March 24

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In the Generation After the Butterflies by Julian Randall

I’ve only seen my mother cry a handful of times. I want to tell you a story about the first time I realized that she could. My mother was sitting in a room downstairs of the house we lived in on Talman ave, in the Logan Square neighborhood of Chicago. I walked in and saw, tear after tear quietly rolling down her face. Some tears dropped to the ground, others clung to her cheekbones like dew. What was more was that my mother, who never, in all 8 years of my life, never missed a chance to read to me- was crying over a book. That book turned out to be In The Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez’s novel-ode to the Mirabal Sisters, leaders of the resistance against Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. Trujillo, the dictator of the Dominican Republic, or as my mother called him that day “The man who forced your abuelo off the island.”

There are many reason I wrote Pilar, but maybe the most powerful is that I never again want a kid to feel what I felt when I asked my teachers, my librarians, any adult I could find really, for a book that could tell me more about the Trujillato; and no one could point to anything age appropriate. I was a third gen kid who could always understand more Spanish than he could speak. It felt, even then, as if my abuelo’s story was disintegrating to a blank page. I felt like I had failed, when really the world had failed me by not publishing a book like Pilar sooner. This question of where we came from stuck with me, the story of how my abuelo made a joke about Trujillo that peaked the interest of the Servicio Intelligencia Militar enough that my abuelo and abuela boarded separate flights away from the only place they’d ever known, to America.

Along with, like Pilar, being a persistent and inquisitive storyteller I was also a huge fantasy nerd growing up. There was a point in my life where I could recite most of The Amber Spyglass from memory, spoke certain words with the whisper of an Irish accent like my sarcastic hero Artemis Fowl. My lone hipster claim to fame was that I was begging classmates to read Gregor the Overlander in 5th grade before those same folks’ facebook pages begged me to read The Hunger Games. I read books in a hollowed out hippo at recess; so safe to say social butterfly status was a no, but I was an MVP of making up words that sounded like magic. I loved that fantasy could take massive concepts and make them into something stranger and by extension easier to survive. All day my mother said words over the phone to her sisters, to my abuelo, abuela that sounded like magic. Spanish teased into a rapidfire dance woven in and out of Spanish. I watched this most of my life and wondered why if they had this magic, why there weren’t any books for kids who needed magic to save their abuelo from a dictator. I wondered for most of my life; it was years before Pilar answered.

Pilar’s journey to Zafa began with my agent calling with an opportunity that I had wanted for so long, I had forgotten that it was possible. She wanted to know if I would be interested in pitching something in middle grade with a Dominican American mythology element and immediately my brain pitched into overdrive. I’m a big believer that novels, characters, selves are all built around a series of great questions. So in building the plot I asked, what are my great and lasting questions about what being Dominican has meant to me. And to me it has meant a world of hidden magics, a story of an escape and an island where policemen who specialized in making people disappear, managed to not catch my abuelo. So many disappeared during the Trujillato, snatched in broad daylight, never to be heard from again. From there, the question came like a bolt of summer light: What if we could bring some of them back? And immediately, Where did they go? What if we could follow?

Pilar arrived an hour later, nearly fully formed, as if she had been right alongside me since that first day of watching my mother trying not to let her tears mess up a library book. I admired that she was a bold, proud Black Dominicana who didn’t take heartbreak for an answer. She was and is the little sister I never had, and the hero I spent my whole life wanting. Writing Pilar taught me many things, about power, about forgiveness, about what it really means to tell your own story. She’s made me laugh innumerable times, and I learned from her how to laugh even when times are at their darkest. I hope Pilar can be as much of a light to other kids who come from histories we don’t teach, islands and worlds we don’t pronounce, other kids who were born into their parents and grandparents’ worry and tears and joy amidst all of it. Writing Pilar and her friends has been one of the supreme honors of my life, and I can’t wait for kids everywhere- especially the ones dreaming of other worlds, to watch Pilar swing into her power, her history, and her next adventure!

Julian Randall is a Living Queer Black poet from Chicago. His poetry and essays are published in the New York Times Magazine, POETRY, The Atlantic, and Vibe. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize. Julian holds an MFA in Poetry from Ole Miss. His first book, Refuse, won the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He was also a contributor to the #1 New York Timesbestseller Black Boy Joy. Julian has previously worked as a youth mentor, teaching writing workshops to children on house arrest. Pilar Ramirez and the Escape from Zafais his debut children’s novel. Follow him on Twitter!