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Bringing Diversity and Student Stories to Bookshelves

Jennifer De Leon (Bay Area ’02) says not every reader will get the references in her novel featuring a Latinx heroine—and that’s fine by her. She’s decentering whiteness and decolonizing shelves. 

By Paula Ann Solis

November 16, 2020

Illustrations of a Latinx Woman in the wilderness and typing on a computer

There’s an assumption some people make when scanning the jacket of a book and seeing a single name displayed: that the author did it alone. That kind of person knows how it’s done—how an idea becomes a story, how a story becomes a book. That person is exceptional.

“For people of color, it starts with demystifying that myth,” says author Jennifer De Leon (Bay Area ’02). “I really feel like a lot of white writers, in general, they just know that ‘Someone will help me down the line,’ you know? ‘I’ll get this internship, and then people will help me figure the rest out.’ They just kind of operate with a different energy. People of color, we put up blocks for ourselves before we even try. It’s real. It’s heavy.”

De Leon grew up surrounded by stories, but they didn’t live in books on shelves. Her parents, Guatemalan immigrants to Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood, served up tales with dinner, painting detailed images of life back home. After college, De Leon spent 10 years, first in San Jose, California, then in Boston, as a middle and high school teacher, before becoming a creative writing instructor at nearby Framingham State University.

Debuting her first young adult novel, Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From, De Leon says she’s arrived at a new level. “This year is also the 50th anniversary of my mom coming to the United States,” De Leon says. “To have my book coming out the same year, it feels like serendipity. Like we were part of a narrative.”

As her book was launching in August, De Leon spoke with One Day about writing struggles, breakthroughs, and realizing her name alone on a book jacket doesn’t mean she’s alone at all.

This isn’t your first publication. In 2014, you edited Wise Latinas, an essay collection featuring prominent Latina writers. You’ve published many other short stories over the years. But YA is new to you. Why dive into this world?

I remember sitting in my seventh grade classroom after my students had left, reading an email about a YA writing fellowship. And I thought, “YA? I have stories with a teenage protagonist. Fifteen pages? All right, I got that.” And that was chapter one. That kind of thought process comes from being a teacher. We constantly reinvent and repurpose resources in different scenarios. I was going for that stretch opportunity, and I didn’t get the fellowship that first year. But I applied again, and that’s when I got it.

“We’ve been colonized so many ways. It’s like, all right. Not on the page, too.”

Jennifer De Leon

The protagonist, Liliana, is half-Guatemalan and half-Salvadorian, and her dialogue is often in Spanglish. You reference popular Latinx things like Sábado Gigante and panaderías. How do you immerse your writing in culture while appealing to a broad audience?

We always center whiteness, and then students of color adapt and learn how to code-switch. I want students of color at the center. It’s time for white kids to adapt and figure out how to code-switch with us. But ultimately, I wrote this book for Latinx teens. For that girl in the library who sees this cover and thinks, “She looks like me. She looks like my cousin.” If others don’t get it, they can look stuff up, use context clues, just like I have to all the time, the way kids of color have to all the time. A white reader might feel a little like an outsider, and I’m OK with that.

Your book’s title also seems like a nod to first-gen kids that this is for them.

My whole life, I’ve gotten the question, “Where are you from?” And there’s a scene in the book where Liliana is asked, “Where are you from-from?” Later, in a writing workshop, she gets a prompt to write a six-word memoir. The title is her answer. I love that the title is an open secret with other people of color or people who’ve been asked that. Those who know, know.

You’ve pulled inspiration from your own life for many scenes in this new book. Have you always held up a mirror when creating stories and characters?

When I started writing, all my characters were white. If they weren’t white, they were unidentified, but the default was white. I was never questioned about that. Race never ever came up in writing classes. Maybe nobody said anything because they were uncomfortable—race discussions don’t always happen in storytelling workshops. Then I started taking classes with [Pulitzer Prize-winning author] Junot Díaz. He asked me, “Who are you writing the story for? Who are you explaining this to? And why are all your flawed characters brown and all your white characters saviors?” It was a slap in the face, and it reframed everything.

How does that reframing hold up when you enter the white-dominated publishing space?

With publishing, sometimes I feel like, OK, I have a unique footing in this field—there aren’t many Latinx authors publishing. There are a lot of Latinx writers, but publishing is a different thing. Then among Latinx writers, it’s like, OK, what are publishers choosing to publish? Do they just want salacious retellings of border crossings? I’ve landed, for now, on believing it’s important to get our stories out, no matter what they are. The more we do that, the more we open opportunities for other writers. It’s critical that authors share the backgrounds of their characters, especially in marginalized communities. We’ve been colonized so many ways. It’s like, all right. Not on the page, too.

“We always center whiteness, and then students of color adapt and learn how to code-switch. I want students of color at the center.”

Jennifer De Leon

What’s your advice to aspiring writers trying to find their way into this field that might not be quick to embrace them?

Practical advice? Keep a document or something where you have positive comments people have made from workshops. A space you go to when you’re feeling doubtful. Self-doubt is paralyzing. And I’ve learned in this whole process that you do not have to do it alone. After the manuscript, it’s so much easier. You have an editor on your team and an agent. Looking back, whenever I would see a book on shelves, I would think the author did it by himself; it must’ve been so hard. But you really don’t do it by yourself, and I want to tell everybody that.

Do you remember the first time you saw your name in the author line?

December 5, 2009. It was a short story in Guernica Magazine. I remember sitting in my Jamaica Plain’s apartment with my laptop, and it was there on the screen, “The Broken Clock,” and my name was in a magazine that I had read and valued for years. This book coming out is making me reflect on all these other moments that were part of the journey. That’s been cool.

And looking ahead—what’s next?

I’m trying to write every book I ever wanted to read. I’m working on another YA novel, Maya, with a Mayan protagonist who lives in Guatemala. My next book is an essay collection, White Space, which will come out in March. It’s about the white space on the page, but also the white spaces I’ve entered into and out of my whole life.

Now that I’m here, I want to do it all. It feels like it won’t be a question for my kids now. Other people started life with privilege, born on third base; they didn’t have that far to run. I was not. My parents were not. So in some ways, this is just a book. But it’s not, you know? It’s so much more.