Bring On the Dancing Girls! It’s Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa and an Interview with Julian Randall
I had the pleasure of attending my first author dinner here in the Chicago area in years. Macmillan, you see, is releasing a little book by the name of Pilar Ramirez and the Escape From Zafa by local Chicago fellow Julian Randall. As you can see we all had a lovely time:
Aaaaaand, that photo was taken after I left.
Hm. Okay, no biggie. I’m sure I have a picture or two that I took myself that night. Ah yes! Here they are:
Yes, that’s a bit blurry. Okay, here’s a better one:
Did I fail to mention that there were dancing girls? Yes, you see, because PILAR RAMIREZ AND THE ESCAPE FROM ZAFA is heavily influenced by the Dominican Republic, we ate at the restaurant Carnivale. And, as such, Mardi Gras is almost here so, for reasons that I’m sure would be quite clear to others, there were dancing girls that would periodically enter our room to party.
Of course, what this truly means is that no matter what the next author dinner is, if it does not have dancing girls it will not be able to best this particular release.
Mind you, before any of this occurred, I had a chance to ask Julian a couple questions about his book. And what is the book about exactly? Let’s take a gander at the publisher’s description:
The Land of Stories meets Dominican myths and legends come to life in Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafa, a blockbuster contemporary middle-grade fantasy duology starter from Julian Randall. Fans of Tristan Strong and The Storm Runner, here is your next obsession.
“A breathtaking journey . . . readers better hold on tight.” —Kwame Mbalia, New York Times bestselling author of the Tristan Strong series
Twelve-year-old Pilar Violeta “Purp” Ramirez’s world is changing, and she doesn’t care for it one bit. Her Chicago neighborhood is gentrifying and her chores have doubled since her sister, Lorena, left for college. The only constant is Abuela and Mami’s code of silence around her cousin Natasha—who vanished in the Dominican Republic fifty years ago during the Trujillo dictatorship.
When Pilar hears that Lorena’s professor studies such disappearances, she hops on the next train to dig deeper into her family’s mystery. After snooping around the professor’s empty office, she discovers a folder with her cousin’s name on it . . . and gets sucked into the blank page within.
She lands on Zafa, an island swarming with coconut-shaped demons, butterfly shapeshifters, and a sinister magical prison where her cousin is being held captive. Pilar will have to go toe-to-toe with the fearsome Dominican boogeyman, El Cuco, if she has any hope of freeing Natasha and getting back home.
Cool, right? As such, the questions:
Betsy Bird: Julian! I really appreciate you taking time to answer my questions today. This is your debut novel for kids but looking at your writing history you’ve done such a wide range of things already. You’re a recipient of a Pushcart Prize. You hold an MFA in Poetry from Ole Miss. Your first book, REFUSE, won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. You even mentor kids under house arrest in how to write. For my part, I first encountered you when your story in the BLACK BOY JOY anthology published last year. With all that adult cred behind you, why the shift into writing for kids?
Julian Randall: You’re too kind, thank you for taking all the time out! In many ways, it feels like a shift and in many ways it doesn’t. My roots are in slam and I mostly picked up the best parts of the writer I am from being in constant conversation with the teens I mentored in Philly. Working with teens reminds you of how urgent the magic of writing can be, and in a lot of ways that gave me the freedom to remember where my urgency was when I was young, what I most urgently wanted to know. Once Refuse dropped I was touring around pretty heavily and I would get comments from readers who were parents about how excited they were to share it with their kids “when they get older” or “when they’re old enough for this” and it got me thinking how I wanted to make writing that met young readers where they were!
BB: One doesn’t have to read much of PILAR to get a marvelous sense of her voice and personality. Where did this book come from, and where did SHE come from? She’s unforgettable.
JR: If Pilar’s taught me anything, and she’s taught me an enormous amount, it’s that she’s going to do what she’s going to do regardless of what anybody wants or says, including me! The origin story is that my agent, the incredible Patrice Caldwell, passed me an opportunity to pitch a book based in Dominican mythology and within moments Pilar strolled into my head, nearly fully formed and said she was in charge now, I’ve just been trying to keep pace with her ever since!
BB: Authors often set certain challenges up for themselves when they write novels for kids, but you seem to be going on beyond a mere “challenge”. You’ve essentially written a book that on the one hand discusses the Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic, and on the other you’re taking a dive into straight up fantasy territory. How were you able to meld the disparate elements of horrifying history and present day magic?
JR: That’s so kind! In many ways, I guess I see them less as disparate elements than facets of the same prism. Take for example Trujillo, right? Part of how he maintains a 31 year dictatorship was by creating all these myths around himself, to the point people who lived in DR heat their whole lives could go around believing that Trujillo simply didn’t sweat. In order to process the enormity of some violence, I think you need to incorporate the fantastical and the surreal, especially when you’re young because you are trying to process that the unimaginable not only happened, but happened routinely and well before you were born. The history of the dictatorship is a history of the surreal as much as the history of resistance is similarly surreal and magical. I knew that writing a book engaging with this time period, at its core, is writing a book about power.
Trujillo had a vested interest in making people feel that not only was he more powerful than they could imagine, he wanted them to believe that they were proportionately powerless to stop him. Zafa works to invert that narrative by placing very palpable powers and magic in the hands of folks trying to resist a dictator and doing so through the power of memory, to remember that they are powerful in their own right is to remember that they too deserve to be free. I wanted that power to be inextricably tied both to the land and to Blackness, that these elements of herself are a huge and intrinsic part of.
BB: It’s always a pleasure to talk to someone else in the Chicago area. And Chicago itself plays a pretty big role in PILAR, I must say. I know that only some of the book takes place here, but I’ve always been disappointed that Chicago doesn’t make more cameos in books for kids. What’s the role of the Chicago you know in your book? What’s its personality?
BB: There were very few Chicago protagonists I can clearly remember growing up, they were all from Manhattan or just a town somewhere. What few Chicago characters I did remember mostly just had a Bears hat slapped on them and called it a day. It bummed me out because as a kid, place was everything to me. I came up in pre-gentrification Logan Square and while I was moved out by the time the gentrification was in full-swing I always wondered what might have happened if we could have stayed. Pilar feels a deep connection to her block and has that deep love that all Chicagoans have for the way we do things. Having watched so much of what she loves about her block draining away, seeing these personal histories fade away in favor of new “growth” not only affects her but it helps her connect with the struggles of her new friends in Zafa who are also seeing their home changing aggressively against them. I wanted Pilar to be from Chicago in a way that other lil Chicago kids like me would look at and see that heroes in all shapes come from this place we’re from.
BB: Was there any particular book you were emulating when you wrote PILAR? Any fantasy or magical realism tale that gave you some kind of guidance as you wrote?
JR: I don’t know that there’s any one answer to this but I like to think Pilar is cousins not only with her kidnapped cousin Natasha but with Tristan Strong, Xiomara of The Poet X, Lyra Silvertongue and Zain Obispo! Kwame’s an S-Class worldbuilder, like truly the highest order in terms of how to make a world that is not our own but teaches us so much about it. I think in all these books I learned more about how to create a character with strong ties to a place and in exploring those strong ties, you learn more about how they would react to being removed from that place. How would Pilar process being in another world unexpectedly? It taught me to point the camera where she would, what things about Zafa would fascinate her, which is sometimes where I would also but more often than not she’s doing her own thing
BB: Finally, what are you up to next? And will we be seeing more of PILAR?
JR: You’re actually catching me 24 hours into the revision of book 2 of Pilar!! It’s Pilar’s first trip to DR and suffice to say, there’s a storm coming! It’s the close of the duology and my last time on Zafa for a while I think, and I’m so so gassed for people to see how it all comes together. I’m also working on a new duology right now about an Afro-latina grim reaper.
BB: How did you know I always want to end my interviews with the term “Afro-latina grim reaper”? That’s just lucky, that is.
Immense thanks to Morgan Rath and the folks at Macmillan for both the dinner and the interview opportunity. Thanks to to fellow Chicago-area resident Julian Randall for taking the time and energy to answer my questions. PILAR RAMIREZ is out in bookstores everywhere today so be sure to check it out!
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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