Author Meg Medina Discusses 'Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass', Importance of Everyone's Story
This article is part of Palabras, the Latin Post Latino Author Series.
"Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass" author Meg Medina had to revisit her own run-ins with bullies during junior high to create the empowering work.
For her, those formidable years were a confusing and brutal time, but those painful interactions imparted on her the insight to create a beautifully brave young adult novel about embracing courage, believing in oneself and finding strength when it is needed. The story's protagonist, Piddy Sanchez, like the award-winning author, faces harassment, and he uses that difficult experience to better understand the challenges set before her and the bully, Yaqui, who so desperately wants to kick her ass.
Medina grew up in Queens, New York, and was raised by her mother and an extended clan of aunts, uncles and grandparents who arrived from Cuba throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. Her typical, bicultural upbringing included English at school, Spanish at home, "Romper Room," building snowmen and the Girl Scouts. When it came to matters such as food and customs, home was like "a displaced Cuba," but there was always a deeper desire to assimilate into American culture.
Upon arrival to the U.S., Medina's mother and aunts were forced to take on minimum wage jobs because they lacked the language skills to remain teachers. She and her family were suddenly in a financially precarious position and only had access to the very basics. The feeling of loss was palpable for Medina's family; loss of economic stability, country and extended family was enough to undermine a sense of identity. Often, her family reminisced and carefully retold stories about Sagua la Grande, their old classmates and the games they played. They routinely savored moments from their former lives, and retellings became a salve, easing the aching desire for the old, better days.
"Interestingly, they used very few filters on the darker stories they told me about malicious people or frightening events they had lived through. I could hear 'Caperucita Roja' ("Red Riding Hood") one afternoon and the next day get treated to the fully detailed story of the Hurricane of 1933 that wiped out their village. I'm sure that this is where my ear for tales originates, not to mention my sense of roots," Medina said to Latin Post.
The author tends to create stories about family dynamics and the world of girls and women, which has a great deal to do with her being raised by women who survived incredibly difficult and heartbreaking circumstances, both in Cuba and the U.S. She's intrigued by what women can do when pushed to their limits. She also likes to explore other themes.
"I try to write about the universal problems of growing up, but all of my main characters are Latino. The Spanglish, the food, the way of speaking and meddling and loving each other -- all of that is drawn from my own and the other Latino families I knew growing up," Medina said.
Though heavily autobiographical in parts, her works definitely are not memoirs. She merges people, performs sex changes, reinvents characters and provides new situations. That said, the origin of many characters can be found in her life. Like the picture book "Tia Isa Wants a Car," she has a tía Isa who bought the first family car, and she used that shard of reality for the basis of the book. She experienced bullying, like the lead in "Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass." And both "Milagros" and "The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind" employs magical realism, giving it a distinctly Latino sound, and the books address the hope, risk and loss that's inherent to migration.
When asked which book she likes more, she stated, "Oh, it's like loving children; you adore each of them for in a unique way." For instance, "Tia Isa Wants A Car" teaches the lesson that everyone's story matters, even the slightest family story.
"It's a wonderful life lesson that I can share with kids who often don't see themselves in the pages of books and who run the risk of deciding that their family stories aren't worthy," Medina said. "I love 'Yaqui' because I've discovered that it gave my readers a way to unlock and talk about very painful things in their own lives. I love 'Milagros' because [that] was my first book, the one where I dared to try to have a life in the arts. And I love 'The Girl Who Could Silence the Wind' because I fell in love with Sonia, Pancho, Rafael and the entire cast of characters, and because the tale felt like a telenovela with a brain."
Medina stands alongside giants in the field, such as Julia Alvarez, Junot Diaz, Esmeralda Santiago and Margarita Engle, who continue to contribute work to the canon. There are also powerful new voices emerging all the time, drawing attention to Latino literature.
"I'll point to Daisy Hernandez and Isabel Quintero as just two whose work impresses me. What's fun for me is that we are still a small enough group that we run into each other at conferences, readings, etc. To me, it feels like like a family reunion when we meet," Medina said. "[But] I think our biggest challenge now is not being thrust into the silo of 'Latino author' as though our stories and perspectives will only matter to fellow Latinos. We are authors who are telling the American story as we have experienced it, and that perspective is valuable as our country continues to become more diverse."
Her characters are closely related to who she is, and when creating her protagonist, she begins with the girl, her age and a sense of her external problem. Medina then populates the character's world and designs the people who live in her building, the people who care for her, like a casting call. Then, she creates interests and layers. But, it's in the writing when Medina really discovers who these people are. She allows them to lead her, and she badgers them with the paramount question, "What is really bothering you?"
Medina's new picture book, "Mango, Abuela and Me," made in collaboration with Angela Dominguez, is story about an abuela who doesn't speak English and a girl who doesn't speak Spanish. The book, which discusses the role of language as a constructor and deconstructor of interpersonal relations, will be published in English and Spanish simultaneously. She is also working on publishing a young adult novel that will be published in 2016, which delves into family violence and secrets. Intent on getting the story exactly right, she will get into the mindset of turmoil and confusion and "call out ugly truths."
Candlewick Press is publishing the Spanish-language version of "Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass," translated by Teresa Mlawer. The book's availability in two language markets opens the channels so that a whole new demographic can discuss the difficult topics addressed in the novel.
Medina will appear at the Library of Congress for a Día Celebration, Texas Library Association and the AWP Conference, which are all in April 2015. Learn more about Meg Medina at megmedina.com and follow Meg on twitter: Meg_Medina.