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Author Tehlor Kay Mejia Shares Why Representation in Literature Matters

This month, we have
enjoyed bringing you stories that highlight the contributions, customs and
traditions of the Hispanic and Latinx community.

Today, we are excited to share a conversation with author, Tehlor Kay Mejia, who has embraced her Mexican heritage throughout her career, and most recently, in the second novel in her Paola Santiago series, “Paola Santiago and the Forest of Nightmares.” In her first Paola Santiago novel, Tehlor leverages the spooky Mexican folklore tale, “La Llorona,” to tell a fun yet frightful and adventurous story about how the main character faces her fears and finds her hero within.

Tehlor’s latest book is a follow-up to 2020’s “Paola Santiago and the River of Tears” and is published under the “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint, which aims to publish great authors from underrepresented cultures and backgrounds so they can tell stories inspired by the mythology and folklore of their own heritage. 

We took some time
to chat with Tehlor to dive further into her books, her career and why
representation is critical in literature and storytelling. See what she had to
say below:

Q: How did you first get started with writing?

A: When I was in
second grade and I won a poetry contest, I started thinking, “Man, this is
something I could really do….this is fun, writing is fun!” People enjoyed my
writing from such a young age, which was really motivating as a kid. I didn’t
actually complete a novel until I was probably 30, so it’s been a long ascent,
but I am proud of the journey.

Q: Tell us more about your Paola Santiago book series.

A: The series is
about a science-obsessed girl named Paola who is really skeptical of her mom’s
superstitions and folktales. But when her best friend goes missing, all of the
monsters straight from her mom’s stories begin appearing in her little Arizona
town, and she has to admit to herself that the world is more than black and
white. Throughout the three books, Paola learns more about the supernatural
world and her connection to it, and continually battles the folklore monsters
that are constantly threatening her town and all the people she loves.

Q: What was the inspiration behind the series?

A: The initial
inspiration stemmed from stories I remembered most from my childhood, and I
remember that all of them were terrifying! “La Llorona,” for example, was a
huge part of my childhood. I was afraid of every body of water I encountered to
an embarrassingly advanced age. In the book, Paola uses fact-finding and
science to try and prove her feelings of fear, which is definitely something
that I also do. This book was partly me diving into my old fears and asking,
“What are the roots of these fears?” and then creating the kid who could be
brave enough to face them.

Q: Tell us more about the Mexican folklore tale, “La
Llorona”?

A: It is really
scary! It’s about a grieving woman who drowns her kids in a river and as a
divine punishment, she returns to Earth as a ghost to perpetually wander the
riverbank and cry for them. As the story goes, if she encounters any other kids
near the water, she drowns them too. “Llorona” in Spanish comes from the word
“llorar” which means “to cry” so that is where she gets her name — “The Crying
Woman.” 

Q: How do you infuse your culture and background into
your stories?

A: It’s really so
instinctive; I don’t think I even realize I’m doing it. I read a lot as a kid
and I loved books. I was lucky enough to sometimes see books with characters
that looked like me, but they never reflected what my family felt like. At the
time, I wasn’t old enough to critique books, so I used to think, “Oh, I guess
books aren’t supposed to feel like home for people like me.”

So when I first
started writing, I erased all those defining details because I thought that I
was supposed to write what everyone else wrote about. At a certain point, I
finally gave myself the freedom to write what felt good to me. Now, it feels
much more freeing, and I trust that people will find something to relate to
universally in my books even if they don’t particularly identify with my
background.

Q: Why is representation important in literature and
storytelling?

A: Not to be
dramatic, but I feel like representation can literally be life or death. When
we don’t have representation, it is so much easier to dehumanize people who are
different from us because we don’t see them as real, complex, nuanced people.
For so long, we’ve been seeing these two-dimensional, stereotypical forms of
representation for marginalized communities, if we see them at all. This
actually makes it harder for people to believe in themselves, and for people
outside those cultures to see them as uniquely human. This can lead to issues
like crisis of confidence or inequality and can even lead to violence being
perpetrated in those communities. On top of that, being able to see yourself as
the hero of a story is an experience that every kid deserves.

Q: How do you think your stories make readers feel?

A: I hope that
other Mexican-American kids can get a chance to feel at home in a story. Some
people may not know this, but kids like me often have to do this “two-step
separation,” where they feel like they have to separate themselves into a
different world they may not relate to. For example, they will have to imagine
themselves as a wealthy suburban kid first, and then shift that mindset to
imagine themselves fitting into a story they don’t relate to.

I want them to feel
like they can be the hero of a story. I am thankful that I have received lots
of positive fan reaction from kids who are not Mexican-American, who read the
book and are shocked by how much they found in common with this character and
how fun the story is. So I would say, if you’re part of this culture, I hope
you feel at home. And if you’re not, I hope you find something you can relate to
in this story and learn that there’s always something you can relate to in all
people, and in all stories.

Q: What’s a personal motto you live by?

A: Reminding myself
that I’m worthy! I struggle with feeling like a total imposter sometimes
because of all of the great experiences I’ve been able to have throughout my
career, which makes me think “why me?” So when I self-doubt, I always try to
remind myself I’m worthy of my successes.

Q: What advice would you give your younger self?

A: I would tell
myself, “you deserve to see yourself in stories and you deserve to write them
and show people how you see the world.” Growing up, I never thought I would be
able to reach this point, because I rarely saw people from my culture doing
what I do. You’re allowed to imagine yourself having this big life and
succeeding!

Q: What advice would you give to young aspiring authors?

A: I would give the
same advice I would have given myself. But as far as writing advice goes, I
think being an author is about being an observer of the world. Your unique
perspective is going to be different than anyone else’s, so cultivate that!
Observe the world and notice the things that only you see — those little
details other people may miss. Those are the things that really make a story
personal and help it come to life.


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