When Miel first appeared as a sobbing girl in the ruins of the town’s old water tower, it was Sam who comforted her, even before she was adopted by Aracely, the local peddler of cures for the lovesick. It was Sam who assured her that she would never again be without the light of the moon. Since that day, they’ve never been apart. Miel loves Sam even though his body is shaped like a girl’s; Sam loves Miel despite the roses that grow and flourish, unwanted, on her wrist. But some residents of their small town have little tolerance for Sam, and others seek the magic that Miel’s roses are rumored to possess. When four local sisters threaten to reveal Sam and Miel’s secrets—many of which they refuse to face—the result might destroy them both . . . or it might bring new understanding to all involved. Morris Award nominee Anna-Marie McLemore combines Latin-American and Pakistani legends and customs, magical realism and romance in a tale of painted moons, giant pumpkins and stained glass that speaks to the inescapable power of self-awareness.
BookPage asked McLemore about the vivid details, spirituality and metaphors that characterize When the Moon Was Ours, which was recently longlisted for the 2016 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.
Miel’s most distinguishing feature is the roses that grow from an opening in her wrist. These roses are alternately feared and coveted for their possible powers. How did you get the idea for such an unusual biology?
Miel’s roses were inspired by stories I heard growing up about lesser-known Mexican saints. I wanted to honor their stories and to honor that their miracles—whether answered prayers for rain, or flakes of metal appearing from a saint’s skin—have often been viewed with as much suspicion as wonder.
Sam, who identifies as a boy but was born a girl, repeatedly alludes to a Pakistani custom called bacha posh, in which girls dress and act like boys until marriage. Can you tell us more about this custom, and why Sam might have such a complicated relationship with it?
Many who live the practice of bacha posh understandably struggle when, as adults, they’re expected to then adopt women’s traditional roles. This becomes even more painful and complicated if an assigned-female-at-birth child who lives as a bacha posh later identifies as queer, transgender, non-binary or gender-non-conforming. And in Sam’s case, he chooses bacha posh himself; his mother doesn’t choose it for him. But his mother has the wisdom to understand what his relationship with bacha posh will become.
Taken together, Miel’s roses and Sam’s gender create a running theme about bodies that function in ways that mystify, mismatch with or otherwise unnerve their occupants. What made you decide to tackle such a complicated and potentially difficult theme?
The trans* narrative we see most often in literature, unfortunately, is one in which there’s a trans* character, and almost everyone around them are cis characters freaking out about this character’s gender identity. Vee at the blog Gay YA writes about this as “The Acceptance Narrative,” and they’ve fostered some incredible discourse about how harmful it can be. I wanted to write a story in which, instead, those closest to the trans* character love him, accept him and think his trans* identity is beautiful in its truth, even if he’s not yet ready to declare his own identity. Transphobia exists in this book, just as it sadly does in real life, but those closest to Sam—his family, his best friend, the girl he’s falling in love with—love him and his authentic self. That’s not to say Miel, his best friend and the girl he loves, doesn’t make mistakes. She does, and a lot of them come from the trauma she’s experienced to her own body and her own sense of how she’s been allowed to exist in the world. And as with Miel with Sam’s gender identity, Sam is ready to accept Miel and her history long before she is. That’s really a theme at the heart of this book: other people being ready to love you even before you can.
“That’s really a theme at the heart of this book: other people being ready to love you even before you can.”
Magic and religion coexist comfortably in the world of When the Moon Was Ours—the same townspeople who go to church on Sundays also seek cures for lovesickness from a bruja (Spanish for witch). How do you reconcile what at first seem to be such different approaches to spirituality?
I’m a Christian, and also a Latina woman who holds reverence for the practice of curanderismo [traditional folk healing], and I knew both these traditions early on. Many practitioners of curanderismo are also Christians, and often their practice is faith-based. Though many details of Aracely’s lovesickness cures are fictional, her profession as a curandera is very real. Curanderismo is so important to so many Latinx communities both because of its own merits, and because curanderas often practice where doctors’ visits either aren’t possible or are cost-prohibitive. Curanderas and curanderos hold especially important roles in communities who have trouble accessing physical and mental health services.
In your author’s note, you mention the legend of la llorona, a mythical mother who, after drowning her own children, seeks to kidnap half-Spanish, half-Native Latin-American girls. This sounds like a frightening legend indeed! Can you elaborate on how it helped inspire your story?
I’ve heard the name la llorona for as long as I can remember, though my mother saved the story’s more chilling aspects for when I was older. It’s a story a lot of us in the Mexican-American community heard growing up, and it stayed with me. When I felt drawn toward writing a reimagining of the story, I wanted to give weight both to la llorona’s own narrative, to what might have driven her to commit acts she never imagined, and also to depict the awful consequences that her actions have on those around her.
Sensory descriptions abound in When the Moon Was Ours, especially surrounding food: Blood oranges, blue eggs and dulce de leche are cooked and eaten (and used in magic spells) in wisteria and violet-colored houses. How did you come up with such vivid details?
So many of the details in the book come from or are influenced by cultural tradition. Either my own Mexican-American heritage, which Miel and Aracely share. Or Sam and his mother’s Pakistani-American heritage, for which I owe a huge debt to the author friends who spoke from their own experiences and helped shape how I depicted Sam’s cultural identity. The things Aracely uses in her practice as a curandera, the food both Sam and Miel have grown up making, the way small details become markers of home and heritage, all felt like a natural part of the story.
Although Miel and Sam dominate the narrative, other characters—like Miel’s loving guardian Aracely, the manipulative Bonner sisters and the perpetually lovesick Emma Owens—also play important parts. Who was your favorite minor character to write, and why?
Sam’s mother Yasmin. She values and respects her family’s traditions while also deciding the kind of life she wants, and she makes brave, hard choices for herself and for her son while also giving him space to figure things out on his own.
What was the first thing you did when you heard you were longlisted for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature?
It was early on the West coast, so I jumped up and down on the edge of the bed to wake up my husband and tell him!
What projects are next on your writing agenda?
Right now I’m working on my 2017 novel, Wild Beauty, as well as short stories for a couple of upcoming anthologies. They all involves themes of queer and Latinx identity, so I’m excited to work on them and share more soon!
Thank you so much for talking with me!
Jill Ratzan teaches preschoolers through teen readers the power of stories, both traditional and new.
Author photo credit J. Elliott.