It’s been a good while since the pages of a book created such a visceral reaction for me. Jenny Torres Sanchez’s latest, We Are Not from Here, does just that. It’s a realistic novel which many high school teens, especially those in urban communities will relate to. I’ve educated students who’ve risked their lives for what seems like an elusive dream. In the desert, my students have been forced to grow up too soon. We Are Not from Here is a novel which will balm its readers’ inner-wounds and Sanchez’s plot and pacing will offer its readers hope and healing.
The story follows Pulga, Pequena and Chico–a trio of teens trying desperately to hold onto hope and find beauty in the ordinary, even amidst the crime and gang violence of Guatemala. They’re also dealing with cultural and societal constraints of what manhood and womanhood entails. When their very lives are threatened, they leave their loved ones behind for “El Norte,” a journey through hot deserts and aboard La Bestia–the very trains and roads my own students have journeyed on and through.
Any keen educator working on including social justice literature from Latinx writers would be doing a service to our youth through the crucial conversations which take place in this book and ultimately in the classroom. In this interview, Torres Sanchez shares her thoughts on writing and so much more.
Galán: What is your hope for middle and high school students reading We are Not From Here?
Torres Sanchez: I have many hopes. I hope Pulga, Pequeña, and Chico feel like family to those who read this story. I hope they realize that this book, while fiction, reflects a truth happening in our world right now. I hope they question our government and people in power. I hope We Are Not from Here fosters discussion about human rights, humanity, immigration, and our responsibility to one another. I hope readers see it is a form of bearing witness. I hope those who identify with Pulga, Pequeña, and Chico see it as an acknowledgement of their pain and struggle. And for those who don’t identify with these characters, I hope it fosters empathy in them.
But mostly, I hope young readers carry this book in their hearts, and feel it as they become adults and leaders in their communities and our world.
Galán: The movement and buzz on social media reflects how writers are getting political–so much so that they’re willing to “bang on the doors” of establishments. They’re questioning the canon of “dead white male” writers. Are you this writer? Do you consider yourself vocal, are you willing to risk uncomfortable conversations with editors and agents to get your words in the world?
Torres Sanchez: The questioning of the dead white male writers is very much answered at this point. There’s no doubt that the canon is too full of them. They are overly taught, overly revered, and take up too much space on classroom shelves. And I say this to you as someone who fell in love with and was deeply influenced by many classics, largely because the books in my classrooms were the only ones I had access to. (I think it’s important when we talk about updating the classics to also keep in mind who has access to what and which schools have what kinds of budgets.)
I do consider myself to be vocal and I don’t mind having uncomfortable conversations with agents, editors, anyone, to bring about change or get my words out into the world. I’ve had those conversations.
I’m vocal and political in my writing. That’s where I feel I can make a difference.Jenny Torres Sanchez
But I’m not someone you’ll find debating on social media. I’m vocal and political in my daily interactions, in my actions, my conversations. I’m vocal and political in my writing. That’s where I feel I can make a difference. Many people have found successful ways to make an impact on social media, but we are all different. It’s not my way. I tend to speak and live my truth outside the virtual world.
Galán: When did you know you were a writer?
Torres Sanchez: Fourth grade. Our teacher, a wonderful woman named Mrs. Macalusso who read to us every single day, told the class we were all going to participate in a district-wide writing contest. The prompt was to tell a story from the perspective of being three inches tall. I loved it so much and got completely lost in this world where I could make up anything I wanted to and even vent frustrations. It was amazing to me. And even more so when I found out I actually won first place. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.
Galán: Do you work on more than one project at a time? Are you able to share a current work in progress and if not, can you give us a hint as to its themes?
Torres Sanchez: Usually I don’t work on multiple books at the same time, but I often write poetry or work on a short story while I’m working on a novel. Sometimes that helps when I’m having trouble. Like right now, I’m working on a book about sisters that also has to do with their mother’s past and is infused with magical realism. But it’s going very slowly. Writing anything right now is difficult. My life, like most people’s lives, is different than it was pre-pandemic. It’s full of constant worry and frustration and anger regarding the state of the world. It’s full of trying to do too many things at once and trying to carry on some kind of normalcy when life is anything but normal right now. So, I don’t have the same time or mental capacity for the imagining and nurturing and thinking that is necessary to create anything; a poem, a short story, a novel. But I’m trying. Poco a poco.
Galán: Many authors of color naturally write their fiction or nonfiction through the lens of Intersectionality. What are your thoughts on this? Does it drive you, or not?
Torres Sanchez: I think writing through the lens of intersectionality allows us to write with the kind of love, respect, and nuance that is necessary to tell a story about our community honestly. It’s definitely something that drives me.
Galán: Lately, authors have been writing more and more about hard issues: democracy, social justice, racial injustices. I am new to your body of work, so have you always written about tough themes, or have you “evolved” with the times? Do you think, for example, that fantasy and dystopian worlds are a genre of the past?
I’ve been in publishing for ten years now and I’ve always believed in shining a light on those things many people would rather stay in the dark.Jenny Torres Sanchez
Torres Sanchez: I’m no stranger to writing about hard issues. My books deal with family dysfunction, depression, grief, suicide, cyclical family abuse, and gender and racial inequality. I’ve been in publishing for ten years now and I’ve always believed in shining a light on those things many people would rather stay in the dark. Young readers want that kind of truth; they appreciate it. They want to make sense of the hard things in the world. They want someone to talk about it. I see my books as a way of doing that.
I’ve always been a contemporary writer, so I don’t have extensive knowledge of what is out there in terms of fantasy and dystopian writing. But I do know there are many writers of color infusing this genre with fresh stories. Many of those writers are inspired in some way by their culture and are bringing it into these books. So, I definitely don’t think this genre is at all of the past. On the contrary, I think it’s the much-needed future.
Galán: 2020 has been a tumultuous ride. Has your writing style changed much post-pandemic? Do you think you’re more prone to serious prose now, or will your future fiction lean toward whimsy?
Torres Sanchez: My writing style hasn’t changed at all. I’ve always written about hard truths and I think I always will. I believe so strongly in not turning away from those things that are difficult–in creating a space to explore, dissect, reveal, and understand what scares us and what society wants to dismiss. Honestly, the pandemic has only confirmed for me the necessity of writing books that do that.
Jenny Torres Sanchez is a full-time writer and former English teacher. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, but has lived on the border of two worlds her whole life. She lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and children. Follow her on: Twitter and Instagram.