Written by Soumia Hammi
Cada una de nosotras es una desierta
Solitaria y vasta
Nos estiramos por siempre
Each of us a desert
Solitary and vast
We stretch forever
-Each of Us a Desert
“There’s just something very comforting to me about the loneliness of the desert. And I wanted to write it in a way where loneliness wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Like yes, we are all very lonely inside of our heads and our hearts, but I think there’s something beautiful in finding other people who feel the same way.” -Mark Oshiro
The above poem is from the latest work of Mark Oshiro, Hugo-nominated Young Adult novelist. They are also the author of Anger is a Gift, which was the recipient of the Schneider Family Book Award for 2019 and explores themes such as systemic racism and police brutality. I recently had the privilege of interviewing them for the Miami Book Fair, that took place from November 15th to November 22nd and featured author interviews, panels, concerts, Q&As, hands-on-activities, and more, all available online to stream for free! In this interview, we discussed Each of Us a Desert, its themes, the making of it, and Oshiro’s life as a writer.
Each of Us a Desert: Inspiration, Religion, and Truth
Each of Us a Desert is the story of Xochitl, a sixteen-year-old girl who is the cuentista of her village. A cuentista is a storyteller who must take in people's stories of guilt and shame and then give them to Solis, the god of this world. Once before, Solis scorched the earth and turned it into a barren desert to punish human beings' sins. Only by telling the truth will the people of Empalme be able to avoid destruction. So, despite longing to leave, Xochitl stays, taking solace in the poems she finds scattered around the desert. But when she discovers a secret that challenges everything she's been told, she leaves her village, searching for answers, accompanied by Emilia, a cold yet fascinating girl who has a few secrets of her own.
Oshiro explained that the road to creating Each of Us a Desert was a long and winding one. They were first inspired to write it during their search for their biological father. On the drive home, they saw an image of a girl and boy walking through the desert, fleeing something. And thus, the idea for Each of Us a Desert was born.
While the inspiration for the setting was born from that picture, Oshiro mainly drew inspiration for the story from their Catholic upbringing. The cuentistas, in particular, were inspired by Catholic priests and confession. "I was thinking about what it must be like to be someone who hears everyone's confessions. […] How challenging is it to always have to hear all the bad things people have done?"
The theme of religion is intertwined with the theme of truth, but not objective truth, personal truth, as Xochitl, in her journey, discovers that the truth can be different for individual people. Mark explains; "she was told these very specific things about her religion, about a very specific belief system. And it's about what happens when you go out in the world and find out that there are other people who believe entirely different things. […] So, it's a very personal thing for her, and I loved weaving that with the concept of truth. Because what's true for the people of Empalme isn't true for the people of Obregán, but that doesn't mean either of them is necessarily wrong."
Building a Fantasy World
One of the hardest parts about creating Each of Us a Desert, Oshiro told me, was making the world in which the characters live since it was entirely fictional. They had to keep reminding themselves not to take things for granted and to keep questioning their basic assumptions about this world.
In researching the book, Oshiro visited the Sonoran Desert, which they described as a beautiful yet disturbing experience because of the border wall that stands on that portion of the desert. But Oshiro feels that without getting to experience the sights, smells, and the feeling of walking for miles and miles while the desert disappears into the horizon, Each of Us a Desert would not be the book that it is today.
One of the unique aspects of Each of Us Desert is that the character's fears and guilt can manifest as nightmares, las pesadillas. Oshiro explained to me that unlike some fantasy worlds, which have a strict set of rules and traditions, the magic in Each of Us a Desert does not work logically but emotionally. This was inspired by magical realism. "I wanted it to be this force that revealed secrets you hadn't told anyone, maybe not even yourself. […] Which meant that the more repressed you were, the more likely it was that at some point, this magic would manifest very violently."
We also discussed the other aspect of creating a fictional world, making the characters who live in it and coming up with their personal stories. In Each of Us a Desert, the pasts of the supporting characters are woven into the plot, written in the style of short stories, as the people in Xochitl's village and the people she meets on her journey confess to her their deepest secrets and their inner demons.
Some of the characters came from Oshiro's research of the different reasons people leave their homes in search of a new life. One of the characters Xochitl meets on her journey, Rosalinda, was inspired by the mother of a childhood friend who was forced to leave Mexico and travel to California with her son. But the idea for having the short stories didn't come until their editor suggested they put the ritual of Xochitl taking someone else's story onto the page. "I came up with the idea of like 'oh my God, what if the book has a bunch of short stories in it?' […] And I'm really proud-I love how the stories read; they sound very different from the rest of the book. I think each story complicates the person you meet."
Emilia and Xochitl: abuse, building relationships, and healing
Emilia in Each of Us a Desert, Xochitl's travel companion, has one of the most difficult stories to tell Xochitl, one that deals with abuse. We spent a few minutes talking about her character and the importance of her story. Oshiro told me that they liked the idea of having Xochitl first judge Emilia as cold, unforgiving, and disinterested, but at discovering what she had gone through, realize that there was a valid reason for her behaviour. "The phrase is so cliché and cheesy, like don't judge a book by its cover. But I think that's really important when dealing with the concept of abuse. Because you don't actually know if someone is being abused, you don't actually know these things. [...] So, it's a weird sort of roundabout way to write about abuse, but it's something that I think is important that we should respect where people are coming from and also attempt to understand them rather than assume the worst." Although it has a rocky start, their relationship soon blooms into a strong, loyal friendship, which in turn becomes something more.
Emilia's journey is about healing, and Xochitl's is about questioning. Together, they illustrate some of the book's central themes, such as finding the strength to heal from your past, question the truth of your present, and create your own future. "But I think what is so-what was so satisfying to me to write was about these two queer, teenage girls, whose lives are upended, whose lives are challenging and difficult and yet they get a happy ending. And they get to find closure-and closure doesn't mean that all the bad things that happened in their life are forgotten; they're still going to have to deal with them. But both of them get to a point where they're like 'okay, I can move on. There's a life after this. There are more things that I can do.'"
For the Readers
Finally, I asked Oshiro what they want readers to take away from this book. They answered that they hope kids take from it something Oshiro never felt they had as a child: the permission to doubt. "I think on an emotional level, I hope they feel like they have the permission to doubt and question the world. I hope they feel they have the permission to go figure out who they want to be, and who they think they might be." "And I just wish I had had someone telling me at fifteen and sixteen years old, 'it's okay for you to doubt things, and try to find answers and find out what your own truth is."
About the Author
Oshiro has dreamed of being a writer since they were a little kid developing a love of short stories and horror through Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King. Now that that dream has come true, they believe that they have a responsibility to tell a good story, represent the people in their books respectfully, and to tell the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.
Oshiro said that they think they came into young adult publishing at the right time. "I tried to publish a book when I was twenty, didn't work out so good, but there weren't any queer latinx people on a mainstream level. There were people writing and getting their books published, but they weren't getting the same amount of attention. [...] So, I would say it's largely positive. There are obviously difficulties. It's not always easy being brown and being in this industry because it's super white. It's not always easy being queer or nonbinary. There are things that make it difficult because oftentimes, that's not what the mainstream audience wants, but I feel very lucky to have a publisher who supports me and so many readers who were willing to take a chance on me. So, I don't know. I'm pretty stoked."
They are currently working on a middle-grade contemporary novel with a little twist of magic called The Insiders, which is about a queer, bullied boy who discovers a magical closet that connects him to two kids dealing with similar problems. It will be out next year. Additionally, they are working on their next YA book, a horror novel, and a collection of short stories, also out next year. "You know that's the dream. This is what I wanted, and it's happening now. It's pretty cool."
Mark Oshiro is the YA author of Anger is a Gift and Each of Us a Desert. They are a featured author at the Miami Book Fair. Be sure to catch them and all the other amazing panels and authors the fair has to offer at miamibookfaironline.com.
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