A hotbed of controversy today? Illegal Immigration.
This is critical issue for all of us, especially for us living down here on the Tex-Mex border. For this reason, the novel, Illegal, is a worthwhile read... But beyond this there is also the fact that very little YA fiction is written about the Latina/o experience.
So this week I am featuring the YA novel, Illegal by Bettina Restrepo...Just released this March, 2011!
Summary from the author's website:
Nora is on a desperate journey far away from home. When her father leaves their beloved Mexico in search of work, Nora stays behind. She fights to make sense of her loss while living in poverty—in wait of her father’s return and a better day. When the letters and money stop coming, Nora decides that she and her mother must look for him in Texas. After a frightening experience crossing the border, the two are all alone in a strange place. Nora must find the strength to survive while aching for small comforts: friends, a new school, and her quinceañera. This gripping, deeply hopeful debut novel captures the challenges of one girl’s unique, yet universal immigrant experience.
Now here is an interview with Bettina!
ME: How does Illegal fit into the framework of contemporary Latina/Latino literature marketed towards a YA leadership?
BETTINA: I use the Spanish language without direct translation (with a glossary is in the back). In some ways, I know it stops certain readers in their tracks. I want them to think about the context. I intentionally make the reader feel awkward to put them in Nora’s place of what she understands and what she doesn’t. I also feel the language works organically with the setting. Spanglish is commonplace, especially in Texas.
As to where it fits within the Latino market – I have no idea. I wanted to convey one family’s story. I’ve already had a few internationally readers, and they have expressed that the emotions Nora experiences in Illegal could have been their own. It’s deeply satisfying to know that the story is speaking across cultures.
Ethically, I think it’s important to expose the differences that exist in society – but a character is a character, no matter where they come from, their ideals, or the color of their skins.
ME: How does Illegal break away from the conventions of mainstream YA, yet maintain a writing style and storyline accessible and appealing to a general young adult audience?
BETTINA: One, it’s written very sparsely, so it can be accessible at many levels. But, given the topic, its complexity, and some violent scenes, it falls straight into YA. I’m especially giddy when I hear from teachers and librarians about how they plan to use the book in the classroom. I also have a teacher’s guide coming soon on my website written by a very smart English teacher, Greg Coleman.
I don’t write any differently for YA than I would for adult. Teens are saavy. If they feel for a character – they will keep reading.
ME: In what ways does Illegal reflect or connect to various aspects of your life experiences?
BETTINA: Illegal represents many questions I have in life. I have no contact with my father (of my own choosing) – but I used the relationship between Nora and her father to express the longing in my own life for an ideal father.
I also wonder about the voice of God. Does He talk to us directly, or is that inner voice of courage our own?
I worked in the Hispanic community that is the setting of this book. I watched members of this community live their lives, how they spent their money, and observed them surviving day to day. Their stories echoed in my head and there was no way to get them out until I wrote this story.
ME: Can you please share the creative writing process you engaged in while writing Illegal?
BETTINA: I like writing in 1st person. For me, it’s the best way to hear the voice. The first draft came quickly, but I revised and revised for years. I went to critique groups and listened. I almost gave up, but Nora’s voice called to me.
ME: What are some of your upcoming projects in YA literature?
BETTINA: I am writing a telenovela within a book. It’s funny, and filled with many aspects of my life living in two cultures. I’m revising (again and again).
ME: What is the main thing you hope readers will gain from t their reading experience of Illegal?
BETTINA: I want them to come away from the book with compassion – to understand that when people make the desperate choice to cross a border illegally, they do it out of necessity. I also wanted them to look to the unseen part of society that is just under their nose.
ME: What is your personal stance on the issue of illegal immigration and other related issues such as the creation of border wall along the Tex-Mex border?
I believe our system of immigration is laborious and broken. On one hand, American society begs immigrants to come and work menial jobs. On the other, how can they pay (taxes) into a system that won’t let them benefit?
I laugh at the idea of a border wall between the US and Mexico. It’s completely ridiculous. We need to work on a system that de-incentivizes those who cross illegally, those who employ illegally, and those who take advantage of both.
I am a child of immigrants. My father, a Colombian National, joined the US Army and served his country for 25 years. My mother, an East German, married him and naturalized as a US citizen in 1969. I live in the country with its wonderful benefits because they paved the way for me. I want others who dream as my parents did to have a chance, a legal chance, to create their own American dream.
ME: Thank you so much, Bettina! I really enjoyed your thoughtful answers!