Latinos On Literature
Interview by Taylor Nix
What is your nationality? Briefly tell us something about yourself?
Deborah Cardona/Sexy: The Spanish Harlem community and the Urban Fiction world know me as Sexy. I am the Puerto Rican-born author of A Better Touch, Twofold, and Chained and the CEO of Deja Vu Publications. I am the mother of four children: Angel, David, Damien, and Marcus. I run and operate my book vendor stand daily on 106th Street and 3rd Avenue in Spanish Harlem.
Jeff Rivera: I am Black American. My grandmothers were half Black American and half Native American. My stepfather is Filipino and many of my cousins are half Puerto Rican so you can see I’m a typical American mutt.
Money Boy Montana: I am 100% Cuban. I am 30 years old, born and raised in Washington Heights, NYC, I live what I write about all day everyday, I have no kids, I love sports, have an associates degree in Business and administration.
Sofia Quintero/Black Artemis: I was born and raised in the Bronx where I still live. My father is Puerto Rican, and my mother is Dominican so I identify as both. I also identify as Afro-Latina. I am, indeed, a Black woman, and I am a Latina. As a working-class girl growing up in the Bronx who loved to read and aspired to write, the first authors who gave me permission to write my own stories were African American. When I was a little girl reading books by Judy Blume and Marilyn Sachs, I implicitly received the impression that if I wanted to write novels, I had to remove myself from my own story. I didn’t see anyone in the books I loved that looked or sounded like me or anyone I knew. And then I discovered authors like Walter Dean Myers and Rosa Guy. Then it was like, “You mean I can do that? I can write about my family and friends? My ‘sheroe’ doesn’t have to be a White girl with ‘dead’ hair and green eyes?” That’s what I mean when I say African American authors gave me permission to cast myself and those around me in my own stories. By giving visibility to their own people and their struggles and triumphs, by modeling that, they encouraged me to do the same.
How do you feel about using the “N-word” in literature?
Deborah Cardona/Sexy: I do not glamorize nor rationalize the “N-word” in my novels and those by my authors Carmen Noboa-Espinal (Uptown Menace), Donald Peebles Jr. (Hidden Fires), Tiffany Wright (Down 4 Mines), and Tamika Bumpass (Knee High in the Game). I love my Black people very much so I would never do anything to disrespect them. I would not want anyone to disrespect me as a Puerto Rican or a Latina by referring to me in derogatory terms. When I use the “N-word”, it is to reflect what I hear from some people.
Jeff Rivera: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it when it comes to character. If your character naturally says that and that’s being real with him or her then let them say it. It’s not a word that I use on a regular basis because I know the history of the word.
Money Boy Montana: It depends on the way the word is used. As long as I don’t disrespect or offend anybody blatantly I’m good. I need to write the way the streets talk.
Sofia Quintero/Black Artemis: This is a very important question precisely because it’s difficult to answer simply. On the one hand, if I’m developing certain characters and want to depict them realistically, it feels awkward to write “around” the n-word. The fact remains that some people do use that word without any regrets or apology, and if I’m creating a story world where such people exist, it can be stifling to censor these characters and sanitize their natural dialogue. That’s not keeping it real. But by the same token, we can’t pretend that there aren’t people who never use the n-word and have impassioned reasons for not doing so. Therefore, that same story world might also be populated by characters who do not use the word either, and when they hear it used by others, feel compelled to speak on it. It’s just as unrealistic to not depict such characters as it is to censor other characters. It’s not keepin’ it real either to act as if EVERYBODY uses the n-word.
How would you react to a child reading street fiction, citing the many provocative covers in the genre?
Deborah Cardona/Sexy: I do not allow my youngest son, Damien, to read any of my novels. I want him to have his childhood. When he becomes old enough to understand what I write about, then I will explain it all to him. My older sons, David, Angel, and Marcus, are proud of me as a mother, an author, and CEO of Deja Vu Publications. The book covers for my authors and I do not scandalize nor scare Damien in the least.
Jeff Rivera: I think it’s real. I don’t make excuses for my book anymore. It’s real, it’s what happens in life and if you don’t like it you can read a Mary Poppins book. Teens like the book, adults like the book but you either like it or you don’t and either way is okay.
Money Boy Montana: Why isn’t Steven King or Dean Koontz questioned about their crazy writing or gory images on their book covers? They write about vampires, monsters, sex offenders, all that wild horror type stuff. So why question me on what I write about? I write what I live. Remember, writing is a form of entertainment, it’s also found in the fiction section of any library. I’m a writer, not a Christian missionary trying to write about morals and what’s right. Any parent should read a book first if questionable, then make the decision on allowing their child to read the book if appropriate.
Sofia Quintero/Black Artemis: I work with the National Book Foundation in a reading program geared toward tweens called BookUpNYC, and with my seventh and eighth graders we read some adult books like Upstate and Bodega Dreams and even Push. The kids relate to the characters and storylines, and I ask them questions that spark discussions about the meaningful issues raised in the novels. However, I would not read most of the more popular titles in the urban fiction genre at this time whether or not the covers were salacious because so little of that material is appropriate for children and most teens. But we have to keep in mind several things. One, young people read “up.” For example, twelve year olds rarely want to read about a twelve year old protagonist; they want to read about a fifteen year old. There’s plenty of “edgy” young adult fiction that deals with mature themes, and young people are exposed to much in life that we would rather they not be. However, there’s a big difference between knowing about something and understanding it. Ultimately, I don’t think there are many topics that should be off-limit to young readers, but what makes a book appropriate for them is how the subject matter is handled. If you write about sex, drugs, violence and the like with a young audience in mind, you should do so with some understanding of adolescent psychology and a responsibility to enlighten as well as entertain.
So what makes me say that much of that material shouldn’t be read by young people is simply the authors did not write them for a young readership. When I wrote Picture Me Rollin’, I knew that it would appeal to teenagers even though I was writing for an adult audience, and I took that responsibility seriously. When I do signings and a parent asks me, “Is this appropriate for my child?” I’m honest that my Black Artemis novels are for mature audiences, and I encourage the parent to read it first, and then pass it on to her teenager if she feels it’s appropriate since all kids mature at different paces. And I encourage them to have a conversation about the novel so that they get past the stories surface i.e. the plotline and discuss the deeper issues.
Is it a challenge for Latino authors to break into this genre?
Deborah Cardona/Sexy: I feel that this is a good time for Latino/Latina authors who are out there doing big things. I am proud of Jeff Rivera, author of Forever My Lady and CEO of Urbano Books. His publishing company has a roster of all Latino authors, such as Genaro, Jorge Corral, David Bueno-Hill, and himself. I am proud of Julie Ojeda Nin, author of Friends Till the End and the wife of Nelson Nin, a prominent Latino book distributor who is known as The Bronx Bookman. I am proud of Patricia Pickett, author of Hearts Never Lie. I am proud of Carmen Noboa-Espinal, the Princess of Deja Vu Publications. I am proud of Latino Temptress (Ana Rodriguez), author of The Encounter. However, there is still a challenge for Latino/Latina authors to break into the urban fiction genre and industry. Julie, Latin, Carmen, and I were the few Latina authors featured at the Harlem Book Fair this year. I feel that more Latino/Latina authors need to come out and represent.
Jeff Rivera: It’s just as challenging as those who write Latino fiction as it is for any other genre (except poetry which is more of challenge). I have white author friends and black author friends and Asian author friends and we all have the exact same challenges. One thing I learned from the fact that we have a Black president now is we can no longer blame “the man” for not making it. We are “the man” so if you don’t make it then it’s all on you, no one else to blame but yourself.
Sofia Quintero/Black Artemis: I personally experienced several challenges that were rooted in very narrow ideas of what a Latina is and what we can authentically write. For example, it drives me crazy when someone tells me how to be Latina. I remember an editor passing on Explicit Content (my first Black Artemis novel) giving the reason that my character Leila didn’t feel Latina to her because she didn’t have a family. The assumption was this narrow, almost academic notion of what a Latino family can look like. The truth was that Leila did have family, but they did not step up to care for her so she was placed into foster care. Growing up I had a half-dozen foster sisters all of whom were Latina as are 28 per cent of the children in New York City’s foster care system. But because a half century ago, some White anthropologists said, “Latinos tend to have large families with multiple generations living in the same household,” now someone whose family doesn’t fit that structure is somehow not Latino enough. I also think that as a Latina writing commercial, urban fiction, the industry is at a loss of how to market my work as Black Artemis. I was born and raised in New York City in a working-class family and that upbringing shapes my work: the kind of stories I want to tell, the way my characters speak, the issues they encounter, etc. So I’m not writing the literary novel with the family saga that starts on the island, spans several generations and ends in the American metropolis with heavy doses of magical realism along the way. That is what too many narrowly associate with Latino literature. There is a part of this that is gendered as well. I’m a huge fan of authors like Ernesto Quinonez and Abraham Rodriguez, Jr. and consider them among my influences. But there is a certain way that when a man of color writes about the urban, working-class experience (and not necessarily an immigrant experience at that), his narrative is automatically deemed credible. Here I come along writing from that perspective as a woman— a Latina at that— and folks are like, “Why is she writing that?” The implication is that these narratives are only legitimate if they come from men and/or African Americans. Ironically, the first readers to embrace me wholeheartedly have been African American women, and that doesn’t surprise me, and I don’t take that support for granted.
Do you think the industry is saturated? And how does an author rise above the slush to get noticed?
Deborah Cardona/Sexy: I do not believe the industry is saturated at all. New authors have to hustle, hustle, and hustle to promote their work. No one is going to promote their work the way that they will. There will be times when they will want to give up but they should not. They need to focus on the bigger picture because the payoff will be worth all the hard work. There are different audiences out there and their thirst can be fed, whether they are African-American, Latino, White, gay, straight, rich, poor, or what have you.
Jeff Rivera: The industry is definitely saturated with urban books, and urban authors are treated in a certain matter by the industry until they make money and then they’ll roll out the red carpet for you. If you want to stand out you have to rise above the urban label and make your book extraordinary, period. Make your book make money and they’ll pay attention to you. That’s something you can’t do by relying on your publisher you need to go out and there and sell the damn books yourself, promote yourself. Being signed with a major publisher I know this. There’s only one color they care about, green. They don’t care if you’re black, white, or purple. They only care about green.
Money Boy Montana: The industry is absolutely saturated with a bunch of bullshit and lame writing. I would say a good 60% of writers out are straight garbage! It’s like the N.B.A., you have 20 point guards that are selected in the draft. However, only two maybe three of those point guards will prosper and be relevant. My writing, my work ethic and style, will forever distinguish me from others. It takes good writing and hard work to be set apart from others.
Some readers say, ‘If you read one, you read ‘em all,’ does this influence you? What do you think of this?
Deborah Cardona/Sexy: One of the reasons why I began writing in the first place was because there were not any main Latino and Latina characters in the urban fiction novels I read. People are now familiar with characters, such as Deja Padilla, Jasmine “Jaz” Aviles, Tabitha “Trouble” Vargas, Damion Aviles, and Devon Aviles. They are like people whom they see in the community on a daily basis. I cannot tell you how many Latinos and Latinas stop by my booth to ask if I have books written in Spanish. It makes me feel good to know that I am one of the Latina urban fiction authors who will help to open the floodgates for Latino/Latina authors to enter into the urban book industry.
Jeff Rivera: Yeah, I can understand why people say that. As writers that write for the genre we need to rise up and take our writing and our storytelling to the next level. Do something a little different.
Money Boy Montana: Not at all. No two steaks taste the same, so why would any two books be the same?
How did you get published? Any tips or advice for aspiring authors?
Jeff Rivera: I got published by self-publishing first and building enough of a following online that Warner/Grand Central took notice. That’s definitely one route you can go. Come to the table with a great book and 10,000 or more loyal fans and prove that to the publisher when you approach them and you’ll walk away with a contract in hand. Come to table with 50,000 or more fans and your book doesn’t even have to be good. On the record agents and editors will say they’ll never publish a book just because you have that many fans but off the record they’ll admit it.
Sofia Quintero/Black Artemis: I published via the traditional route. As I worked on my first novel, I sought out literary agents, and I met one via networking. While she wasn’t the appropriate representative for the genre in which I was writing, she referred me to someone who was. She in turn negotiated my first book deal.
If there is one piece of advice I give to all aspiring writers, it’s this: if you know at this moment that if you don’t land a book deal within X period of time, you’re going to quit writing, do yourself a favor and quit now. Spare yourself the heartache and pursue the thing you are truly passionate about because writing is not it. You’re not in it for the right reason and are in for a lot of pain.
This will sound harsh when people read it because they cannot hear it with the spirit, in which I say it, but I do so with the utmost compassion and sincerity, and it’s a message I have for all artists. If you don’t have what it takes to put yourself on if no one else does, if you need the external validation of the mainstream industry to persevere, then this is not your calling, mami. If you’re an actor who pledges to enroll in med school if you don’t find an agent and the idea of writing and producing a solo show makes you balk, brother, give up acting now and register for med school today.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about self-publishing?
Deborah Cardona/Sexy: Many self-published authors think that they are going to hit the streets with Essence best-sellers and will become overnight successes without the hustle and bustle of getting their books known to the readers, the fans, the book clubs, the libraries, the bookstores, book fairs, and expos. There is also a misconception of the larger bookstores like Barnes and Noble and Waldenbooks/Borders not carrying books by self-published authors in many of their chains because they are not as good as the ones published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, Random House, Kensington Books, St. Martin’s Press, and G.P. Putnam’s Sons. Many critics claim that self-published novels lack plotlines and character development, are filled with lots of violence and unnecessary sex scenes, are published with little or no editing, and perpetrate negative portrayals of African-Americans and Latinos.
What type of books do you read? Do you admire any writers?
Deborah Cardona/Sexy: I read all kinds of books written by authors from all walks of life. I admire John Grisham very much. I consider K’wan, Treasure Blue, Erick S. Gray, Miz, and Julie Ojeda Nin as my mentors and friends. I made it my mission to meet these great authors when I was away. After meeting them, they immediately took me under their wing along with The Bronx Bookman (Nelson Nin) and taught me about the ins and outs of the publishing industry.
Jeff Rivera: I like commercial fiction writers like Michael Crichton, Nicholas Sparks, Walter Mosley, Eric Jerome Dickey, Dan Brown and brilliant authors like Alice Walker, Maya Angelo and Toni Morrison.
Money Boy Montana: I’m big on history, knowledge, and culture. I really dig Robert Greene, Machiavelli and numerous others. Do I admire any writers? To admire a writer you have to personally know a writer, that’s my opinion.
Sofia Quintero/Black Artemis: To be a good writer, you have to be a good reader and not just in the genre that you write. That said, I read all types of books, although I do gravitate towards certain types of genres and authors. My favorite author hands down is Richard Price. Most people don’t know that the film Carlito’s Way is based on a novel by Edwin Torres. As I work with BookUpNYC and write my first young adult novel Efrain’s Secret, I’ve been reading a great deal of young adult fiction, and I truly think that some of the best writing in the literary game is in the YA genre. Any adult who enjoys urban fiction should also check out the work of Paul Volponi and Coe Booth. There is also some great storytelling and provocative ideas in graphic novels, but most folks don’t realize that until it becomes a film, and the story is diluted during the adaptation process. My favorite writers in that genre include Brian Azzarello, Anthony Lappé, and of course, Alan Moore.
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