YA Writer Tehlor Kay Mejia’s Debut Fantasy Book is a Feminist Story of Forbidden Love and Oppression

Tehlor Kay Mejia, 32, is lighting up the young literature scene with her dystopian feminist debut “We Set the Dark on Fire“. The book already has a 4.07 rating on Good Reads and Cosmopolitan hailed it as one of the best YA books of this year so the hype is strong for this Latinx read. Mejia, who is Mexican-American and was born and raised in Oregon where she still lives, feels passionate about the representation of Latinx in the media and the oppression the community faces. Using fantasy as a way to explore these topics, she developed the novel about Dani Vargas, a top-student at the Medio School for Girls where they train them to either run their husband’s household or raise his children. Vargas’ paperwork is a lie her parents worked to attain for her to be in such a position of privilege and now she’s faced with forbidden love and a chance to help the resistance. She’s torn between following her heart or disappointing her parents and the sacrifices they made for her.

Mejia is a self-proclaimed bruja who has altars set up in her home and works with stones, crystals and herbs also included a little bit of herself in the story through tarot cards, used as a form of communication among the resistance. Her grounding forces include the ancestors she feels connected to that she says guide her through the stress of work, as well as her six-year-old daughter. She’s a big fan of Twitter to connect with fellow Latinx writers and building a community within the Latinx diaspora as well as talk about the issues Latinx face today, especially in the current political climate.

Read on to learn about how she developed Dani’s character, her own battles with privilege, and how the story is a commentary on the oppression and marginalization Latinas and queer Latinx face. “We Set the Dark on Fire” is out February 26. 

Can you tell me a little  bit about your background and how you got into writing?

I remember being really into stories from a really young age, but while the kids around me were kind of passively enjoying them I was always picking them apart, looking for what made them work and forming all these funny little kid opinions about how they could be better. When I got older, high school age and into my twenties, I realized the books I loved (mostly speculative fiction – fantasy and science fiction) never had characters I could truly relate to. I was always having to stretch to imagine myself in their lives, having their adventures, but I didn’t really believe I could write stories about people like me until I read “Gabi, A Girl in Pieces” by Isabel Quintero. Suddenly I could imagine it, and then there was no stopping me.

You’ve had your work published in anthologies, can you tell me about those stories and what that was like for you?

When I was approached to do “All Out: The No-Longer Secret Stories of Queer Teens throughout the Ages”, I hadn’t yet sold my debut novel, so I was really nervous. I was by far the most inexperienced author on the project. My story for that collection, “Healing Rosa”, was one of the first short stories I’d ever written, and since it was a historical project it was really important to me to show that there has been joy in our cultures in other eras. That toil and struggle and oppression existed, as they do now, but that we’ve always been capable of finding joy within our circumstances. For the second project – “Toil & Trouble”, which is a Young Adult anthology with a witchcraft theme – I was more conscious of the theme, and the way most people would probably approach it as fantasy. Even though I’m a fantasy writer, so much of what ‘witchcraft’ means to me is pretty ordinary. It’s family altars and limpias and tarot as part of daily life. I really wanted to show as part of that group of stories that witchiness has been a daily expression of faith in our (and many other) cultures for generations, and that it’s not all flying brooms and magic wands. So that’s how “Starsong” – a story about a social media obsessed teen bruja living in southern California – came to be.

Why did you decide to go into YA fantasy lit?

Fantasy has always been what I loved to read, I’ve been fascinated for as long as I can remember by the ways authors use world-building as a metaphor and a window into the truth of our experiences. I didn’t settle on YA until later, when I realized how sorely our communities were lacking stories that we could relate to, and how much that had shaped me as a reader and a writer. There’s still this toxic stereotype in so much of this country that Latinx kids are less interested in reading than their white peers, and I really feel so much of that is due to the historical lack of representation in children’s literature – and of course a lot of it is also just plain old stereotyping and prejudice. There are so many amazing Latinx authors working so hard in kid-lit to correct these wrongs, and I’m really grateful to get to join in that fight this year.

 What inspired you to develop “We Set the Dark on Fire”?

I’ve always been interested in the roles women are reduced to in societies, currently, throughout history, and across various cultural and national divides. The one thing that seems to remain consistent is our obsession as a society with women as one of two things: Beautiful and soft and nurturing – which comes with a connotation of being weak, or driven and ambitious and powerful – which so often strips us of our femininity in the eyes of the world. I feel that the more intersectional, or the further from the default, we are as women, the more obsessed society comes with classifying or categorizing us. I wanted to explore, using a fantasy world as the backdrop, what it looks like when women are forced into those roles by law, what happens when they refuse to be confined by them, and the effect on patriarchal, oppressive societies when they reject those roles.

 What was the writing process like?

Long! I wrote the first draft of this book – which was very different – over three years ago. I’m a little non-traditional as I didn’t go to college for writing (or at all…), so a lot of what I’ve learned about the process has happened thanks to generous people in this industry (agents, other authors, editors, etc) being willing to give me feedback. There was a lot of writing, and rewriting, and learning, and growing, but I’m grateful to have found people along the way that believe in the story and were willing to help me get it there. My process has changed a lot for subsequent books, but it definitely continues to be inspired by my growing anger over the state of the world and the treatment of marginalized people in it.

 What were some of the challenges in writing your debut novel? What has been the greatest reward so far?

The challenges, for me, have been mostly internal. Do I have the skill to tell this story? Will anyone want to hear it when I do? I’m a third generation Latina, and a biracial woman, so a lot of it has been coming to terms with that privilege, being honest as I reflect it – and the process of learning how to use it for good – on the page. The greatest reward by far has been hearing from Latina readers who connected with the story and saw themselves in the main character and her family. Of course that’s the hope when you write who you are and what you love, but I couldn’t have possibly predicted how amazing it would feel when it actually happened.

Can you describe Dani Vargas? How did you develop her character?

Dani is incredibly ambitious, and she really applies herself to any task she’s given. She has a really strong sense of duty to her parents for the sacrifices they’ve made to give her the life she has, even while sometimes she wonders if it’s the right life for her. Innately, she’s a girl who has a strong sense of what’s right. For her whole life she’s been told one thing is right, and when that view is questioned she’s very mixed up. But she has that strong internal compass that eventually guides her to make the right choice even when it’s incredibly difficult and at odds with what she was raised to do.There’s a lot of me in Dani, definitely, but as the story grew I wanted to explore that sense of duty in so many Latinx families, the intense desire to do right by our parents and make them proud, but also the complications that can arise when what they want is outdated or old fashioned and we have to grow up and make our own choices about what’s right.

 What made you choose a Latina heroine?

I thought for a long time that if I was going to write in this industry I’d have to erase parts of myself. That people wouldn’t respond to the characters I’d always longed to see in a book. Choosing a Latina heroine – and a queer one, specifically – meant a lot of giving up expectations. Just choosing to be brave and hope that people responded to it.

 What do you hope readers get out of this book?         

It’s so complicated, because as an author there are so many things I hope people notice, or pick up on, or appreciate about the book. But at the end of the day, I hope it’s clear that I wrote it as a love letter to queer Latina girls who refuse to allow the world to box them in. I hope those girls find it, and love it, and find whatever they need to in it. That’s my dream for the book.

It’s described as a feminist novel about family and freedom, how did decide what values you’d promote in this book as a POC?

That definitely comes back to privilege again, for me. There were a lot of things I had to say about immigration, and homophobia, and the humanizing or dehumanizing of POC in this world. But, again, I have a lot of privilege as a white/passing Latina from a mixed background, and there are lots of people telling those stories from a more authentic place than I could.

What I felt like I wanted to explore was the idea of your family making sacrifices for you to have a better life, which is woven all throughout my personal history. I wanted to show how sometimes that “better life” and all the privileges associated with it can sometimes distance you from feeling like you belong in your own world, and what to do when you come to terms with the fact that those sacrifices gave you privilege. The duty you feel to the people who gave you that life, even while you’re not sure where you fit in it. Do you embrace it, and erase pieces of yourself to fit in? Or do you find ways to weaponize the privilege and use it to fight back against the people wielding it against your community?

Did you always envision it as a duology? What can we expect in book two?

Yes! It’s always been intended to be two parts. There’s not a lot I can say about the sequel without giving anything away about the first book, but I will say that while “We Set the Dark on Fire” has a pretty straightforward government vs. the resistance theme, the sequel take is to the outer island and deeper into the rebellion. It explores what a resistance really is, and how harmful power structures and patriarchal values can be found even in spaces that appear to be radical.

How would you describe the novel to someone who is skeptical about reading YA fantasy?

I’d say that YA fantasy is one of the most interesting, fierce, powerful things happening in literature right now, and they’re missing out on way more than just my book if they’re skeptical of it  But also that even though it’s a fantasy, there really are a lot of things about it that are inspired by this world, about the struggles that are mounting daily for immigrants and marginalized groups under this administration, and that if you’re political and interested and angry about those things there is probably something for you in this book.

 Did you draw inspiration from other novels for your debut? If so, which?

Yes, absolutely. I mentioned Isabel Quintero before, but her book “Gabi, A Girl in Pieces” showed me that there was room for mixed up kids that looked and felt like me in literature. This book wouldn’t exist without her. For prose, there’s hardly anyone better right now than Anna-Marie McLemore, who’s taking our stories and making them these dark, whimsical fairytales. Zoraida Córdova’s “Labyrinth Lost” was the first time I saw a fantasy with a Latina MC, which was really revolutionary and inspiring as I was writing this book.  Finally, Sabaa Tahir’s Ember Quartet is some of the most incredible, political, fast-paced revolutionary fantasy out there right now, and I’ve always been so inspired by her books and just her as a WoC kicking ass in this industry.

 How do you feel about being a POC in the literary world?

As I’ve said, I do operate with a lot of privilege in POC circles because of colorism and a whole bevy of other toxic structures that uplift whiteness and proximity to whiteness. Of course, there are struggles unique to being who I am and writing what I write, and there have been hard times, and frustrating times. But I try to mostly focus on using the toxic structures and the places they benefit me to call them out, and to know when to step back, and to hopefully remind publishing whenever possible that cherry-picking a few token POC that will be palatable to a white audience isn’t nearly radical enough.

 Lastly, what do you have in store for the future?

The sequel will be out next year, which is a busy one for me. I also have a new Middle Grade series starting with the Rick Riordan Presents imprint in May of next year. The book is called “Paola Santiago and the Drowned Palace” and it’s based on the myth of La Llorona featuring a STEM obsessed 12-year-old Latina.  And lastly, I have co-written a magical realism YA novel called “Meteor”, which I was lucky enough to work on with the supremely talented Anna-Marie McLemore, out in August of next year.


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