Both Hard and Soft: Talking with Lilliam Rivera
For Lilliam Rivera, the best way to combat the horrors of our modern reality is to write a darker one. As author, mother, and Puerto Rican, Rivera takes on big themes in her newest novel, Dealing in Dreams. released yesterday from Simon & Schuster.
Billed as a YA Mad Max, Dealing in Dreams is the story of Nalah. As leader of Las Mal Criadas (LMCs), an up-and-coming girl crew in Mega City, Nalah is hell-bent on bringing her crew into the ultra-lush Towers with charismatic leader, Déesse. The rest of the city isn’t nearly so nice. Overrun with violence, Mega City shuts down at night, with only the girl crews allowed to roam its streets. Each evening, the LMCs fight addicts for Déesse and other crews for supremacy, all while doling out the sueño tabs that keep the citizenry drugged and docile. In her quest to live in the Towers, Nalah will do anything, sacrifice anything. But is it worth it?
Rivera took some time last month to discuss the challenges of tackling racism, sexism, transphobia, and addiction in fiction, and how the rage that comes from labels compelled her to finish her second novel.[At the author’s request, we advise you that there are Dealing in Dreams spoilers below. – Ed.]
The Rumpus: How did your approach to Dealing in Dreams differ from that of your first novel, The Education of Margot Sanchez?
Rivera: I grew up reading speculative science fiction books. I knew, after my first book—which was a contemporary coming-of-age story set in the Bronx—I knew that the next one would be a dystopian, because that was the next place I wanted to explore. In The Education of Margot Sanchez, we talk about class and race and colorism within the Latino community, along with the idea of gentrification. I feel, although they’re vastly different, the two worlds speak to each other. In a way, we’re looking at the future of what gentrification looks like. When I thought of Dealing in Dreams, I thought about privilege and who gets to live where, while talking about violence and incorporating violence to get to that goal. And still talking about addiction, which I also write about in The Education of Margot Sanchez. In Dealing in Dreams, we’re going even further, with a government-imposed drug that sedates the masses. They’re vastly different books, but it’s a conversation, exploring the same themes.
Rumpus: In a lot of ways, Dealing in Dreams is a very political novel. When did you start writing it, and what inspired the power structure you’ve described?
Rivera: I wrote a draft of this novel six years ago, because I had just given birth to my second daughter. I still dreamed of being an author, and I was still trying to figure things out. A lot of people said, “Look, you’ve got a second daughter, you’re going to have to put that dream on hold. When are you going to have time to write?” It was an infuriating way of making me aware of what my role is supposed to be as a Latina and as a mother. I’d love to say that rage really compelled me to write. That’s what pushed me to write a draft of this novel. What would this all woman/female world look like? So I wrote a really horrible first draft of the novel while taking care of my newborn and then put it aside for almost five years. Then I started working on The Education of Margot Sanchez. When I got the two-book deal with Simon & Schuster, I told them that I had the perfect second novel. I took it out a year ago and I rewrote it until it was what it is now. It was interesting to see the rage from back then. I still have that same rage right now, even more so. When I was rewriting it, the Women’s March was happening and Donald Trump had visitors come up to Trump Towers as he was setting up his cabinet. I was fascinated by who gets to go up the elevator. All these things were colliding while I was rewriting this novel.
Rumpus: When you were writing Mega City’s leader, Déesse, did you model her on anyone in particular?
Rivera: No, not really. I don’t think so. It’ll be funny if someone says, “Oh, she reminds me of [blank]” and I’ll be like, “Oh, really?” I wasn’t thinking of anyone specifically.
Rumpus: What about Nalah? How did she come to be?
Rivera: Nalah is like a lot of young kids of color who are given a huge responsibility at a very young age, and who are forced to succeed at any cost. Nalah believes this idea of violence being the path to take to succeed. She’s really bought into this life that Déesse has fed to the people of Mega City. Her whole purpose is to be as hard and tough as possible, even with her girls, her friends. So there is this idea of losing your innocence and just encasing your whole body with violence and hardness as a way of life. It speaks to me, personally, because I grew up in the Bronx, in the projects. I’m not, in any way, Nalah. But I can relate to trying to protect yourself, and being both hard and soft.
Rumpus: She’s put in some tough situations where she has to strike that balance.
Rivera: Yeah. That’s what a lot of kids are dealing with, a lot of different situations. Young people don’t have just one thing they’re tackling. It’s not like an after-school special. I wanted to write about that, and for the book to still be action-packed, and still be a good read, but also to talk about big issues, like most kids are talking about now.
Rumpus: As a writer and as a mother, when it comes to writing these characters that are in such difficult situations, do you ever find it hard to write about, say, Nalah getting beat up or separated from her family?
Rivera: No. [Laughs] I’m kidding. I grew up with a lot of brothers. I grew up watching boxing. I enjoy watching boxing as a sport, and I understand the beauty of it and I also understand that it’s a sport that a lot of young kids of color try to get into because it’s discipline, but there’s also the hope of getting out of what your situation is. When you become a big boxer, it’s all about the money and who supports you. I love action. Not to say I love violence, but I love watching it and being able to see boxing as choreography and beauty.
And also, being a mother is really horror. Their safety is in your hands. When I had two kids I started writing more horror and more speculative fiction. I lean towards it way more than I did at first because it helps me deal with my own fear. But, I enjoy all that stuff. I like watching slasher movies. I like that I am able to explore themes, that maybe if I were to do it in a contemporary realistic setting, might sound way too academic. If I do that, then it’s just a history lesson.
Rumpus: So does writing in horror and speculative fiction give you distance from the things that scare you?
Rivera: Yeah. There’s always this sense of hopelessness. I’m not going to tell you it’s this current administration. There’s just always this sense of hopelessness when it comes to being a person of color. I have my own privileges, because I’m a light-skinned person, but definitely there’s a sense of hopelessness. Sometimes I feel like the reality that we live in is so horrific. I can’t make up the things that we are reading. Like, we’re putting kids in cages? That sounds like a science fiction plot. My only way of coping, especially when I’m feeling hopeless, is to write. For whatever reason, these last five years, I’ve been dealing with it through writing my own horror, through fantasy, through speculative literature. Even if it’s only slight, I feel a sense of empowerment through it. I want to say, yes, it’s a sense of being empowered and Nalah’s a badass, and so are her crew, but also there’s more to that.
Rumpus: What inspired the sisterhood of Nalah’s crew? Do you have sisters of your own?
Rivera: Yeah, I have an older sister, and I dedicate the book to her. We’re, I think, ten months apart.
Rumpus: Oh, close!
Rivera: Yeah, we’re really close. We talk almost every day. Because we’re so close, we’ve also had a really passionate relationship. Either we hate each other or we love each other. There’s something about sisters that I’m fascinated with. I wanted to explore that so badly. Nalah has dreams and fleeting memories of what her relationship with her sister was like. My sister and I spend hours talking about specific memories. And that comes with family. My mom, my dad, they both came from huge families with ten or eleven kids. There are so many stories there. It was important to me to write about the different ways sisterhood presents itself: between Nalah and her friends, and between her and her estranged sister.
Rumpus: Do any of the characters resemble your sister?
Rivera: Oh, no. But I really believe all of my characters in my books are just parts of my personality that I’m exploring: the person who’s an addict, or who kicks ass all the time, or who’s just trying to survive. Those people are all me.
Rumpus: How do you take a part of yourself and transform it into, say, Nena?
Rivera: I love her, so much. Here’s this young girl who only has fleeting memories of love, unlike Nalah. And Nena being so young and so green, Nalah thought, “Maybe I can take care of this girl and try to shape her into becoming one of Las Mal Criadas.” Again, it’s this whole thing about being burdened with such huge responsibility, and there’s not any room for failure. I feel like a lot of young people of color have to deal with that. I loved writing Nena. She’s heartbreaking for me, but I understand her completely.
Rumpus: I can see where Nena would be a particularly hard character to write.
Rivera: Yeah, I mean, it was harder to write the moments with Nalah. Because you can see the path and Nalah is clutching so hard to her goal and she loses sight of what family really looks like.
Rumpus: How did race play into your vision of Mega City?
Rivera: Mega City is almost all women of color. They’re the ones in power and the men are subservient to them. Déesse’s a woman of color. This idea came up during the Women’s March, that we should burn the patriarchy down, and I was like, “Oh, what does that look like?” What does democracy really look like, when you decide that the women can do a better job? I wanted to explore that idea. It’s said that power is a seductive goal. We’ve seen what people are willing to sell their souls to be placed in a position of power. I really wanted to explore that, in this world.
Rumpus: When it came to exploring those power structures, how did the sueño tabs and addiction play into Mega City’s society?
Rivera: When I’m writing, because I’m Puerto Rican, I’m thinking about my own history and the history of Puerto Rico. When I started writing Dealing in Dreams, I read about the Sackler family. They created OxyContin and you can tie them to the opiate crisis. I learned that one of the earliest trials for this drug was held in Puerto Rico. They gave it to a group of sixty women. This is not the first time. Puerto Rico has always been used as a guinea pig, for drug experimentation on women. You can draw a line from Puerto Rico to the Bronx and how addiction and the opiate crisis is hitting the families there. Again, there’s this idea of the government forcing these drugs as a way of coping. And who gets to profit from that? This wealthy family. So all of that came into play when I was thinking of Déesse and her family and drugs and sueños. All of it ties to this idea of the American Dream: capitalism at all costs. And all costs means sacrificing those below who have no voice, the voiceless. And here’s one family that denies their culpability in it.
Rumpus: This reminds me of the toilers, and how they’ve become faceless in this economic system and Mega City’s drug crisis. What’s your take on that?
Rivera: The story is seen through Nalah’s eyes, and she’s literally dealing sueños to keep these toilers sedated. She doesn’t see sueños as anything other than the stepping stone to get to The Towers.
Rumpus: I’m interested in how this idea of hierarchy plays into the way that you structured Dealing in Dreams and The Education of Margot Sanchez.
Rivera: I’m always fascinated by roles that are imposed on people. For example, being a mother, a young adult author, and a writer that writes literary short stories, or not, everyone wants to place you in a hole. I always say, I like what I like. It’s my way of pushing against it. I grew up in a strict Puerto Rican, Catholic family. Their goal for us was always to make sure that we did better than them. They left Puerto Rico to find a new life in New York. I left New York to find a better life in California. What are my kids going to look like? They had a very different upbringing than I did. There’s guilt around that, too. I’ve been playing around with that, with class, but also definitely with roles. What does it look like to be a mother, or an alcoholic? I’m very open about being an alcoholic, sober for twenty years. Exploring these roles is dismantling what people assume.
Rumpus: Speaking of addiction, let’s talk about Miguel/Graciela and the two different roles that they play in the book.
Rivera: It’s another step towards this idea of gender and hardness and softness and can you be both and can you be everything? Or can you not even be defined? All of these terms are so new. Maybe not for a lot of Latinos, but they’re new for my family. And these are the conversations that won’t be surprising for my kids—at all!—and that’s super exciting. I wanted to explore incorporating these masculine traits for being violent, and then also trying keep all men subservient. I love that he comes out first and just tries to wake Nalah up to seeing what her leader is like, without forcing her. Just giving her a glimpse of what the world would look like if everyone was accepted. Which is not to say it’s the ideal haven, but there’s possibility of it. There’s hope. I feel that they symbolize hope for what the future might look like.
Rumpus: What is the biggest take-away you want your readers to have with this book?
Rivera: I just want people to enjoy the book. It kicks ass. I’m excited for people to read the book and to have these conversations with young people about the things that we’ve discussed.
Rumpus: Are there plans for a sequel?
Rivera: Not yet. I haven’t really thought of it, honestly. I like books that are open and you don’t know what happens next. But there are no plans for a sequel.
Photograph of Lilliam Rivera © Vanessa Acosta.