Wednesday, August 19, 2020
Q&A with Jennifer De Leon
Jennifer De Leon is the author of the new young adult novel Don't Ask Me Where I'm From. She also has edited the book Wise Latinas, and her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including Ploughshares and Iowa Review. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at Framingham State University, and she lives in the Boston area.
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Don't Ask Me Where I'm From, and for your character Liliana?
A: This is the book I wanted to read—needed to read—as a young person, but could never find on the shelves. Later, when I was an English teacher in Boston Public Schools, it is the book I wanted for my students—teens straddling multiple worlds and trying to understand more about themselves and their family’s cultural backgrounds.
Liliana is a character I have had on the page (short stories) for years, but she really came to life on the page when I let her “take over.” Her voice crackled with energy and attitude, and I honestly felt at times like I was simply taking dictation. She is a composite of many of my students, teens I’ve worked with before, and myself as a teen.
Q: How was the novel's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: The title comes from a scene in the book where Liliana goes to a creative writing center called 826 Boston. As an ice-breaker, the students are asked to write a six-word autobiography. Liliana writes: don’t ask me where I’m from.
At this point in the novel she has been on the receiving end of that question from so many people in Westburg, so it was fitting for her to choose those six words. It is also a question I have been asked in my life—many times.
It’s not a bad question. It’s the way in which it is asked that can be problematic, especially for people of color who often feel “otherized” by the assumption of not being from here, which can be taken as another way of saying—you don’t belong.
Q: The novel takes place in the Boston area. How important is setting to you in your writing?
A: Very important! Because so much of what I love to write about has to do with themes of home and belonging and place, setting absolutely plays a major role, whether I’m writing a novel, short story, or essay. I grew up outside of Boston and have lived in Boston for much of my adult life, so it made sense to set this novel there.
Q: You've also edited the book Wise Latinas: Writers on Higher Education. Do you see some of the same themes running through both books?
A: What a great question! I do see some similar themes in both books—themes of trying to fit in, belonging, straddling multiple worlds, code-switching, language, education (obviously!) and more. I could definitely see Liliana having the book Wise Latinas on her shelf one day.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on copyedits for my essay collection, White Space: Essays on Culture, Race, and Writing, which will be published by University of Massachusetts Press in March 2021. I am also working on another YA novel, tentatively titled Maya, about a teenager in Guatemala interested in Trashion (fashion made from trash).
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Please support indie bookstores! And if you can, please buy a copy of Don’t Ask Me Where I’m From for a young person at a local school. Creating the opportunity for young people to own books is so powerful.
Thank you! And please say hello on social media.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb