Everyone, please welcome Tehlor Kay Mejia to Rich in Color! Tehlor’s debut novel, WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE, is out next week, on February 26:
At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children, but both are promised a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class. Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her bright future depends upon no one discovering her darkest secret—that her pedigree is a lie. Her parents sacrificed everything to obtain forged identification papers so Dani could rise above her station. Now that her marriage to an important politico’s son is fast approaching, she must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society, where famine and poverty rule supreme.
On her graduation night, Dani seems to be in the clear, despite the surprises that unfold. But nothing prepares her for all the difficult choices she must make, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio. Will Dani cling to the privilege her parents fought to win for her, or to give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?
We are so excited to have Tehlor here to talk to us about her book, tarot, and so much more. On with the interview!
I knew I had to pre-order WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE as soon as I read the summary (and heard that this is also a f/f love story). Tell us more about the world of Medio, its stratified society, and the school Daniela attended.
Thank you so much! I’m eternally indebted to everyone who preorders, it absolutely makes my day.
So! Medio is an island nation that’s divided in half by an ancient border wall tied in with ancient Median mythology and a fight between two brother-gods. On the inner island, the privileged live with little attention paid to the plight of the outer islanders, who are starving, living in borderline uninhabitable conditions, and forbidden from crossing the wall by a prejudiced and elitist government.
In the Medio School for Girls, young women raised on the inner island are selected for wife training. Each upper class young man is assigned two wives when he reaches adulthood, and becoming one of them is considered the highest honor a woman can achieve in Medio. Daniela is the top Primera student at the school, on track to become her husband’s intellectual partner and household manager while the Segunda class prepares to be the aesthetically pleasing, nurturing child bearers of their future families.
But Dani’s overachieving is hiding a destructive secret –she was born on the wrong side of the wall, and her parents obtained forged identification papers for her in early childhood so she could rise above the bleak future of a life on the outer island. Even from the start of the book, Dani is grappling with the privilege her parents’ sacrifice has bought her, and what that means about her place in this clearly unequal world.
Dani’s parents sacrificed a lot for the opportunity to give their daughter a better life. What can you tell us about Dani and her family?
Dani enters the Medio School for Girls when she’s only twelve years old, and for obvious reasons it’s too dangerous for her to see her parents. By the time the book opens, Dani is seventeen, and her parents are more memory than reality to her, although her duty to them and her gratitude for their sacrifice is still the main motivating force in her life.
Even though she’s incredibly grateful to her parents, Dani has now seen more of the inner-machinations of the ruthless, privileged inner island than they ever got to see, and her experience has been far removed from the idyllic future her parents imagined for her.
The main conflict for Dani in the book is the push and pull between that fantasy, and the reality of what she’s experienced and seen. The place where the sense of duty she feels toward her parents ends, and her desire to do what’s right as her own person takes over.
I loved the character cards you’ve posted on Twitter, and that’s where I first heard about Dani’s rival, Carmen. Why the two of them are at odds with each other at the start?
Carmen is, on the surface, everything Dani is trying to be. She’s rich and beautiful and fits in effortlessly with their peers, while Dani feels like a perpetual outsider because of her secret, and her fear of letting anyone get close enough to find it out.
While Dani is the top Primera in the school, Carmen is the top Segunda, and she maintains a sort of cool-girl mystique that involves making anyone outside her social bubble feel small. Unfortunately, this includes Dani, who has spent five years verbally sparring with her and wondering why Carmen seems so able to get under her skin. That is, until their household placements are announced, and Dani finds out she and Carmen are going to be sharing a household and a husband.
I can’t say too much more about her without giving things away, but I will say that there’s much more to Carmen than initially meets the eye.
Besides Dani and Carmen, who are the other major players in WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE? Can you introduce us to them?
Ah yes, the boys!
Mateo Garcia is the rich, powerful politico’s son Dani and Carmen are married to near the beginning of the book. He’s… a cruel bastard, with some truly troubling ideas about women and the humanity of anyone less privileged than himself. Mateo is the villain of the story, the all too real representation of toxic masculinity/machismo in this world. When troubling societal views and unrestricted resources combine it’s never a pretty picture, and he’s definitely no exception.
The other main character is Sota, the rebel who approaches Dani and blackmails her into spying for a radical outer island resistance group. Sota is a little bit of an enigma, the only representative in Dani’s life of the home she doesn’t remember fleeing. He’s problematic in his own ways – toxic masculinity can be rampant even in progressive circles – but unlike Mateo he’s able to interrogate his views and make some honest strides toward more radical feminism throughout the story.
The resistance group uses tarot cards to send secret messages, and I know you do tarot readings. For readers (like me!) who don’t know much about tarot, can you tell us more about the practice and why you included it in WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE?
Tarot is such a big part of my life. There are as many philosophies about the tarot as there are people who read it, I’d imagine, ranging anywhere from people who use it as a cool party-trick to people who use it as part of their religious practice. For me personally, and for many cultural and spiritual groups, divination is and has always been a way to tap into ancestral wisdom. An expression of faith.
In terms of its inclusion in the book, because of Dani’s separation from her family, and her feelings of isolation in the world her parents wanted her to be a part of, she’s always on the lookout (whether she admits it or not) for reminders of where she comes from. Proof that she was there, and that part of her still belongs. When the resistance communicates using cards her mother taught her about as a child, it tugs at Dani’s heartstrings, and reminds her there’s more to her life than the lie she’s living.
You’ve written for anthologies before, but this is your debut novel. What was it like making the jump from short stories to a full novel as a Latinx author?
This may just be me, since I was very much the new kid on the block in both anthologies I was asked to join, but there’s something really cool and collaborative about the anthology process. You have all this support every step of the way, and even during promotion and release there’s this sense of camaraderie. Even though you’re promoting your own work, you’re getting the chance to hype up a bunch of other great authors at the same time, which is fun and takes some of the pressure off. I was lucky enough to have author friends in both the anthologies I did so we even swapped stories beforehand and it really felt like this big community effort.
By contrast, leading up to a novel release is a little lonelier. You obviously still have your publishing team (and mine is wonderful, so I’m lucky) but the community feeling isn’t there in the same way. Part of it is really cool, because you’re getting recognition from readers and reviewers for this thing you did all on your own, and you have so much more say in everything that happens with the project. But there have been times I’ve kind of missed the feeling of being part of a team!
Bottom line, they’re both so magical in their own ways, but I feel incredibly grateful to have started my publishing journey with short fiction, and gotten a chance to see every step of the process with these amazing, supportive groups of more experienced authors around me. I really hope I’ll get the chance to do more anthologies in the future.
What 2019 YA books by or about people of color or people from First/Native Nations are you looking forward to reading?
Oh man, SO many. First of all I have to shout out Las Musas Marketing Collective (lasmusasbooks.com) which is an amazing group of Latina authors with debut and sophomore books coming out in the next two years. There’s a list of all our books on the site, but I have to shout out two of my favorites – ALL OF US WITH WINGS by Michelle Ruíz Keil, and DON’T DATE ROSA SANTOS by Nina Moreno.
I’m also incredibly excited for Elizabeth Acevedo’s follow up to her supernova debut. It’s called WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH and it’s pure, absolute magic. Candice Montgomery (who you should know from her debut HOME AND AWAY, but if not, get on it!) has her second book, BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY, coming out this fall and I am so excited for that, too.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE?
I think the most important thing to know about this story, is that it’s one reflection of one corner of the Latinx experience. There’s this tendency for books by marginalized authors to be held up as a single story that reflects the whole of a culture’s experience, and there’s no way for any one book to be equal to that task.
While I love and am very proud of my book, I think it’s important for readers who pick it up to make it one part of a wide and varied canon of Latinx authors – with special attention paid to intersectional stories that have a harder time succeeding in the overwhelmingly white default that is publishing. Read Afro-Latinx authors. Read Indigenous Latinx authors. Read queer and trans and non-binary Latinx authors. Read disabled Latinx authors.
Remember that the stories they push the hardest are often the ones that are the most palatable to an audience of people they consider to be neutral, or default, and challenge that assumption by supporting books all across the privilege spectrum.
Thanks so much for having me!
Tehlor Kay Mejia is an author and Oregon native in love with the alpine meadows and evergreen forests of her home state, where she lives with her daughter. When she’s not writing, you can find her plucking at her guitar, stealing rosemary sprigs from overgrown gardens, or trying to make the perfect vegan tamale. She is active in the Latinx lit community, and passionate about representation for marginalized teens in media.
Her short fiction appears in the All Out and Toil & Trouble anthologies from Inkyard Press, and her debut YA fantasy novel, We Set the Dark on Fire, is out February 26, 2019 from Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins with a sequel to follow in 2020. Her middle grade fantasy debut, Paola Santiago and the Drowned Palace, is forthcoming from Rick Riordan Presents/Disney Hyperion.