INTERVIEW: OITNB Star Selenis & Activist Marizol Leyva Create an Expansive Portrait of Girlhood in ‘My Sister’

Courtesy of Bold Type Books

Marizol and Selenis Leyva’s inspiring memoir My Sister is the moving story of two Latinas who grew up in the Bronx in the nineties. Marizol’s perspective and coming out story as a trans woman is at the center of the narrative. Through their alternating chapters, Marizol and Selenis manage to create an expansive portrait of girlhood that includes and celebrates trans women of color.

In the book, Orange Is the New Black star Selenis also explores the challenges she faced as a teen, being one of the few Latinas at LaGuardia high school in the nineties. Meanwhile activist and model Marizol shares some of her painful experiences as a trans Afro-Latina with little to no role models who looked like her.

“I had no trans mother figure,” she tells Remezcla. “I was often silent and living in pain.”

My Sister is an important and unique memoir that feels as though it should be required reading in Latinx literature classes. We spoke with both sisters about the challenges of reconstructing memory, co-authoring a book and the importance of increasing the representation of trans women of color in literature.

Remezcla: What was it like to co-author a book with somebody you grew up with and love so much? 

Marizol: It was an amazing experience first and foremost! I got to learn more about my sister and learn about things I didn’t know. 

Selenis: The process was difficult at times because there is so much love. We had to live through experiences painful to us both and our family. This type of recollection could only be done when you have a safe and loving space.

Marizol, was it challenging reconstructing your life for the page and making sense of how you were misgendered as a child? What was that writing process like? 

M: It was a completely challenging experience reconstructing my life on-page, for the simple fact that I had to relive all of that pain and trauma all over again. Doing this book was a start for me to finally heal in a way I have never imagined. I am still working on my healing. It does not happen overnight! Take all the time you need. 

Selenis, you write about how you took care of Marizol when she was young, but you also mention how she helped you when you were a teenager going to LaGuardia because the high school was not very diverse in the nineties and you often felt alienated. Can you talk a bit more about that experience?

S: La Guardia was the school I dreamed of going to. When I arrived, however, I felt alienated and lonely. Leaving the Bronx, my friends, all that was familiar to me was scary. Returning home especially that first year and stepping off the D train back in my neighborhood always felt right. When I would walk through the door for my house, Marizol would always greet me with a huge smile and literally cheer! That would make me smile or laugh.. it was good to feel loved. As I got more comfortable in my new school those greetings still meant a lot.

Selenis you mention in the introduction that sometimes yours and Marizol’s memories differed. What did writing teach you both about the nature of memory?

S: Memory is clearly affected, I believe, by where you were at that point and time in your life. If you were in a positive place—a good place—things and situations affect you differently and vice versa.

M: What it taught me is that communication with family is important! Sharing our memories helped us a lot throughout this writing process!

What inspired you both to put your stories on the page? What do you hope readers will learn from this memoir?

S: I was inspired by what was clearly a lack of representation for transgender people who weren’t famous or rich. When Kaitlyn Jenner appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, I was so happy for her. Then quickly I thought, ‘This isn’t my sister’s experience. This isn’t how many Latinx and Black trans people will be seen or accepted.’ I knew that it was crucial to open up the conversation to be inclusive not just for my sister and our family but for countless others as well. I hope readers will use this book as a guide, a resource book. I am hoping people will read our story and have more empathy, more understanding about what transgender folk experience. This book is our way of telling people ‘Even if you don’t understand or agree, you still have to respect.’ I hope families who have someone transitioning can take away the importance of supporting a loved one. I am hopeful that our story will save lives and families.

M: What really inspired me to put my story out there was that as a trans woman of color  I spent many lonely nights alone with pain that I could have never imagined and the reality is that I am not the only one who experiences this type of loneliness, pain and trauma. I share our story to give hope to my LGBTQ+ community, to let them know that they aren’t alone! I want our book to uplift my readers and make them stronger! And for the family with LGBTQ+ sons and daughters, I hope what you take away from our book is that it’s ok to accept your child and love them regardless of who they are! We need you! It starts at home. Let’s do better. 

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So humbled and grateful for the feedback we are getting! What a fantastic review!!! 🔥🔥🔥😭😭😭🤗🤗🤗 #repost @thefreckledbookworm ・・・ 🌿📖 #TheForgottenBookshelf ↠ a feminist voice __________________________________________________ MY SISTER : HOW ONE SIBLING'S TRANSITION CHANGED US BOTH #thefreckledreviews . I feel like anything I will write will not do this book justice. This is an absolutely amazing #ownvoices memoir. I really appreciated the dual perspective, and both sisters admitted that some of their memories/perceptions might differ, and they decided to embrace those differences. Which makes this book all the more authentic. – The book is separated in three parts : before Marizol, during the transition, and after. At first I was a bit reluctant to read Selenis' part, as I've often read absolutely inaccurate works on this matter, always by cis people. But it was very well done. – They are telling this story, with all of its horrible truths, so that no one feels alone and so that the world can understand the importance of support. And to STOP stigmatizing trans people. Selenis writes that they feel cheated, because their initial lack of knowledge resulted in so much pain for Marizol. Had they known all of this before, she could've grown into her true-self before. So this is why they wrote this book. – Always, ALWAYS REMEMBER : "I want to be clear that it is never okay to call out or refer to a trans individual by their birth name […] to do so is an act of violence, one that demeans and insults and harms." – "Though she was assigned male at birth […] Marizol has always been a woman." – So thank you. For writing this book. It takes a lot of courage to open up in such an intimate way. . #witchesofbookstagram #bookishflatlay #avidreader #readersofinstagram #bookstagramit #readerslife #bookworm #booknerd #bookblogger #springreads #bookstagram #bookstagrammer

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