Four Questions with Natalia Sylvester

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Natalia Sylvester is an award-winning author across both adult (Everyone Knows You Go Home, 2018) and YA categories (Running, 2020). Her new YA novel, Breathe and Count Back from Ten, follows Verónica, a Peruvian American teenager born with hip dysplasia, who dreams of becoming a mermaid at a summer theme park. Facing a life-changing new prognosis and her parents’ protective measures over her health and her sexual desires, she must learn to take matters of her body into her own hands. Sylvester spoke with PW about separating herself from her protagonist, the effects of internalized shame, and the shared themes of young women finding their voice in her stories.

Your protagonist Verónica adores the mythology of mermaids, and this story dives into their many historical and cultural variations. And in your author’s note, you highlight some of the real-life inspiration on the Mermaid Cove in your story. What made you want to incorporate that into your novel?

I think like a lot of people, I was fascinated by mermaids as a child. And it’s something that always has struck me. When I lived in central Florida, we lived nearby Weeki Wachee [Springs], which is the park that Mermaid Cove [in the novel] is based on. It lived in my imagination all these years, and I never really knew what to do with it until it actually ended up providing the framework for this whole story—because I knew I wanted to write really my whole life. Even since I was young, I was writing about my hip dysplasia and my surgeries, but in essays that I sent to teen magazines that never got published. It wasn’t until maybe four or five years ago that I realized that I wanted to write not just about hip dysplasia and disability, but also about what it means to be a Latina, what it means to be an immigrant, to have all of these parts coexisting inside of you and not being fragmented.

I think sometimes when we speak about diversity it almost feels like publishing can only handle one [identity] at a time. And that’s not how our realities are. It’s not like I was ever only one thing. And so, to make a long story short, I think for me, the idea of mermaids and their mythology really reflected the hybridity, the fluidity of our identities. How [for] Vero, because she struggled so much with her body image and it not being symmetrical and her literally not having her hip socket properly placed in her body, that reflects how she feels. What is her place in the world as an immigrant who is struggling to fit in? And the mermaids captured so much of what she’s feeling, and they were an outward reflection, not just [of] her joy and her desires and her dreams, but also what it means to have a body like hers that is often almost mythologized. Because the way we talk about disabled people, it’s never as if we’re real. It’s always as if we’re there either to be a cautionary tale or an inspirational tale. We have these mythologies around mermaids that are both also [because] they’re seen as these evil creatures. Sometimes they’re seen as these beautiful creatures. But when do they get to just be seen as real in the way that she sees them as real?

You and Verónica have some similarities, as you’re both of Peruvian descent, you both grew up in Florida, and were both born with hip dysplasia. Was it intentional to share so much with your character? How much of your own experiences made it onto the page?

It was intentional, in the sense that this was something I’ve always wanted to write about. And like I said, I didn’t want to fragment any pieces of myself. A few years ago, my mom was going through some old documents and she gave me this box, and it was my first passport from when I was in Peru, and a bunch of my medical records. And that passport actually had me as a baby from the first time I came to the U.S. It turns out even before we moved here, she brought me to the U.S to see an orthopedic surgeon. It was such a lightbulb moment for me in that I thought, “Wait, I thought my whole life the first time I came here was just to move here,” and it was actually for medical care. To realize how much my story of my hip dysplasia is so interestingly tied with my story of immigration, and what it means to be in this body in this country. It ended up that I couldn’t separate the two in the story at all.

When I came to write it was really hard because if I wanted to write [about] my life, I would have written a memoir. And then on top of it, I realized that maybe there are things I’m still processing. Maybe there are things that are my own, that I don’t necessarily want to put on the page for the whole world, and I needed to create some distance, in a way. Not distance from the story or its truths, but also to allow Vero to become her own person. For me to be able to say, “Yeah, she’s not me, so what are her views on the world? What are the decisions and mistakes and realizations that she’ll make?” A lot of what I often say is that the reality that I share with her is more about what it’s like to be in my body, and that creates the foundation for her truths and the ways that she sees the world. But then what she does, and the things she desires, the family members, the dynamics, and the friendships that she has, I needed those to be completely her own. It ended up being really freeing because I think I ended up writing my way towards someone that maybe I could have loved to have known at that age. She ended up being someone who I think, Gosh, if I’d known someone like her I might have come to a lot of the confidence and the realizations that she does a lot sooner in life. I hope that other kids could have someone like her in the way that I wish I did.

How do you learn to say, I will not be ashamed of my body, I’m proud of it for what it is, and for who I am and everything that I am?

The book explores a few variations of shame through Verónica’s assault by Jeremy, her parents’ warning about becoming a “promiscua” [a Spanish term that negatively implies a sexually promiscuous woman], and the shame other people have around her body. What motivated you to explore shame, and how does it shape the way Verónica envisions herself, her body, and her future?

It never occurred to me not to write it because it’s just such a deep part of her reality as a young girl, as a disabled Latina, who has certain rules that her body is supposed to follow. Not just within her family, in her culture, but even just in the country that she’s in as an immigrant, in the society that’s very ableist and doesn’t necessarily accept her body as it is. Sadly, so much of that shame is internalized, and we carry it within ourselves for years before we reject it, whether it’s shame around our sexual urges, what happens with her and Jeremy, whether it’s just shame in her own body and the ways that it doesn’t “fit in” to what the norm is. But it really tied back to this idea of the mythologies. That’s why the Huacachina mermaid myth and the Peruvian myth and the Little Mermaid myth were really important to me too. Because the lies that we believe about ourselves became such an important part of this book, and to try and debunk them. So the shame was the core of those lies, and how do you flip that? How do you learn not just to reject it, but then to turn it into something really powerful, which is the opposite, which is just complete acceptance? And not just acceptance, but a refusal. To say, I will not be ashamed of my body, I’m proud of it for what it is, and for who I am and everything that I am.

Your YA books seem to share the connecting thread of young women learning to find their voices, despite the discomfort and disruption it might cause others, especially their families. How do your characters balance love of family with autonomy and independence?

That’s a good question. It’s interesting because when I wrote Running, my editor and I talked a lot about [how] Maddie is finding her voice and how this will affect the family. I didn’t realize going into writing Breathe and Count Back from Ten that that would also play such an important role, and then obviously it does. I think at the end of the day, what I’m still trying to figure out and what I tried to communicate is how do you find your voice and speak your thoughts, and become your own person, when it deviates from the ideas that the people you love crafted around you? And knowing that they did that as a way to try and protect you. I don’t see Vero’s parents as villains. I see them as people who are trying to make the most in a system and world they know will be harmful to their daughter. They know that as an immigrant, as a disabled young woman, she’s going to face all sorts of obstacles and prejudices, and they just don’t want to see her hurt. Her parents would wish for her to assimilate in every way, not just as an immigrant, but even just hoping that her body will blend in. And she’s thinking more in terms of, Well, if she did that, though, would it only protect her?

I really try to maintain that perspective without making excuses. We’re flawed beings. But I’m also interested to know if all of these protections and all of these mistakes that we make, if they’re rooted in love, how far can that love go once we start to call it out? So, when my characters are finding their voices in that way, and they’re putting that mirror up to their own family, I try to understand that desire for really just wanting someone to come along with you on a journey and not have to leave them behind, or not have it leave behind this fractured relationship. I hope that comes through. I think I’m probably not done writing about it. As with so many of our writerly obsessions, when we think we’re done with them, it turns out we’re not.

Breathe and Count Back from Ten by Natalia Sylvester. Clarion, $17.99 May 10 ISBN 978-0-358-53686-4

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