NoNieqa Ramos’ second young adult novel The Truth Is centers on a young queer Puerto Rican teenager named Verdad. In the text, published on September 3, the protagonist is struggling with the loss of her best friend, who died in a mass shooting, and falling in love with a new student in her class named Dani, a boy facing discrimination at home and school because he is transgender. In addition to exploring violence and LGBTQ issues, the novel also tackles internalized colonialism, anti-blackness and intergenerational conflicts between a mother and her daughter. However, one of the most interesting elements of Ramos’ novel is how it captures the way social media impacts queer youth of color as they figure out who they are. In The Truth Is, young people’s bodies and identities are always digitally on display for others to like, critique or comment on.
Throughout the book, Verdad seems to internalize the voices of her audience to the extent that it begins to shape her interiority. For example, when reflecting on her love of playing the violin and scanning her high school orchestra, she thinks to herself, Funny, you wouldn’t know there was any white people in this school unless you looked at the violinists. They fill every seat but mine. I guess we POCs are just supposed to play the bongos or something. Not that I have anything against bongos — I love you Tio Ray! #justsayin. Here, Ramos shows us how Verdad provides disclaimers to the world, even inside of her own private thoughts.
Verdad is a flawed character, one who is learning how centuries of colonialism are still present in her day-to-day interactions in the classroom and at home. She makes mistakes and, at times, says the wrong thing, even when she wants so desperately to say the right one. Ramos resists the demand Latine writers sometimes face to write perfect characters. She tells Remezcla, “I want our Latinx characters to have permission to fall down and to stumble and to make mistakes and to especially have permission as young people to get help back up.”
Here, Ramos discusses the need to have young Latine characters that are multifaceted and how the popularity of social media has shaped her writing style and approach to her characters, among much more.
I’m interested in how this novel is constructed, particularly the choice of first-person, the inclusion of disembodied phone texts and the imagined dialogue with Blanca’s ghost. While you were crafting the structure of the narrative, were you thinking about the ways our current reality, particularly the presence of social media, is shaping young people and how they tell their stories?
I think there’s never a time when a young person now has a completely isolated existence in the way that we would have had (I’m a child of the ‘90s). Now, there’s a constant influx of voices, so even a powerful voice is going to be besieged by whatever they’ve experienced, by their inner critic and also by the audience they always have. When I was writing this, I wanted to capture what that meant to be constantly besieged by this sea of voices. While the writing in this book is challenging, there is a code to it, and you definitely deconstructed it. There is Verdad in her first-person voice, which it opens with, but then there’s the constant chorus of her classmates and how they perceive her as well as her teachers. There’s a lot of noise to work through.
What inspired you to write this novel? It deals with so much: There are mass shootings, gender violence, anti-blackness, internalized colonialism, transphobia and more. How did you take on the challenge of dealing with all of these issues through a young person’s eyes?
Firstly, I take it on with a lot of fear and a lot of anxiety because I knew in creating a character that’s this flawed but this dynamic that I was taking risks. I feel that kind of stress anytime I think about my work being out there in the world. I know that there’s going to be multiple receptions of what I’ve created. I want to say that a young Latinx person is going to experience everything one at a time, but the fact is the minute you’re born in this world, as somebody who is coming from a colonized history and as somebody marginalized who is drinking from this poisoned well, you’re also sometimes subconsciously perpetuating things because this is the only water that you drank from or air that you breathed.
Verdad is very complicated, and she’s a child. I think a young person is a perfect person to embody this because she in many ways is not completely responsible. We as her educators or her parents are responsible. I see this book as an opportunity to go into these kinds of topics with the guidance and with the safety that I hope we as adults and educators can give to our kids, so we don’t have what happened in the book and things become physical. But the thing is, where are the guides for the kids going through this when all that they’re seeing from social media is warped, when they don’t see their stories being told? We’re all still so very uncomfortable.
Reading your book, there are so many distinctive stylistic elements inside of it. There is such a command of voice. I wondered who or what were some influences, YA authors, writers or poets, that inspired you as you were writing this text?
It’s not that there hasn’t always been Latinx writers — let me state that at the outset — but I wasn’t exposed to many of them, even growing up in the Bronx, which seems more and more ludicrous as I think back on it. I’m like, how did that happen? But we know how that happens. I’m finding myself going back and studying Latinx literature. But, as far as what it is that brought me to this place, I feel like the first voices I heard were my family’s voices, the voices of my tias in storytelling, loud storytelling. Storytelling that was an interweaving and knit this very complicated tapestry. I say this because it was not always linear. I’m thinking back to when I really started writing, and I was very small. I want to give credit to the natural inherent storytelling that was present in my family that I must have been listening to and absorbing. The matriarch in my family, my great tia Carmen, is one of the most brilliant, hilarious storytellers, and I just want to say to her, “Listen, tell me everything from the beginning.” So, they, my family, have to be initially responsible for making me want to be a storyteller. I was a poet to begin with. My tia Jessica helped guide me and encouraged me to speak whatever truth and to put things on paper. She made me believe it was possible, even though there were no examples.
I’m also part of Las Musas, a sisterhood and marketing collective of Latinx writers, which includes the founder Aida Salazar, writer of The Moon Within, Mia Garcia, writer of The Resolutions, and Rebecca Balcarcel, writer of The Other Half of Happy, among many more.
This book does such a good job at capturing a variety of different teenage voices, and it doesn’t belittle them or their challenges by making their struggles and successes look cute. How did you go about crafting Verdad’s voice and the voices of the other young people in this book?
I take a lot of time to hear each person as a separate entity and to make sure it’s not my own voice that I’m listening to. Sometimes, that means that the character is going to speak in ways that might take me some time to understand or I have to set aside my own judgement to allow that character to speak. Oftentimes, I think of it like the summoning of spirits. These are real entities to me, and I want to make sure I’m not stereotyping people. How I do this? It’s a lot of listening at the coffee shop or on social media. A lot of talking goes on via social media, but, for me, I’m mostly listening. I go on there specifically to hear people shout, yell, whisper and talk. But, thinking craft-wise, I ask myself, how would this character respond to these scenarios or these people? I put them in a lot of different rooms until I finally decide which rooms I’m going to keep inside my house or book.