An Indies Introduce Q&A with Alexandra Villasante

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Alexandra Villasante is the author of The Grief Keeper (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers), a Summer/Fall 2019 Indies Introduce young adult selection and a Summer 2019 Kids’ Indie Next List pick.

The Grief Keeper coverBorn in New Jersey to immigrant parents, Villasante has a bachelor’s of fine arts degree in painting and a master’s degree in combined media. When she is not writing, she plans conferences and fundraisers for nonprofits. Villasante lives with her family in Pennsylvania. 

Casey Leidig of Green Apple Books on the Park in San Francisco, California, who was on the panel that selected Villasante’s book, said it is “exactly the kind of YA I want to see in the world right now. Marisol’s journey as an LGBTQ asylum seeker in the U.S. brings light to the physical and emotional burdens we place upon migrants, while centering on sisterhood, love, and deep inner strength. This book is topical, thought-provoking, beautifully written, and absolutely essential reading.”

Here, Leidig talks with Villasante about her debut YA novel.

Casey Leidig: What was your inspiration for writing a speculative book about a refugee experience, and what does the speculative element highlight about that experience for you?

Alexandra Villasante

Alexandra Villasante: My inspiration for The Grief Keeper was my parents. Like my older sister, my parents were immigrants to this country. I saw how much my parents sacrificed and how hard they worked — my mother would sometimes work three jobs — to give my sister and myself a better life. Cleaning messes no one else wants to clean, raising children so someone else can have the privilege of a career, maintaining beautiful houses they can’t afford to live in — these are the kinds of jobs immigrants do. So, the immigrant story is one I was raised understanding. I’m also familiar with the feeling of not quite belonging — of not feeling Latina enough and not feeling American enough. These feelings of being between worlds, of being simultaneously proud and ashamed of the things that made me different in the town where I grew up, were the foundation of my understanding of Marisol’s experience.

I’m a bit of a science nerd — I read a lot of science journalism for an art school kid — and I’d come across research into a wearable device that might alleviate PTSD symptoms (fear, anxiety, grief) for soldiers returning from war.

I’m also a ‘what if’ kind of writer; I like to explore what happens when two disparate ideas collide. I started to imagine a device that could actually eradicate fear, anxiety, and grief in a person — make it disappear like magic. Riffing on the idea that energy cannot be created or destroyed, I asked myself, “Where would those burdensome emotions go? Who would take them on?” And the answer I came up with was immigrants, of course.

CL: What was it like to translate the experience of processing the world through a bilingual lens into writing?

AV: Fascinating! I’m bilingual and, like Marisol, I love language. One of the things that makes me happiest about my heritage is that I do have this additional lens to filter the world through. I’ve always understood that words are not tidy, finite, or immutable. They’re fluid approximations and contain history, and sometimes seeds of other cultures captured through colonization.

Both my parents would say that their English is excellent, if accented. As a child, I would wince when my mom would tell me not to ‘lose’ the bus instead of telling me not to ‘miss’ the bus — as the phrase in Spanish uses the word ‘lose.’ Conversely, when I visited cousins in Uruguay, I would have trouble keeping up with the idioms (never mind the curse words!).

While writing Marisol, I infused her character with the same curiosity and trepidation that being bilingual created in me.

CL: Can you talk about writing with compassion toward privileged and morally gray characters?

AV: I think there are a lot of reasons why any writer should write with compassion toward morally-gray characters, first and foremost because if their characters are not literal monsters, it’s boring to have an antagonist who is pure evil. Even the devil was once the angel Lucifer (which, incidentally, means light-bringer. Ten points to Ravenclaw!)

When writing characters who make terrible choices for good reasons, I tried to understand the desperation that would cause someone to take extreme, amoral measures. In my personal life, there is a family member who I love very much who suffers from anxiety. I’ve often thought about what I would do, how much I would sacrifice, to help them. I think it’s not too much of a leap to think that a desperate person would dehumanize another. That kind of dehumanization is unfortunately part of our history (with genocides like Rwanda and the Holocaust) and our present (placing immigrant children and families in cages).

CL: Why did you decide this was an important story to write for a YA audience?

AV: I actually didn’t set out to write a YA book; I read and write YA almost exclusively. It’s what I enjoy and it’s where I find the stories that resonate with my heart. But I did set out to write from the perspective of a 17-year-old queer Latina immigrant very deliberately. Partly to explore intersectionality — especially in Latin countries where, I think, we lag behind in our acceptance of LGBTQ+ people — and partly because Marisol’s character spoke to me. If I hadn’t been born in the United States, if I’d been born in these times that are increasingly perilous for immigrants and asylum seekers, what would my life be like? I wanted to write a book that would allow people to explore these intersecting identities, whether they strike a chord of familiarity, or if they’ve never thought of a girl like Marisol.

CL: What feeling or message do you hope will ultimately stay with readers after finishing this book?

AV: Ultimately, I want readers to be rooting for Marisol and Rey. I want them to fall in love with Gabi and I want readers who maybe do not live in diverse areas or have contact with marginalized people to see themselves in these characters. Like Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop said, we need windows to see outside of ourselves to others and we need mirrors to see ourselves. I hope The Grief Keeper can do both.

The Grief Keeper by Alexandra Villasante (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 9780525514022, Hardcover YA, $17.99) On Sale Date: 6/11/2019.

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