Lilliam Rivera is a rising star in the world of YA fiction. Her debut novel, The Education of Margot Sanchez, dealt with issues of class, friendship, love, gentrification, and race from the point of view of a teen girl, who’s bored to death working as a cashier at her family’s supermarket over the course of one long South Bronx summer.
Her latest book, Dealing in Dreams, was one of our most anticipated reads for 2019. The book revolves around a girl gang, Las Mal Criadas, trying to make it all the way to the top. The world of Mega City may look like a matriarchy – girl gangs roam the streets, patrolling borders and keeping their territories safe, and a beautiful and glamorous leader presides over them all – but there’s a dark, twisted underbelly that keeps the city ticking. Las Mal Criadas, and their leader, Chief Rocka, must uncover the mysteries at the heart of their home and find a way to stay together and have each other’s backs in their dangerous world.
We sat down with Rivera to talk about Dealing in Dreams, the ways in which today’s world looks more like a dystopian novel than we might like, and what she’s reading now.
Can you tell us a little bit about the world that you created for Dealing in Dreams? I saw that you tweeted about it being this violent, cool world – something that you would’ve really enjoyed as a teen.
When I was young, like in high school, I had an English teacher who gave me a copy of A Clockwork Orange – I was always reading things way ahead of what I should’ve been reading – and it kind of blew my mind because it was really centered around violence and it was set in a futuristic time period, and they had their own slang. I was this young girl living in the South Bronx in the housing projects, and I grew up with brothers, I liked to watch boxing, I still do. Clockwork Orange, S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, books like that were all a big deal for me, because I really fell in love with those kinds of worlds. I also really wanted to create a gender Latinx flip of that world. So that was my goal. My ambition was to write a world where a girl gang ruled the streets and were really unashamed about their use of their fists to get what they want. So the goal was to take a book I would have loved in high school, and bringing it to right now, to what that would look like if it were young girls getting to do that.
Dealing in Dreams is definitely a more speculative work than your previous novel, The Education of Margot Sanchez. What are the challenges and rewards this new(er) genre brought you?
I’ve always written speculative literature, especially short stories, horror, and all that. I’ve also attended Clarion, which is a fantasy and science fiction workshop, before I even had an agent, or my book was published or anything. I’ve always wanted to write and enjoyed writing speculative fiction.
Some people might think it’s a jump from The Education of Margot Sanchez to Dealing in Dreams, but I feel like actually they’re both having parts of the same conversation. Some of the things that I started to talk about in Margot Sanchez kind of just gravitate over to Dealing in Dreams. For example, I’m still talking about gentrification and what that might look like in the future, I’m still talking about power dynamics, and colorism, and addiction, of course. Margot Sanchez is definitely more of a coming-of-age story, but I can see Dealing in Dreams being this future Bronx, and maybe it’s not Margot’s family line, but it might be Jasmine’s family line. feel like if you get a sense of New York attitude a little bit in Margot Sanchez you get it even more pumped up in Dealing in Dreams.
In addition to those, what were some other seeds for things that you saw going on in the current world that you wanted to pull through and comment on in Dealing in Dreams?
I wrote a draft of Dealing in Dreams a long time ago, almost six years ago, and then I put it, I just let it sit for a while, would bring it out in workshops, and then would put it aside, until I had a two-book deal and then I was able to bring it back out and rewrite it. But the interesting thing about that is that when I did bring it out again, all the rage that I had back then still felt really relevant now.
In fact, it felt even more relevant because of our current administration, because of the talks of borders, because of the opiate crisis that is greatly affecting the Bronx, but also is still tied to Puerto Rico, and a powerful family who created that drug. It just all rang true, and came into focus, even though I wrote this draft a long time ago. And now with the book out, it’s going to be great to have these conversations right now, because it’s so relevant even though it’s set in a dystopian world that’s in the future. Our headlines right now read like a science fiction book, it reads like a horror book.
Writing fiction is my way of coping with these traumas that are occurring, that a lot of young people, a lot of young women of color, people or color are dealing with on a daily basis.
What other books are out there right now that you’re super excited about?
I’m reading Randy Ribay’s book, Patron Saints of Nothing. And this book isn’t set to come out until June. The cover is beautiful, but also it’s about a Filipino boy, Filipino-American boy who finds out his cousin is killed as part of the President Duterte’s war on drugs, so he travels to the Philippines to get more information about what happened. It’s really powerful. I’m just super excited for people to read that because it’s just a way of writing about contemporary issues for young people.
What’s coming up next for you?
I am working on another young adult book, a retelling of the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice, set in the South Bronx. I’m super excited because it’s one of my favorite myths of all time and I’ve wanted to find a way of writing about it.
I’m also just really excited to go meet some kids and talk about my new book! I can’t wait for people to just find it and have kind of great conversations that’s are both like “yes, it’s empowering, girls kicking butts,” but let’s also talk about other issues as well, like, “Who really has the right answer and what’s the right path?”
I think for young people that’s the thing. You’re being told this is the right path and maybe it’s not the right path for you.
Any plans for a sequel?
I had a really great time creating the Dealing in Dreams world. It’s rich and I hope a lot of Latinx kids are going to relate to this world and have fun finding out, discovering it. And so, maybe. Maybe I’ll go back and write some more in that world, because I had a really good time writing it.