Mark Oshiro is the Hugo-nominated writer of the online Mark Does Stuff universe (Mark Reads and Mark Watches), where they analyze books and TV series. Their debut novel, Anger Is a Gift, was a recipient of the Schneider Family Book Award in 2019. Their lifelong goal is to pet every dog in the world.
You mentioned on your blog that your latest YA novel, Each of Us a Desert, is the kind of book you’ve wanted to write since you were a kid, that it’s the book of your dreams. Tell us why that is.
I think back to the kind of stuff that enchanted me as a kid. Edgar Allan Poe. Stephen King. Jane Austen. The Animorphs books. Goosebumps. In each of these is something that stuck with me for decades. A love for horror, for example. I delighted in being frightened by books. I longed for an epic romance when I read Jane Austen. I loved complex, multi-part stories that required you to pay attention. Each of Us a Desert is honestly the first chance I’ve gotten to combine so many disparate influences to craft—what I hope is—an epic story, so it feels like the book of my dreams.
So, in the novel, sixteen-year-old Xochitl ventures into the desert to rebel against the isolating role she’s been given as a cuentista, the village sin-eater and truth-teller. By doing so, she puts her community in danger. Emilia, daughter of an interloper who’s terrorized Xochitl’s village, joins her, and a romance between them grows. How did you come up with the premise?
This will be a recurring motif in this interview—I didn’t! At least not initially. The book began in a very, very different space, and it was through editing with Miriam Weinberg, my editor at Tor Teen—who has worked with Charlie Jane Anders, V.E. Schwab, and Sarah Gailey—that I began to develop the world you now see in the book.
The very different space it began in was dystopian horror. How did you rework it as YA fantasy with magical realism? What of your original conception of the book ended up in the final draft?
So, in late 2017, I turned in a novel that was far more horror than what you see now. The only thing that was largely the same was the inclusion of the sabuesos (the blood-tracking hounds) and Xochitl’s journey across a desert that had been burned out and abandoned. But there was a late-stage twist that included a whole part where Xochitl and her younger brother were separated at the border of another country and kept in cells. It was meant as a commentary on what has been happening at the US-Mexican border and other places around the world for decades, but in early 2018, that was when all the new stories of the horrific camps started cropping up.
I don’t mind writing fiction that comments on the world. See Anger is a Gift, for example. But I did want to have some distance between reality and this fantastical story that I’d written, and my editor pushed me: Did I want to write a book where people would assume I was commenting on Trump’s actions at the border? Did I want to release a book that wasn’t just harrowing, but deeply, deeply sad? I don’t mind sad books, either! I like writing about sadness and trauma and colonization. But as a writer, I didn’t prepare for the world coincidentally reflecting a work of fiction.
Miriam asked me what I did like about the original story. I loved Xochitl’s journey, and there was something so compelling to me about a sixteen-year-old girl leaving her home to try and reclaim her life. I loved the sabuesos. I loved writing a book that was more poetic on a prose level than Anger was, and I loved not being beholden to sticking to a single genre. Miriam suggested taking the book out of the dystopian space and creating a new world that was secondary fantasy. Over the course of two brainstorming sessions in the summer of 2018, I built up pretty much everything you see in Each of Us a Desert now.
Xochitl’s power as a cuentista is a main feature of the secondary fantasy world you built. It reminds me of Catholic priests hearing congregants’ confessions but taken to a whole other level: She takes their stories in physical form and then expels them to Solís, the deity she and her villagers worship. What’s the story behind her power?
Bravo for nailing the inspiration! I used to be Catholic and had a complicated relationship with confession, particularly the way in which some of my fellow Catholics used the confessional to exonerate themselves without ever doing the work to become a better person. As long as they were cleared of their sins, they’d keep doing the same things that brought them to confession in the first place. I took that notion and made it very visceral. As you’ve seen, the ritual for Xochitl (and other cuentistas) is designed so that stories are taken into the body and then regurgitated. It’s the metaphor of confession made grossly physical and literal. What does it feel like to have a community unburden themselves onto you? How does that take a physical or mental toll on the body? Even further, no one questions the presence of a cuentista, so much so that when Xochitl is given this power at eight years old, no one truly asks her if this is what she wants. So I wanted to explore the collision of faith and consent and do so in both the metaphorical and the literal.
That collision of faith and consent shows up in the way Xochitl struggles with her connection to Solís. She rebukes Them for saying and doing nothing when so many people, including herself, pray to Them. She also comments on feeling small and inconsequential in the grand cosmic scheme of things, and yet she continues to pray to Solís. Would you say this stems in part from the fact that as a cuentista, she’s not meant to have a story or stories of her own, that she’s only destined to pass down the duty of cuentista to the next villager? Like you said, no one in her village understands the burden of her role. They pretty much take her for granted.
Yeah, that’s pretty spot-on. It’s not just that she’s burdened as the cuentista, but I also wanted her story to be one of her reclaiming her agency. I see my own life as a teenager being the same journey, despite the vastly different context. I wanted to make choices for myself, and hopefully, other readers see a value in that kind of selfishness. Being selfish often has a negative connotation, and I get why, but writing Xochitl was my chance to explore a character being selfish to uplift herself. Thus, her prayer is a conversation with her god. It’s her chance to illuminate what is often left unsaid in her world.
Her conversation with Solís runs the full length of the novel. How did you decide on using a book-long prayer as the narrative device?
The seed of that idea came from E.K. Johnston, and I don’t think she even knows she inspired it! Aside from Miriam and maybe two other friends, she’s one of the only folks who read the original draft of Desert. (At the time, the working title was El Otro Lado.) Solís, the non-gendered god of the world, was in that draft, too, but Johnston said the religion was woefully underdeveloped. She basically wanted to see way more of it. So when I was creating the fantasy world, I kept that in mind and decided to double down and create a huge religion that was sprawling, diverse, weird, and complicated.
The narrative framing device, however, came during one of my brainstorming sessions with Miriam. I like first-person narration to be grounded in a framing device; I think you can achieve fascinating things with voice if there’s either an unspoken or direct motivation for the narration. I also need to know the ending of a story before I feel safe to write it. I thought of the last line in the book—which I won’t spoil here—while doing worldbuilding work and I constructed the entire structure in a feverish excitement, because it just seemed so absurd and ridiculous and challenging that I just had to attempt it.
Did you get any ideas on your approach to writing Desert from Sandra Cisneros, too? You’ve mentioned that she’s your personal hero. And she was an influence on your first novel.
I don’t know if there’s anything in there consciously—perhaps in the poetry, or perhaps in the way I wrote the prose. She’s had such a huge influence on my writing that sometimes I find myself slipping into the cadences I remember from her work. If anything, I think Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya and Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler had a much more marked influence on this book. (I’ve pitched the book as a combination of those two before!)
About the poetry in the book: I love how Xochitl finds solace and a sense of being recognized when she finds written scraps of poetry in the desert. Her thirst for language mirrors the way we bookworms thirst for books. Are the poems based on anyone’s work you’ve read? Are they your own?
I am so proud to say that all the poems in the book are mine, and not only that, but I wrote them all in Spanish. They weren’t translated from English. I’ve been studying Spanish the past few years to relearn a lot of stuff I lost when I was younger, so there’s an element of this book that’s a reclamation for me, a chance to explore language in a fantastical setting.
The desert, in this case, being the primary fantastical setting. You went to the Sonoran Desert to do research. How much time did you spend there and what was it like? What were some of your experiences there that ended up in the book?
I wanna start by saying that this was a trip that made me feel like a writer, because I had never traveled to do research before. I grew up just outside the desert in Southern California, but I wanted to take this project seriously and ground it in reality, even though I always figured it would be a fantastical story. I was in the desert for three days, staying in a small cabin with my partner at the time, near the town of Ajo, down in the southern part of Arizona, which allowed us access to both Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. We had to go through a brief video orientation in order to get a permit to spend time in Cabeza Prieta, too; the area is heavily surveilled due to all the migrants coming over the border from Mexico into Arizona.
It was a deeply surreal experience. I took thousands of photos to get a sense of what the desert felt like far, far from any major city. I wanted to get a feel for isolation in that environment. I wanted to see how plant life grew. But what I didn’t expect—and what informed a lot of Xochitl’s journey across the desert—was how much evidence of human life I saw. Debris. Garbage. Empty water bottles. Food wrappers. We came upon a cache of water jugs that someone had left for migrants in the desert. About twenty minutes later, we were pulled over by the Border Patrol, interrogated, and then allowed to continue on. By the time we looped back to leave Organ Pipe a couple hours later, someone—we assume the BP—had slashed all the water jugs.
It was also the first time I saw the border wall in person. It’s only complete in pieces down there, but where it exists, it’s a hideous blight on an otherwise gorgeous landscape. And yet, just a mile to the west, the “wall” was just a wooden fence. We saw someone duck under it and continue off into the desert, blending into the landscape almost immediately.
I don’t think my book would exist in the form it does without that trip.
That brings me to one of the themes of the book: migration. The relationship between Xochitl and Emilia unfolds against the background of migration—or, more to the point, forced migration. Xochitl migrates to the north to find a woman in Emilia’s village who can take away her power as a cuentista, but her journey is set in motion because of an act of violence by Julio, Emilia’s father. Emilia is made to migrate from her village, Solado, against her will because her father whisks her away with his group of men to terrorize one village after another. Both girls have that in common.
There’s an undercurrent of migration throughout the book, as I wanted to build out this idea that all these far-flung aldeas and cities were finally settled enough that people in this world began traveling again. And what would that travel look like? There are plenty who travel looking for work or for a better life, but in the case of Xochitl and Emilia, I wanted them to unknowingly be mirrors for one another. One of my favorite aspects of enemies to lovers is when people who believe they are utterly unlike one another begin to discover what they share in common. So much of their respective arcs is about becoming the narrator of their own story, and I wanted to anchor their motivations in that. They don’t know it until later, but Julio sets both of them on their journeys. How they collide, though . . . well, I’ll keep that a secret.
I really appreciated how you had their relationship simmer and blossom gradually. Some teen dramas are quick to crank up raging hormones and making out to level ten. But in your novel, we get to see Xochitl and Emilia crush on one another, hesitate, flirt, get flummoxed. It’s really sweet. Was that always intentional when you were developing the story?
Oh, I don’t know that I even thought about it that way. It was intentional in the sense that I have long wanted to write a book with the enemies-to-lovers trope. It’s one of my favorites. So the romance had to be slow and awkward and strange because of that. I think there’s space for all types of romance within YA, and I would actually love to write a much more fast-paced, messy, hormone-filled romance at some point! I think it’s often a misconception of the genre. You see more of that trope in television and movies than you do in books, and I credit that to being a visual medium and how often teen sexuality is a commodity in that space.
From your years of Doing Stuff (Reads and Watches), were there any books, series, or movies you went over and critiqued that were helpful with crafting Desert? Tropes you wanted to explore? Clichés you wanted to avoid? Plot structures you wanted to play with?
I do have an essay going live at some point about one of the major influences on the structure of the book! I have been bitter about M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village for years, and it informed why certain events happen where they do in Desert. Structure is a difficult thing to nail down, and sometimes seeing where another story goes wrong can help a writer understand how to structure their own work.
I definitely wanted to do enemies to lovers. But the biggest thing I wanted to achieve was to write a book that wasn’t dependent on its plot twists. I’m not the first person to talk about this by any means, but I didn’t want my story to have so much weight on “tricking” the reader that if someone figured out things I was planning, the story wasn’t entertaining anymore. I think one of the twists is painfully obvious, but I’m okay with that! I want to reward a reader for paying attention, and there’s plenty of tension that can come from a reader knowing something that the characters don’t know. That’s not to say this book is devoid of them; there are at least two surprises that early reviewers have mentioned being hard to spot. I don’t wanna do the Game of Thrones thing, though, where my only goal is to “get” a reader, you know?
I thank you for that big time, and your readers will, too. This being your second young adult novel, what’s it been like for you to work in YA, especially when it comes to bringing in more representation of queer characters of color?
On the whole, it’s been a rewarding and fulfilling experience. Anger is a Gift had a slow start. I sold a solid number of books in 2018, but nothing spectacular or anything. I didn’t expect instant success either. It’s been a humbling and incredible thing to see how far the book has gone, particularly in schools and libraries. That part was deeply unexpected. I wrote a book that was unapologetic about centering queer people of color, criticizing law enforcement, and supporting the right to protest. I’m thankful and grateful for the work of librarians and educators in the children’s literature space who have challenged what’s teachable. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would do well over a hundred school visits in two years because my book was taught in classrooms.
At the same time, there is so much the community needs to address. A lot of my early reviews were deeply racist, homophobic, and transphobic. But now a very strange thing has been happening in the past couple months: Readers have been reaching out to me to say they’re sorry for rating my book so low on Goodreads, or they feel bad for telling people it was unrealistic and unfair to cops and/or white people. This recent reckoning that’s unfolded on a global stage made them rethink how unfair they were to me and to my work. Which . . . okay? Cool? I guess? I don’t know what people want me to do with that.
On the industry side, it’s been just as challenging, as I’ve faced the same sort of bigotry from people within publishing, within conferences, within book festivals. Folks pay a lot of lip service to the ideas of diversity and inclusion, but a lot of these same people have no idea what to do with us once we get our foot in the door. In that sense, I feel lucky to have such an empathetic and supportive team at Tor Teen. It’s one of the only aspects of being a YA writer that has been problem-free for me.
When you started writing fiction, did you always see yourself as a YA author? Do you have any plans for adult fiction?
Always! I always did. Everything I’ve planned for over fifteen years or so always ended up being young adult. It’s an age range I wanted to write for, and it’s an experience I wanted to draw from. In the future, I plan to keep my main focus on either young adult or middle grade. That being said, there’s an adult project. It’s a contemporary thriller. You might hear about it someday soon . . .
What other writing projects do you have coming up that you can tell us about?
I don’t have to be frustratingly vague about my next projects! I have two middle-grade books coming out in the next couple of years from HarperCollins. The Insiders is scheduled for Fall 2021, and it’s about a twelve-year-old boy who, while fleeing bullies, discovers a magical closet that unites him with other kids dealing with similar issues across the US. It’s a contemporary with magical realism, and I basically pitch it as a queer Room of Requirement story. It was a lot of fun to write, and while it’s far sillier and adventure-filled than my YA, I can’t promise you that you won’t cry reading it.
I’m also hard at work on my third YA novel. All I can tell you about it is that I’m going back to contemporary after Desert, and that it is best described as a supernatural-less Hereditary meets Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. I promise that will make sense in the future.
Cool! Anything else you’d like your readers to know about Each of Us a Desert?
First of all, bravo for such a comprehensive and challenging set of questions! I just wanted to say that it’s scary to jump genres, but even more intimidating to go from contemporary to fantasy. But I’m glad I did. I hope this book showcases my improvements as a writer, and above all, I hope that readers get a sense of who I am as a storyteller. I want to write as many books as I can that make you feel a gamut of emotions. And also rip your soul out of your body, too!
Spread the word!