Author Tehlor Kay Mejia shares why representation in literary matters

This month we have been pleased to bring you stories that highlight the contributions, customs and traditions of the Hispanic and Latino community.

Today we are delighted to share a conversation with the author, Tehlor Kay Mejia, who has embraced her Mexican heritage throughout her career and, more recently, in the second novel in her series Paola Santiago, “Paola Santiago and the forest of nightmares ”. In his first novel by Paola Santiago, Tehlor takes advantage of the spooky Mexican folk tale, “La Llorona”, to tell a funny but scary and adventurous story about how the main character confronts his fears and finds his hero inside.

Tehlor’s latest book is a follow-up to “Paola Santiago and the River of Tears” of 2020 and is published under the imprint “Rick Riordan Presents”, which aims to publish great authors of underrepresented cultures and backgrounds because they can tell stories inspired by mythology and folklore of their own heritage.

It took us a while to chat with Tehlor to delve deeper into his books, his career and why representation is fundamental in literature and storytelling. See what he said below:

Q: How did you first start writing?

A: When I was in second grade and I won a poetry contest, I started thinking, “Man, that’s something I could really do … that’s fun, writing is fun!” People liked to write from such a young age, which was very motivating as a child. In fact, I didn’t complete a novel until I was 30, so it’s been a long climb, but I’m proud of the journey.

Q: Tell us more about yours Paola Santiago series of books.

A: The series is about a science-obsessed girl named Paola, who is really skeptical about her mother’s superstitions and folk tales. But when her best friend disappears, all the monsters derived from her mother’s stories begin to appear in her small Arizona town and she has to admit that the world is more than black and white. Throughout the three books, Paola learns more about the supernatural world and its connection to it and continually struggles with the folk monsters that constantly threaten her city and all the people she loves.

Q: What was the inspiration behind the series?

A: The initial inspiration came from stories I remembered most from my childhood and I remember they were all terrifying. “The Weeping One,” for example, was an important part of my childhood. I was afraid of all the masses of water I found until a shamefully advanced age. In the book, Paola uses fact-finding and science to test her feelings of fear, which I do too. This book, in part, immersed me in my old fears and asked me, “What are the roots of these fears?” and then create the child who can be brave enough to face it.

Q: Can you tell us more about the Mexican folklore tale, “La Llorona”?

A: It’s really scary! She is a grieving woman who drowns her children in a river and, as a divine punishment, returns to Earth as a ghost to walk along the river bank and cry for them. According to the story, if he meets other children near the water, he also drowns them. “Llorona” in Spanish comes from the word “llorar”, which means “to cry”, so this is where it gets its name: “The woman who cries”.

Q: How do you incorporate your culture and background into your stories?

A: It’s really so instinctive; I don’t even think I’m realizing I’m doing it. As a child I read a lot and I loved books. I was lucky enough to see books sometimes with characters that looked like me, but they never reflected how my family felt. At the time, I wasn’t old enough to critique books, so I used to think, “I guess books don’t feel like home to people like me.”

So when I started writing, I erased all those definitive details because I thought I was supposed to write what the rest wrote. At one point, I finally gave myself the freedom to write what seemed right to me. Now, I find it much more liberating and I trust that people will find something to relate to universally in my books, even if they don’t particularly identify with my training.

Q: Why is representation important in literature and storytelling?

A: Not to be dramatic, but I think the performance can be literally life or death. When we don’t have representation, it’s much easier to dehumanize people different from us because we don’t see them as real, complex, nuanced people. For so long we have been seeing these stereotyped two-dimensional forms of representation for marginalized communities, if we look at them. This makes it harder for people to believe in themselves and for people who do not belong to these cultures to see them as humans only. This can lead to problems like the crisis of trust or inequality and can even lead to violence in these communities. Also, being able to see yourself as the hero of a story is an experience that every child deserves.

Q: How do you think readers make your stories feel?

A: I hope other Mexican-American children can have a chance to feel at home in a story. Some people may not know it, but kids like me often have to do this “two-step separation,” where they feel they have to separate in a different world that they may not relate to. For example, they will first have to imagine themselves as a rich suburban child and then change that mindset to imagine themselves fitting into a story they are not related to.

I want them to feel that they can be the hero of a story. I am grateful to have received many positive reactions from non-Mexican-American children, who read the book and are amazed at how much they found in common with this character and the fun of the story. So I would say that if you are part of this culture, I hope you feel at home. And if it isn’t, I hope you find something you can relate to in this story and learn that there is always something you can relate to in all people and in all stories.

Q: What is your personal motto?

A: Reminding me that I am worthy! Sometimes I find it hard to feel like a total impostor because of all the great experiences I’ve been able to have throughout my career, which makes me think “why me?” Therefore, when I doubt myself, I always try to remind myself that I am worthy of my successes.

Q: What advice would you give to your younger self?

A: I would say to myself, “You deserve to see yourself in stories and you deserve to write them and show people how you see the world.” Growing up, I never thought I would be able to get to this point, because I rarely saw people from my culture doing what I do. You are allowed to imagine that you have this great life and that you are successful!

Q: What advice would you give to young aspiring authors?

A: I would give the same advice as myself. But when it comes to writing tips, I think being an author is being an observer of the world. Your unique perspective will be different from anyone else’s, so cultivate it! Observe the world and observe the things that only you see: these little details that other people may miss. These are the things that really make a story personal and help it come to life.

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