thick of the family’s grief. Olga’s death is what sets off Julia’s journey. It was also important to me to be upfront about what kind of protagonist Julia was going to be — a snarky teenager who is angry and vulnerable. She’s devastated by the loss of her sister and doesn’t know how to cope. Sometimes she says unkind things because she is in so much pain. Julia is the kind of girl who will say exactly what she feels, and I hope that readers become intrigued by that, particularly young women of color. We’re rarely allowed to be flawed in literature, and I’m so tired of that.
The secrets harbored by several of the characters — Julia, her late sister Olga, their mother — grow out of expectations and taboos rooted in Mexican culture. Can you talk a little about your development of this theme?
There is so much guilt and shame that you inherit when you’re a woman in a traditional Mexican family. The virgin-whore dichotomy still runs deep in our culture, unfortunately. It was always so puzzling to me that women were censured for being sexual while men objectified them at every turn. At a very young age, men began to catcall me and it confused and enraged me. Growing up, I resented this and always pushed back. Why were men applauded for their virility and conquests while women experienced humiliation? I wanted to challenge these attitudes and expose the damage they can cause. I’ve always been drawn to subjects that many find improper or uncomfortable because that is always the site of suffering.
Julia is a wonderfully complex and interesting character who is a big reader and who wants to become a writer. Aside from the fact that you’re a writer, why did you put a budding author at the center of your debut novel?
People often wonder if I’m Julia, but the truth is that she is smarter and funnier than I ever was as a teenager. There are definitely many parts of myself in her, but I didn’t want to be limited by my own experiences. However, I decided to write about a budding writer because young girls of color don’t often see themselves portrayed as storytellers. I want them to know that they can have a voice, that it’s okay to dream big. Also, the world needs to know that brown girls can be intellectual, that they can have complex inner lives. We’re not a homogenous group of people like the media would lead you to believe. I also simply wanted to write about my love of literature and art because it’s such an important part of my life and it’s so fun to revisit my favorite texts.
Daniel Olivas is a frequent contributor to LARB. His most recent books are The King of Lighting Fixtures: Stories (University of Arizona Press, 2017), and the forthcoming Crossing the Border: Collected Poems (Pact Press, Nov. 17, 2017).