NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to Daniel José Older about his new book, Shadowhouse Fall.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
We all inherit traits from our families. But in Daniel Jose Older’s new book, the main character, Sierra Santiago, finds out she has inherited the ability to manipulate the spirit world. It’s called “Shadowhouse Fall,” and it’s a sequel to the bestselling “Shadowshaper” where we first meet the young mural artist.
DANIEL JOSE OLDER: The world she inhabits is as true a Brooklyn as I could portray, plus lots of magic or, you know – Brooklyn is very magical. So I don’t even know if that’s an additional thing. But the murals start to come to life around her. And that’s really what sets her off on this journey to understand that she’s a shadowshaper, which is a form of magic that allows her to put spirits into art and then bring them to life to fight the bad guys or do what needs to get done.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You say Brooklyn is full of magic. I mean, a lot of people think of Brooklyn and think of sort of avocado toast.
OLDER: That’s something I really did want to address, too, because this is a book about Brooklyn. And so many times we see New York, and Brooklyn specifically, represented – and it just seems like this one big happy family, you know? It’s just a terrible lie. There is – in the movement of people, there is a certain kind of slow-moving violence in gentrification.
OLDER: And that is an important thing to talk about in the book. So Sierra, you know, was born and grew up in Brooklyn. And now she feels it being taken out from under her, which is an underlying theme of the book both in, you know, what’s happening in her world and then who she’s up against, you know, as she’s learning how to shadowshape.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to get back to that. But I want to say that reading this reminded me so much of the sort of mysticism that so many Hispanics encounter in our daily lives. You know, I grew up with family members communing with spirits. It’s not unusual. Was that one of your inspirations?
OLDER: Absolutely. I always think of it as the whole shadowshaper cypher is kind of a reclamation of the ghost story. We see ghosts represented all the time with – as just these creatures that jump out of closets and eat people’s brains just over and over. And I think Western literature is so insistent on making the dead evil.
OLDER: I think the rest of the world – and for the rest of history, we’ve always had much more complex and often beautiful relationships with our dead. And for so many of us, that’s why we’re here and alive today and thriving – is because of the work that our ancestors did. I wanted to honor that on the page in a way that was also to tell a great story, you know, an exciting fantasy novel where the spirits are there to lift up the main character instead of trying to kill her and eat her brain.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) I have to ask you. I don’t know what your heritage is.
OLDER: I’m Cuban and Jewish.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow. OK. I’m Cuban, too. OK.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now we see each other.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why fantasy, though? I mean, why take the supernatural and infuse it into a young adult novel?
OLDER: Mostly because I’m a big dork (laughter), and I love fantasy. I’ve always loved fantasy.
OLDER: I always look… (laughter). Yay. And I think…
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So I’m glad. This makes – that makes me makes me happy as an answer, you know? – no better answer for that.
OLDER: What else can you say? I’m a dork.
OLDER: I love “Star Wars.” You know, I grew up watching these movies and reading these books and in love with them. And I also grew up looking for myself in them and not able to find myself. You know, as a Latino, as a man of color, where was I? Usually, either a doomed sidekick or a clown or a bad guy. And that – you know, I didn’t have the language for that at the time, but I felt the loss. And I turned away from my beloved genre because it didn’t love me back. And then I discovered Octavia Butler and Junot Diaz, who writes about Latino nerdiness so beautifully…
OLDER: …And, you know, so many authors who are out there doing it and doing the work – and now more and more which is so exciting. And that’s really kind of brought me back to the genre and reminded me how much I love it – and that we can tell our stories through this medium of fantasy and science fiction.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And like I’ve said, you know, you do really root your books in a current reality. The first book talked a lot about gentrification. This book, “Shadowhouse Fall,” talks about police and the security apparatus that threatens Sierra and her friends. That’s not the magical world. That echoes this world.
OLDER: Exactly. Well, I think fantasy is at its best when there’s a balance and a grounding. Not to say that it always has to be in this particular world, you know, dead set but that there’s an element that feels true there. You know, Miyazaki is famous for just the small nuances of how he’ll portray his characters, you know, putting their shoes on – feels so human that it kind of allows us to then go along on the ride of dragons and flying through the air and everything else.
I think the same is true in terms of balance in the Brooklyn that I create. And this is my goal anyway, you know – is to give us a Brooklyn that feels so real both in love and in tragedy and allow that to then ground and anchor the story so that the fantastical elements are kind of woven into it in a way that feels balanced. So, sometimes, that is about the painfulness of being treated like a prisoner in a place that’s supposed to educate you. And, sometimes, it’s about the love of the people who live on your block and know your name and watched you grow up.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, the National Book Award long list for young adult fiction just came out?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And there are remarkably a lot of people of color on this list. You’ve been so involved in the we-need-diverse-books campaign. Is this groundbreaking?
OLDER: It’s fantastic. The only sad thing is that it’s remarkable (laughter). You know, we had to fight so hard to get to, like, the basic level of just recognition. And that’s always, you know, something that I think has to be part of the story – is the struggle that got us here and the years and decades and even centuries of time that literature has tried to erase us. So I can honor that past and celebrate this amazing moment. That list is gorgeous. And there is so much vitality and amazingness in that list. And there’s a broad swath of different stories being told. That’s a literature that truly reflects the world, which is literature’s job. Literature’s job is to tell the truth. So here we are having fought for this moment. It’s exciting to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Daniel Jose Older’s new book is called “Shadowhouse Fall.” It’s the sequel to the best-selling “Shadowshaper.” Thank you so much.
OLDER: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRACEY CHATTAWAY’S “STARLIGHTS”)
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