Interview with Yamile Saied Méndez

by Sarah Schulzke Trump

Yamile (sha-MEE-lay) Saied Méndez is a fútbol-obsessed Argentine-American who loves meteor showers, summer, astrology, and pizza. She lives in Utah with her Puerto Rican husband and their five kids, two adorable dogs, and one majestic cat. An inaugural Walter Dean Myers Grant recipient, she’s also a graduate of Voices of Our Nations (VONA) and the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Writing for Children and Young Adults program. She’s a PB, MG, and YA author. Yamile gave a reading from her recent YA debut, Furia, at the BYU English Department Reading Series on October 16, 2020.

Inscape: When did you first come up with the idea for Furia, and when did you start writing it?

Yamile Saied Méndez: I wrote my very first story when I was seven, and I’ve always been obsessed with books and stories. But I came to the US to go to school, and it is the harsh reality that when you come from another country, studying literature or writing is a luxury which I didn’t have. I had to major in something practical, something that would make the effort of coming to another country worthwhile. So I put my writing on hold and I started international economics.

In 2006, I had the idea for a soccer player girl from Rosario, and I started writing it for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). By then I was in my late 20s. I had four babies under the age of five, and I would just write during nap time and at night.

After I finished NaNoWriMo, I was so hooked on that feeling of typing “The End.” But when I went with a critical eye, I knew that the story that I had typed was nothing like the one I had in my mind. So I started studying the craft. I joined a writers group with people that I’m still friends with to this day; I attended workshops; eventually I did my master’s program, and I would go back to Furia over and over. I would always say, “I know what I want to write, but I don’t have the tools yet.”

Eventually, I did a complete rewrite in 2016 and then it sold in 2018. It’s been a long way, but Furia has been in the back of my mind for a long, long time.

Inscape: What was the novel-writing process that you discovered during that time?

YSM: I always need to know what my character wants. I’m working on my second draft for my next Scholastic book, which is a horse girl story, and I’ve been grappling because I know what she wants emotionally, I just need a tangible thing that would show her journey. That’s something that I always need to find when I first start writing. It doesn’t really matter if they get their object of desire or not, but they need to want something so much that they will make any sacrifice to achieve that goal.

When I start playing with a first draft, I’ll just daydream a lot. When I’m riding my bike or driving kids around, I daydream. Then I will sit down and write a super loose outline, kind of like a synopsis. I don’t plan beat by beat because I get bored. It’s super time-consuming and then I get bored.

Sometimes when I’m writing the first draft, I will get a lot of ideas at the end about my character, and then I will need to go back to the beginning and plan them in a smoother way. I always say that the first draft is like putting all the puzzle pieces together, and then the subsequent drafts are the chances to analyze if the pieces work or if they belong in a different story. It’s kind of like a math process. That’s always my favorite part: having something to revise and polish into something good. It’s such a satisfying process.

Inscape: You’ve written a lot of genres: short stories, personal essays, picture books, middle grade novels, YA novels. How do these genres compare, and how are they different from each other?

YSM: A picture book gives me the opportunity to concentrate on a single question or a single dilemma that my character has, and then I only have 300 words at the most to explore that dilemma or problem. In a full novel you have 350 pages to explore perhaps the same topic, but it’s just a different viewpoint. It’s like zooming in a camera really, really deep, or giving you more of a full view of what’s going on around your character. It’s just fun to be able to explore things and themes from different perspectives. I learn a lot about myself in that way.

Inscape: Is there a certain age group or genre that you think of as your genre, or do you claim them all equally?

YSM: I do love writing picture books. They’re so hard, though, because you have to appeal to two audiences: the child, and then the gatekeeper who’s going to be reading the story to the kid. So they’re hard; they’re satisfying, but they’re hard.

I think I really, really love to write about middle graders and young adults. They’re both periods of time in which a person is right in the middle of things. With middle grade you’re coming out of childhood and into puberty, and puberty is such an exciting time of life and also so scary. With YA, a person is on the verge of becoming an adult, and the decisions that you make at that age can affect your whole life. Being in the middle of those critical times in a person’s life is super exciting. I guess because I live between cultures and between languages, it’s just something that attracts me—to explore how people find their way when they’re in the middle of different worlds.

Inscape: Have you always written from your own experience, or did you ever write any speculative fiction?

YSM: It’s funny, because I am a reader of speculative fiction, but I write mostly contemporary. I do have a middle grade book, On These Magic Shores, that has a little bit of magic, but it’s so minimal.

Although my stories all come in contemporary shape, they all have their roots in fantasy or fairy tales in one way or another. I love reading fairy tales, like the Grimm brothers fairy tales and the Andersen fairy tales. There is that epigraph of The Little Mermaid in Furia. The original Little Mermaid always makes me think about Diego Maradona. He was Argentina’s main soccer player. He won the World Cup in Mexico. When the World Cup was in the US in 1994, he was found using drugs. His career kind of collapsed after that. He would always say that in Atlanta 1994, his legs were cut off. That image always stuck with me: how for a soccer player, not to be able to play was like having no legs. It all came together with the little mermaid, the things that she had to give up to get her legs.

Inscape: Furia deals with heavy topics, especially violence against women. How did you decide you wanted to write about something this heavy, and how did you find the courage to do it?

YSM: I don’t know if I “found the courage.” It was like that quote from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing is like driving at night—only as far as the headlights will take you.” When I started writing Furia, I didn’t know that I would delve so much into the feminist aspect of it. But it’s a story about fútbol player girls, and I cannot ignore the fact that women today would not be playing fútbol if it hadn’t been for the work of the early feminists.

There’s this author, Martine Leavitt. She wrote a book that’s super harsh called My Book of Life by Angel, and it talks about child prostitution in Canada. If you knew Martine, she’s a super soft-spoken and proper woman. People can’t conceive that she would even have an interest in writing about child prostitution or child trafficking. What she said is that the situation of girls and women, especially indigenous ones, going missing in Canada is so blatant, and people ignore it like it’s not happening right under their noses, so the least she could do was to bear witness. In Camila’s situation or with the Ni Una Menos movement, there’s really not a lot that I can do personally, but I can bring a little bit of awareness to these topics.

The other thing was showing how the greatest danger that Camila faces every day is in her own home. That is sadly the reality of so many women, who are not in danger of strangers, but from the people that are supposed to love and protect them.

So it wasn’t as much as me being courageous, but just me trying to be honest with my character and the story and the situation in which she lives. I wouldn’t have been writing from the heart or writing an authentic story if I hadn’t acknowledged that environment in which Camila is growing up.

Inscape: One of the most poignant scenes in Furia is the march for the missing girl. What was it like writing that scene?

YSM: When people ask me what was the hardest part to write, writing that march was definitely the hardest, because it happens every day. Every single day, you open a newspaper and there’s always at least one girl. It’s never ending. I have been at marches and seen that anguish. When I wrote the first draft of that scene, my editor said that she loved it but she knew that I could go deeper. It’s a dark place and I didn’t know if I wanted to go there, but I wanted to take my readers and help them experience what it’s like to be in the midst of a march like that.

Inscape: What did you draw from in writing about violence against women?

YSM: I remember being in seventh grade the first time that I heard about a girl that went missing and was found dead. Her name was Marisol Morales. She was from my province. The person that spearheaded the movement to find the people who had killed her and have them be held accountable with justice was a nun—the principal of the school that she attended. I also attended an all-girls school, and because Marisol’s life paralleled mine so much, I could really see these things happening to me or to the girls that I loved.

This violence not only affects the girls and women but the whole of society. Boys and men are also a casualty of the violence and misogyny, because they grow watching these toxic examples of how to be a man, and they perpetuate the same cycle. If we’re going to change our society, we need to change the mentality of everybody. So it was a combination of things, sadly, combining experiences of people that I’ve met in real life with stories that I see in the headlines, and just imagining what I would do if I were growing up in the world today.

Inscape: I wanted to talk a little about the word “furia,” because that becomes so important in the story. When did you know this was going to be Camila’s nickname, and how did it come about?

YSM: Furia is that alter ego that Camila takes upon herself to deal on the field, but then in the end to deal with her problems in life. It’s fueled by the anger that she feels of all the things that she can’t control. In that way it is after the literal translation of “fury.” But in other ways Furia just rings like a title. Like an appointment. Like she was appointed as the fury of the team.

I wanted to give her a persona outside of the field, a name that she earned but that she didn’t necessarily choose herself. A name that fit her. I was also very careful with how she got the nickname. When I started writing the book, she had always been Furia, but it was during one of the revisions that I decided to just have Roxana’s mom baptize her with the name. Roxana’s mom is a Chinese immigrant in Argentina who loves the culture, and I just like the symbolism of another woman who was super soft-spoken and had nothing to do with fútbol baptizing Camila in this way.

Inscape: In a lot of ways, the title is the theme of the book. What does the word “furia” mean to you?

YSM: “Furia” is a combination of things. Sometimes girls are told to be nice and follow all the rules, but if you are really going to break the chains of intergenerational trauma or abuse, or go out and live your dreams, or even find the love of your life—that can be a revolutionary concept when you have lived in this society for generations—when you put all of that together, you can’t just be the nice girl that you were taught. We always hear that love will heal everything, but sometimes there is that righteous anger that has to come before for certain sectors of society—women or whoever it may be—to say, “No more. This is as far as we are going, and now we’re going to do things a different way.”

Camila needed to ignite that fury, that anger, to break away from all those molds that she was given. For me Furia is, like I said, the appointment of an archetype. And that’s what we need to be able to follow our dreams and not the rules that we’re given.

Inscape: Furia was chosen for Reese’s Book Club in September. What was that whole experience like for you?

YSM: When I started writing, a friend of mine, Renée Ahdieh, said to write down a list of things that she called “OMG moments.” It could be outlandish things, things out of your control, like hitting the bestseller list or getting a call from an editor. Basically these different authorial events that people look forward to when they’re starting their career. But being in Reese’s Book Club was never on my list, because it wasn’t even a possibility.

When I was working on Furia, I would go to all these writers’ conferences and pitch this book, and I would get amazing feedback on the writing and the story, but they would all say there was no market for story set in Argentina, with so much Spanish thrown in, or even a story about a soccer player. Going from that to Reese choosing it was very surreal. My publicist doesn’t even know how an advanced readers copy (an ARC) of Furia came into Reese’s hands.

The best part has been the reaction of the Argentine community. Argentine people will celebrate a compatriot being successful at anything, even if it’s chess or Math Olympics, so to receive all that love for a book has been incredible. It was a super emotional moment for me to see all the little Argentine flags on Reese’s posts in the comments.

Inscape: You’re part of a collective for female and non-binary Latinx authors called Las Musas. Can you tell us more about how that started?

YSM: Back in 2017, I met Aida Salazar at a conference in California. We both had agents and our books were going to debut in 2018, and we didn’t have a debut group for different reasons. So we got together and we said, “Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a group of Latinas?”

As Latina authors, we had heard so many times when we had books out on submission, “We love the story, but we already have another Latina,” and it turns out they had somebody from the Dominican Republic like Julie Alvarez, whose stories are so different from mine. Or another publishing house would say, “I already have another Latina author,” and it was Pam Muñoz Ryan, who’s third-generation Mexican. She wrote Esperanza Rising. My book had nothing to do with Esperanza Rising. In the industry there was this myth of pitting a Latina against a Latina, and they had the one token Latina author. So we said, What if instead of competing against each other, we joined forces and created this community to support each other?

That’s how Las Musas was created. It grew from a group of four or five to I don’t even know how many we are now. It’s been an amazing sisterhood that shows that there’s not only one Latina story. There is such a big spectrum of stories, and we wanted to show that you can have a character being a child and having adventures in the snow or dealing with a first period or finding Aztec gods in the pit of a new Mexican volcano (like Jen Cervantes’s books), and it just happened that all these characters have a Latinx origin. But they’re just kids being heroes or doing whatever else.

Inscape: What changes in Latinx literature have you been able to see in your time with Las Musas?

YSM: It’s incredible that I used to know the name of every Latina author coming out in a certain year, and now we’re so many that I lost count. We used to be able to say, if it’s from Argentina you knew what kind of story it was going to be. But now, for example, we’ve got Romina Garber. She wrote Lobizona. “Lobizona” is the female version of werewolf. The book is based on this Argentine myth that the seventh son in a family will become a werewolf, and the seventh daughter will be a witch. That’s why the president of the country is usually the godparent for this child: to break this curse. Even to this day the president of the country does become the godparent of a seventh child by law.

It’s just amazing to see that Lobizona and Furia came out the same year, they both have titles in Spanish, and they have nothing to do with each other except that the characters are from Argentina. There is room for all of our stories and they’re so different.

Inscape: Do you have any advice for breaking into the industry, especially for minority writers?

YSM: It sounds like a cliché, but it’s the truth: The people that make it are the ones who don’t give up. I have known so many people throughout all these years who were amazing writers who just got tired and discouraged. This is not really one race. It is a lifestyle: the writing lifestyle.

Sometimes you need to be able to let go of the story of your heart. You can always go back to it. That’s kind of what happened to me with Furia. It’s not my first book that was published, but if it hadn’t been for Where Are You From? and my Scholastic books I wouldn’t have had the chance to meet my editor and give Furia a fighting chance.

Be authentic, though. Don’t write for the market. Before Blizzard Besties was acquired, I was super discouraged because I’d had so many rejections. For two years, my agent and I had been on submission for a middle grade that I still love, that never found a home. Every time my agent emailed me, I was afraid that she was going to dump me. I was talking to a friend of mine who’s an author with Utah ties, Courtney Alameda, and I said, “You know, maybe in my next book I just won’t make my character a Latina character, because I feel like I need to break through and then write a character that looks like me.” She was super supportive of whatever decision I took, but she said, “Remember to always be true to yourself.” After she said that, I decided to make my character in Blizzard Besties a daughter of Argentine people. When we sent it out on submission, it happened that this Scholastic editor had a dad from Argentina. She resonated with the story so much. She loved it. Now we’re working on our first series together. If I hadn’t been authentic and true to myself, that would’ve never happened.

When you are authentic to yourself and to your goals, that’s when you’re going to find the joy in the writing. People always say that when the book comes out, it’s such an amazing feeling. But really the most magical moments happen when you’re writing by yourself. That’s when I have my greatest joys. Seeing the growth in the story and being able to see the things that I can do is just an amazing feeling. That’s something that doesn’t depend on the reviews or the awards or the recognition. It’s the process that makes it all worthwhile.

Las Musas website: https://www.lasmusasbooks.com/