KT Horning, Director of The Cooperative Children's Book Center
I loved this interview so much that I asked KT Horning (who had the amazing "Worth The Trip" Blog and is in the news here) and the author Mayra Lazara Dole if I could re-run their interview at "I'm Here. I'm Queer. What the Hell do I Read?" My thanks to them both for letting me share this updated version with you!
Mayra Lazara Dole’s first young adult novel, Down to the Bone, was published [in March 2008] by HarperTeen. It’s a surprisingly funny story about what happens after a 16-year-old Cuban-American girl is publicly outed and ostracized by most of her family and friends. Mayra has a unique ability to make us laugh through tragic circumstances, without making light of them, and she is definitely a rising star in the field of young adult literature. She was born in Cuba and now lives in Miami with her partner, Damarys.
What inspired you to write Down to the Bone?
My inspiration came from my teen experiences, current experiences teens in my focus group expressed, and also from a deeply rooted love for my Cuban heritage/culture and a desire for Miami Cuban homophobia to be exposed so it could be discussed openly. After being chemically injured by pesticides which nearly took my life at the time, I developed MCS and needed to live hermetically sealed, like The Boy in the Bubble, without exposure to any chemical whatsoever. I felt an overwhelming need to leave behind a funny book that inspired and moved others to promote free thinking, love and tolerance, and that would motivate straight, gays, monkeys, whatever… to stomp on hate.
Are there parts of the book that are autobiographical?
Yes. At fourteen, my first love and I were thrown out of high school due to a muy caliente love letter she sent me detailing our first time making love (too juicy to recount!). Much like Laura, I had a boyfriend but my heart beat passionately only for my one special girl. As a teen, I was a mix of Laura and Soli’s personality (I didn’t hook up with everyone like Soli, though). The rest is realistic fiction motivated by emotions ranging from extreme joy to deep loss that teens in my focus group were experiencing.
There are a lot of painful and tragic events that happen in your book. How did you manage to make your book so damned funny?
I haven’t a royal clue! Cubans are a fun, gregarious lot. We could be chopped into pieces after a tragic accident, eyeless, toothless, and pushing in our bleeding liver and we’d manage a final whisper, “Don’t worry. I’m fine. I’ve always wanted reconstruction organ surgery.” In my early teens, my closest friends were drag queens and gay guys. I’m still close with one of my first drag queen friends. We destroy each other via email with outrageous comedy skits that nearly burst our spleens. I do have a pensive, insightful, deep side which Laura also shares. It’s about being both extremes and workin’ it.
I was intrigued by the trans character Tazer, and was secretly hoping that Laura would get together with him. Can you tell us a little more about him?
In my first draft, Laura had fallen for Tazer but as I revised, Laura Rumba’d me into another direction: most Miami Cuban lesbos’ true life experiences (they’d be terrified to be seen with a genetic girl who looks and thinks she's a boy, thus why most lesbians here look femme even if they’re butch under the sheets). In other words, in writing Down to the Bone, I stayed true to my culture. On the other hand, if Laura had been an adult, she’d have probably gone for Tazer, the handsome, sensitive, intelligent playwright. Wouldn’t everyone?
I know I would! Another colorful character was Viva, the mother of Laura’s best friend who took her in. I hope every queer kid has an adult like Viva in their lives. Can you tell us a little bit about where her character came from?
Viva’s loving heart was created from the love gifted to me by my now deceased paternal aunt, Nina. Nina raised my brother and me after my father died and my mother took on three factory jobs. Unfortunately, I was too terrified to come out to her and wish I would have. Once, out of nowhere, she said to me, “No matter what, I’ll always love you, Mayrita.” Down to the Bone is a tribute to her unconditional love. Viva’s quirky personality was inspired by Beba, my funny/wacky/metaphysical mother-in-law. Earlier today, Beba left us 12 consecutive messages on our phone machine of Walter Mercado’s entire astrological forecast for each sign (he’s an infamous sort-of drag queen/ celebrity astrologer Cubans adore). She then left her own voice message, scolding me in Spanish, “You’ve never had a cavity yet, so don’t forget to cut your fingernails on Fridays or you’ll start getting them!” She ended the message in her beautiful, broken English, “Me is gonna go to Miami Bitch’s (Beach’s) gay club wiss your book on Saturday night to sell to la familia” (familia, in Cuban gay circle means, “gays”).
Did you have any difficulty finding a publisher for the book?
At first, yes. I wrote Act Natural!–now Down to the Bone–in Cuban Spanglish and received a barrel of rejections! I quickly deleted the Spanglish, changed the title, and rewrote the novel on fire, with intense vigor and a new set of vibrant characters. Every moment alive counted and I zoomed through the writing while my health allowed, my fingers and brain worked, and with an oxygen tank by my side. Unlike many editors I encounter/ed, I lucked-out that my Harper Collins editor wholeheartedly understood Latina/o culture (she speaks Spanish and is married to a Colombiano).
Your bio on the Harper web site says you have worked as a drummer, dancer, landscape designer, Cuban chef, hairdresser, and library assistant. Which of these was your favorite job?
Hairstylist and landscape designer (like Soli and Laura). Creating “art” while having a blast, truly satisfies me deep, deep, down to the… to the what? To the marrow!
How old were you when you realized you were a lesbian?
I was fourteen, 100 percent heterosexual–what a disgrace!–and crazy about boys when a close girlfriend first kissed me (I still remember where we were standing, her mandarin orange scent, and how I melted). It was so delicious, that I swear, I saw birds flying, heard elephants stampeding, and couldn’t see straight for years thereafter! Our relationship grew in depth until the infamous love letter. I had kissed boys I’d had crushes on but nothing compared to the one with my first love. Due to having been expelled from school, not ever being allowed to see each other again, the ostracism etc., I became terrified to come out, thus I went back into the closet. I was still physically attracted to guys and dated them, but I only longed for my first love. I had a great relationship with an Argentino for a year. Physically and intellectually, I liked him, but emotionally? Nothing. Niente. Nada.
How do gays, lesbians, and trannies in the Miami Cuban community survive the homophobia?
Many Latinas/os are closeted due to internalized homophobia. Your “married-with-kids” Latina friend just might have a secret girlfriend on the side and her lover is dating a man for pretense. Miami is much looser now. We just had our very first Gay Pride Parade! Lots of teens are out and many are bisexuals who don't give a flying fricassee what others think. But traditional, religious Cuban-American and Latina/o teens attending Catholic and Christian schools (very high percentage) are still closeted and doomed to live a lie. Many older lesbians are closeted and married to men or end up living a celibate, lonely life. Survival for many Latina lesbians depends upon lying and never coming out, or so they think. I strongly believe that it's in coming out that we empower ourselves.
When did you officially come out?
When I couldn’t take the homophobia in Miami, I split to Boston for nine years. Most of my haircutting clients called themselves, “Lesbian”–yes, the lesbos followed me everywhere!–and I couldn’t relate. I hated the word. Looking back, I realize that “Lesbian” reminded me of “Tortillera” a word that made me feel severely unsafe and disgusted. I shunned those words until recently. In Down to the Bone, Tortillera is used as both derogatory and powerful and ends in a word of empowerment. A few Miami Cuban lesbians have taken issue. One friend exclaimed, "Tortillera is so disgusting! “How could you have used it in your book?! No one will be caught dead reading it. People will think Cuban lesbians are grotesque!” Insulted? I think so. But hey, she’ll get over it, or she can just write her own book! Writing Down to the Bone helped me come to terms with the fact that it’s important for LGBT's to come out when one feels safe in order to fight for your birthright to be who you really are.
The book is dedicated, in part, to your mother. Has she read it yet?
If my mom reads Down to the Bone she’ll instantly die of a patatú! She speaks zero English, has never read a book in her life, and doesn’t have a computer (don’t get me wrong. Mami is brilliant, just not traditionally educated). I dedicated my novel partly to Mami because I adore her and she’s grown tremendously. She now accepts Damarys and me as a couple. This, of course, is beyond miraculous!
What have you heard from teen readers?
I’ve gotten emails from gay Latino and black teens stating that Down to the Bone is the best book they've ever read, that they relate to Laura, and want a friend like Soli. Some quote their favorite scenes which melts my heart. Many express having cried and laughed their heads off. Some proclaim my story is also their own. I've received many powerful, long emails from closeted teens who've only come out to me, or teens who've been kicked out of their house after coming out. They tell me their sad stories and how important my book is to them and it tears me apart. I've received many emails from Miami Cuban lesbians in their thirties, stating that when they came out, they lost their family. My book moves them deeply. I can’t even express how much these responses mean to me.
What are you working on next?
I have many projects going on at once, but the novel I've just finished is TP: Top Secret!
I can’t wait for your next book to come out. When can we expect it?
Thanks KT. That means a lot to me. I’ve finished my next YA novel and am currently searching for an agent. If you know of any, please send them my way. I hope to be published again soon!
Speaking of that bubble, if you don’t mind me asking about your health, are you okay now?
I’m trying hard to heal. Thanks for asking. I still must live sealed, at times, in a specially made glass and metal room. These past few month I've been able to go outdoors using precaution. My immune system can no longer handle even the most benign chemicals until I get stronger. I'm walking now, am able to recline outdoors when neighbors aren't spraying pesticides in their lawns and the builders next door aren't working (they use toxic chemicals that come my way due to wind direction). In a perfect, nontoxic, Green world, I'd be hiking Mt. Everest by now!
Check out Mayra's book, "Down To the Bone!"