Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Q&A with Anika Fajardo

Photo by Dave Dieken
Anika Fajardo is the author of What If a Fish, a new middle grade novel for kids. She also has written the memoir Magical Realism for Non-Believers. She teaches in Augsburg University's MFA program, and she lives in Minneapolis.

Q: How much did your own experiences growing up influence the creation of your character Eddie?

A: Eddie is very close to my heart and, while many of his experiences are different than mine, this character is very autobiographical, at least in the sense of what it's like for me to navigate the world as a half-Colombian/half-Minnesotan growing up in the Midwest.

Like Mama, my own mother was single and she was a nurse; it was inspiring to witness my mom going to college to get her degree in order to make a better life for us. While my dad is alive and well living in Colombia, I didn't know much about him when I was growing up and so, like Eddie, I was very curious about finding out about where and who I came from.

Also, I did not grow up speaking much Spanish just like Eddie and, like him, I had to learn it along the way.

Q: The novel takes place in Minnesota and in Colombia. How important is setting to you in your writing?

A: This novel could not have taken place anywhere else. I grew up in Minnesota and this place has a very particular feel. It wasn't until I lived in California that I realized how unique the Upper Midwest of the U.S. is compared to the rest of the country, particularly in terms of diversity.

Also, Minnesota is known to be a place that's hard to break into--people who have lived here for 20 years often still feel like they don't belong.

Colombia, too, is a very particular place. Although my family is not from Cartagena, we traveled there for a vacation and the place really captured my imagination. It's a magical place full of history and culture and a sense of the colonial origins of the country--and all that entails.

Cartagena began as a place of outsiders (conquerors from various European countries, pirates, and so on) and so I think it fits that Eddie finds himself an outsider there. Both Minnesota and Cartagena, in my mind, exemplify the sense of belonging/not belonging that Eddie struggles with.

Q: Your memoir is called Magical Realism for Non-Believers. What role do you see magical realism playing in What If a Fish?

A: You can't go to Colombia without experiencing magical realism. I wanted Eddie to experience magical realism during his visit to Cartagena both to reflect on my own experience and to help him understand the culture from which he comes.

The "realism" part of "magical realism" refers to the fact that these magical elements feel (or sometimes are) real. In fact, the scene in which a hat turns into a bucket of leeches actually happened to my husband and daughter!

Q: What do you think the book says about identity?

A: Before the book opens, Eddie has lived in the same apartment and had the same best friend his whole life and so he hasn't had to think much about his identity.

I think a lot of kids--especially mixed kids--don't have to confront it until they get to the age when kids start becoming really aware of who's "different." Getting bullied by the Schmidt brothers starts to awaken some of that questioning, as does thinking about his Papa.

Of course, his sense of who he is gets really turned around when he goes to Colombia. Eddie has to figure out how to balance between Minnesota/Colombia, Mama/Papa, white/brown. 

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I'm so excited to be working on another middle-grade novel. This one also deals with belonging and identity. I'm having a lot of fun switching gears from writing about a boy main character to writing about 12-year-old girls (two of them!). 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: First of all, you should know that the cover of the book was illustrated by Paola Escobar, a Colombian artist. If you look closely, you can see the wall of the old city of Cartagena behind Eddie and his fishing boat.

The other thing you should know is that, besides being a writer, I've also been a librarian and, long ago, a fifth grade teacher, and it's been fun to create a few resources for kids and teachers about What If a Fish. You can find them on my website, as well as an "ask the author" section:

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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