Did you hear that Bitch hosted a YA book club in Portland last week? We discussed Down to the Bone, a YA novel by Mayra Lazara Dole about Shai, a Cuban American teen in Miami who is kicked out of her school and home after her secret relationship with a girl is exposed. Down to the Bone was originally released in 2008, but Dole published an updated version with Bella Books earlier this year. Our book club loved the book, in large part because of the vibrant queer community that Shai falls into after being kicked out of her school and home. Bitch recently caught up with Dole, who told us why she wrote Down to the Bone, why she loves The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and what we can expect from her next.
Bitch: Like the characters in Down to the Bone, you grew up in Miami. Are there elements of this story that are autobiographical?
Mayra Lazara Dole: Down to the Bone is a true-to-life contemporary fiction inspired by dozens of stories I heard from Latino and Afro-Latino teens, but there is one part in the book that's semi-autobiographical:
My first girlfriend and I were thrown out of high school due to a muy caliente love note she sent me detailing our first time. I was reading it during Math class and my teacher (FART FACE) snatched it from my hands and read parts of the note to the class. She then showed Mother Superior Sicko. I was mortified when they read every word to my mother. Can you imagine? My life was never the same after that "tragic" incident when I was prohibited to see the love of my life and forced to turn straight. Right! Straight into another girl's arms…and straight towards finding a beautiful community of queer friends.
Bitch: In the original version of Down to the Bone, the main character is kicked out of her Catholic high school for being a lesbian. In the updated version, she's told that she's being kicked out due to sexually explicit text messages, but the reader wonders if she would have been kicked out had these text messages not been from a girl.
MLD: In the 2012 edition, the girls aren't in Catholic school; they attend a private school where religion isn't an issue. Some schools have Straight and Gay alliances but that doesn't mean all teachers and principals embrace LGBTI students. It's obvious that Fart Face and Ms. Superior Sicko are homophobes. If the text messages had been from a boy, I doubt anyone would've been expelled.
Bitch: When the story begins, Shai has been in a closeted relationship with Marlena for two years. Marlena's older brother finds out and sends Marlena back to Puerto Rico to live with her family. She cuts off her relationship with Shai and ends up marrying a boyfriend she once claimed to have just to keep up appearances. Shai feels betrayed by Marlena, but being an out lesbian just doesn't seem to fit into the equation for her. Can you talk a bit more about Marlena?
MLD: Marlena represents the millions of Latinas who, regardless of how far we've come, fear being found out. The terror is so tremendous that they have boyfriends while being in covert relationships with other closeted girls-with-boyfriends. Even in 2012, living on the down low is common for girls whose families and friends are homophobic.
Bitch: If every young adult who reads this book could walk away from it having learned just one thing, what would you like that to be?
MLD: That part of the beauty in humanity comes from our differences. If your being "different" causes others to shun, bully, or abuse you, there are millions of fun people out there, straight and gay, ready to embrace you. If you find these people, you'll be able to celebrate life to the fullest.
Bitch: What's the most recent YA book that you read? Would you recommend it to our readers?
MLD: I normally read new releases but just finished a small masterpiece classic: The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I was taken aback at the seamless way the author handled gay issues in the nineties. (Ed.'s note: The new film version is supposed to be good too!)
Bitch: What projects are you working on right now? Can we expect another book from you soon?
MLD: My next book is complex, but I can give you a tiny taste of the plot before its publication date on January 10, 2013. HEART ON is a tragi-comedy/romance about a witty, goofy-looking, self-conscious queer girl standing at the edge of life after her free-spirit mom vanishes. Kanto lives on her own with Aries, her scholarly, 17-year-old, astrologer best friend (another Latina queer girl). Kanto says and does the exact opposite of what she feels. When she becomes involved in a secret triangle and almost loses her life, Aries' astro-magic might be Kanto's only chance for redemption. HEART ON is set in Miami with an all-queer-girl cast of characters.
Thanks to Mayra for talking to us!
This program was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH's grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.