The books we read as children can change our lives and outlook forever. The breathtaking and immersive fictional debut of Julian Randall Pilar Ramirez and Zafa’s flight feels like a book that can do just that. And that’s quite the point. The first of a mid-level fantasy duology, the story follows Pilar, a passionate young documentary filmmaker. Struggling to cope with life in an ever-changing world and a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, she is drawn into a vibrant adventure deeply connected to her own mysterious family history and the true dictatorship of Trujillo. Ahead of the book’s release, we spoke with Randall about how his life has shaped Pilar’s and what he wants kids to take away from his adventures when the first duology comes out!
Nerdist: How did Pilar and this book come about? What was the origin story?
It has two points of origin. When I was eight years old, I came across my mother crying. It was the first time in my life that I had seen her cry, which I didn’t know was possible. So I immediately had to know what was behind all this. Moreover, she was crying over a book. This book was In the time of butterflies by Julia Alvarez. She explained it to me as “the story of the sisters who fought against the man who kicked your grandfather off the island”. And I was like, “Wait, what happened to Abuelo?”
I always knew that my mother’s family was Dominican. But it never occurred to me that they came here under duress because you don’t really have a language for that when you’re eight. So I wanted to know everything about this period, about what had happened. In the time of butterflies was way beyond my reading level, according to various people who were supposed to be in charge of this stuff. I asked my teachers, I asked my librarian; no one had a book suitable for children. So I always wanted to try to render something like that.
About 18 years later, I met my lovely agent Patrice Caldwell, whom I love so much. She asked me if I wanted to present an intermediate level novel on Dominican mythology. I always had it as a thing in mind, and just like Patrice kind of does to give that permission, she and Pilar were pretty much fully formed. She said, “I have this.”
You have approached this historical aspect and this book centered on an era that is never really taught in schools. How did you find this balance between the realities and the horror of the Trujillo dictatorship and how to make it an accessible story for children?
I think the first step in that was really reaffirming my belief that her story – like the Dominican in El Trujillato, all of it – is a deeply surreal story. Like my abuelo makes a joke about Trujillo, then he hears the secret police are chasing him, and now he and my abuela have to leave the only place they’ve ever known to go to America so they can raise their daughter somewhere that they will not be preyed upon. It’s a surreal story.
When they said they stole here, little kid that I was, for a moment I literally saw them stealing. And Trujillo has all these surreal aspects that he kind of magnified about himself. As if he was a man who regularly lived in 90-100 degree heat, but he convinced everyone around him that he couldn’t sweat! It’s surreal! It only makes sense if you remember the myth that dictators need, and once you lean into it, the magic comes all the more, because otherwise how could something like this happen?
I think kids often try, like me, to process these massive things growing up. In this vein, to understand the limits of what was happening with the Trujillato when I was a child, I tried to research the magic. It also helped that the sisters who led the rebellion were named after butterflies. For me, they are one.
Another thing that really spoke to me about this story was how you incorporated the gentrification narrative. Pilar is aware and angry about what is happening. Why was this important to you?
So Pilar and I are from the same block. The house she describes at the start is literally the house I grew up from across the street. Unlike me, Pilar stayed in Chicago. I left for college, came back for the other part of college, I was here until the end of ninth grade, then we left and I couldn’t come home until 2020. This which was a predominantly Latino neighborhood is now predominantly white. There are so many different ways the neighborhood has changed. The street we grew up on has a really different shape than when I was growing up. I thought to myself, this is incredibly shocking to me as an adult, what would it be like to deal with it as a child?
We had conversations early on, like how is gentrification relevant to a contemporary fantasy? Part of that is because Pilar must have a strong sense of place because she’s from Chicago. And then how will this little Dominique from Logan Square have anything in common with these mythical creatures? But she sees that once this land looked one side, and she loved us, and now it looks different and it doesn’t. She’s seen it all her life and in a way I was absent for. So I think the psychological effect this would have had on her makes her even more of a candidate for empathy for the struggle of the Zafa people.
Another thing that immediately stands out in this story is Pilar as a bilingual leader. How did you feel creating his voice and bringing that part of the story to the fore?
It’s one of those rare occasions when the front row really was the front row. From there, I understood the rhythm of Pilar’s voice. At the end of the day, Pilar is someone who, like me, grew up with a mother who just switches in and out of the language that is most useful to her. Spanish is often something my mom brought up when she was particularly pissed off. So you get away with it very quickly! It made sense to me that it was part of Pilar’s voice, how the beat would interact.
But it also made sense that she, like me, had her insecurities about her like fluidity. I think that’s something that I often found true when I was a kid. I wasn’t fluent, but a lot of people initially expected me to be. How do you reconcile this kind of challenge with your understanding of what is expected of you? And Pilar allowed me to tap into the rawest parts of those emotions.
Finally, as we get closer to the release date, what do you hope readers take away from Pilar’s adventures when they pick up the book?
I thought a lot today about my childhood Barnes & Noble. This is where my dad used to sit, waiting for the midnight books to come out that I was interested in, all that good stuff. They had a kids section upstairs, and it was one of my favorite safest places in the world. But at that same time when I was trying to find my story and trying to put those things together. I remember running my hands along the thorns. Even though there were so many stories, I still couldn’t find ours. At that time, I felt like I had failed – at eight years old – failed because there had not been enough space to develop an imagination capable of conceiving this story. I never want a child to feel that way again.
I want this book to be available for children who have grown up with these questions. Knowing more and more people whose parents fled various dictatorships, various fascist regimes that have sprung up across the planet, one thing is that there is a commonality. It is a book that I wrote as a long love letter to my people, but also a long letter of protest against the idea of servitude at the national level. I really, really want this to materialize and be a resource.
In the end, what helps Pilar is that the power she needed was within her all along. What I wanted to do was a book that would summarize a fragment of the magic of my mother and her sisters. I want a child to open this book and feel like they can do anything with just the tools they have.
Pilar Ramirez and Zafa’s flight hits shelves March 1.