When it comes to adult readers, the Young Adult section of a bookstore can sometimes hold a bad reputation. YA books, however, are far from easy breezes or superficial fluff. In fact, YA writers are doing some seriously important work when it comes to getting diverse, nuanced narratives out into the world. Aaron H. Aceves, a bisexual Latino man living in New York City, chatted with Daily Kos on the phone about working on his debut YA novel, This Is Why They Hate Us, during the novel coronavirus pandemic, what changes he would love to see in media, and why bi rep is so important—and why we all still have so much work left to do when it comes to creating safe and inclusive spaces for bisexual folks.
Talking about LGBTQ+ issues is always important and relevant, but themed days and holidays can add extra visibility and awareness. This year, for example, we can celebrate Bi Visibility Day on Thursday, Sept. 23, making it an extra opportune time to share this writer’s thoughts, perspectives, and message. Let’s check out Aceves’ thoughts on writing in New York City, how food fits into his world as a writer, and a message he has for the mainstream media below.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, flow, and content.
Marissa Higgins: Would you like to talk to me in a few sentences about what your forthcoming book is about?
Aaron Aceves: My forthcoming book is a contemporary young adult novel called This is Why They Hate Us. And it’s about a 17-year-old Chicano boy named Enrique who is in love with his best friend. And when his best friend goes on vacation, Enrique decides to use his summer to get over him by exploring his other prospects.
MH: What has it been like working on fiction during the pandemic?
AA: I’ve actually been focusing on editing a lot. I have always written a lot of short stories and I have other books that I’ve written before. And so, I sort of focus on fine-tuning them and I guess I do write when I’m adding to these stories or to these other books but mostly it’s been about polishing versus drafting and making new things. Because, just for some reason, I don’t feel that urgency because I feel like we’re sort of in limbo a bit because of the pandemic.
MH: Can you talk to us about how you started as a writer and how you got here today?
AA: I actually started writing screenplays. I guess I like the form because I’m not a very flowery writer. My prose isn’t my strong suit. I feel like I’m better at plot or pacing or dialogue, even. So, I actually started writing a screenplay freshman year of college and then I realized it had a lot of voice-overs. And I’m not a big fan of movies with a lot of voice-overs because I think it’s kind of a cheat a bit if you’re just narrating everything that’s happening over voice-over without letting things be visual.
I was like, “Oh, I think this is more of a book.” I actually adapted the screenplay into a YA novel. And I was doing this for the first three years of college. So, I finished when I was 21. That’s also when I started writing short stories.
Once I graduated, I tried to find an agent for that first book but I had no success. So, I wrote two other books, tried to get an agent with them. That did not work out. It was around the time that I started actually submitting short stories and getting them published at tiny, little sort of just small presses, small magazines. But one of them was specifically for queer Latinos, which I really appreciated. And it was a story about a guy who was sort of discovering his sexuality.
I’m bi. And I knew, I knew but I didn’t come out to myself until I was around 21. So, it was new to me and I wrote the story, submitted it to this magazine, and got that published. And loved seeing my work in print. So then I wrote the fourth book, This is Why They Hate Us, and that’s what got me my agent. I had applied to grad school and only got into one school, which is Columbia. A week before I left for New York, I got an agent.
So, my first entire academic year was editing the manuscript with my agent while writing short stories for my workshops. I’ve just always been working on the two sort of at the same time and taking a break from one by going to the other. And I think that really works because I work differently in both age categories. And I can express myself in different ways. I love being able to write both.
MH: What would you say to people who don’t understand why it’s so important to have authentic and nuanced bi representation in literature?
AA: First of all, there still isn’t enough bi representation. I think people do think that “Oh, we’re good now,” like nothing left to complain about, nowhere to expand. But I just think that’s very much not true. We still don’t have enough. And then also, there’s such a variety of experiences for bisexual people. On this panel that I moderated, I was getting everyone’s experience with their journey to identifying as bi.
There were writers who knew from the time they were five years old that they were bi, that they were just attracted to everyone. And there were people like me who I didn’t realize until I was 21. And there are people who are more attracted to men than they are women or more attracted to women than they are men. And based on gender and based on race, there’s such a variety of bisexual experiences that we need all of it. We need all of those diverse experiences within the diverse sort of label of bisexual.
MH: Is there anyone in literature or in screenplays, like movies, TV, comics, whatever, is there anyone who you feel like your work is really in conversation with?
AA I think a lot about just sort of queer, LatinX writers in general. So, the first person that comes to mind is Adam Silvera. I think right now his most famous book is They Both Die At the End.
But the first book of his that I ever read was his first book and it’s more happy than not. And it features a queer Latino character named Aaron. And immediately when I was reading that book, I thought, “Oh my God, this character has my name. This has to be a sign.” And sure enough, I loved the book and I think it just … I was already writing that book, but it just solidified in my mind that I need to keep doing this and there is space for me in this industry. And if there isn’t, I’ll make space.
But because Adam’s done it, I can sort of do it too. And the same thing with Benjamin Alire Sáenz who is the author of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. And when I was reading Aristotle and Dante, I was reading about two queer Mexican boys. And that was so foundational as well because even though … I don’t know if they’re actually gay or bi but being both queer Mexican boys, which is another moment where I’m like … And this is before I wrote This is Why They Hate Us. So, it’s sort of like I think sort of subconsciously I was like, “Okay, I think one day I can do this. I can show more than just one side of myself. I can delve into the complexity of being at an intersectional identity.”
MH: I’m curious what kind of self-care or any routines or rituals that you’ve found helpful either for writing in general over the course of your life or in particular writing during the pandemic?
AA: Actually, I’m pretty terrible with self-care. I say self-care and then I’ll do something self-destructive. But I mean, what do I do? I do love to cook. And that’s not something I do consistently but it’s something that when I get to do it, it’s incredibly meaningful to me. I haven’t really felt too comfortable … Well actually, at the beginning of the pandemic, I was really good about cooking.
I would go to the grocery store and I’d buy all the stuff and then over the week I would just cook a meal every night. And it helps me stay sane. And my best friend lives in the city and she loves to cook too. And so, I would just go over to her apartment and I would play with her cats and have some wine and we would just start cooking together. And then, we would eat in front of the TV and watch whatever show we were obsessed with that week. Actually, Top Chef is … I could have answered this so succinctly and just been like, “My self-care is Top Chef.”
I was watching the reruns during the pandemic and I just … I don’t know, there’s something about it that’s so calming. I think it’s sort of the structure of it, you know? And the fact that it’s about food and there’s a travel aspect to it, right? Like I couldn’t travel but in Top Chef, they’re in a different city every season. And so, yeah, cooking, watching cooking shows has really been a big part of self-care I guess.
MH: Do you have a favorite thing to cook? Does it ever correlate with what you’re writing? Do you ever feel connections between what you’re writing and what you’re drawn to or not really?
AA: I love that question. It’s funny, I don’t write about food too much in This is Why They Hate Us. Or the main character makes a quesadilla in one chapter. So, there isn’t that much mention of it but it is interesting living in New York, I don’t eat Mexican food out here. I just don’t trust it.
People always tell me, “I know the best tacos in the city,” and I go and I try it and I’m disappointed. So at this point, I just don’t want to be disappointed anymore. And I’m like, “New York has so much to offer, I’m not going to eat Mexican food. It’s going to be fine. I’m going to eat Dominican food.” Which we don’t have in LA. But every time I go back home to LA, all I eat is Mexican food. And it’s just I’m filling my reservoirs, then I can go back to New York and I can not have Mexican food because that’s all I eat when I’m in California.
But it’s interesting. Part of my pandemic experience was being diagnosed with GERD, which is this stomach thing where I have chronic acid reflux. And I’m not supposed to eat spicy food. And if anyone knows anything about Mexicans, it’s like we like our spicy food. We like red salsa, we like hot Cheetos. It’s a part of the culture. And so, it was a weird thing where I lost a bit of myself because I couldn’t eat spicy food. And it wasn’t just Mexican food too, I always felt … There’s a lot of problems in terms of … Solidarity among people of color can get really complicated, especially with …
I think every community has to deal or should deal with the anti-Blackness embedded in our communities. But I have always felt a connection with other cultures through their food. And so, part of that, one of my best friends in my MSA program, she’s Pakistani and we would go to this place in … I don’t know if it’s the lower east side or somewhere, but she would say, “This is like authentic, amazing Pakistani food.” And I would go with her and we would eat and it would be spicy and it would just feel … Like I felt a connection to the food, to my friend, to the food and my friend.
With my stomach condition, I felt like a different person. And it sounds so dumb, it sounds dramatic or something but I went through something when I realized I couldn’t … I had bought hot sauce the week before I had a really bad heartburn thing. And then, I was living out of my apartment a year later and I was throwing out that hot sauce because I had never touched it again. And it was just this thing where … I don’t know. It was a moment of change for me that I do think about a lot and maybe will write about one day.
MH: Do you personally feel that politics, either local, national, international affect your writing process or what you choose to write about? Or do you feel more that you create or even edit more in a vacuum?
AA: Well, I’m going to sort of parrot what other people have said about this first and just say that for some people, our existence is political. So, the fact that I’m Mexican and queer, I can’t really … If I write something where a queer person is happy, it’s political. If I write something where a queer person deals with oppression, then it’s political, right?
I do feel a responsibility to engage with that. Especially in terms of people who are less privileged than I am. It’s funny, I did grow up working class and we worried about money and that sort of thing but I never went hungry, we always had food security which I’m very thankful for. And I am a very light-skinned Latino. Some people would say white-passing, I really don’t think that’s true. I think I’m more ethnically ambiguous. And based on living in New York where people come up to me and will speak Arabic or Urdu or Spanish, I really don’t think that people think I’m a white person.
I think they usually think I’m Arab or south Asian or sometimes Latino, which is actually accurate. But I do care a lot about Afro Latinos and indigenous Latinos. And just in general, those who face more systemic racism.
MH: Is there an issue or topic you think national media either needs to cover more, better, or differently?
AA: I think even liberal media or whatever always has this habit of both-sidesing everything.
It’s this attitude of reaching across the aisle that I just don’t … At this point, I just don’t care enough and I don’t want to waste my energy and I don’t want anyone else wasting their energy on convincing other people that regardless of your sexuality or race or abilities or anything that you are a person. I don’t see the merit in being like, “Let’s talk with this racist person or this Qanon person and see what they think.” I know what they think.
That’s the thing, I’ve always known what Lindsey Graham or Mitch McConnell… I know what they’re thinking. I know what they’re going to say because for so long they’ve been very clear about what they want and what they care about. And we don’t need to see that anymore. But yeah, I just rather we sort of not ignore those people but work in more productive ways to not try and win them over, you know? Or to think about them as much or God forbid center them and funding up they’ve created.
This Is Why They Hate Us will be released on March 29, 2022. You can pre-order here.
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