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Interview: Lilliam Rivera

Lilliam Rivera is an award-winning writer, and the author of the young adult novels Dealing in Dreams, forthcoming from Simon & Schuster on March 5, 2019, and The Education of Margot Sanchez, available now in bookstores everywhere. Her work has appeared in Elle, Nightmare Magazine, Tin House, and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, to name a few. She lives in Los Angeles.

You described Dealing in Dreams, your second young adult novel, as The Outsiders meets Mad Max: Fury Road with girl gangs that rule the streets. How did the premise come together for you?

My high-school English teacher gave me a copy of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. I was obsessed with the book and Stanley Kubrick’s movie. I always wondered what it would be like for there to be a gender flip to that world, if it were girls who incorporated violent traits. Dealing in Dreams is my rendition of what that world would look like where young women use violence as their way out of their social status.

The leading young woman using violence as her way out of her social status is main character Nalah. She’s the head of Las Mal Criadas, the fiercest all-girl crew that patrols Mega City, the primary setting of the novel, at night. Where does her character come from?

The character of Nalah came to me from my own parents’ hopes. They left Puerto Rico, an island colonized by the United States, and moved to New York at a young age. We grew up in the Bronx, New York, in poverty and love. My parents, especially my mother, instilled this idea of always having to be hard in order to survive. There is no room for vulnerability or softness. That is where Nalah came from.

As violent and as brutal as she is in fights and throw-downs, Nalah thinks that knowing history is what makes her crew stronger. In fact, she says, “If you don’t know your history, then you have no power. That’s the problem with other gangs. They think their strength lies only in their fists.” Why did you want her to value history this way?

Nalah basically has lived her young life abandoned by her family. What she remembers of them comes to her only in fragmented dreams. She clings to these tiny pieces of history, and I think this is why history is so important to her. She equates history with stability.

Would you also say she equates violence with stability? Later on, she doubles down on the importance of throwing the first punch and winning fights. She defends her paramilitary upbringing whenever anyone outside of Mega City questions her about it.

Nalah and her crew have only known one way of living. For her, to accept any other would mean to abandon the dreams she’s had, to abandon all that she has worked for.

When we take into consideration Nalah’s dreams, it looks like the title of the novel has two meanings. The first refers to her external world: the currency used in Mega City is sueño tabs, which are manufactured to ease the daily suffering of the workers and keep them sedated. The second seems to refer to her internal world, her dream of living in luxury in the exclusive Mega Towers and ditching her life as a patroller. But her dream comes at a price.

Everyone loves this idea that to make it in America all you need is to work hard to be successful. The truth is that only a certain privileged few are allowed to flourish. That people of color still thrive in spite of all the obstacles thrust on us is a miracle and says so much about our strength. For Nalah, she really has bought into the belief that if she follows the rules of the game instilled by those in power she will be able to succeed. She is also plagued by dreams of her past, of a family that she barely remembers. I wanted to explore the idea of a young girl trying to overcome her own sense of who she is, outside of what she has been told all her life—that she is a fighter and can only use her fists to get ahead.

Let’s talk about the world Nalah and her crew live in. Mega City has sueño tabs, food pellets, tronic guns, and boydega clubs. How did you come up with these worldbuilding details?

The world I created in Dealing in Dreams is heavily influenced by my own upbringing as a Puerto Rican and a Bronx, New York, native. In the novel, the powerful family that rules the city is the creator of “sueños,” a drug that’s a catch-all for all that ails the residents of the city. Nalah and her gang help distribute these sueños to the people. I’m aware of how drugs have been used to subdue people of color. A New Yorker article, “The Family That Built an Empire of Pain” by Patrick Radden Keefe (bit.ly/2GXS15e), about the Sackler family, infamous for creating OxyContin, also revealed how women in Puerto Rico were the first to use the drug in a study conducted by Purdue. The line is a throwaway sentence in the article but it wasn’t for me. Another pivotal article that I used during my research is this article in the New York Times, “The Bronx’s Quiet, Brutal War with Opioids” (nyti.ms/2Ql2TcY).

The idea behind boydega clubs, the nightclubs where gangs in Mega City party at, came to me from a documentary I watched a while back called The Great Happiness Space (2006), where young professional girls in Japan “rent” boys out. I was fascinated by that idea.

The food in Dealing in Dreams is mostly synthesized food pellets. I live in Los Angeles, where food trends can be feel so futuristic. At times, it seems like there is such an aim to reduce eating to just drinking meals, to overpriced juices. I can imagine this being taken further where a pellet can be produced to contain only essential nutrients. I wanted to explore this idea of being dependent on a government to provide food, a somewhat similar situation that occurs in Puerto Rico with the current island’s dependence on the US, although there has always been a strong movement on the island to independent farming.

The gangs in my novel employ weapons called tronics. For that I researched what future guns will look like. I think it was important for women in this world to advocate returning back to basics, moving away from bullets to a more “civilized” use of fists and electronic tasers.

Nalah says that in order for Mega City to be safe, the borders have to be kept secure. Reading this novel in this moment, I couldn’t help but think about our current president’s obsession with borders and his asinine wall. How much of the novel is responding to and commenting on our political scene?

I wrote a draft of Dealing in Dreams way before our current administration. As a Latinx, borders have always played a part of my history, especially if you consider Puerto Rico’s history as a colonized island. My writing comes through this prism. Although set in the near future, Dealing in Dreams draws on the aspects of how medical experimentations have always been used on Puerto Rican women, the allure of materials, and how social experiments made to help those in poverty come with such high stipulations.

In Mega City, blood family is seen as a liability. Nalah says, “Blood family doesn’t necessarily mean a connection. I saw this happen in a training camp. The closer you are to your family, the harder it is to become a fighter.” And yet the idea of family and loyalty is what keeps Nalah’s crew together. What made you want to explore this theme in this dystopian setting?

Forming your own family is such a pivotal moment for young people, especially in high school. Nalah, who is sixteen years old, has formed and shaped her crew, Las Mal Criadas, into the family she wants. There is love and discipline and dysfunction, like any real family.

In your NPR interview (n.pr/2TxlqVz), you said that what inspired you to write your first novel, The Education of Margot Sanchez, was wanting to write about that moment when young people see their parents in a new realistic way. I think this carries over to Dealing in Dreams, too. Nalah sees Déesee, the founder of Mega City, in a totally new light after spending time with the Ashé Ryders, the mysterious, nonviolent gang Déessee tasks her and her crew to seek out.

In young adult fiction, I believe a lot of the characters must go through a discovery of “firsts.” The first kiss. The first sense of shame. I love those moments in young adult literature when the protagonist discovers how their parents or adults are completely flawed and full of unrealized desires or dreams. In order for Nalah to grow, she has to let go of the flimsy dreams being fed to her by those in power and discover the truth.

She also learns a lot about the limitations of power that runs Mega City with an authoritarian hand after she sees what an even distribution of responsibility and power between women and men looks like in the Ashé Ryders’ community. What do you think about dystopia as a genre to talk about power and gender in young adult novels?

There are so many great young adult novels that explore gender and power in young adults. Sam Miller’s The Art of Starving, Aditi Khorana’s The Library of Fates, Zoraida Cordova’s Brooklyn Bruja series and Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles are just a few names of authors I love. Not only can young people finally see themselves as the hero in a novel; they can also see characters tackling social justice themes placed in a world that looks familiar or fantastical.

One of the characters living in the Ashé Ryders’ community says, “Music is revolutionary. Art is revolutionary. Men, women, and others will lead.” Do you feel that writing is revolutionary?

I really do believe this. Throughout history, journalists, writers, and poets have always been incarcerated, censored, killed. Even if I’m writing fiction in a dystopian world, I am striving to uncover current realities.

Tell us about your writing background. Who are the authors that inspired you to write?

My writing began as an entertainment and fashion journalist. I worked in that industry for twenty years before overcoming my fear of writing fiction. I’ve always read speculative fiction (Ray Bradbury, Octavia Butler, Gabriel García Márquez) and Latinx folktales. Although my first young adult novel was set in contemporary Bronx, my short stories have been speculative in nature, and I knew I wanted my second novel to be near future.

What was it like having Dealing in Dreams workshopped at VONA and the Clarion Writers’ Workshop?

The first time I ever shared a snippet of this story was at VONA with the brilliant author Tananarive Due. It was at VONA were I was introduced to Nalo Hopkinson and China Miéville. At Clarion, I was able to also work with great authors like Karen Joy Fowler, Saladin Ahmed, and Christopher Barzak. The two workshops really helped me expand the world I wanted to create and to give me the courage to do so. It took a long time for me to believe that my stories mattered and would find an audience.

The conclusion of Dealing in Dreams seems open ended. Do you have any plans for sequels?

I don’t have any current plans for any sequels but I do love this world. I can easily see myself writing from the point of view of Books, the papi chulo from the Luna Club, or a prequel of Yamaris, Nalah’s sister, and what her life as a young person might have looked like. Who knows? Maybe I’m not done with this world yet!

What other writing projects do you have coming up?

I’ve just completed writing a young adult novel, a retelling of the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice set in the Bronx. I can’t wait to eventually share it with readers.

Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know about Dealing in Dreams?

I’m excited to meet young readers and have conversations about Nalah and her crew. I love that part of being a young adult author: visiting schools and meeting young people. I want them to discover Nalah and maybe feel a little empowered by the characters.

Also, I’ve always loved reading Lightspeed, so it’s a privilege to be interviewed at an outlet I respect. Thank you!

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.