Interviewer Selene Lacayo and co-authors Marie Marquardt and Mayra Cuevas talk dress codes, social activism, the family kitchen, and intercultural friendships in their collaborative YA book.
When did an arm stop being an arm to become a sexual object because they're wearing a string tank top? And what does that have to do with education?
Co-authors Mayra Cuevas and Marie Marquardt met at a conference while pursuing their love for writing, and quickly became critique partners and friends. Their dreams in common and their individual goals brought them to write about activism and social justice by way of their ultra-realistic characters in their YA novel Does My Body Offend You? (Penguin Random House, 2022).
In the novel, Malena, who has just arrived in Florida from Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria is having trouble finding the strength in her voice when spoken in English and in an environment with rules new to her. She finds a friend ready-to-listen in Ruby, a Seattle transplant unafraid to speak against injustice, who had arrived a year earlier to help her Nana as she recovered from surgery.
The authors complement this story in a perfect dance of chapters told in first person from Malena and Ruby’s POVs. They give readers a clear sense of what intercultural friendships are all about: love, laughter, and a whole lot of misunderstandings that only the courageous ones are willing to tackle.
The comfort of food and the coziness of the family kitchen as the place to have important conversations are so present in this story, that our chat also happened around food: me with café con leche in Pennsylvania, them with takeout lunch in Georgia.
I’m very excited to be talking with both of you today because this book if filled with a sense of mission that seems unique to each of the main characters. Could you talk about what you wanted to accomplish by writing about social justice and feminism?
I have been engaged in activism for many years, but what really drew me to this book were my kids. When they were young teenagers, they were dragging me out to protests all the time, to take the streets in relation to all the issues that are so important right now, including feminist issues. I started to reflect on the type of books out there for young adults that are about developing an identity as an activist and realized they overlook a couple of things.
One of them is intersectionality. This idea that when we step into the world as activists, we step in our own identity. it's important that we begin to develop the capacities and tools for listening, understanding, and for those of us who are in a position of privilege, for stepping back. I believe this is an important message.
I also really wanted to write a book that showed what happens after the protests. Because kids want to see change. We all want to see change happen now. Right? You take to the streets and it's just a wonderful collective fervor, but then it's over, and it feels like nothing changed, the patriarchy didn't fall apart.
For me, the initial push was writing a story showing that the coming together is not the end, not the culmination, but it is the beginning of something new and important and maybe a little quieter but key to driving change.
I come at it from a couple of different perspectives. As you know, I'm a journalist, so I have been saving clippings and looking at stories of young women around the country and around the world who are struggling with issues around dress codes. On the surface is easy to dismiss it and say maybe they should all wear uniforms, but when you look deeper, there are so many issues associated with this.
There's the problem with the developing of rape culture where we blame young women by sexualizing their bodies at a very young age. When did an arm stop being an arm to become a sexual object because they're wearing a string tank top? And what does that have to do with education? And why is it the girls’ fault that boys are distracted?
There are all these issues wrapped around the dress code that we thought were right for a young adult novel. Initially, we looked at other very wonderful books that address the dress code, but they were lacking the point of view of girls of color of other non-white cultures. Marie and I wanted to work together to bring that element into this story in a fresh new perspective.
You do a wonderful job including the voice and perspective of Malena. I felt close to her, especially as a Mexican immigrant myself, because just like her, when I get emotional or angry, my accent gets thicker, I forget words in English, I feel somehow smaller. I was touched by Malena’s forced move to the mainland and her leaving behind the spaces where she knew how to succeed. Why was it important for you, Mayra, to have Malena move to Florida after Hurricane Maria?
Malena’s backstory as a Maria evacuee was really important because I lived through that. I didn't speak to my family for a month, and it was horrible. I think any Puerto Rican will tell you that Maria really left a mark in their heart. It was a very traumatic event. I was born and raised in Puerto Rico and my family still lives there, so I have very strong ties to the island.
Part of the story at the center of this novel is seeking to understand where the other is coming from. Marie and I are about sitting down and having a conversation and being compassionate. Through the novel, Malena and Ruby learn to listen to others who may be coming from a place of trauma or a place of fear.
You touched on the idea of the multicultural friendship present in your book from your author picture together to the cover and the characters’ relationships. But your book also talks about the things that are misinterpreted in a friendship like that one of Malena and Ruby. Did you base some of this multicultural friendship struggles in your own experience as real-life friends?
Let me frame it this way: for you to collaborate on any kind of artistic journey, you must be really close. And you must have an honest, open relationship that is constantly giving the other person grace. You need generosity of spirit because we're creating art at the end of the day, and we're both coming at it from our hearts.
I think that is shown not in the specificity of the characters but in the theme of the book. This is a novel about compassion and understanding what it's like to be an ally and what it's like to help each other find a voice. It shows the kind of support that transcends difficulties, while fostering growth together.
I also believe that friendship is about creating a space where you can open up to each other and show your struggles and show your pain. I think we hide our pain and we hide our fears because we're afraid of rejection. When you're accepted, that means something.
You bring up acceptance and openness and I think there is a perfect mix of that in the relationship between Carlos and Ruby. I love how you tackle the subject of toxic masculinity with him. How did you develop this character?
One of the things I love about Carlos is that it’s easy to develop preconceptions about who that character is. Then you find that there's a lot more depth, integrity, and desire for growth. In a way Carlos defies the stereotype of the macho elite athlete by wanting to be a feminist—even when he couldn’t see that at home, his mom was catering to him.
Marie developed the romance angle, but I definitely developed the cultural part because I know Carlos, I have live with many Carloses. If you are part of the Latinx community, you know those momma’s little boys. Carlos is everywhere.
Carlos is one of those characters that we worked on together. And that happens a lot. One of us will come up with the idea and the other jumps in with an angle and we just do this mesh of things.
Carlos is a great character because he knows he’s not perfect and he is willing to listen and change.
But it is only because of the openness in their relationship. Once he had achieved the level of trust and intimacy with Ruby, he was able to bring attention to the ways she was blind to her privilege, and she was able to point out how he was blind to his privilege. This type of exchange only works when it’s happening inside a trusting relationship.
Or when it happens in a conversation in the kitchen, right? The kitchen is almost like a character in your book. I love that you have both cultures cooking and having important chats in the kitchen.
The kitchen is like a character in everything that I write. And with the abuelas at the center. For me it's important to write intergenerational stories. Both Marie and I live in beautiful loving intergenerational families. Even when we are not geographically all in the same space, that connection is very strong. When I write, these bonds come up in interesting and fun ways. I have multiple characters that are based on family members.
Now that we covered Carlos, let’s move on to Olive. How did she came to be? Why is it important to Ruby to get out of her shadow?
Well, I have two older sisters. Living in someone’s shadow came in part from that. Also, to Ruby, Olive represents this aspirational idea but then she notices how Olive needed to start paying attention to some of the mistakes that she was making. It created the opportunity for me to bring the coming-of-age element when Ruby recognizes that she doesn’t need to pretend or want to be like anybody else.
Olive offers that one idealized model of the white activist woman for Ruby. But Olive is a lot older than her so, we're talking about intergenerational feminism. We really wanted to bring forward that there is not only intersectional feminism, but intergenerational feminism and ask the question of how feminism changes for women across the generations.
You give the perfect opening for my next question. I want to talk about your non-villainous villain, Dr Hardaway, who at the beginning of the story treats Malena in a way that hurts us all. Why did you choose to show us towards the end, that she is a feminist of her generation who truly wanted to help Malena?
We don't want to fall into a classic villain model. We want readers to understand that even when Dr. Hardaway, by nature of her actions, sets the plot in motion, she had good intentions all along. She thought she was doing the right thing. We later understand that.
When we started doing research for this book, I would sit down to have lunch with female friends from different communities in my life and talk to them about some of these things. There was this array of different understandings of feminism, different understandings of relationships to the body, sex, and sexuality. It was this wide spectrum based on different factors like socio economic, cultural, financial, personal history, gender, their own sexuality, and what generation they belong to.
It's so massively complex, and we want these characters to portray some of that complexity. We want our book to show that even when the characters’ intentions are good, they're making mistakes because their understanding is limited. This brings back the point of compassion. For me, one of the best moments in the book is that embrace that Dr. Hardaway gives Ruby. When I think about it, sometimes I get teary eyed because it represents the best in us. It shows that we can transcend our differences.
We hope that the young people that read this book will walk away with an openness to others in a sense of calling people in instead of calling people out. And find change not only through protest but also through working with the systems that are in place to affect change from within.
The real work always comes after the protest.
Selene Lacayo is a writer and translator living in The Greater Philadelphia Area with her Lebanese husband and three children. When she's not driving her kids around town, she enjoys reading books with deep themes, taking walks in nature with her dog Onyx, and documenting life in photos and her writing. You can find her work at selenelacayo.com or connect with her on Twitter @LacayoSelene and IG @Selene Lacayo.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Mayra Cuevas is the author of multiple children’s books including the young adult novels Does My Body Offend You? and Salty, Bitter, Sweet. Mayra is a producer for CNN and co-founder of the Latinx Kidlit Book Festival. She keeps her sanity by practicing Buddhist meditation. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, her two stepsons, their fluffy cat and a very loud Chihuahua. You can find Mayra on Twitter @MayraECuevas, on Instagram @Mayra.Cuevas and her website MaryaCuevas.com.
Marie Marquardt is an award-winning author of young adult fiction. Her novels have been called “poignant,” “eye-opening” and “achingly beautiful and real.” She lives in Decatur, Georgia with her spouse, four kids, a dog, several chickens and a bearded dragon.
Photo by Viktor Talashuk.