Maya Motayne on Writing Latinx Magic into Fantasy Debut Nocturna

In Maya Motayne’s Nocturna, out tomorrow, Finn Voy is a faceshifter who can pick up and discard other people’s appearances at will. She uses her magic as both disguise and weapon—until she’s captured by a mobster and threatened with its loss. Her only way out? Infiltrating the palace and stealing a treasure out of legend. In the palace, younger Prince Alfie is still reeling from the murder of his brother, and his own ascension to first in line for the throne. His grief and feelings of inadequacy lead him to consider necromantic magic…and when his path and Finn’s collide, it heralds the rise of a terrible and long-gone power best left forgotten.

To celebrate its release, Motayne shares an early, painful inspiration for a book that blooms with Latinx culture, language, and magic.

In my high school, we called AP Human Geography class AP Coloring.

It was a course seniors clamored to take since we were assured by recent graduates that, at most, we would be coloring in maps. For the most part, they were right. Acing the class was easy. However, AP Human Geography ended up being one of my most difficult classes for other, unexpected reasons. It was in this class that I swallowed my first dose of blatant racism from an authority figure I was supposed to trust and respect. At least, the first one I clearly remember.

It was 2010, Barack Obama was still in his first term as president, superhero movies had yet to take over in an all-encompassing way, and I was a high school senior. Like any other weekday, I’d rolled out of bed and made my way to class just before the 7:25 a.m. bell rang. My homeroom teacher, a surly man who was just as eager to teach Human Geography as we were to learn it, wheeled the fat-monitored TV front and center so that we could all suffer through yet another episode of the school’s morning announcements show.

The announcements ended with a taping of the Spanish Honors Society—a group of almost entirely white kids—saying the pledge of allegiance in Spanish. I barely reacted as they inadvertently butchered the words. This was normal. After all, hearing well-intentioned white kids mangle Spanish happened every day in sixth-period AP Spanish class. What was far from normal was the look of distaste that twisted my teacher’s face as the announcements ended. He shook his head and turned off the monitor.

“They shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “That’s wrong. It’s meant to be in English. Not that.”

That was the language I’d grown up hearing in my home as the daughter of a Dominican mother. He’d skipped the word entirely like it was Voldemort’s name: Spanish, The-Language-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

His words struck me like a slap. My face, ears, and neck got hot. He reacted as if speaking the pledge in Spanish leached it of honor, meaning, historical relevance, and all things American. I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of my presence in his classroom if my language wasn’t welcome. He’d referred to Spanish as if it was inappropriate, as if the Spanish Honors Society had shouted a stream of expletives instead of just reciting the pledge in my home language. It rattled me to the core.

Even more upsetting was the silence from my peers. The other students just went on with their usual mumbling as they took out their binders to take notes. I was the only LatinX kid in the room (a common occurrence in my school), and it struck me that if something was going to be said, it was going to have to come from me. I desperately wanted to say something, anything. To defend myself and my family, to say that we were just as American as any English speaker, but my lips were glued shut. I shrunk in my seat and said nothing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d been made to feel like my family wasn’t welcome in this country before that moment. I’d watched plenty of people make comments and give my mother disapproving glares when she spoke Spanish, but those people were strangers. This was my teacher, in my school—a place where we were taught to question our biases, to debate, to expand our horizons. It didn’t make any sense.

It was painful, and it never ends.

At this point, rarely does a week go by without a viral video of someone berating a LatinX person for daring to speak Spanish in public. Shouts of “This is America, speak English!” echo through the feeds of every social media website. It happens so quickly that they blur together into a chorus of angry soundbites, a zoetrope of red cap–wearing, red-faced aggressors shouting slurs and threats.

From a young age, I’d learned to carry the pain of this prejudice quietly, but the effect of this racism left its mark. I am a first-generation American and the daughter of a Dominican mother, but I worked hard to make sure that wasn’t obvious. I shied away from speaking Spanish or learning about my culture. I distanced myself from anything that would seem stereotypically LatinX, from the clothes I wore to the music I listened to, to the food I brought for lunch and my insistence on straightening my hair. It had been made clear to me at an early age that reaching for that part of myself made me un-American. I mourn the parts of myself that I lost during those years—no, not lost, gave away—in hopes of seeming like a normal, American kid. In pursuit of the “American” ideal, I hacked away at the connections to my ancestry every chance I could.

Now, as adults, my first-generation cousins and I lament how we were shamed into hating our culture and, in essence, ourselves. We cling to new ways of connecting to our heritage—stories from our older relatives who grew up on the island and speak of it as if it were a living, breathing person; in-depth cooking lessons from our parents where there are no measurements, only gut instincts on when to stop adding oregano, garlic, and Goya; Spotify playlists of essential Dominican music. Still, we’ll never fully recover what we traded away.

When I started writing my book Nocturna, I chose to stop uprooting myself from my heritage and to instead firmly plant myself in it.  As I wrote and rewrote and revised, it became clear to me that I was writing this book for the LatinX kids who have been told to prune every petal of their culture from themselves until only bare branches remain. I wanted to give them a story that told them to hold on to every ounce of themselves in the face of bigotry. To treasure the pieces of themselves that the prejudiced and narrow-minded would call foreign, unwanted, un-American, inappropriate, ghetto, and so on. I wanted to remind them that their culture and the languages they heard growing up do not make them less than—they make them powerful.

So I put pen to paper and wrote the adventure of a prince, a thief, and the LatinX kingdom that they lived in. A kingdom where your connection to your heritage and the language of your ancestry is your magic. A kingdom where the language of magic is Spanish. There is no “Wingardium Leviosa” here, only Spanish words like “flotar” and “subir.” I created a kingdom of brown-skinned, curly-haired people who found magic in their culture and language, in the rolling r’s, melodic trills, and quick snaps of Spanish. I wrote this book for a younger me—a girl who didn’t think she belonged because of where her family was from and the language she spoke. The girl who sat silently in AP Human Geography class, too nervous to speak up out of fear of  being different. And if you’ve ever felt that way, then I wrote it for you, too.

Like so many others in this country, I was raised to be ashamed of my home language, but in my book, Spanish is magic. Spanish is power. In my book, it’s a different story.

If I could speak to that teacher today, I would be far from silent. I would tell him that speaking the pledge in other languages makes it stronger, more inclusive and reflective of the world we live in. I would remind him of the countless contributions made in this nation by people who speak different languages and come from different countries. I would tell him they deserve to hear the pledge (should they want to say it) in their languages, because their languages belong in America as much as apple pie, Captain America, and fireworks on the fourth of July.

Or maybe I would just throw my book at him, who knows?

There are many things I hope you take away from my story, but if you can only take one thing, I hope it’s this: culture is magic. Your culture is magic. Never give it up, never surrender it. Because when you do, you surrender yourself along with it, and who you are is worth fighting for.

Nocturna hits shelves May 7, and is available for preorder now.

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