Latino Middle Grade Books Are a Literary Imperative

A Q&A with author Pablo Cartaya

By Marcela Landres
Published on LatinoLA: June 29, 2017

Latino Middle Grade Books Are a Literary Imperative

Middle grade is when some boys--especially boys of color--stop reading. As such, books that are about boys of color (particularly if they are written by men of color) are a literary imperative. A terrific addition to every boy's personal library would be Pablo Cartaya's debut novel The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora which centers on the political and romantic awakening of a thirteen year old Cuban-American. To learn more, read Pablo's Q&A below.


Pablo has always been a hopeless romantic. In middle school he secretly loved reading Shakespeare's sonnets (don't tell anyone), and he once spent his allowance on roses for a girl he liked. He also wrote her eight poems. Bad ones. He's been writing ever since. Pablo has worked in Cuban restaurants and the entertainment industry, and he graduated with an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. All of these experiences have helped him write stories that reflect his family, culture, and love of words. Pablo lives in Miami with his wife and two kids, surrounded by tías, tíos, cousins, and people who he calls cousins (but aren't really his cousins). Learn more about Pablo at http://www.pablocartaya.com.

Q: What inspired you to write The Epic Fail of Arturo Zamora?

A: I wanted to tell a story that was unique to my own experience and yet had an access point for anyone who can claim family, community, and the pangs of first love. I wanted to take my own cultural experience and build a narrative from it. I ended up writing a scene where a kid named Arturo desperately tries to clean dishes at his family's restaurant while his older cousin yells at him for working too slowly. That's where I started.

Q: Your novel tackles serious subjects such as gentrification and the death of a loved one, yet retains a lovely sense of humor. Was this intentional or is juxtaposing shadow and light part of your sensibility?

A: Thank you! I find the combination of humor and heart brings a uniquely human quality to stories. I like to explore the way people can inhabit both of these spaces. There is shadow and light in all of us. I choose to write with an eye towards these elemental truths.

Q: Poetry plays an important role in Arturo's story. How has reading and/or writing poetry influenced your fiction?

A: Robert Frost said, "Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found its words." I find great inspiration in poetry. From my great-grandfather who was a poet and a physician in Cuba to the work of contemporary poets like Richard Blanco whose work strikes a chord with my cultural identity. Currently, I'm reading "Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah" by Patricia Smith. She has an amazing voice. Poetry is one of my great loves.

Q: Arturo writes his first poem in the wake of his beloved abuelita's death. When did you begin writing? Did heartbreak or loss play a role in your budding consciousness as a writer?

A: I began writing from a very early age, but didn't have that "budding consciousness" as a writer until later on. That awakening came when I was working as an actor in Los Angeles. I was told repeatedly that I should change my name because I didn't look Latino enough. I was told I should stop auditioning for Spanish-speaking roles because I was stealing jobs from "real" Latinos. It started to wear me down. I struggled with my identity for a long time. I was very connected to my Cuban heritage yet I felt outside of it in some ways. How could I claim an identity that was repeatedly denied? After many years, I finally did something about it--I wrote my unique experience into the story.

Q: You've had some pretty cool jobs, most notably as Ricky Martin's body double, appearing on Will & Grace, and being a catering chef. Has this experience proven helpful in writing and/or publishing your work?

A: Debra Messing gave me great advice once. She said an artist should have varied experiences. She said go to college. Study something interesting. All of it will make you a better artist. She was right. I have many experiences that are uniquely mine and serve my stories.

Q: I love that you include recipes at the end of the novel! What prompted you to do so?

A: Because I was hungry and wanted to cook something! Seriously, though, I love food and its capacity to speak a language that is universal. I recently got a note from a mother who read the novel and decided to cook the fricasé de pollo recipe at the back of the book. She told me it was the first time she'd cooked something like that and her daughters, husband, and even her mother participated in preparing the meal. It doesn't get much better than that.

Q: Who is your agent and how did you meet him/her? If you don't have an agent, how did you come to be published by Viking?

A: My agent is Jess Regel at Foundry Literary + Media. She's the greatest. So is Viking. I always tell writers looking to get an agent or get published to start with the most important thing--focus on the writing. Everything else will follow.

Q: What advice do you have for writers--particularly Latinos--who aspire to be published?

A: Publishing needs Latin(x) creative minds! Not just writers, but editors, publicists, agents, marketers, publishers, and so on. There is a fantastic organization called Latin(x) in Publishing that creates community and is a resource for folks who are interested in publishing, http://latinxinpublishing.tumblr.com. Join groups, find mentors, go to readings, get connected! And to my writer gente out there: Write yourselves into the narrative. Don't be afraid to fail, to rise, or to be heard.

Q: Do you have upcoming projects that my readers should have on their radar?

A: Yes! My next middle grade novel, "Marcus Vega Doesn't Speak Spanish," is out Summer 2018 (also published by Viking). It's the story of a boy's journey to Puerto Rico to find his estranged father. In the process, he discovers pride in himself, his family, and his cultural identity.

Excerpted from Latinidad® © 2003 by Marcela Landres

About Marcela Landres:
Marcela Landres is the author of the e-book How Editors Think. She is an Editorial Consultant who specializes in helping Latinos get published and was formerly an editor at Simon & Schuster.
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