INTERVIEW BY MEREDITH MCKINNIE | PHOTOGRAPHS BY SHELBIE MONKRES
How did you come to writing?
I’ve always been a big reader, though I think most authors can say that. I did some writing as a kid. We found a letter I had written to an author who had come to the library where my aunt was a librarian. I was about seven or eight and wrote, “My dream is to be an author one day.” We found the letter after my first book came out. I was kind of surprised to find out that it had been a dream of mine in my youth.
I started writing toward the end of junior high, beginning of high school. I had a dream and woke up and thought, “Oh, you know what, I’m going to start writing this idea.” It was fantasy – I was a big fantasy reader at the time. I hadn’t discovered magical realism, but it was me figuring out magical realism through fantasy. When I got to college at ULM, I finished writing that first novel finally. And even then, I didn’t know I wanted to be a writer. But then I took a short story writing class at University of Louisiana Monroe and was like, “Yep, I’m going to be a writer. This is all I want to do.” I got an MFA in Creative Writing at The University of Central Oklahoma, and even though I probably wasn’t ready in terms of my writing skills to do that, it was the best experience I’ve ever had. It really shaped me as a writer. I knew some things instinctually as a reader, but I needed to understand it as a craft and a skill.
Tell us about your background and the impetus for Half Outlaw.
I was born and raised in Wichita Falls, Texas, which is featured in the novel toward the end. My dad is Mexican American, and my mom is Caucasian. My Mexican family has been in the US since the 1800s, possibly even before California and Texas were part of the US. I grew up unable to speak Spanish because my dad didn’t speak it. His mom decided not to teach him and his siblings because growing up in the 50s and the 60s, it was frowned upon in society for people to speak other languages besides English. And she didn’t want her kids to be bullied or feel like outsiders. So that was a bit of a contention for me growing up where I wish I had known it and that I had learned it within the family home.
My parents have an interracial relationship. There weren’t many other people like me. Even my brother does not look like me – he’s a lot more fair-skinned. He looks like my moms’ child, and I look like my dad’s child. And we always were this mixed family. I also have a half-sister who I am very close to and she is full Mexican from my dad’s first marriage. On top of that, my sister was born with disabilities and my brother is gay, and so I had this unique family life that combined a lot of identities into one unit. Growing up, I had all these things in my mind. I never saw families like ours, to the extent of how diverse it was in my own immediate family.
Within my family, I noticed I was the brownest one beside my dad. Nobody believed my mom was my mom. She has blond hair and blue eyes. People would always come up to me and ask, “What are you? What’s your race? Are you Mixed?” I got all those questions my whole life. Usually, I would respond, “Half Mexican,” which is funny that I didn’t say half white, as white is the basis for our society. In college, I started exploring my Mexican side. What is the meaning of Mexican? Why don’t I feel very Mexican? Why do I feel like an outsider within my own Mexican culture? In 2016, I started noticing how comfortable I am being Mixed more than anything else. And of course, there were never Mixed stories to read growing up. I didn’t see myself in a lot of the stories I read. I read my first Mixed story at 22, and there still aren’t many today. In the tense political climate of 2016, I heard the white side of my family say things they’d never said before. I was angry and confused because these people loved me, a Latina woman, loved my dad, a Latino man, loved my sister with disabilities and loved my gay brother. They couldn’t seem to make the same connection I was making between what they were saying and why I was hurt.
When I started writing Half Outlaw, I thought, “How can somebody love you and still do and believe things that go absolutely against your identity? And how can they erase that identity in their mind’s eye and love you and support you, like my family does, so much?” With Half Outlaw, I explored what it means to be Mixed within your own family, with people who do and say things that hurt you but really, really love you.
Back in 2014, my Uncle Donnie and I were sitting on the couch at Thanksgiving. He called me a “Half Outlaw.” I could tell this phrase would be something for me. I wrote it down in a paragraph, now featured in the second chapter of the book. Uncle Donnie guided me into the concept of putting a Mixed girl into an all-white motorcycle club. He is not in one of those motorcycle clubs but has had associations with them. He rides bikes. He’s this gritty man who went to Vietnam. He’s a trucker now. I thought, “What if a Mixed girl gets stuck with a guy who’s like that after her parents’ death?” The Dodge character and Uncle Donnie are quite different people, but they do have similar personalities and ways of communicating. I started mapping the story and knew it needed to be set on a cross-country ride. I wanted to look at the reality of not being able to choose your family, and how even if you’re no longer a part of that family, they’re still a part of you. Who someone is today is absolutely impacted by the past.
Tell me about the magical realism in the book.
It was quite light at first. When we went out on submission with publishers, I was told they couldn’t figure out how to market it. My agent suggested going overboard with the magical realism. I found spots to add the magical realism as a way for Raqi to deal with a lot of the trauma. She sees her life in this fantastical way to cope. It’s also a nod to her Mexican heritage because she is in such a white-domainated space. I really wanted to remind readers that she is half-Mexican.
Tell me about Grieving Rides? Is that common in motorcycle clubs?
Actually, I made that up. When I was at ULM, I took a class on cults. We read about the psychology of cults, how they form and keep people through traditions. I started looking into the psychology of groups. For example, when people join the army, all these traditions exist, same for religion and fraternities. I read about motorcycle clubs, some nonfiction, some memoirs. I was thinking of a way to bind the riders together. I came up with the idea of a Grieving Ride to get Raqi on the road with all of them. I randomly met someone who grew up in a motorcycle club, who shared many of her experiences and they aligned with my expectations. I really wanted to show women’s perspectives in clubs – both positive and negative.
Your previous novel, Secrets of the Casa Rosada, was young adult fiction. Why the parlay into adult fiction with Half Outlaw?
I wrote Secrets of the Casa Rosada thinking it would be adult fiction. The text was originally my thesis. All the professors loved it, but suggested I get rid of the future chapters and focus on the main character’s adolescence. I tried to submit it as adult fiction, but it was picked up as YA (young adult) fiction. I felt unprepared to be a YA author. To be honest, it was the exact thing I needed. The young adult fan base is phenomenal. Librarians and students are wonderful – they made me feel so good. I would not have won as many awards, nor have gotten good feedback if the book was adult, and it really taught me how to make my authorial career a business. It wasn’t hard to leap into adult fiction, since it’s where I started, except though my agent really wanted me to stay in YA.
When did you realize you were a mixed kid?
I like going through the past. In 2020, I stayed with my parents before moving into my house. We were going through scrapbooks and found a picture I drew at age 3 or 4. And my mom is very clearly white, and I am very clearly brown in that picture. So, it had to be one of those things I just knew about myself. The switch clicked on by the time I was able to speak and had friends beyond my family group. Little girls told me that my mom was not my mom. I was always having to defend it. Nobody could understand that my mom was my mom biologically. When I would meet other Mixed kids, in high school and beyond, I was always excited and wanted to talk with them. A lot of my friends ended up being other Mixed kids too, because it felt like home.
How did writing this book affect your concept of identity?
In the acknowledgement, I said it gave me peace to write this book, and for a time, it did. And more recently, I’m realizing I’m still contending with this – what it means to be Mixed in the world, what it means to be Mixed in a family. It makes me proud of what I have accomplished, what I have dealt with, and how I’m dealing with some of my past trauma. And I’m really interested in exploring that identity more with myself, my friends who are Mixed, colleagues who are Mixed and reading their work. We always talk about how society was predicated on this idea of white privilege and a white standard, but I’ve also started looking at how it’s built on monoracial standards. Historically, everyone married partners of their same culture, ethnic and racial identity, primarily due to location. But because of the US’s unique history, interracial relationships are growing. They’re one of the fastest growing populations. We’re going to have many more discussions about this in the future because things don’t work when we’re so siloed off. A Mixed person throws a wrench in this whole framework that we’ve built. I want to further explore the dynamics of a growing Mixed population, what that means for family units and dating, societal structures, and friendships because I’m really going through all that right now.