Selene Lacayo interviews author Jennifer De Leon
Jennifer De Leon sat with me to talk about her YA novel Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From (Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2020) sharing how her Guatemalan American upbringing influenced the stories in this book.
In this novel we meet Liliana as she is starting a new life, so to speak, at a nicer and definitely, better-funded school than the one in her neighborhood. Her culture shock is latent in every chapter, but so is her willingness to make a space for herself in her new element.
Among new friends, allies, and many situations facing her peers’ unconscious bias and tokenism, Liliana also faces the realization of her father’s deportation, her mother’s mental health issues, and her changing relationships with old friends.
We learn with Liliana that constant code-switching is inescapable for people of color in white spaces, but we also accompany her in the discovery that code-switching is just how bicultural children of immigrants navigating the US grow up in the pull of finding a place to belong.
First and foremost, I want to ask you why it was important for you to show that not all children of immigrants know about the immigration status of their parents? Your protagonist, Lilliana, is a very responsible highschooler with excellent grades, very intelligent, taking care of a lot of things for her family like her brothers, yet she's kept completely in the dark about the situation. As adults we can see why, but why was it important for you to show this in your book?
Jennifer De Leon:
I always felt that Liliana’s parents, as much as they asked her to take on some responsibilities typically geared for older kids, they also wanted to protect her, to keep her innocent for as long as possible. I also think that sometimes for parents who are undocumented, or for mixed families where some are documented while some aren't, it can be really scary to share this information with their children. Kids sometimes slip or they'll trust a friend who isn't your friend the next week, and that could have dire consequences for the whole family. I think Liliana’s parents are really smart, protective, and loving and that was why I felt that would be the choice that they would make.
I can see exactly why immigration statuses aren’t just something that one typically talks about at the dinner table.
Another important theme in your book is the mental health issue that Liliana’s mother is struggling with. Lately there has been talk about how mental health is something for the middle and upper classes because nobody else has time for that. However, our mental health issues are some of the things that we cannot control. Liliana’s mom really needed to continue working but she also couldn’t just push aside what she was experiencing. So again, you're planting this big issue in your plot. Can you share with us what inspired you to do so?
I wanted to have a realistic character, and that includes realistic secondary characters and realistic settings with realistic situations. For me, that includes mental health. It's not like we can trim and choose to prune certain aspects of our reality. And it's something I hadn't seen a lot and, like you said, if I'd seen it, it was in middle to upper class characters. And their parents took them to see a psychiatrist, or a counselor and it was kind of very PG very PC.
In Latino families it can be more complicated. In the case of Liliana’s mother, there was a need for more support than she was able to access. She was carrying so much. So many of my students have responded to this, comparing that situation to their own moms. I thank them for sharing their experiences because that's real, and valid. It's not something to be ashamed of.
In Latin America, mental health illness is still very taboo, and people go untreated for many years, making the problem bigger. From the perspective of children of immigrants, kids who have to constantly embrace the culture of their parents with their taboos, while forming their own identities growing up in the US, mental health illness is not the end of the road. In the case of Liliana, she can see the problem, but she can also see the solution.
I think it is related to code-switching and the crossing of the borders where immigrants carry their taboos over, but their children can see both sides of the coin.
Aligned with code switching, I also wanted to talk to you about Genesis. I related to her quite a bit, because just like her, I resorted to shortening my name to fit in my new environment when moving here from Mexico. More than a name or a nickname, it is the birth of a second persona. We see it in your book.
There are the two Genesis: the one at home who is Spanish-speaking from the Latinx neighborhood and the one at school who is college-bound and spends the week with a host family to be closer to all her extracurricular activities. You created her character to showcase the constant code-switching. Why do you think that we need to be this chameleonic person especially as minorities to fit in and get those opportunities? We couldn't just show up as ourselves.
I think about this so much. I think people do that, including myself, in lots of ways because it's easier in the short term, not maybe in the long term, because we perpetuate this kind of accommodation for white folks. But in the short term it's like a coping mechanism and I think for young people, especially, they're just trying to survive.
Liliana is watching this code-switching and accommodation of others because she's already starting to experience it. There is a very relatable situation because as minorities we are always involved in a bit of code-switching.
Are you taking a little bit of your personal journey through Liliana or am I reading too much into this?
I’ve put so much of myself in her, I always think of Liliana as a composite character of my younger self and the students I’ve taught for years, but she is a completely made-up character. I didn't do a program like Liliana’s, but I did attend schools that were PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions), and I was often the only Latina in my classes, and certainly in my honors classes and lacrosse and volleyball teams.
I gave those experiences to Liliana in a lot of ways. And, you know, I think it doesn't necessarily change as I am now the only professor of color in the English department and live in a predominantly white town where it seems that change moves slowly.
Liliana is here in a predominantly white school, and she wants to do her best. She knows she has the grades, she wants to make her parents proud, but she's struggling to find where she fits in all this. She starts going out with a boy and that makes her happy, but she has these encounters with his best friend who is racist towards her and realizes that to them, maybe she's just the exotic commodity.
Why did you decide to explore this theme? What made you have Liliana’s love interest defending the friend rather than confronting his racist behavior?
Because that's how it is. I've experienced overt racism where then the friend thinks the person of color is making a big deal out of a situation. Asking “Why are you so reactive? Why are you so emotional? Oh my god, you're so sensitive. He wasn't even saying it like that”. They put it back on the person of color, like it's your fault for reacting.
I wanted to have a variety of characters in the book to show the range of ways in which you can be racist. Sometimes it's microaggressions. And sometimes it's just being passive, like not speaking up. And I guess in a novel, you have room to put all that variety in.
What would be your advice for young people who want to learn to stand up for themselves and for their friends?
I find that teens are just so smart and empowered and they come up with ways of calling people out. They say things like: “really?”, “Yo wow!” or “you're gonna say that?” They just have this way of getting their message across without being “I really want to talk to you about anti racist pedagogy?” They have their subtle ways.
I guess you are right! I had not thought about it like that. Kids are constantly pushing their friends.
Let’s switch gears a bit and talk about the push of Liliana’s dad for her to attend a school outside of her neighborhood. One with more opportunities, with enthusiastic teachers, and extracurriculars. Why did you want to make the dad and not the mom the big driver of this?
I wanted to disrupt that single story or that stereotype that Latino fathers aren't involved in their kids’ education. My father was very adamant that we pursue education and I wanted to show that in a novel.
I remember while growing up, my friends, my white friends, would have conversations with their parents about their summer plans or their future plans, while my parents were not asking for my opinion. They decided what camp, which school and that, later on, I would attend college, it was not a discussion. It did always amuse me that not every family was the same. So, I tried to put that in the book.
Yes, certainly not every family is the same but also, not every family has the same opportunities. Take Jade, Liliana’s childhood friend, for example. She did not get into a better school like Liliana, she’s still limited to her neighborhood and less opportunities than her best friend.
How do you continue in a relationship with someone from your barrio or is that difficult? Would Jade get jealous? What do you see in that happening in their friendship?
That's a complicated balance of friendships that I think a lot of adults might not realize kids have to navigate. It's a lot of pressure because you feel like you are somehow disowning a part of yourself by moving on and upward. And it's really complicated.
I think more books should be written about these dynamics in friendships, because it can be really hard for young people, and hard for the person who's left behind because their parents didn't fill out an application, or for whatever reason. You'd never want to feel like you are saying to your friend, “I'm above you now, so we're moving on”. Kids don't always have the skills to navigate this complicated dynamic.
I just remember that growing up, I had pockets of friends groups, but I could never have a party where they all came because it would have been like an explosion.
Yeah, you will probably need some ambassadors, right? If you're coordinating the whole dynamic. It made me think of This Is Us. They have a character named Miguel who came from Puerto Rico and the family was pushing him to make it work. And he did. He applied himself. But then he was so different from his family, and he was always at work trying to climb the ladder, that it became very difficult for him to be part of his own family. In making it big like his family wanted, he lost his connection to his most fervent cheerleaders.
Yeah, I write about that a lot in my book of essays White Space, that is kind of a companion book to the novel, because it's my personal experience. So, if you can, I'd love for you to check that out. It's just about growing up and moving between worlds and how when I was 28, I moved back to Guatemala because I really wanted to experience it, and it informed my writing.
But I agree, I think there is that pressure to make it. Telling my parents that I wanted to be a creative writer and that I wanted to move back to Guatemala, they were definitely surprised. It was weird for them to understand because they had moved here to give me more opportunities, but I wanted to move back to where they had come from. They supported me still, which is really sweet.
I always like to give the author the opportunity to say something they haven’t been asked before. What is the one thing you’ve always wanted to say about your writing, your book, or your journey?
You know, nobody's ever asked me if when I wrote this book, I thought it was going to be my first book of many, or my only book. When I wrote this book, I actually didn't know if it would be published. I had another novel, and adult novel, that I worked on for seven years, and it did not get published. So, when I wrote this one, I put my whole heart into it. I almost didn’t even care if it wasn’t published.
I wrote it like it was the only book I would ever write. I really think that that made the difference, you know? I think a lot of times writers save certain descriptions or details or characters for other projects. But for this one, I just really went all in. I'm realizing now that that's how you want to be with every single project. Isn't that crazy?
I hadn’t thought about it but that is exactly how I approach my writing, hoarding things, saving them for other projects rather than focusing on one and giving it my all!
It's counterintuitive because it’s sort of embedded in our code. We save our nice clothes, we save our perfume, we don’t go out to the store with the nice shoes. Everything is just saved for later.
That is all so true!
I want to thank you for your time, for the book, and for opening my eyes to so many topics today. It was really enjoyable!
Originally from Mexico, Selene Lacayo is a writer and translator living with her husband and three children in the Greater Philadelphia Area. She holds a master's in English - Creative Writing from West Chester University where she focused on creative non-fiction and fiction. Her pieces have been published in Electric Lit, Somos en Escrito, Latinx Lit Magazine, The Best Short Stories of Philadelphia of 2021, LatineLit, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a picture book centered around the themes of multiculturalism, identity and an eight-year-old's great sense of fashion.