Sadie here with a special QBU post. We were recently given the opportunity to interview Mark Oshiro, Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe. Mark’s second book Each Of Us A Desert releases next week from Tor Teen. Read on to see what they have to say about culture and identity in two very different settings…
No one person is a monolith, but like you, Xochitl is Latinx. Did you feel an added pressure to get everything “just so” for an #ownvoices story?
Taking the story into the realm of the fantastic helped reduce that pressure. Each of Us a Desert doesn’t take place in our world, and that allowed me a distance. I got to create things or play with language and culture so that there might be familiarity with certain Latinx cultures—particularly those in what is Central America now—while still allowing me creative freedom. That being said: Yeah! There are so few Latinx writers in the children’s literature space, so we often do feel an immense pressure to get things right. But even that notion is complicated; my Latinx identity is so utterly unlike most other people in the community. So what I strived to do was balance authenticity with creativity.
We really appreciate that when you write in Spanish, it isn’t italicized and is rarely explained or translated. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience with languages growing up, and why it’s important not to “other” your readers for whom English might not be the default?
Thank you! To build off a bit from my previous answer, I’m a transracial adoptee. My adoptive parents are white and Japanese/Hawaiian. I was not raised speaking Spanish and only began to pick it up once we moved to Southern California and nearly all my peers looked like me, but were raised within these varied and diverse cultures. I studied Spanish in high school and managed a very rough fluency, lost it in my 20s, and picked it up again in my early 30s as I dedicated myself to learning it all over again. So, part of the reason why Spanish appears as it does is that I wanted to play with things like gendered words, as well as treat Spanish like a fantastical language outside of Spanish colonization. What if this world just developed a language like this on its own? Thus, having on-the-page translation didn’t make sense. I left context clues within the text so that you could figure out what was being said, but this is the way these people talk. Even further, the narrative framing device of the book—the entire thing is a prayer that the main character, Xochitl, gives to her god—meant that in-text translation would be super clumsy. Why would she translate her native tongue to her god?
There is one exception though. I wanted the poems in the book to be treated with a reverence like a religious text, and one of my favorite things was those Spanish-English bibles we used to have at church, where one column was English and the other was Spanish. I asked the folks at Tor Teen if we could manage that, and they were ecstatic to make it happen in the text!
In Desert, Xo feels stuck in a life of caring for others, with nobody to listen to her sorrows (or joys). Your first book, Anger Is A Gift, also features a main character who feels pinned down, but in the opposite way; Moss is *too* visible and known because of what happened to his father. Was this a parallel you drew intentionally?
Yes!!! Bravo for being the literal first person to catch this! While this book is not a sequel to Anger in any way, I do consider the book to be a spiritual response to it. (And the third YA book I’m writing right now is what I consider the third in an emotional trilogy comprising these novels.) Each of Us a Desert was an immensely challenging project to write, and I did two complete re-writes of it in 2018. I’m not exaggerating, either; I rewrote every word and changed nearly everything in the story as I got closer and closer to what it was I was trying to accomplish. Because of that, I did a major rewrite in September of 2018, and by that time, Anger had been out in the world for a few months. So I was in this headspace where a lot of the feedback and criticism of the book was very present for me. One of the things that was in every draft of Desert, though, was this pervasive loneliness due to isolation. I enjoyed writing a novel set in a major city with a massive cast of characters who the protagonist had in their life, but I deliberately wanted to pull it back. That’s not what my childhood was like. Where I grew up felt like a small town, even if Riverside, California (my hometown) was geographically large. So that sense of isolation was always a part of Xo’s make-up.
For me, that struggle was tied to my queerness and growing up in a place that did not accept me. I think that both consciously and unconsciously, you can map that struggle over Xo’s arc, even though she lives in a world without homophobia. She still longed for love, for community, for agency—and it takes her leaving her home in the beginning of the book for her to make her attempt at finding it.
Is there a scene or set of scenes in Each of Us A Desert that you’re particularly proud of?
I love Xochitl’s ritual stories a lot, and it was something I came up with during the last major rewrite. Xo’s power is to consume the stories of others as they confess their wrongdoing, and I wanted to demonstrate what that experience was like for the reader. So the tone of them was tricky; she is a magical conduit of sorts, so there’s less of her personality and her way of speaking and thinking in them. I approached them that way, and it ended up giving these stories a really epic tone that I’m so happy with. Plus… I just LOVE writing short stories!!!
Authors are known for being intensely quirky about their writing processes. We were wondering – are you a plotter, or a pantser? What do you eat/drink while you’re writing? Do you listen to music as you go along, or is silence golden?
I am an obsessive plotter, 100%! I construct elaborate outlines for everything I write, but more than anything, I absolutely need to know the final image and sentence of any project I’m writing before I begin it. I need to know what I’m working towards.
I love Cheez Its, apple slices with peanut butter, and approximately 40% of my body’s liquid content is made up of Spindrift sparkling water, preferably the pineapple flavor.
Finally, can you please point our readers toward some recent or upcoming queer books you’re excited about?
I just finished Leah Johnson’s You Should See Me In a Crown and it was STELLAR. I only wish my prom experience had been this gloriously queer. My TBR pile currently contains Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta, and Lot by Bryan Washington.
Xochital is destined to wander the desert alone, speaking her troubled village’s stories into its arid winds. Her only companions are the blessed stars above and enimagic lines of poetry magically strewn across dusty dunes.
Her one desire: to share her heart with a kindred spirit.
One night, Xo’s wish is granted—in the form of Emilia, the cold and beautiful daughter of the town’s murderous mayor. But when the two set out on a magical journey across the desert, they find their hearts could be a match… if only they can survive the nightmare-like terrors that arise when the sun goes down.
Fresh off of Anger Is a Gift’s smashing success, Oshiro branches out into a fantastical direction with their new YA novel, The Stars Around Us.
Mark Oshiro is the author of Anger is a Gift (Tor Teen), winner of the 2019 Schneider Family Book Award and nominated for a 2019 Lammy Award (in the LGBTQ Children’s/Young Adult category). Upcoming novels include Each of Us a Desert (Tor Teen), a YA Fantasy novel out September 15, 2020, and The Insiders (Harper Collins), a MG Contemporary with magical elements out Fall 2021. When they are not writing, crying on camera about fictional characters for their online Mark Does Stuff universe, or traveling, Mark is busy trying to fulfill their lifelong goal: to pet every dog in the world.