By Alaina Leary
Today we’re pleased to welcome Anna-Marie McLemore to the WNDB blog to discuss their young adult novel The Mirror Season, out March 16, 2021!
When two teens discover that they were both sexually assaulted at the same party, they develop a cautious friendship through her family’s possibly-magical pastelería, his secret forest of otherworldly trees, and the swallows returning to their hometown, in Anna-Marie McLemore’s The Mirror Season…
Graciela Cristales’ whole world changes after she and a boy she barely knows are assaulted at the same party. She loses her gift for making enchanted pan dulce. Neighborhood trees vanish overnight, while mirrored glass appears, bringing reckless magic with it. And Ciela is haunted by what happened to her, and what happened to the boy whose name she never learned.
But when the boy, Lock, shows up at Ciela’s school, he has no memory of that night, and no clue that a single piece of mirrored glass is taking his life apart. Ciela decides to help him, which means hiding the truth about that night. Because Ciela knows who assaulted her, and him. And she knows that her survival, and his, depend on no one finding out what really happened.
Something that stands out to me is that The Mirror Season explores sexual assault survivors outside of the typical narratives we see (primarily white, cis, straight women). Why do you think it’s important to open up the canon, especially within YA, of which types of sexual assault survivors we tell stories about?
I wrote about Ciela, a queer Latina girl, because that’s how I identified when I was assaulted. That was my experience. And it’s still part of my experience as a nonbinary survivor. I am Latinx, I am queer, I still have part of me that identifies as a girl. I’m also trans and nonbinary, and there’s part of me that identifies as a boy. So I had to write about a survivor who’s a queer Latina girl and a survivor who’s a boy because I am queer, I am Latinx, I am a girl, I am a boy, and I am a survivor.
Though I’m grateful for ongoing conversations about consent, trauma, assault, and being a survivor, they often center an experience that just isn’t familiar to me. There often didn’t seem to be space for my identities in those conversations. And I know I’m not alone in that. Discourse that leaves out communities fails those communities. So the more stories we have that represent our world, then the more survivors, and readers in general, have the chance to have their identities affirmed and experiences reflected.
Many of your works are retellings or remixes of classic stories and fairy tales, and The Mirror Season is no exception. Why did the story of the Snow Queen pull you in? Why did you want to retell this story with these characters?
As much as I loved (and hated, but we’ll get to that in a minute) “The Snow Queen” growing up, I never much related to the central character, Gerda. I was always much more curious about the Snow Queen herself—what happened to make her more at home in a freezing world? What do we not know about this character we so easily accept as a villain?
There’s also a lot of Kai, the boy in “The Snow Queen,” in Lock. Kai is a kind-hearted boy who becomes cruel after an encounter with a shard of glass. Lock is a soft-hearted boy who hardens himself against the world after a traumatic experience.
To return to the idea of vilified characters, the only brown character I saw in “The Snow Queen,” unless you want to count the reindeer, was a cringe-worthy depiction referred to as the Little Robber Girl. That left a painful impression on me as a mixed-race kid, that I only got to see myself as an impediment to a main character’s journey. I wanted to question those assumptions, and I started by putting a Latina girl at the center of this story. So Ciela is partly an answer to that character, and partly an answer to those questions I had about the Snow Queen.
As a survivor, I imagine it was difficult to write this book—that’s how I often feel when I’m writing creative nonfiction about being a survivor. It can be both cathartic and re-traumatizing. Did you have any specific self-care plans in place for writing and revising? Do you have a process for promoting this book that will prioritize your mental health?
Whenever we write personal stories, we’re going to have places that hurt, and I think knowing them and acknowledging them is an act of self-care. Being told how “likable” or “relatable” Ciela is or isn’t might be harder than it’s been with previous books because the truth is that how “likable” or “relatable” I am has probably made a difference in whether I’ve been believed as a survivor. That’s hard to think about, but knowing what hurts is a kind of strength. Knowing yourself is a kind of strength.
I think the biggest thing I did in terms of self-care with this book is when I chose to write it. I’ve reported, but I don’t know the outcome yet. It’s in that space, where justice is still a possibility, that I’m living right now. That’s a hopeful place I can speak from, not because my hope depends on the outcome, but because I’m in the same place Lock and Ciela are, of not knowing, but finding their voices.
Ciela, one of the main characters in the book, is a pastelería witch. Do you like to bake? What inspired you to explore this specific type of magic? What’s your favorite dessert?
I come from a family where food is its own kind of magic. I love cooking and baking, and I love writing about food. It’s nourishing and sensory, and it speaks to who we are and where we come from. Pan dulce has a special resonance to me. It’s not only beautiful and complex, it’s a skill. It’s its own language. And even as someone who loves baking, making pan dulce has been a hard skill to build up.
Recently on a panel, I was asked how I’m doing with perfecting my pan dulce. I think I said that I’m still making cautious friends with the yeast-rising process, but that I can make a really beautiful pink sugar shell, and that a beautiful sugar shell can hide a multitude of baking sins (whether those sins are reading a measurement wrong, mistiming a dough’s rise, or possibly angering an ancestor who made the best pan dulce in your family. Not that I’ve ever done any of those).
Are you a plotter or a panster, and did that change in this book? Did you follow your usual writing process or diverge in any way?
Though my process varies from book to book, usually it takes me a while into the process to recognize a character’s emotional journey, even if it’s been there on the page the whole time. But for The Mirror Season, I think I knew that about Ciela and Lock earlier on. These are two characters who, by rediscovering their magic through secret forests and enchanted pan dulce, find the strength of their own hearts.
Ciela and Lock’s relationship is strongly built on consent and respect, which is something I deeply appreciate as a survivor. Why did you want to explore what consent looks like after assault? Trust can be difficult to rebuild after an assault as the survivor heals. How did you explore the depth of consent aside from just the more obvious physical aspects?
I wanted to incorporate the idea of consent as more complex than a one-time answer because it is. Despite the deep attraction to each other that predates both of their assaults, Ciela and Lock are okay being touched on some days, and not okay with it on other days. That’s something they both respect because of how viscerally they understand it.
Consent in this story is also related to emotional labor. Lock asks before telling Ciela his story, because he knows it costs something to listen to someone else’s pain, and he doesn’t want to put that on her if she doesn’t want it. Later in the story, Ciela wants to tell Lock what she knows about his assault, and he says he doesn’t want to know; he’s not ready. As much as Ciela wants to tell him, she also knows she has to respect his no. He doesn’t consent to hear that information at that time, so she honors that.
If you were designing your dream panel for this book, what would the topic be? What other authors would you love to have on it with you?
So this is the part that probably means I’m a better panelist than panel organizer, but here goes: A few brilliant authors I’d be honored to be in conversation with are E.K. Johnston, Brandy Colbert, I.W. Gregorio, and Aisha Saeed. There’s probably a constellation of topics we could talk about related to identity, self-care, mental health, the body, trauma, community, and the things we love.
Ciela’s magic is rattled by the trauma she goes through but finds her way back to her magic. What do you hope that survivors who read your book—especially if they are still freshly processing their trauma—will take away from this?
That we’re survivors, and we’re also more than we’ve survived. Ciela finds ways back into her own magic with her family’s pan dulce by helping Lock with his secret forest, and by confronting the mirrors that are trying to make her face what happened. We all have our mirrors. We also all have our magic. We deserve that magic. And we deserve to heal, to live, to hold the truth of our own hearts.
Are there any published or forthcoming books you can recommend?
A few titles from the authors I mention above: E.K. Johnston, Exit, Pursued by the Bear; Aisha Saeed, Written in the Stars; Brandy Colbert, Pointe (Brandy’s recent The Voting Booth is also not to be missed); I.W. Gregorio, This is My Brain in Love (felicidades to the author on the recent Schneider Family Book Award!).
Thank you so much for having me!
Anna-Marie McLemore was born in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains and taught by their family to hear la llorona in the Santa Ana winds. They are the author of The Weight of Feathers, a finalist for the 2016 William C. Morris Debut Award; 2017 Stonewall Honor Book When the Moon Was Ours, which was longlisted for the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature and was the winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Award; Wild Beauty, Blanca & Roja, Dark and Deepest Red, and The Mirror Season.
Alaina (Lavoie) is the communications manager of We Need Diverse Books. They also teach in the graduate department of Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College and are a book reviewer for Booklist. Alaina received a 2017 Bookbuilders of Boston scholarship for their work in the publishing industry. Alaina’s writing has been published in New York Times, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Refinery29, Allure, Healthline, Glamour, The Oprah Magazine, and more. Alaina currently lives in Boston with their wife and two literary cats. Follow Alaina @AlainasKeys on Instagram and Twitter.