For 10 years, Daniel José Older worked as an EMT in Brooklyn, and he blogged each day about what he’d witnessed the night before: tragedy and joy, blood and bandages, dead people and living people—and people who hovered somewhere in between, their fates as yet undecided.
“It’s part of how I became a writer,” he says during a call to his home. “It’s the roots of my fiction. It helped me just tell the f__king story. That became my motto as I went on to become a writer and realized it’s so easy to get caught up in head games.”
His motto worked, and write he did. He left his ambulance-based career in 2013 and has published three books in the last three years: 2012’s Salsa Nocturna, a collection of noir ghost stories; Half-Resurrection Blues, the first book in the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, which debuted in January; and now his new YA urban fantasy, Shadowshaper.
It makes sense that this Boston-to-Brooklyn transplant who’s undergone a medic-to-author metamorphosis could so capably and creatively write a story about the transformation of teenager Sierra Santiago, who herself undergoes some major life changes and astonishing shifts in perspective right after school lets out for the summer.
In fact, Sierra goes from newbie muralist to spirit wrangler in a matter of days—and she’s surprisingly adept at working with both paint and dearly departed ancestors. But why isn’t her brother surprised by this? Just what has her family been keeping from her? And what does her abuelo, speech strained by his recent stroke, mean when he warns her about “shadowshapers”?
The notion of spirits among us, of people who may not be alive but aren’t quite dead, is something Older has considered a lot in his own life, not least because, like Sierra, he’s Latino and accustomed to “the idea of history being present with us.”
One day, when Sierra is up on scaffolding, painting a mural on an abandoned building, she sees that a face in another nearby mural has shed a single real tear. She’s weirded out, but she doesn’t panic and fall off the scaffolding, which might be the reaction of someone less spirit-friendly. And when a creepy zombie-esque guy crashes the first party of summer and seems to know her by name, she’s scared—but also determined to find out what’s going on, and fast.
“Sierra walks in both worlds, and she has to get used to that,” Older says. “[For anyone who] grew up Latino, they probably had some ghosts around. So it’s not that big a shock to her. . . . She gets through that pretty quickly because she’s already been preparing for that moment, in a way.”
Five years ago, Older was initiated into the Lucumí (also known as Santería) priesthood. “It was an intense process,” he says. “Shadowshaper, which I wrote in 2009, became a totally different book when I rewrote it that initiation year. . . . [My religion plays a] huge part in my understanding of spirituality . . . [and] of spirits and ancestors being part of daily life.”
"If death wants to win, it will win. And that’s also not necessarily the worst-case scenario.”
Harking back to his time as an EMT, he adds, “As a paramedic, you’re walking on the line between life and death constantly. It takes some of the freakiness out of it because it’s a regular occurrence, and there’s also more respect because if death wants to win, it will win. And that’s also not necessarily the worst-case scenario.”
These concepts come forward, then drop back, then surge forward again in the pages of Shadow-shaper, as Sierra’s understanding and fear grow apace. She roams from the subway to the Columbia University library, Bed-Stuy to Coney Island, dank basements to dark beaches, in her attempts to unravel the history and mystery of the shadowshapers. In addition to everything else, her neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying and everyone’s feeling unsettled; her awful aunt won’t stop spouting racist nonsense; and her handsome new artist friend doesn’t seem unfamiliar with the shadowshaper concept.
Older’s Brooklyn is beautiful and dangerous and busy and ever-changing; his love for his adopted hometown is evident. His characters are friends with people their age, older and younger; they speak different languages and have different backgrounds; their families are sometimes loving, sometimes not. It’s a refreshing (and, to anyone who’s lived in Brooklyn or a place like it, realistic) mix of viewpoints and ways of moving through life, for better or worse.
That ability to share his Brooklyn—to tell it like he sees it—has been cathartic for Older, though he’s far from finished. “So many black women on Twitter [saw the cover of Shadowshaper and said], ‘That’s me!’ It’s so powerful, because urban fantasy has failed people of color in general as far as representation goes, so for that to happen, it really moves me,” he says.
“We [authors of color] all want to be picked up by a big publisher but fear the corruption of our voices, the clipping of our wings. It’s a story heard over and over—not an idle fantasy or fear, but what has historically happened in publishing. I went in prepared and was pleasantly surprised. Both houses I work with, the editors are open, accountable, honest, admit things they don’t know. All I—all we—ask is that we work with people who will hear us out, trust our voice. . . . I’ve been really blessed to find the people I have found. That’s the miracle.”
For readers who’ve long been hoping to see themselves represented on a book cover or in its pages, Shadowshaper may well feel a bit miraculous. Older makes the historical elements seem as cool as the artistic ones, but there are plenty of scary and exciting action sequences as well—not to mention hilarity (see: a dog named Cojones).
And ultimately, the most powerful presence in Shadowshaper is the Puerto Rican teenager Sierra. There are no wizened, white-bearded wizards here. Older says, “I think most people will be excited to have a Latina heroine running around doing magic stuff.”