Mayra Lazara Dole's debut novel about a Cuban-American teen's coming-out was recently named one of the Top Ten First Novels for Youth in 2008 by Booklist. Here's a bit of the ALA review for Down to the Bone from earlier this year:
The dialog is fast and funny in this debut novel, which is set in Miami's Cuban American community. Laura's first-person, present-tense narrative shows and tells the farce and the sorrow at home, and teens will recognize some of the traditional prejudices, as well as the joy of friendship and the happiness of real love ("my smile barely fits in my face"). Supportive precisely because it is laugh-out-loud irreverent (in one hilarious scene Laura and Soli mock their tacky quinces with their pink-ruffled gowns), this breakthrough novel is sure to be welcomed.
I thought the book was fabulous when I included in in my column last August and it has stayed with me ever since. Here's is a bit of that review:
Dole has done an excellent job of taking a moment of teen embarrassment and upping the stakes in such a way that it is clearly devastating. She doesn't give the reader any breaks with this novel, forcing you to work your way along with Laura through all the typical teen confusions and rebellions as she follows that age-old path of personally defining herself. The Cuban American culture is on full display here, along with its own fluid language and traditions that will entrance readers unfamiliar with this world. And for GLBT readers in particular, this will quickly become a book to treasure forever. Down to the Bone is an excellent choice for teenage girls looking for a charming coming-of-age story. Keep writing Ms. Dole; there are thousands of teen readers out there who need you.
As much as I want to point the social significance of Down to the Bone, both for its Cuban American protagonist (so under represented in teen lit) and sweetly intense story about a young lesbian finding her way to acceptance of her sexuality, I don't want to suggest in any way that Mayra's book matters because it is important. Most importantly this is a well written novel with a very engaging protagonist, some wonderful supporting characters and an emotional plot that moves forward at a speed that demands the reader's attention from start to finish. You get invested in Laura's choices and her pain; you want her to find love and happiness but mostly you want her to find herself. Straight or gay, teens are going to identify with this kid and they won't want to let her go. In fact - if you're reading Mayra - it wouldn't be such a bad thing to write a sequel so we could check back in with Laura, Soli and Tazer in the future.
Mayra answered these questions over a period of a couple of weeks from her home in Miami (and yes, she is also Cuban American).
Chasing Ray: The book opens in Laura's school where everything goes to hell in a hand-basket pretty fast. Why did you set the story in a Catholic high school? Religion doesn't play a big part of the story after the opening chapter so I'm curious as to why it began there. Is it realistic to assume that in a modern Catholic high school a student would be expelled for being gay? (And I really don't know but I've been asked by a couple of readers so I wanted you to be able to explain your reasoning.)
MLD: One scene in Down to the Bone is set in a Catholic high school because most Latino kids attend Catholic or Christian private schools--traditions and religion in our culture play a large role in homophobia. While writing Down to the Bone, I emailed with a Miami Latina/o teen and young adult focus group. Most of their LGBT Latino friends in Catholic high schools are closeted and terrified of coming out to anyone who isn't gay, especially the girls. Latina/o lesbian, gay and bi boys and girls act straight and have boyfriends or girlfriends of the opposite sex. One of the girls had been expelled from a Catholic high school for being caught kissing in a bathroom stall with her girlfriend. Her parents agreed with the suspension and thought her daughter and girlfriend were degenerates who ruined her family's life--if parents had disagreed with the administration, they could have filed a suit against them and perhaps won. Another girl was kicked out of the house after she came out to her dad and was homeless for a few months until a friends' mom took her in. Laura, my main character, wasn't expelled from Catholic high school for being gay. She was kicked out of school for three reasons: 1) Abstinence is a curricular mandate in Christian high schools. Sex of any type by teens--especially homosexual sex--before marriage is unacceptable. Sister Fart-Face and Mother Superior Sicko (the nuns from hell in my book) worded Laura's expulsion carefully, so as not to get into legal trouble, but deep down, the reader knows the true reason behind Laura's expulsion 2) A confiscated love letter detailing a sizzlin' love scene with Laura's first love, Marlena, which was read to the class and to her mom and 3) Laura wouldn't tattle the name of the "degenerate" girl she'd been having wild sex with at home while her family was away. It was "tell all" or "good-bye."
Three years ago, I contacted the new administration and faculty of my old Catholic high school that kicked my first love and me out of school due to a sizzlin' love letter. They were thrilled an alumni author had emailed them. The president and many faculty members congratulated me. The administrator asked for my home address, in order to send me their past yearly Alumni magazines where I'd "find old friends" and invited me to an event. I asked them about the event and suddenly, no one responded. Weeks later, I wrote again to let them know I hadn't received the alumni magazines. No one responded. Obviously, they did the research and found that I'd been kicked to the curb for being a lesbo and wanted nothing to do with me. I wrote one last time to no response.
We've come a long way but it seems there are still hate crimes against us, such as the murder of 15-year old Lawrence King by a classmate. This makes being expelled for being LGBT sound like a bad hair day.
CR: There are very few teen books on Cuban Americans and very few on lesbians. Did you always intend to combine the two minorities into one book? And why do you think there are so few teen books on lesbian characters? I have seen far more books on gay boys than girls and I'm curious as to your thoughts on this.
MLD: I never intended to combine both minorities in one book. I'm a Miami Latina lesbian and there were zero stories set in Miami with a Latino LGBT cast--a microcosm known to few outsiders. Most Miami Cubans don't think of themselves as a "minority." Cubans built Miami and many exiles who started with nothing are academics, doctors, architects, or business people turned millionaires and even billionaires.
It astounds me that in this day and age it's still easier for people to embrace male homosexuality and find lesbianism abhorrent and disgusting, or fun and games for mens' pleasures. Gay men are more open about their sexuality and in the media are praised as "fabulous" or "elegant" with "impeccable taste." In the past, lesbians were viewed as an ugly, perverted, strange breed of granola crunching, flannel, and Birkenstock wearing creatures who acted like men, or "whores" who have sex with each other for mens' pleasures. But that's changed due to AfterEllen.com, The "L" Word, LOGO, Exes and Oh's and lesbian authors who depict lesbians as "mainstream" and as "normal" as the hets with exact universal feelings and experiences. I recently received a comment on my MySpace page from a Spanish lesbian saying Spain allows gay marriages but lesbians are still "closeted and invisible" unlike gay men who are mostly all "out" and have gay role models in famous authors, actors, doctors, etc. I was shocked when she said there isn't a single "out" lesbian author, actress, or professional in Spain. Perhaps Latina lesbians aren't as accepted as gay Latino men because women's core is supposed to be deeply rooted in motherhood and we need to be seen as the decent, loving, bearers of life, instead of as being with other women without procreation. Perhaps Latina lesbians are seen as competing with straight macho men and that's where the hatred began, along with biblical passages against gays?
In Cuba, back in the fifties, the red light district was owned by the Mafia. American men feasted on seeing two women having sex, then joined in for threesomes. The term "Tortillera"--disgusting dyke--probably stemmed from the times when women who loved women were seen as immoral, grotesque, worthless, putrid "sluts" who perverted married men and gave them STD's. Hatred against lesbians was deeply rooted and it took forever to dispel the myths, especially the biblical ones. The more we come out, the easier it will be to become mainstream and accepted.
I too am amazed about the lack of lesbian YA fiction and particularly the lack of sexual, racial and cultural diversity in YA books. Out of the fifty-million Latinas/os in the US how can I possibly be one of the only authentic, Latin American-born lesbians writing YA LGBT books?--many authors have Spanish surnames but were born in the US and don't speak a word of Spanish and have never been part of a Latino culture so I'm not sure they count as authentic "Latina/o" authors. The current trend seems to be that most Anglo kids want Anglo mainstream stories, especially "white" Vampire novels, thus Latina lesbian authors like me need to struggle harder to get our books read, accepted, and appreciated. Luckily, Down to the Bone was nominated for the ALA Best YA Book 2009, garnered a starred Booklist review, was submitted to the National Book Awards, Lambda Literary Awards, and so on. Hopefully lots of people will give it a chance and read it! : )
In the past, YA lesbian books have been written by one Anglo lesbian and one heterosexual female author. Times have changed in the Adult fiction world, though, thus there are hundreds of lesbian adult books written by lesbians.
One of my focus group's young adults is a closeted bisexual at the University studying to become a psychiatrist. She said she wouldn't be caught dead reading my book anywhere for fear of people thinking she's a lesbian. Many Latina lesbians are married to men and closeted and many teen Latina lesbians have boyfriends and plan to get married and have children. If Latina lesbians started coming out, as gay men have, and feel no fear about reading and writing lesbian books, this will have a great impact on the publishing market. Many Anglo lesbians are free of the closet thus why they're doing all the writing. I have many married-to-men Latina lesbian friends. But the most shocking of all is that I've received hundreds of emails from adult Latina lesbians in their thirties telling me about their closeted lives and how utterly difficult and devastatingly hard it is to be loved by their family if they are lesbian. Their families have pushed them away and they feel alone and terribly lonely because they are terrified to find lesbian support for fear their family will never want them back if they find out.
CR: You reveal an amazing subculture of gay and queer teens in your book. Can you explain a bit how you learned about this culture?
MLD: Ha! I'm cracking up! I never "learned" the subculture. I've lived it and am still very involved in the LGBT community! As a teen, I was a gay club kid. I, and my gay male best friend who posed as my boyfriend, won every gay dance contest in straight clubs. We'd then rush to gay clubs to be ourselves. One of my best friends is a drag queen. I hung around in underground clubs with false ID's with drag queens, tranniboys, trannies, butches, Kings, femme lezzies, etc. Also, my LGBT teen and young adult focus group keeps me abreast of everything gay happening in Miami. I'm a reality show HO, watch every lesbian program, MTV, Current TV, LOGO and I'm up on POP culture and everything LGBT teen.
CR: I think part of what I found interesting was the language in your book - all the slang/short hand the teens were using. I know this might sound lame but for someone not part of the community you wrote about (either the Cuban American or GBLT) it was interesting to see how much I have missed. Is everything in this community as it exists in Miami - in other words did you create parts of this subculture or did you present it as it exists?
MLD: I presented it as it exists. In other words, I didn't create this subculture but did add fictitious characters and invented the way they'd each speak accordingly to our culture's slang and dialect. Most people don't know that each Latino culture has its own territorial colloquialisms. Hispanics all speak basic Spanish, peppered with our culture's sayings, slang, and street talk. My ex boyfriend (yes, I had one of those) was Argentinean. Most of the time, since we both spoke in our native dialect, we had no clue what the other was saying. For example, when he'd say my "colita" looked good in tight jeans, he wasn't literally talking about my tail! When I'd say, "Oye viejo," I didn't mean "Hey old man," I meant, "Hey man!" It took a while to get used to each others' way of speaking and It was exciting for us to learn a new "language." I think the same goes for people born in the US. If you travel to England, you might not understand most of their slang. A lot of people lump Latinos together but they have no clue that our language is as varied and distinct as our foods (every Hispanic culture's cuisine is massively different from the other, just as is our dialect).
CR: Tazer is one of the most complex and fully realized characters I've ever come across in YA fiction. He confounds all generalizations and assumptions - I loved him. Can you explain how you came to create him?
MLD: I created Tazer from my deep love for differences and tolerance. If haters could like Tazer, they'd open their minds and accept people of all kinds. I love creative/good people of all kinds and I wanted to bring an intelligent, handsome, well-rounded tranniboy into my novel not only to spice things up for Laura, but to make her think about her own ingrained homophobia.
CR: My friend Jackie Parker and I were talking recently about transgender characters in YA fiction and I wanted to ask a bit more about developing Tazer. This is a character who is biologically female, views himself as male and is attracted to and dates females. You did force Laura to ask some tough questions about herself and her own views by presenting her friendship with Tazer but I really worried less about Laura and more about Tazer. He was a really fragile person in Down to the Bone - or at least wore his feelings more on his sleeve. Can you explain a little bit about how transgender teens fit into the gay teen community and how significant you think this particular character is to Laura's character development over the course of the novel?
MLD: I wrote Tazer with warm memories of a teen friend who was born with female parts and believed himself a boy born in the wrong body--his brain received mixed messages in the womb. We were close friends until he became more and more male. After being thrown out of school, had a gun to my head, ostracized, treated like a leper, and all Miami knew about me, I became terrified of being seen with gay people, especially trannies. But boy, did I miss them! Laura, like many LGBT's, lived with ingrained homophobia. Trannies fit better into the LGBT teen community these days due to Gay and Straight Alliances, LGBT teen blogs, teen documentaries, MTV, Current TV, LOGO, and programs that depict them as normal as straight kids, just "different." Of course, there are still those who'll forever see them as "freaks of nature," and hate them so much they'll hurt them. Tazer is significant to Laura's character development over the course of the novel because like her, he's a great person with a good heart. He hurts no one and yet is misunderstood. Laura sees herself in Tazer and sees her homophobic mother and homophobe friends in herself. Laura could have kept shunning Tazer, but in accepting him, she begins to accept herself.
Transgenderd teens are very frail. Most of my trannie friends growing up either committed suicide, died of drug overdoses, were homeless, accidentally killed, or died in some tragic accident. Nowadays, they have GSA"s (Gay and Straight Alliances), LGBTQ clubs, and even an LGBTQ school. Gay kids are much more accepted. As I wrote Down to the Bone, I heard a lot of American kids saying they wanted to read books where LGBT's weren't wounded and ended having tragic deaths or severe beatings. They longed to read about fun mainstream trannies without the usual hardships, so I kept Tazer "light" in comparison to what really goes in trannies' lives (I did that for Laura, too. The days of people wanting to read books such as, The Well of Loneliness, are over).
CR: There's a strong thread of middle class snobbery that runs through the book - a deep desire by Laura's family and others to fit in with what society demands regardless of the high sacrifice those standards require. I really felt sorry for Laura's mother in a way as she was just so needy and it seemed like she was never going to get what she wanted/needed. Were you revealing something about Cuban American society with this sub plot or addressing a more universal middle class theme of fitting in at all costs?
MLD: What you picked up as "middle class snobbery" is right-wing intolerance (the majority of Miami Cubans are right- wing Republicans). The common words most Cubans-Americans grow up with here are, "What will people think?" Miami is a phenomenon in that living here is like living in a Latin American Country--we're almost all Latina/o and you need to speak Spanish in order to get by, not the other way around. I am revealing something about a part of our Cuban American society and also about intolerance and ingrained homophobia in every class, but especially in Latino right-wing communities.
CR: And young love. Man - I just hurt while reading parts of this book. You really put your characters through the wringer! Do you think maybe there's some misconceptions about GBLT teens in love and their relationships? What were you trying to convey with the many romance subplots?
MLD: Oh... a big part of me wished you'd also asked about the intense humor/comedy in Down to the Bone which is important because it's a tool that helps teens cope while laughing. Teen love is conflictive, but even now that things are more open for LGBT's, love can be brutal for closeted or "coming out" young adults because they understand the prejudice, hatred, isolation and intolerance for being "different." LGBT teens, young adults, and adults coming out, deal with a lot of other issues that straights are free of, thus love will be more intense and mean a great deal more to us than to straight people.
CR: And of course the question about what you are working on next - reveal how much or little you would like (or ignore this one entirely).
MLD: I'm finishing a YA novel set in exotic, hot Miami, filled with "out" Latina lesbians, bi's, and one handsome, intelligent, and talented tranniboy.