Our Friend is Here! is a guest feature at The Quiet Pond, where authors, creatives, and fellow readers, are invited to ‘visit’ the Pond! In Our Friend is Here! guest posts, our visitors (as their very own unique character!) have a friendly conversation about anything related to books or being a reader — and become friends with Xiaolong and friends.
Our Friend is Here: Latinx Heritage Month Edition is a month-long event at The Quiet Pond, where between September 15th and October 15th, Latinx authors and bookish content creators are invited to celebrate being Latinx and Latinx books. Find the introduction post for Latinx Heritage Month at The Quiet Pond here.
Have you ever read a book where, within the first few chapters, you knew that it’d be your new favourite book? That was how I felt when I read Running by Natalia Sylvester. I was blown away and amazed by how tightly all the different themes and ideas of the book were interwoven – and that’s why I knew that I absolutely had to invite Natalia Sylvester to the Pond so I could discuss with her how awesome and thoughtful her book was and her thought processes behind writing Running!
I am so, so excited to have Natalia visiting us at the Pond today! Natalia visits us as a lilac alpaca, wearing Natalia’s treasured navy writing hoodie. If I could have had things my way, I would’ve asked her way more questions about Running, but I think the interview that I’m sharing with you all today is really cool and thought-provoking.
But before I share our interview, I want to seize the opportunity to formally introduce and talk about Natalia’s book, Running! If you haven’t read this book yet, please do! It’s an absolute must-read, and I cannot recommend it enough.
Running by Natalia Sylvester
When fifteen-year-old Cuban American Mariana Ruiz’s father runs for president, Mari starts to see him with new eyes. A novel about waking up and standing up, and what happens when you stop seeing your dad as your hero—while the whole country is watching.
In this thoughtful, authentic, humorous, and gorgeously written novel about privacy, waking up, and speaking up, Senator Anthony Ruiz is running for president. Throughout his successful political career he has always had his daughter’s vote, but a presidential campaign brings a whole new level of scrutiny to sheltered fifteen-year-old Mariana and the rest of her Cuban American family, from a 60 Minutes–style tour of their house to tabloids doctoring photos and inventing scandals. As tensions rise within the Ruiz family, Mari begins to learn about the details of her father’s political positions, and she realizes that her father is not the man she thought he was.
But how do you find your voice when everyone’s watching? When it means disagreeing with your father—publicly? What do you do when your dad stops being your hero? Will Mari get a chance to confront her father? If she does, will she have the courage to seize it?
I’ve probably alluded to it several times in my introduction, but I just love this book with my whole heart. Books about politics and being a young Cuban-American teen whose father is running for President, and I feel like Running delivers all the messages that younger readers need to hear: that it’s okay to not know everything but that it’s possible to change that, to be thoughtful in your politics, and to stand up for what you believe in.
Author Interview: Natalia Sylvester
CW: Hi Natalia! A big and warm welcome to The Quiet Pond! Thank you so much for visiting us today; we’re so excited to have you! For our friends out there who may only be meeting you for the first time, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Natalia: Thank you so much for inviting me; I’m so excited to be here! A bit about me: I’m the author of two novels for adults, Chasing the Sun and Everyone Knows You Go Home, and my third novel, Running, is my debut YA. I was born in Lima, Peru and came to the US when I was four, and I’ve called places like Miami, FL Gainesville, FL, Mission, TX and now Austin, TX home. I’m pretty fascinated by the concept of home, so my books tend to be very rooted in memory and place. I wear a navy blue hoodie when I write (it’s a whole thing) which is why my lovely pondsona is a llama in a hoodie!
CW: I recently read your latest YA book, Running and I loved it! I loved how you balanced themes of politics, privacy, interfamily dynamics, and activism, and it’s the sort of book that I would want all young readers to read. What was your motivation for writing a story that explores all of these themes concurrently?
Natalia: I’m so thrilled you loved it! Running was inspired by a moment when I was watching the 2016 election coverage and noticed the teenage child of one of the candidates standing in the background as he gave a speech. I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would be like to be expected to support someone you love—like your father—only to realize he stands against everything you believe. The book evolved from there and became about Mari first coming to terms with what her own beliefs are, finding her voice, and having to choose what to do with her power and privilege along the way.
The themes of politics, privacy, interfamily dynamics, and activism that you mention all came together organically; I feel they’re so intrinsically linked (especially at a time when social media plays such a huge role in activism). There’s also my own emotional motivation: I began writing Running in July of 2016, and after the election I struggled for months to even write a single page. I often say that I wrote myself back to a place of hope by writing this story.
CW: One of my favourite things about Running was Mariana’s growth across the book. In particular, I really liked that Mariana is allowed to be vulnerable whilst also confronting her ignorance to her father’s political position. Why did you choose to depict a teen girl whose story focuses on working through her ignorance? Did you have a goal in mind?
Natalia: I love that you mention Mari’s ignorance; it was so difficult to write, especially in the beginning, because I so badly wanted her to know better! But it was important for me to show her as someone who’s learning as she goes, because it’s a vulnerability I think so many of us can relate to. It’s hard, but essential, to confront our mistakes and complicity in harmful systems and policies.
I was also really interested in how we take these hard journeys to start questioning not only those around us, but ourselves, as we step into our sense of self. And this definitely applies to Mari as a young activist—she’s discovering who she is, discovering her power, and having to grapple with what to do with it. But I think in so many ways that’s where we’re finding ourselves culturally right now, regardless of our age. We’re having to reassess who we want to be as a country, as humans, as people whose choices are shaping the reality we all live in. So many of us are young and new to that journey.
CW: Something I also loved was how you have explored Mariana’s family and their dynamic. There’s a lot of tension in Mariana’s family, and that tension is a driving force in the novel, but it confronts some really tough familial relationships as well. What was the thought process behind fleshing out Mariana’s relationship with her family and making it a significant focus in Running?
Natalia: The spark of the book was always these family dynamics: it was first a book about disagreeing with your father, who just so happens to be running for president. At the same time, politics is always personal, so I never saw these elements as separate. I think that to separate the two would erase and ignore the fact that behind every policy those in power put into place, there are people: families and children and loved ones and friends.
One of my writerly obsessions is power dynamics and how they work at every level from the familial to the cultural to the legislative. So the fact that Mari is so afraid of speaking up in the beginning of the book, for instance—those are not only family dynamics at play, they’re also very gendered and very much influenced by Latinx culture. The idea that you should never talk back to your father, that a daughter’s support should be unconditional and that we should be calladita and bonita (quite and pretty) is so deeply embedded by all these forces. To write a character like Mari who’s navigating and breaking past them was such a joy. I felt so proud of her by the end! She’s someone who’s taught me so much, and inspired me.
CW: You’ve written two other adult books, Chasing the Sun and Everyone Knows You Go Home, and Running is your YA debut! What are you working on next?
Natalia: My next YA novel will be out in 2022! It’s about a Peruvian immigrant teen in Central Florida who has hip dysplasia, who’s had to navigate countless surgeries her whole life and is trying to become a mermaid at a famous theme park, all in one summer in which she’s also falling in love. It’s inspired by my own experiences with hip dysplasia and immigration, and it’s very much about finding a sense of home, both within our bodies and outside of them.
CW: Last question – and this is a question I love asking all my guests at the Pond! – what is a food that reminds you of home – whoever or whatever that may be?
Natalia: There’s a Peruvian fruit called lucuma that is my absolute favorite. It’s sweet but not too sweet, and it has a kind of grainy, earthy texture that always immediately reminds me of family and home.
Thank you again so much for having me!
About the Author
Born in Lima, Peru, Natalia Sylvester is an award-winning writer of novels, essays, and poetry. CHASING THE SUN was named the Best Debut Book of 2014 by Latinidad Magazine and EVERYONE KNOWS YOU GO HOME won an International Latino Book Award and the 2019 Jesse H. Jones Award for Best Work of Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters. Her third novel, RUNNING, is a 2020 Junior Library Guild Selection and is out now from Clarion Books/HMH. Sylvester’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, Bustle, Catapult, Latina magazine, and McSweeney’s Publishing, and are forthcoming in various anthologies. She received a BA in creative writing from the University of Miami and now lives and writes in Texas.