Selene Lacayo Interviews Karla Arenas Valenti
Mexico is magical. This is what author Karla Arenas Valenti shows her readers in her middle grade novel Lotería (Knopf Books for Young Readers, 2021). In Valenti’s pages magic and real life coexist in perfect harmony. Life and Death walk the streets of Oaxaca City immerse in the old philosophical argument of freewill versus fate. They stop from time-to-time to play a game of Lotería –the very game that will change Clara’s life forever.
Clara is a shy girl who comes from a family of people with magical gifts, but she does not have any gifts of her own. Drawing is the only thing she is good at, but she thinks that isn’t much compared to the gift of premonition of her cousin Esteban. During a family picnic, Esteban senses something bad is about to happen, soon after, his mother dies.
Filled with grief, Esteban is easily lured by The Man in Red into the Kingdom of Las Pozas with the promise of reuniting with his mom. Clara does not know anything about this new place or how to help her cousin, but she knows that she can’t leave Esteban alone. During her quest to reunite with her cousin, Clara discovers her talents and grit as she faces danger and unhelpful creatures along the way.
I talked to Karla Arenas Valenti about her inspiration and her goal to meet children at their intellectual best by challenging them with big philosophical questions.
Could we start with the categorization of your book because it is classified as magical realism, but I know that kids are not very familiar with that term, while they are definitely familiar with fantasy. Could you tell us what is magical realism and why is your book a representation of this genre?
Karla Arenas Valenti:
I talk about this in my school presentations because there is a lot of overlap between fantasy and magical realism. The way I explain it is that I grew up in a house that was built on a ravine and inside my house was a giant tree. The house was built around the tree, which is a very magical experience. We also had an owl and toucans, we had chaneques (spirits protecting the garden), and we had ghosts. So, I explain to the kids how my life was very magical. And it's not like I flew around in a broom. I wasn't making spells. I was living my ordinary life, but there were aspects of magic, of fantastical happenings, that were very much a part of my reality. That is magical realism.
Magical realism as a genre is where you're telling a story that's grounded in reality; the reality that we know, which follows the rules of the world that we know and understand. But there are elements of fantasy or maybe the fantastical, that are taking as ordinary part and parcel of living in that world.
Fantasy on the other hand, is a whole new world with a whole new set of rules. In that regard, Lotería actually has both. It starts off as magical realism; you have Life and Death walking through Oaxaca, as if they were ordinary characters and everything is perfectly fine here, nothing to see. Once Clara goes to the portal into The Kingdom of Las Pozas, that's fantasy, and even though it's based on a place that's real, the rules of that world are completely made up. There's this move of magical realism to fantasy.
I think magical realism is something very unique to Latin American culture, because we don't only operate with what is logical in our day-to-day. We like the fantasy too. I like your explanation on how you merge magic with reality in Lotería! Moving on I’m curious about why you chose to set your story in Oaxaca since you are from Mexico City. Is this a magical place for you? Did you travel a lot there when you were a child? Tell me about it.
I'm going to backtrack a little bit, but I'll come back to Oaxaca. I had been thinking for a long time about a story I wanted to tell that explored the philosophical concept of freewill versus fate. I want to talk to children and meet them at their intellectual best. I always assume that kids are capable of understanding and dealing with these very challenging concepts.
My idea was to tell this story as if you're trapped in a game and you don't know you're in a game, you think you have free will, but you don't. Your actions are all being controlled by this external force. I thought about this being a videogame, but I soon realized I was way out of my league because I’m not a gamer. This coincided with my father coming from Mexico to visit us while we lived in Germany (we were there for six years) and he brought us a game set of Lotería.
As you just mentioned, I’m from Mexico, but I’ve been in the States since I was in college, my husband's American, my kids grew up here. Giving them that exposure to my Mexican culture was really hard, especially when we were living in Europe. So, as I said, we've been in Europe for six years, we hadn't really connected with our Mexican heritage very much when my father comes to visit, and he brings this game set of Lotería. Suddenly, something clicks in my mind, and I thought, this is the game. It's perfect. It's a game of chance.
I have all this sort of funneling in my brain, when my brother choses to get married in Oaxaca City. That was the first time I returned to Mexico in four years. Being immersed in Oaxaca City and in all what represents Mexico: the food, the colors, the music, the pre-Hispanic heritage, and then you've got a modern cosmopolitan city and all this lives hand-in-hand. It's so magical and mystical.
While being in Oaxaca the story came to life. My skin was just tingling as I walked on those cobblestone streets and went to the Catedral and the Zócalo. I came back from the wedding and wrote the book. It was something I've been thinking about for probably seven years and things began to flow. I wrote the first manuscript in less than a month.
I love the phrase México Mágico and all the special towns that have the designation of Pueblos Mágicos because you can explain it to anybody as much as you want and they can’t grasp it, but once someone visits and lives Mexican culture, something awakens. I'm glad that the story came to life for you.
You chose a beautiful setting then you take us into this fantasy world, where you add the character of El Diablo, represented in your story as The Man in Red. I wanted to ask you about the gutsy choice of adding him, because in Mexico, El Diablo and his presence is so casual –he’s even present in the nativity sets. Here in the US, he’s more somber. Why did you choose him to be like that and do you think that he is terrifying for your readers or just the right amount of spooky?
This goes to this idea of diversity. I was very deliberate about bringing Catrina (Death) in as a beautiful lifeform woman even in the illustrations. The first drafts of Catrina were very skeletal and emaciated and I said, no; I wanted her to look like she's full of life and vibrant because in Mexico, Death and Life are two sides of something bigger. Death isn’t the specter with the ominous music and the cape coming to find you. Death is just another phase of your existence.
I wanted my readers to think about these big concepts like death and the devil in a different way while understanding that different cultures value these things differently and have different stories about them.
El Diablo is not the villain, the villain is The Immortal King. I wanted El Diablo to be a different kind of devil the same Diablo that you reference, a very casual one. He’s slightly mischievous, but not necessarily evil. The angle here is doing things for someone else because he like, all of us, has his own needs and desires.
I wanted to find that fine balance where the readers is kind of uncomfortable with this person, but El Diablo is not who they may think he is. There's a little bit of a deceit behind the scenes that you're not clear on what's going on. I wanted to put the readers in this place where they question what they know about El Diablo and what his influence is in his story.
That is very interesting! Did you plan your characters from the beginning of your writing or did the ideas come as you wrote the novel?
Interestingly enough, when I was writing the book, I didn't know what the plot was going to be about. I knew I wanted it to be a study about freewill versus fate. And I wanted Life and Death to debate these concepts. Life believes that we all have freewill; Death believes that everything is predetermined. That is what I knew I wanted the book to be about but, as I was writing, I would get to a point where I wasn't sure how the story would progress, I would shuffle the deck of Lotería cards, and then force myself to write the next scene using whatever that image was.
That is how many characters came to be a part of the story.
I love that you had the cards as you're writing prompts!
We have gone a back and forth a bit about the concept of freewill versus fate, but you haven’t shared what is your personal take on the subject. Do you think that you were predestined to be a writer or rather something that you chose? It would be interesting if La Lotería would send us on different paths.
What do you think that younger readers get from this philosophical discussion?
When I started writing the book, I was convinced that we have free will. My struggle was writing a convincing counter argument. I have a background in philosophy, so these are these are the kinds of things I'm always thinking about. I had gotten myself to a point where I knew where I stood. I knew what my position was. To really balance that out, I had to give Catrina her side of perspective equal weight. I spent a ton of time doing research on determinism and all the philosophical arguments against freewill.
As the story progressed, I started to question my own beliefs. And I got to a point where I was like, hold on a second: I don't think we have freewill. In a sense, my whole life has been shattered. There's no freewill. Everything is determined. Then I had to research the counter argument for that counter argument and build up the debate.
I got to this point, which coincides with the climax of the story when Clara is in this cave and Life and Death show up, where I felt trapped. From a meta perspective, as the author you control the fate of all your characters, but at this point, I felt I could no longer control them, I had to give them freewill. I had to give Clara her freewill. I did this sort of metaphorical pulling away from Clara to see what she would do. She then came up with this answer that completely surprised me.
I don't want to give it away, but it was a resolution to the tension of freewill versus fate that had never occurred to me. It was so liberating to me as a thinker because I was at a point where I didn't know how to reconcile these two ideas. Clara came up with the phrasing or the philosophy that allows you to weave the two of them together while providing the resolution for the plotline.
At this point, I believe what Clara believes. I won't say what it is because I want my readers to figure out what that is, but it's somewhere between freewill and fate.
As to your question about whether I was fated to be a writer. I've always been a storyteller. I feel like I came from a family of storytellers -slash- liars. There’s this interconnection that we have in Mexico with storytelling and embellishing and adding color. But it wasn't until my family was in Germany for a long period of time, that I was able to really dedicate to being a professional writer.
There are so many things that we do over the course of our life that guide and shape us. But there was also this need and this urge to write. It's you always believing and wanting and being willing to be open to stuff and then destiny connecting with you when you're open and ready for it.
At the point where the two come together, that's where the magic happens.
It is looking for the magic signs. I love this. And I really liked that you had one idea coming into the book and then writing the book change it for you –as literature should. I wonder how many of your readers are going to have these crazy conversations with their parents.
You mentioned the cave and that made me think something somewhat unrelated I wanted to ask you. As of late, I'm realizing that many books, images, movies that are of Latinx origin have butterflies. You in the cave, have Clara drawing butterflies. Why? Why is a monarch butterfly or butterflies in general, so important, so vivid in your plot and in in Latinx culture as a whole?
I don't know the answer to that. It's a fascinating question and I hadn't ever thought of it. I have butterflies in almost all my stories. Maybe it's just the magic. Butterflies are a very clear embodiment of something magical.
Butterflies are indeed magical. Maybe is that they represent rebirth, starting anew.
I think you've said it. Exactly. That rebirth concept is such a powerful theme but to me, it's not even being reborn, it's being transformed.
Now you stroke a chord. Butterflies represent transformation. It is no coincidence that you bring them up in your story at the exact point of resolution. Which brings me to my question about the ending.
Not to give it away but, can you tell me if it was a hard decision to finish the book without a happy resolution for all your characters?
That was 100% deliberate. In fact, I knew nothing other than that was how the book was going to end. I knew I wanted it the story to be about freewill versus fate, and I knew that was how I was going to end it because precisely of the butterfly and this idea of transformation.
Oftentimes in these happy endings there is no transformation. A real authentic transformation, in a way, destroys and rebuilds us. In order to convey that, I wanted the ending to be a powerful reflection of this transformation.
I wouldn't say it's not a happy ending. That was the other thing I wanted to challenge, the notion of what it means to have a happy ending and that it equates to end a story the way we expect it to end. A happy ending is that there is a meaningful resolution to the character's journey. Clara has this meaningful resolution, even though things don't end up as readers may expect. But there is a very profound and meaningful resolution to her story.
Everything tied up in a perfect bow is how sometimes stories end and that's okay. But, in a way, we do a disservice to our readers, leading them to believe that there will always be a nice tidy resolution. I believe that we need literature that allows us to move into that space and say: “I don't feel good, but it's going to be okay”.
That hope is what I end the story with. It is a good opportunity for an author to give something to the readers that they can hold on to and take into their real life.
Homing in on this theme of transformation let’s talk then about Clara. She is a beautiful soul initially unaware of her great talent for drawing? What message do you have for your readers about discovering their own inner talents rather than comparing themselves to others?
For me it was important to write a character who wasn’t already a hero. So often our stories are based on the concept of the chosen one, Clara is not. She’s just an ordinary kid living like anybody else. She is “you” reader. She starts her journey as no one special, but she finishes it as someone extraordinarily special. Clara is special because of the choices she makes not because she’s the chosen one; she’s special because of her freewill and not her destiny.
Clara knows that her drawings of alebrijes are messy, and they aren’t perfect, but she enjoys drawing them and knows they are loved by Esteban. At the point when she is surrounded by her alebrijes and discovers the power within them, she had stopped caring about everything being perfect or whether they measure up to someone else’s standard of beauty.
At the end, what matters is that Clara is persistent and is persevering and is giving her talent to the world, freely.
Karla Arenas Valenti writes stories for and about kids, taking readers on journeys seeped in magical realism and philosophical questions. Her storytelling is heavily influenced by her Mexican heritage and layered with ideas and concepts she’s picked up in her many travels around the world. She currently resides in the Chicagoland area with her husband and three kids, two cats, and hundreds of books. Karla writes picture books (she is the creator of the “My Super Science Heroes” series) and middle grade novels.
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 degree in English from West Chester University of Pennsylvania, where she focused in creative writing. She was the 2018 Judge's Choice Runner-Up for the Write Michigan Short Story Contest. Her essays have been published by InCulture Magazine, Americans Resisting Overseas, the COVID-19 Community Stories of the Grand Rapids Public Museum and Alebrijes Review. Her short story Amalgam forms part of The Best Short Stories of Philadelphia of 2021. She is currently working on a memoir centered around the themes of belonging, identity and motherhood.
Image by J via Unsplash