Sánchez reflects on journey as YA novelist, art of storytelling

Erika Sánchez. Courtesy of Larry D. Moore via Wikimedia Commons.

The young adult literary genre has blossomed into a rich assortment of stories that capture the complexity of adolescence. These stories have explored teenage identity and relationships while covering contemporary issues, like mental health, racial inequality and immigration. This form of literature is crucial in that it not only allows teenagers to discover who they are, but also provides them with the opportunity to critically engage with bigger problems in the world around them.

Last Wednesday, Oct. 14, Vassar community members were able to take part in a discussion with young adult author Erika Sánchez through a webinar sponsored by the Education Department. The event focused on Sánchez’s journey as a writer and woman of color, especially in relation to her 2017 debut novel, “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter.”  

The novel explores the family struggles of a young Latina woman, Julia Reyes, in the wake of her older sister’s death. The book, a New York Times bestseller and National Book Award finalist, garnered critical praise for its powerful portrayals of grief, depression and immigration in teenage life.

The event was originally supposed to take place in April, allowing for an on-campus, in-person reading and discussion among Sánchez, students and community members. However, due to the pandemic, the Education Department postponed the event. At the start of the semester, Education interns Natalie Bober ’21 [Editor’s note: Bober serves as Social Media Editor for the Miscellany News] and Molly Manafo ’21 picked up the project and moved it to an online setting.

“I am just really happy that we were able to make it happen, and that the technology was very smooth for us and so many people were able to come,” Bober shared in a Zoom interview.

Indeed, close to 70 people attended the webinar, including numerous members of the Vassar community. The Department also opened the event up to local students from grades K-12, many of whom were learning about Sánchez’s book in school. “It’s really awesome that some high schoolers were able to attend, because I know that online classes, especially for high schoolers, can get pretty boring,” Bober commented. “Hopefully, that was…a different setting for them.”

Chair of the Education Department and Associate Professor Maria Hantzopoulos kicked off the webinar with a short overview of Sánchez’s experience as the daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants and how it informs her writing. She explained,  “[Sánchez] seeks to amplify the stories and voices of marginalized people everywhere through the art of storytelling.”

Sánchez then read an excerpt from her novel. Her narration breathed life into her characters—especially her snarky, witty protagonist, since she wrote the book in first person. At one point, when Julia clashes with her mother, Amá, Sánchez read aloud, “If I tell Amá that I’m bored, she tells me to pick up a mop and start cleaning. She doesn’t believe in boredom when there’s so much to do around the house, as if cleaning the apartment were as entertaining as a day at the beach. When she says stuff like this, I feel the anger bubble in my guts. Sometimes I love her and sometimes I hate her.”

Sánchez then shifted to discussing her experiences with reading and writing. The author opened up to the audience about her struggles with mental health and depression as a teenager and young adult; she often turned to books to escape from reality. However, she often noticed the lack of  representation for people of color in literature. “I loved reading, but I grew up with white stories,” Sánchez stated. “I wanted to see myself in literature.”

She emphasized her desire to use her writing not only to speak against injustice, but also to create complex characters to whom young people of color could relate. She does so through her novel’s protagonist, a strong Mexican-American teenager grappling with anger and loss. “I felt that she needed to feel authentic, and I didn’t want to create a character who was easy. I wanted her to challenge people,” Sánchez said.

The webinar ended with a question-and-answer segment, where viewers could type questions in the virtual chat. Discussion topics ranged from the Latinx community to writing advice, allowing the audience to continue exploring the overarching themes and elements of Sánchez’s novel. The author ended with an inspirational note about the significance of reading literature in fostering empathy and strengthening human connection: “We can better understand different communities and be more empathetic… People are learning a lot from each other through novels because you are forced to sit and imagine what it is like to be someone else.”

Sánchez’s book resonated with students and faculty alike. In a Zoom interview, Manafo commented, “I feel like her portrayal of mental health felt very realistic compared to anything else that I’ve read in YA books—maybe coming from her personal experience, which is very accurate to what the character actually would’ve been going through and feeling, and not brushed over, [but] handled with the weight that it should have been.”

Although the Vassar community missed Sánchez’s physical presence on campus, students, faculty and local high school students and teachers still relished being able to connect and engage with the author. The event unfortunately had to come to a close, but attendees can always turn to their dark turquoise copies of “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter” and find a new appreciation of the novel through their enriching experience with Sánchez.

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