By Steve Dunk
Today we’re pleased to welcome Lilliam Rivera to the WNDB blog to discuss We Light Up the Sky, out October 26, 2021!
Let’s start off with an easy one, where did the inspiration for We Light Up the Sky come from?
Well, I grew up reading things like Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and watching science fiction shows like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Twilight Zone, anything sci-fi basically. And I’ve always wanted tackle those mediums with the question, “What would a person of color do in those situations, and how would we react if someone landed here on Earth?” I started thinking about how would I react? How would my brothers react if something like that happened? I’ve always wanted to write that kind of a story.
I’ve been living in Los Angeles for 20 years now, moving here from the Bronx, New York, and LA to me is very dystopian, I don’t know why, but it is, and that’s one of the reasons why I like living here. And so I live right by Fairfax High School and I always have high school kids running around near my house. And a couple of years ago, three years ago I think, Elon Musk had some sort of satellite that was kind of like flying around Fairfax, or around this neighborhood. And I remember reading about it and was like, “Oh it’s outside, let me go look!” and I stepped outside of my house and there was nothing up in the sky, I had missed it. But then these Latino kids, Latinx kids, are in front of my house and they were about to take off on rental scooters after it, and they heard me say that I missed it, and one of the kids was like “Oh no, we got it!” And so they all showed me their phones, and you could see these like alien spacecraft on their phones, you know, over Fairfax. And it was just such a surreal moment because we were all so giddy about it.
And I could just imagine these kids chasing after this craft, and what that might look like for a city that’s very much a city of privilege, especially where I live. So it’s this idea of all these kids who have to take the bus, and spending a lot of their time here in the city, and what that looks like to them. So, I loved this idea of tackling that first contact story through the eyes of these three young brown kids, high school kids.
Yeah, you know, let’s say we ever encountered something like that, a first contact type of situation, in many ways it would really be the great equalizer, wouldn’t it? Money and privilege wouldn’t matter as much.
Oh yeah, you’re right. I mean in a lot of ways it’s just who gets to be saved, or who gets to be looked at, and I’m always thinking about that.
I was going to ask this question a bit later, but you mentioned your hometown of Los Angeles, and it does play a significant role in this story, it’s almost another character. Was the idea to always have it set in LA? It kind of sounds like it was.
Yeah it was. You know, all my previous books for the most part have been set in the Bronx, but I really wanted to set this particular story in my second home.
Right, I’m 45 years old and like you, grew up watching a ton of science fiction, and just thinking about it you could list a whole bunch of books and movies that are set in LA, it seems to be a very popular spot for science fiction.
One of the things I liked about We Light Up the Sky is that it works as both a genre piece and a character driven story. I’m curious about which came first, and which do you most see it as if you had to pick one?
All my stories start out as character driven stories, then I incorporate the genre elements into it. We Light Up the Sky is told through the eyes of these young kids and whatever emotions they’re going through at the time.
And I knew I wanted to do an alien invasion kind of story, but I was also inspired by another very LA movie, Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean and Natalie Wood. It was one of those movies that I watched in high school and loved right away. And I was like, oh, this is the emotion that I want. I want a brown version of those outcast kids coupled with an alien invasion, you know, these kinds of estranged kids who are not friends on the outset and then force them into this situation.
Since we’re talking about aliens here, in your book, the aliens who presumably come from another planet are treated as the invasive species and are thwarted by a group of Latinx teenagers. Unfortunately in the United States right now, it’s the Latinx communities who are treated like the invasive species. Talk about how important representation is right now for the Latin Americans who are feeling not only left out of the American dream but beaten down too, physically in many cases.
Yeah, I mean for the most part, most of the books that I write have always come from the point of view of a Latinx, you know. And I just really wanted the focus of this book to be about the choices that are made, how brown and Black kids are looked upon as the enemy right off the bat, and there’s no other way of thinking about it. And then when a catastrophe happens, you just know who gets saved and who doesn’t, time after time.
But I just know in my heart of hearts that whenever a catastrophe does happen, I know that these kids, these brown and Black kids, are going to be the survivors. Because we’ve already had to survive, we’ve already survived all of these other catastrophes and traumas that have been placed upon us for centuries.
One of the other big issues that you look at in the book is poverty and homelessness. In this case, specifically in the Latinx community, which is a good chunk of it, especially in Los Angeles. Rafa’s family, when we meet them anyways, relies on generosity and kindness from the community and the church to get by. But still, the father in particular remains a proud person. Maintaining their dignity is really important to them, to this family, as I would think it is to most homeless people.
I don’t know if you have any experience, but do you think the government, or enough of the country will ever care enough about the homeless population to finally solve it? Or is it just a never-ending cycle?
I grew up in a housing project, so I grew up in kind of like an experiment, right? Because of this, because I grew up in that situation, I have really strong opinions about them and this idea of affordable housing. Walking through Manhattan, seeing and knowing that most of those affordable places are empty because they can be, they can afford to stay empty, it’s insane, right? And we know there are many people who can’t afford anything at all, and they are living on the street, and here are these buildings that are completely empty, it’s disturbing.
I know of kids who are just trying to maintain, just trying to get by, so the idea of “Rafa” comes from a very specific kind of person. His family specifically, they’re living in a tent; they get to shower through the church, the church is helping them in other ways as well, but everything is very temporary. And I know kids who have to do that and who also might not even have that much. But you know, whether you’re living in a tent or something like that, it’s just as homeless, you know?
So I thought of Rafa, and I thought of a lot of these kids in these similar situations who are still going to school despite everything. Who are dealing with these things, still managing, still maintaining.
Yeah, that’s a really important part of the book too, how Rafa and his sister Monica kept going to school the entire time, or as much as they could anyways. And that’s a really big deal because high school is hard enough as it is, and imagine being at a disadvantage, in that way especially. They strike me as incredibly tough kids.
It’s not an easy subject to talk about, but I really thought you wrote it with such care, such sensitivity, certainly the humanity, and the dignity of it.
Thank you. I really love Rafa because he’s constantly thinking about his family even though there’s so much going on, in spite of almost everything he’s like, “I gotta take care of my family.” So I connected to that more so because I’m similar, forget about everybody else, I need to go see about my family.
That’s right, especially since he hadn’t developed a deep relationship with Luna and Pedro at that point. They weren’t strangers necessarily, but at the same time, they’re not close friends either. And if you’re forced to choose them over your family, it’s a no brainer really. But that’s also part of his arc, learning to be more trusting and open to other people, this found family.
Right, and I love that because in many ways that’s the core of the whole story, of the way we are just in society. Like, you have to learn and force yourself to connect with everyone, because if not, we’re all screwed.
In the book there’s a line that says, “…this is the only language acceptable to them”, and you’re referring to the police who are not having a good day in this book, actually they’re having a pretty horrible day. And because of the events of the last year and a half, and even much longer, many people are now beginning to understand the state sponsored violence perpetrated by the police against the Black community.
As you know, the Latinx community is no better off, but it’s filtered through a lens of immigration policy, with Latinx people getting brutalized and criminalized under this false guise of immigration enforcement. This is something that comes up in your book, maybe not outright, but characters like Pedro express their complete mistrust of the police and authorities in general. But I think you get the message across that the Latinx community and the police are not in good standing.
Yeah, I mean this is something that I grew up with, I’ve had family members who were cops, and then I have family members who have been taken into custody just because they were outside at a certain time of day. And so I’ve seen both sides, I’ve witnessed both of those things. And movements like Black Lives Matter were inspiring because so many of them were young Black and brown kids who were at the forefront of fighting against that, and to me, that is historical. It mirrors in many ways what happened in the 1970s, with groups like the Black Panthers. It’s like history repeating itself in the sense that the young people are the ones who are leading, who are at the forefront, who are forcing change, and you can just imagine all the anxiety. My husband is a guidance counselor for a high school here in East LA, and we’re always talking about those kinds of horrible situations, with who are essentially kids having to deal with so much.
And so I wanted to write about that the violence being perpetrated by the police is unnatural. The Visitor kind of just brings up, you know, uses those weapons against the cops, uses it against the system, and it’s very violent, like nature is very violent.
Oh yeah, for sure, and there’s instances where any outside observer or visitor from another planet should be able to look at the situation and see that these scales are not balanced right? The scales of justice are not balanced; in fact they’re tipping way, way in the wrong direction. And I think you know this Visitor; he’s providing that perspective.
I think he (and his race) are looking at us from this entirely separate point of view and just saying like yeah, no, you guys have it all wrong. You had your chance, and this is way you chose to deal with your own people, you screwed it up. It’s an important allegory Lilliam and I really appreciated not what you were trying to say, but what you did say.
Speaking of, one of the cool things I like about the aliens in We Light Up the Sky is how they use ecology against us, like the natural world is sort of fighting back. You know plants, animals, and just about everything in between. We’re so used to these Hollywood movies where the aliens arrive with giant laser beams, laser cannons, and spaceships, but here, they’re using our own planet against us, which I thought was very clever.
Are these harbingers of a cleansing of sorts? You use the word “renewal” in the book, but is this an environmental cautionary tale? Should we be taking better care of the planet? Better stewards of the earth? I mean, I think we both agree that we should.
Yeah, it was just an interesting thing to think about when I was working on this this novel. Obviously, it was during the pandemic, and everyone was like, “Oh, we’re going to be plant moms,” me included! And this is coming from someone who’s a very city oriented person, a city girl.
It was just a very unnatural thing for me and I just kept thinking about this idea of nature taking back over, with trees, with birds. You know, how we’ve been on lockdown and all these animals came out, it was amazing. And it reminded me, we don’t own this; we don’t own any of this. It’s not our land, it’s not our planet.
There was even some things slowly starting to return back to their natural state, right? Like the air got cleaner over certain cities and different things like this; it was pretty interesting to see.
On a much more serious note, I’m sure this is one of the first books I’ve read that deals with COVID-19, in particular the death of a character because of it. And I remember talking to authors last year about when we were going to start seeing stories birthed from last year, and would they be optimistic, cynical, or both? Or how would people deal with it?
It’s a contemporary story we’re talking about here and we’re still very much in a pandemic, we all wish we weren’t, but we are. In fact, things as of right now don’t even look like they’re even going to get any better. Talk to me about how you approached this clearly very current and very sensitive topic. I mean, you couldn’t have known it at the time that we’d still be in it, but was there any hesitancy at all to broach the subject?
Yeah, I mean I was deep in the anxiety of the pandemic and still grieving the loss of people who have passed away because of COVID-19, and because of complications related to it. So the book in itself felt very dark, and it almost felt like a blur because you know, I was talking to someone recently about how we haven’t had a moment to grieve. We haven’t given ourselves the time to mourn all that we’ve lost collectively, just even this chance to hit pause, and really think about what we’ve lost, what we’re still losing.
You know, in my head this book is placed after COVID-19 but here we are, still. It’s scary, but it shows again, and it’s not meant to traumatize kids at all, but it shows how everything has to be, how we have to take it on with our own hands. You know, like this idea of our own survival, we can’t rely anyone else; we have to rely on ourselves, that’s the only way we could survive something like what’s happening in the book.
But obviously, I didn’t want the focus to be on the pandemic, the focus had to be about the grief. You know this idea of how grief doesn’t have an expiration date, and how Luna will always be grieving the death of her cousin no matter what, and sometimes having to make decisions anyways. And they won’t always be good ones.
I mean, it’s going to come up right? The pandemic is going to be in books and movies, I’m sure they’re making a movie in Hollywood right now about it. We’re going to have to look at it, and deal with it, and face it. But it’s how we look at it, it’s how we deal with, it’s how we handle it, that is what’s important. I think it is now and will rightfully remain a very sensitive topic, and I think you handled it with a tremendous amount of grace.
Okay, once we’re visited by aliens and assuming they’re intelligent, it’s a safe assumption since they would’ve figured out interstellar space travel, what do you think their impression of the human race would be at this point? In the book you have Luna refer to us as “savages.”
When it comes to intelligent species and their view of us, it always just feels like this idea of Zeus and the other gods looking down and playing with us, you know, like a game or something? And not even chess, like checkers, you know?
So in the book, it’s really just this concept of things that we as Americans are continuously doing to ourselves. Like, in spite of everything that tells us climate change is happening, with this heat, this humidity, these things that are happening right now, these things that are not avoidable, we still carry on like normal. Capitalism continues. So yeah, that’s usually what I’m thinking about.
I really loved the part where Pedro goes on a rant about space exploration only being for rich white men. It’s particularly enjoyable because of course, it’s statistically still true. Even last year when they had the first all-woman spacewalk, but they had to postpone it because they didn’t bring enough suits for the two women. Apparently, it’s slowly getting better and the latest class of astronauts at NASA is half women, I don’t know if that’s true or not, I read that somewhere.
Oh my God, I know. I mean the timing of the book is funny because then you just had those two billionaires going off into space, and I’m like, Pedro told us already!
Right, and like Pedro said, it’s just going to be a colonization of space as long as rich white people are in charge. They’re already talking about different ways to mine asteroids and moons, and it’s incredible to me. I just wondered because you sound like you grew up around the same time I did, during the space boom in the 1980s, it was a huge thing. And you sound like you’re sort of a stargazer, so I just wondered what your thoughts were on that.
Yeah, I mean, like I had mentioned before, the first books that I read were Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and if you read those kind of interlinked stories, then you know Bradbury is just so brilliant when it came to writing about those kinds of big ideas of exploration, which all goes right back to colonization. It all goes back to who gets to colonize, and brown and Black people have been the target of this right? You know, as Puerto Rican, I’m a product of that, of the Spaniards first and then the Americans colonizing this small island.
What was really coming to mind a lot was when I got to visit one of the observatories in Puerto Rico, which is one of the major observatories there, and during the pandemic it collapsed because of war and hurricanes and all this stuff. And it just broke my heart because here’s this one special place where anyone gets to see the stars. I felt like a child when I went to visit it as an adult and now it’s no longer there. And I don’t know, for young people this idea of being able to go somewhere else, or finding hope somewhere else, I really wanted that hope to be with these three kids in the story.
One of the questions I was going to ask you was which sci-fi authors influenced you growing up and obviously Ray Bradbury is one of them for sure. Are there any other sort of classic ones, and are there any contemporaries that you like reading?
Yeah, I love Ted Chiang, he’s such a brilliant author. He had written one that was set in Puerto Rico, The Great Silence, and it was about parrots, these endangered parrots in Puerto Rico and I literally just cried. I mean, I’ve read it so many times and I’m just like how he is able to distill this longing and this sadness? I just love his work so much.
And of course I love Octavia E. Butler and Tananarive Due who’s also a brilliant author. And those are the kind of people who I was reading, besides, you know, the old classics like Carl Sagan and Ray Bradbury.
Do you have any recommendations for readers who enjoyed this book, what else would they enjoy? Anything out there that specifically inspired you to write this story?
Of course, I read Ursula K. Le Guin who’s like the queen besides Octavia E. Butler, and then also these Caribbean authors, who I love very much, Joss, he’s goes by one name only, he’s Cuban. He has a collection of short stories called The Planet for Rent.
But I also read this very strange little book called The Mount by Carol Emshwiller, and it is very much like, the aliens have taken over the world and humans are almost like their pets. It’s very disturbing, but I kind of loved it!
Lilliam Rivera is an award-winning author of the young adult novels Never Look Back, a Pura Belpré Honor winner, Dealing In Dreams, The Education of Margot Sanchez, as well as the Goldie Vance series for middle grade readers, and the stand-alone middle grade novel Barely Floating. Her forthcoming works include a young adult science fiction novel, We Light Up the Sky, for Bloomsbury (Oct 5, 2021) and a graphic novel for DC Comics, Unearthed: A Jessica Cruz Story (September 14, 2021). Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, the New York Times, and Elle, to name a few. Lilliam lives in Los Angeles.
Steve Dunk was born on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and now lives near a lake just outside of Toronto, spending his days obsessing over most things in geek culture, but mostly just trying to drink coffee and read in peace. He’s been blogging for various sites for as long as he can remember, focusing on the big three, movies, books, and music. His reading tastes stick pretty close to Young Adult but occasionally ventures outside enjoying middle grade, new adult, and adult as well. Fantasy, sci-fi, speculative, romance, contemporary…he loves it all. He reviews books and interviews authors on his podcast, Everything is Canon, over at Cinelinx.com with a focus on BIPOC/LGBTQIA+ authors and allyship. He doesn’t like sports, has lots of Star Wars books, and has two dogs. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram.